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Jon Kennard

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TrainingZone interviews: WeCommend’s David James

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Recently we interviewed David James, a former head of L&D at Disney, about the transition from a large corporate to his small tech start-up WeCommend.

You were at Disney for eight years, finishing as director of L&D EMEA. It’s a very creative company but did the learning culture reflect that?  

As well as being creative, Disney is a very driven organisation and the learning culture reflected both of these things. Disney is as challenging as it is inspiring, which means that the default mode has to be ‘learning’. They have some incredibly talented and well-read executives who challenge their teams to think differently to deliver innovative products, content and experiences, whilst also understanding the external drivers affecting their business.

In general, Disney people keep themselves ‘sharp’ in their areas of specialism. The L&D function was therefore focused on helping everybody to attain levels of excellence. We focused on how people succeed in Disney and how we’d share that knowledge with others, internallyWe looked at what was going on in the world outside of Disney and invited in some inspiring external providers: facilitators, experts, coaches and speakers. As well as offering a range of programmes that covered the fundamentals. But all-in-all, the L&D challenge at Disney, for me, was about helping very capable people achieve ‘exceptional’.

We didn’t do that as an isolated L&D team, we were fortunate to have a highly engaged employee population who helped us to develop programmes and share their knowledge and experience. There was a strong mentoring culture too, as well as an appetite for other experiential learning initiatives, such as short-term assignments, job-shadowing and job-swapping that we were catering for more and more.

You’ve now started your own L&D business, a start-up called WeCommend. What values and knowledge will you take with you from your time at Disney?

I started WeCommend with my wife, Rowena, who is also ex-Disney and BSkyB, so we both brought the values of 'exceptional products' and 'customer-centricity' to what we do now. We wanted the WeCommend website to be a wonderful experience for our members and every dealing between ourselves and WeCommend members to be pleasurable and genuine to the very core. We're a values-based enterprise and we hope this comes across.

What was the gap in the market you saw that WeCommend is trying to address?

We saw an opportunity in the market to help in-company L&D professionals to more easily find recommended providers of all things L&D. Context plays as big a role as expertise and approach when you’re deciding which new providers to work with. WeCommend is designed to give members the opportunity to openly search for providers recommended by their peers in comparable industries. We’re genuinely doing this for the best of all parties and our profession. Hence, it's completely free to join and the ability to search is open to all in-company L&D members.

Do you think the L&D industry in good shape for future success?

I think L&D is in a period of transition as wider social and business contexts evolve; as learner expectations and preferences change; and technology advances. It'll be down to us all to demonstrate the willingness and ability to adapt that will shape the future success of L&D.

Technology will continue to play a bigger role in supporting organisational learning & development but it will be in how we all expertly assess changing needs and anticipate the future business requirements for employee capability (inside and outside our organisations) that will be the key to our success - and our relevance. 

It will also be how we smartly discover and effectively mobilise the talented and expert facilitators of learning around us and stay ahead of social and technological trends. So it's an exciting time to be in L&D but we have to stay sharp and ahead of the game just as the businesses we serve are required to do.

Give us three shortcuts to success for L&D departments.

Shortcut #1: Network

Networking requires an investment of both time and attention but delivers huge returns. You will find so many of the answers, inspiration, advice and support you need from a strong network of:

  • L&D professionals in other companies, so you don't become too focused in on your own organisation and miss out on what's going on in the wider world of L&D
  • Expert providers / trusted advisors because it’s simply not possible to have the depth of knowledge that a strong network of experts will provide you with
  • Colleagues in various parts of your business so you can stay tuned in to the pulse of the business you support

Shortcut #2: Embrace technology

It's never been easier to keep yourself connected, up-to-date and productive. Social media give you access to some incredibly talented L&D folks. You can read blogs on your phone or tablet to sharpen your thinking and discover new software and apps to help you become more productive. There's an app for everything these days. I use Twitter and LinkedIn for social and Flipboard and Newsify for blogs, news and trade-press. I also use Evernote to keep notes, documents, reports and ideas where I need them, when I need them.

Shortcut #3: Democratise your learning efforts

Get more people in your organisation involved in creating and delivering learning initiatives. You don't need to do it all yourself. You can also increase engagement in L&D this way. All you need are relationships, the foundations / infrastructure for your initatives to link up and the technology to support it. Elearning authoring tools, such as Looop.co, help you to democratise content creation to a very high-level of quality and with increasing ease. When you've got your employees emptying their heads onto this type of technology and authoring sophisticated learning content themselves, you can truly develop a learning organisation. 

David James has more than 15 years of in-company L&D experience, beginning in banking before joining The Walt Disney Company in 2006. Initially, leading the UK Learning & Development team at Disney, supporting 2000 people in the EMEA Head Office before looking after Talent, L&OD and Employee Engagement for 4500 employees across the entire region. After eight years there, I pursued a passion for positively impacting the learning profession by launching his tech start-up venture, WeCommend.

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard
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