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How Cargill Redesigned Its Learning Strategy From the Ground Up

Cargill knows how to scale. For over 150 years, the company has worked with farmers and customers to sustain our food system. Still a family-owned business after multiple generations, Cargill is the largest private company in the United States in terms of revenue.

Learning has been key to Cargill’s past success but its approach quickly became antiquated with the advancements of the digital age. “We needed to be faster. We needed to be more nimble, more flexible, more agile, and more innovative,” says Julie Dervin, Cargill’s head of learning and development. Watch Dervin’s presentation at our conference, Degreed LENS 2019 below.

Julie Dervin Presents at Degreed LENS 2019

When Cargill adopted Degreed, Dervin quickly realized that the new platform offered a chance to restructure their current system and develop a new learning and skilling strategy in order to see the best results. “I thought, ‘If the speed of learning is the real competitive advantage, then what should we be doing differently?’”

To answer that question, Dervin began thinking outside the typical methods of L&D and ultimately began experimenting with several techniques from other teams, such as IT and Marketing. “We had to look outside of our profession,” she insists. “So we borrowed from non-traditional L&D practices.” Here’s what she found.

DevOps

Frustrated with the typical separation between software development and IT operations, many workers in the last decade pushed for DevOps. This model meant that development and operations would develop common objectives, metrics, communication, and culture.

Dervin noticed a similar need for collaboration in the L&D team at Cargill. “We borrowed a DevOps mindset from IT because we needed design, development, and delivery all working continuously together.”

This was a departure from the past. “The way we were structured in our operating model, while it served the old way, it wasn’t going to enable us to scale and sustain this new way.” The DevOps structure made it possible to try several other new techniques.

Agile Development

Speeding up the process with a new learning strategy.

Speed was a key priority for Cargill’s learning transformation. That brought them to agile development, a strategy popular among software engineers who demand fast and flexible collaboration across teams. Fast and flexible collaboration is exactly what Dervin wanted for the new learning strategy.

“The process of identifying a learning need, then getting the proper materials in the hands of our employees used to take 6-10 months. Now that process takes 6-10 weeks,” says Dervin.

To get it right amid the swift change, Cargill’s L&D team had to stay open to feedback from their workers. So, following agile principles, they rolled out a minimum viable product, cycled through improvements, and sought feedback throughout.

Hackathons

Another breakthrough IT strategy that Cargill adapted to L&D was hackathons. This approach enabled them to get quick starts on new ideas.

“We threw out storyboards and brought the right people into the room,” recalls Dervin. “We put them through design sprints to get our designs started fast.”

For example, Dervin had Cargill’s L&D team partner with its finance function leadership to create a one-day Degreed Hackathon. The L&D team spent no more than two hours preparing for the day’s activities and began by demonstrating to finance leaders how to use the Degreed platform. “At the end of that day,” reports Dervin, “we had 30 senior finance leaders curate a total of 21 Degreed Pathways ready to launch at the following ‘town hall’ team meeting.”  In addition, the curation effort created 30 strong finance leader champions of the new learning strategy.

Personas & Experience Maps

Cargill tried more than just IT tricks. They used a marketing technique called customer segmentation to recognize their workers’ unique learning needs. As Dervin observes, “Not everyone learns the same or has the same preferences in how they like to learn.”

Next came another marketing method: personas. “We developed learner personas that represented our workforce at a macro level,” Dervin explains. “We used those in our learning design practices.”

Based on those personas, the L&D team created experience maps to chart the journeys of various learners. This way, everyone could pursue their own preferences while still following the organizational priorities in a structured way.

Borrowing from non-traditional L&D practices.

Results

With the Degreed platform successfully implemented, Cargill’s new strategy fell into place. To determine the results, the L&D team first clearly defined what factors they wanted to asses to demonstrate success or failure. This is what they found:

Scale: With Cargill’s previous strategy, the company only had the capacity for about 10-15% of its total learning population. Now they have a structure that can scale according to their organizational needs.

Accessibility: A large part of Dervin’s restructuring was to democratize learning at Cargill. Before Degreed, the company used a nomination and selection process, as spots were limited and not all employees could participate. Now their resources are available to all employees, to empower them to succeed in their individual roles. 

Efficiency: With the new learning strategy, Cargill has decreased its per-participant delivery cost by 40-70%, depending on the digital learning program.

Engagement: Initially, Cargill’s leadership was reluctant to believe that employees would engage with the new tools. “Digital learning is not our culture,” Dervin recalls hearing. She made sure that engagement was a key metric to gauge after the implementation of her new strategy. She asked her employees about their new learning habits and found that on a one-to-five scale, the new digital learning experiences were scoring, on average, a point and a half higher than their old strategy on satisfaction surveys.

Creating success from scratch.

After only eight months with Degreed and an innovative upskilling strategy restarted from scratch, Cargill has changed its learning culture for good. “We blank-slated everything. We had to change our skills, our talent, our processes, our tools, our technology, our operating model. Because we knew this type of change was more than just bringing in new technology. It was a bigger transformation.”

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