Exploring curiosity with Simon Brown, Chief Learning Officer at Novartis

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Exploring curiosity with Simon Brown, Chief Learning Officer at Novartis

Coursera sits down with Novartis’ Chief Learning Officer, Simon Brown, to learn how he and his team are fostering curious minds and a desire to learn across 130,000 employees in pharmaceutical and healthcare.

  • Coursera: What drew Novartis to Coursera as a preferred learning solution?

Simon: At Novartis our mission is to reimagine medicine, and we need to nurture curiosity to continue to develop transformative new treatments and find creative solutions to the world’s biggest healthcare challenges.​

To support that curiosity, we are “going big on learning” and investing $100 million USD over the next five years to offer our associates the best possible learning and development opportunities.  There are many elements to how we will achieve that, but two major things are; providing access to in-depth learning content; and offering flexible ways to access that content and learn. With Coursera for Business, we are able to offer access to content from world-leading universities that complements the other learning offerings we’ve developed.  We’re also making it easier for our people to learn by providing flexible access to learning content whenever and wherever they want it all around the world.

  • What are the main business challenges you’re looking to solve through L&D?

As a science-based company, innovation is at the heart of what we do and we need to foster curious minds with a desire to learn and a passion to discover new and better ways of doing things. ​

Ultimately, we need to be constantly learning as a company to succeed and having an environment where continuous learning is actively encouraged is essential. We have to ensure we continually build the critical business capabilities that allow us to stay on the forefront of innovation. For example, harnessing the power of data science and digital technologies to reimagine medicine is a key pillar of our Novartis strategy and helping our associates upskill in digital is a top focus for our current learning efforts.

We also know learning and personal development is critical for attracting and retaining the best talent.

  • What is unique about Novartis’ approach to learning?  

Our aspiration to bring the best in learning opportunities consistently across the whole organization globally – we’re talking around 108,000 people of more than 140 nationalities working at Novartis around the world!

And that’s not just providing access the best learning resources but also providing the space and time to learn – we have set an ambition to support our associates in spending 5% of their time (about 100 hours a year) on learning.  I find the first question that people often ask when it comes to learning is ‘how will I find time to learn?’, so it’s important to address that head on.

  • Tell us more about your Curiosity Chapter?

We’re dedicating 3 months across the whole company to reinforce and focus on curiosity and galvanize our learning journey.

We’re promoting the great learning opportunities available across the company and also trying to change the perception of learning in people’s minds.  In the past, learning was often associated with ‘training courses’ and a significant part of people’s learning was tied to things that they had to do, for example an operating procedure training, or training to get access to a system or tool.  We are trying to change that and show our associates that learning is about investing in yourself and building your skills in areas that have been changing. 

It’s been so energizing to see how learning is bringing our people together and the fun they are having with it. We have passionately curious associates volunteering to lead learning activities around the world – everything from ‘Boosting your creativity’ sessions in Russia to a storytelling skills campaign in China to a ‘curiosity hive’ in Prague.

The Curiosity Chapter culminates in September with our second ‘Novartis Learning Month’. We are hosting 100+ global webinars and events on different topics from internal and external speakers including startups and academia.  It’s getting an amazing response in the first week we already had 28,000 registrations for sessions!   

  • What are 3 best practices you recommend for every CLO embarking on a multinational or cross-functional upskilling initiative?
  1. Firstly walk the talk – if you aren’t role modelling curiosity and taking advantage of the learning resources that you expect others to use, then how can you be credible when promoting them?
  2. Secondly, don’t ignore the culture. Having great upskilling resources is only a part of the picture – people need a culture where they feel they can take advantage of them and spend time focused on learning.  For example, can you sit at your desk and spend 30 mins watching a video without feeling guilty, and without people looking at you and thinking that you are ‘not working’? This is a hard feeling to change, but something that has to happen if people are to continuously learn!
  3. Thirdly and finally, be prepared to get it wrong along the way – it’s a complex task and not everything will go to plan.  We all make mistakes!
  • In describing workplace change, you have said that upskilling around digital is becoming mission-critical for pharma. Why?

A key part of the Novartis strategy is to harness data science and digital technologies to help us bring new medicines to patients faster.  The nature of digital is that there are constantly new skills required that people need and that didn’t exist before. 

We are working to help all our associates understand what digital is and what it means for us as a company through our Digital Awareness Hub.  For our leaders we have a ‘Digital Immersion’ experience that helps understand the impact that digital will have for their area of the business and their role in creating the right culture and environment for digital to be successful. 

Finally for associates directly involved in digital we need to support developing deep skills, this could be access to an 8 month Data Science specialization with John Hopkins University or a 4 week program of ‘Agile meets Design Thinking’ with the Darden Business School – that said, both of these are now also available to every Novartis Associate to be able to reskill!

  • How can a CLO best position the value of learning to internal stakeholders, including both employees and company leaders?

This is about staying consistent and true to the underlying vision and focusing the message to the audience.  A CLO needs to understand the business environment the company operates in and the strategy the company is following, and then see where learning and capability building is best positioned.  For some companies this is about efficiency, for some effectiveness, for some a combination, and it may be different for different parts of the business or different topic areas. A big part of a CLO’s role is to help prioritize the available resources in the way that they will best deliver best long-term value to the company and the employees.

  • How do you ensure that newly acquired skills are actually applied on the job?

I think this varies across an organization – how to encourage and support application will be different for a sales person in the field, someone operating a machine in a manufacturing plant or someone in an office role and will be dependent upon what it is that they are learning.  Things that play an important factor will be the role of the manager, spaced repetition (to counter the forgetting curve) and alignment or relevance of the content e.g. how quickly is there an opportunity to apply the learning.

  • How are you measuring the impact that Coursera is having? Any early results you can share? 

We have committed to $100m of new investment in learning over the next 5 years as we ‘go big on learning’, and so measuring the impact is crucial.  Initially we are looking at the analytics for our new learning offerings – so enrollments, completions, time spent etc. We are also looking at where people are spending their learning time, so as an example the top course at the moment is ‘AI for Everyone’, which aligns completely with our goal to build digital skills.  It’s too early to say what the impact will be, but if thousands of people are already spending many hours learning from world-class learning materials, from leading thinkers, in the topics that are most important for our strategy, then this can only be a good thing!

  • As a lifelong learner, is there a course you’re taking right now?

Currently I’m listening to ‘Trillion Dollar Coach, about Bill Campbell and his coaching approach with Apple and Google. Through our Coursera offering, I’m also taking a course on ‘Giving Helpful Feedback’ from the University of Colorado.

  • How learning is predicted to change in the future with new generations entering the work place?

For me, the changes will be driven more through technology advancement than generational change.  I see the big shifts in technology enabling better access to more relevant and timely learning; making learning more accessible through flexible access to fit in around people lives; and then data and AI improving the discoverability of relevant content and providing what you need when you most need it.  


About Simon: 

Simon Brown is the Chief Learning Officer at Novartis.

Simon Brown is the Chief Learning Officer at Novartis. Working with Coursera, he and his team are enabling 130,000 employees to grow in an organization committed to continuous learning.

Coursera for Business provides a world-class learning platform for companies on and data science to software development and

About Coursera for Business: 

Coursera for Business provides a world-class learning platform for companies that need to upskill, reskill, and deepskill their talent. With topics ranging from digital transformation and data science to software development and leadership, over 1,800 companies trust the Coursera for Business enterprise platform to transform their talent.