Advice from an Award-Winning, Former Global Learning Director
A Sit-Down with David Keifer, Former leader of Eaton University
It isn’t every day that you see an electrical engineer build one of the top corporate universities in the world. This was the task given to David Keifer, who started in a Global Customer Support Services role but rose to become the Director of Eaton University at Eaton, a multinational power management company, manufacturer and service provider in the electrical, hydraulic and mechanical power fields.
At Eaton, a remarkable and forward-thinking company, leadership knows their power is in their people. But with over 100,000 employees around the world, building an impactful and cost-effective Learning and Development organization was a daunting task. But it was a task that David took on. Within 5 years, he and his global team had revamped the original corporate university by building an extensive online network of employee-focused functional colleges, leadership centers and a series of multi-language learning hubs around the world. These efforts increased employee development actions by 300%, reducing operating costs by 70% and resulting in multiple awards for his team.
Strayboots sat down to talk with David, recently retired from Eaton and a well-respected leader in the field of corporate learning, about his story and his predictions for the industry:
Q: How did you begin your Learning & Development career?
I began my career as an electrical engineer in the defense industry before moving into a sales position at a rapidly growing, small technology company, eventually affording me diverse management opportunities. My responsibilities grew quickly, including management roles in sales support, technical support, order management, and customer service operations; as a result, I relocated my family several times both throughout the US as well as in Europe. These diverse experiences were key later when, at Eaton, my team was responsible for building educational programs for employees in a variety of fields.
The transition to Human Resources and Learning and Development, like a lot of careers, was by accident. Eaton University existed at the time but was struggling under high costs, leadership turnover and ineffective development programs. I was a very unusual choice for this type of role as I was not originally an HR professional and did not come from a learning and development background. But I had extensive business and operations experience, with a focus on creating value propositions, servicing internal and external clients, building organizations and driving productivity. I was recruited and entered the HR team as one of the few leadership team members that were not from Human Resources but instead, Operations. Knowing the importance of creating effective teams, I quickly recruited a team of learning and development and HR professionals to supplement my lack of experience in that area. The process was so successful and enjoyable that I ended up spending a total of 7 years in HR and Corporate Talent Management rebuilding Eaton University.
Q: Favorite moments in that role?
One of my favorite moments as the Director of Eaton University was when our organization was named within the top 100 Global Learning Organizations by Training Magazine. A top resource in the field of professional learning and development, Training Magazine conducts an annual ranking of organizations following an extensive in-depth analysis. We submitted our first application for 2017 and won (I later learned that more than 80% of first-time applicants do not win). This was hugely validating for our global team and felt like a big achievement, especially for a company in the manufacturing/industrial space (where, traditionally, the development of extensive professional learning programs has been less common than in, for example, the tech industry).
Q: What would your advice be to young folks who want to move into your field?
Career opportunities are created for employees who are passionate, motivated, creative and flexible, regardless of background, and the diversity of experience is more valued today than in the past. HR, Talent Development, and Learning and Development opportunities are now available to anyone who possesses these traits.
Additionally, recognize that most companies understand the importance of training. However, the true value of learning comes from focusing first on the goals and needs of the business and then aligning employee development efforts so that learning can move beyond individual employee training and instead become a strategic business enabler.
Q: What do you think the future of learning is going to look like?
The role of learning in Talent Development is becoming even more critical as the operating environment for companies becomes increasingly complex. The tight labor market makes finding new employees with the correct skillset or qualities very challenging and existing employees are now often working remotely and operating as part of global teams. Now, more than ever, the traditional approaches to learning and development are no longer effective.
I see three areas where learning is evolving quickly and expect it to continue into the future:
1. Accessibility and Convenience
Education “anytime, anywhere” is a goal for many organizations. The availability of time for employee development and the commonality of remote teams creates new challenges. Mobile learning, learning on-demand, remote learning, micro-learning, and virtual reality (VR)-based learning are all strategies that increase the accessibility and convenience of learning.
2. Learning Engagement & Effectiveness
The emergence of micro-credentials and nanodegrees is an interesting trend (building upon point #1 regarding resource accessibility), especially with the societal shift in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain or vehicle electrification. Companies are struggling to increase these skill sets quickly enough and are now having to create or supplement this type of talent internally. The ability to solve this challenge is being supported through partnerships with companies such as Udacity, Udemy, Coursera, edX, and others where they are testing these boundaries and challenging the way that learning is packaged and offered. Interesting tools also employed by these companies include badges, certifications as well as leaderboards, and other gamification techniques.
Gamification, in particular, has great promise for learning; it makes learning more effective and engaging. I find the Strayboots scavenger hunt model, which integrates gamification and team-building, both a creative approach and a powerful learning tool. Overall, I believe we will continue to see many more developments in learning approaches that specifically target engagement and effectiveness.
3. Cost Optimization
Finding a way to achieve your learning or talent objectives, and doing it most cost-effectively, is every business leader’s responsibility. The examples outlined in my first two points (accessibility and engagement), when combined, also provide new options for delivering
global learning solutions more cost-effectively. Remote learning eliminates the cost associated with employee travel. Micro-learning reduces the time required to complete critical learning objectives. Virtual Reality (VR), for example, was not cost-effective several years ago, but the solutions are now becoming much more so. Using this approach, especially in applications involving safety or where mistakes are costly and can impact quality, the benefits become clearer and clearer.
Today, successful companies understand the critical role of learning in talent development and its relationship to achieving key business goals. Companies now place far more value on educating their employees than when I first began my career, and I see this encouraging trend continuing to increase in the future. I feel fortunate to have been part of Eaton, a company that placed so much value on talent development and learning.