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Learning Culture as a Performance Lever: Sopra Steria and Axens Case Studies

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The 20th-century industrial model was based on relatively stable sets of skills that needed to be taught to current and future employees on a large scale. Tools were intended to last for a long time and skills became outdated relatively slowly. Training was provided, companies were productive. Today, technologies, practices and expectations are changing too quickly to continue with this division of labour. Learning must take place at all levels, at all times within companies. Cornerstone spoke to two individuals, working in two very different industries, about this change: Jean-Charles Noirot from Sopra Steria, a services company, and Sirikit Beri from Axens, a manufacturing company.

The cost of failing to train

The clear link between skills and performance is widely recognised by companies. But how is this implemented on the ground? Which tools do companies use to train their teams, and what are the results? Jean-Charles Noirot, Deputy Director of Sopra Steria Academy, and Sirikit Beri, L&D Manager at Axens Group, were interviewed by Nadine Buis-Lecomte, Client Management Director at Cornerstone, at the Learning Technologies Conference in Paris in February 2023.

Lesson one: return on investment in training is much harder to measure than the cost of ignorance. Nadine Buis-Lecomte also mentions a striking statistic from a study by PwC: managers' lack of digital skills is costing companies 44 minutes of efficiency per day per manager. To put that into figures, in a company with 2,500 employees, managers would gain an extra 10 minutes of efficiency every day, saving €2.9 million. This situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic: managers are expected to have greater digital skills and be familiar with digital tools.

But what impact do these challenges have on companies on the ground?

Becoming a 'learning company'

“Sopra Steria is a services company,” states Jean-Charles Noirot. In this sector, “company success is intrinsically linked to employee skills. This is even more true in Digital, where skills become outdated faster”. The digital services market is developing at record pace, and services companies need to pay close attention to ensure they are meeting client expectations and are able to anticipate technological advances.

To face up to these challenges, “Sopra Steria set out on a path to become a true learning company”. This means encouraging “the development of employees' skills on a daily basis but also “developing the desire to share knowledge within teams”. As a result, Sopra Steria has 1,500 in-house trainers: knowledge sharing has become part of the Group's culture.

But learning also links us to the outside world and allows us to monitor how it is changing, according to Sirikit Beri. Axens is a major player in the Oil and Gas industry, and at the heart of its work is the development of technologies for refinement and the production of petrochemical intermediates. Axens is facing pressure on two fronts: its core business is moving towards the production of biosourced fuels; and the new business activities resulting from this energy transition call for new services and therefore the creation of new job roles. In all these areas, providing training on the techniques used in the field ensures the company is able to remain competitive, and even predict future developments. “We use training as a way to remain connected to our work environment and the market,” says Sirikit Beri.

Digital tools supporting learning

In order to roll out and manage training within their respective companies, both organisations use an LMS – in this case Cornerstone. LMSs are complex, modular tools, and their impact on companies' skills policies largely depends on how they are used.

An LMS plays several roles in developing a learning culture. Obviously, it is used for “rolling out training on a large scale, as part of our skills development in France,” Sirikit Beri explains, and within various Axens branches, in line with the existing structures in each company. But it is also a way to access the training: the company launched its academy 3 years ago, and “we use Cornerstone as a content library that is permanently accessible on a self-service basis”.

Just like Sopra Steria, Axens encourages employees to develop content. “We are a very technology-focused company, and we value our in-house trainers highly.” Engineers use the tool to “share their knowledge, which can then be transposed into e-learning modules or hybrid training courses...”. Turning expert knowledge into training content is a skill in itself: individuals must be able to identify “what is really important and what learners need to remember” in order to structure content. For the engineers who do this, it's another string to their bows, as well as being mentally stimulating.

The importance of trust

The importance of trust

The digital platform helps to “give employees the impetus to manage their own skills development”, according to Jean-Charles Noirot. It is also used to measure progress, including providing a centralised way of recording training time, however it is delivered (in person, hybrid, remote, video, etc.) – “1.5 million training hours last year” at Sopra Steria. But it also enables companies to look at requests from employees, and what proportion of these are accepted by managers. For example, 95% of the 120,000 requests from Sopra Steria employees last year were accepted by management. This suggests a certain level of confidence, but is also proof that the company genuinely relies on the skills of its employees and is interested in their development.

Beyond this, Jean-Charles Noirot highlights all the different features that enable companies to roll out training across teams, get feedback, organise co-development, “support conversations between peers”, “recognise skills gained in the field” with badges and push certain learning pathways by using playlists during learning events. On their own, the features do nothing: it's how they are used by management and then by employees that feeds into a learning culture.

Developing demand for training

As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. It's not enough to provide a wide range of training content – companies need to create a desire for training and make it a key part of employees' working lives. As Nadine Buis-Lecomte from Cornerstone highlights, the training catalogue should be seen as a resource that anyone can access when they are struggling, without needing to ask permission.

“In our French office, we often had to wait for managers to authorise training sessions. Now, we use the fact that content is always available to engage employees in developing their own training pathways. We've truly developed a culture as a learning company” where employees are viewed and must act as “the first links in the chain of company transformation”.

One key for engagement with training and improvement of the learning experience is tailoring the learning pathway to each individual. “Some employees are more independent learners,” explains Jean-Charles Noirot, “others less so; some really engage with digital training content, others need more group sessions, whether that's through virtual classrooms or in-person training”. Being able to offer a range of different training methods is an undeniable benefit when searching for ways to encourage employees to engage with training.

Whether technology has made this possible or whether it was just responding to a pre-existing expectation, one thing that's certain is that the attitude of employees to their own training has undergone a fundamental change. Jean-Charles Noirot has observed “a change in the last 20 years in the world of services, particularly in digital services. Twenty years ago, it was generally seen as a manager's responsibility to oversee employee development. Employees were less aware of the benefits of improving their employability. Today, they are much more motivated and don't need incentivising – they just need to be provided with the tools, and they will then use them in line with their expectations”. Having “much more modular, much more targeted training”, broken down into shorter sessions that fit better into schedules, has had a significant positive impact on this change.

“Home-made” content created by internal experts also helps to drive engagement, according to Sirikit Beri. The most technical subjects attract employees who don't necessarily work in those fields, because they want to gain a better understanding of what the company does, particularly when faced with the challenges of the energy transition. That's a key feature of a learning company: employees with a deeper understanding of each other's roles thanks to a shared document culture.

Measuring the impact of learning on performance: the eternal question

Should we measure ROI for training? “That's a tricky question,” Jean-Charles Noirot acknowledges. “Today, thanks to LXP tools, we can measure how much content has been created and to what extent this content has generated an upturn in activity and conversations between employees, which content is most used, which receives the most engagement.” This gives an idea of the level of knowledge capitalisation as a result of the training policy.

Getting a precise measurement of impact on performance is harder. “Skills development is part of a package of elements that contribute to a business.” Sopra Steria works with a partner to get a clearer picture of this contribution, Jean-Charles Noirot explains. “It's difficult to identify the exact return on investment from training,” Sirikit Beri agrees. “However, I can tell you that the new programmes we've launched (such as co-development and remote coaching) are regularly discussed in annual appraisals and mentioned in questionnaires on training needs. Employees who have benefited from these are telling their colleagues about them. This impact may not be a formal measurement of performance, but it is a tangible impact.”

As well as measuring ROI, we shouldn't forget, as Nadine Buis-Lecomte emphasises, that a learning culture is a factor in employee retention and a lever for encouraging talent loyalty within a company. Both in terms of the training provided and the ability for employees to share their knowledge through content creation. This is a particularly significant advantage during this period of recruitment problems and employee dissatisfaction.

A learning company should not be satisfied with just unveiling an updated training plan each year. While this is an essential step from a planning perspective, it limits a company's ability to be responsive in several situations. It should be possible to produce, roll out and engage with training at any time, from any position in the company, in order to deal with a specific need or skills gap. Training is a tool for empowerment, development and performance. Today, this is all possible thanks to digital tools, but it needs to be paired with a genuine learning culture where business leaders and managers encourage training and set an example.

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