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Three lessons from Bayer’s upskilling at scale program

Published 12 February 2024 in Management • 7 min read

IMD’s Paul Hunter describes why, contrary to popular belief, upskilling at scale can create meaningful impact for teams and organizations.

With a history spanning over 150 years, Bayer considers itself to sit at the forefront of companies delivering innovative solutions to the healthcare and agriculture sectors. The organization offers a wide range of products, from specialty therapeutics for managing chronic illnesses and over-the-counter (OTC) medication, to chemical and biological pest-control solutions for crops. Today, the life sciences sector faces a growing, aging global population and a worldwide food crisis, as well as the ongoing threat of the emergence of new diseases. To tackle these challenges effectively, Bayer realized that it needed to harness the potential of its workforce – and especially its managers, as the guiding lights for employee endeavor.

To empower managers as quickly as possible, it was important to rethink the relationship between scale, speed and impact. In training, scale means reaching the greatest number of participants. Speed alludes to how quickly the program can be deployed across various corporate populations. And impact refers to what changes for participants and their teams and organizations as they apply the skills they acquire from the program to their professional environment.

Consciously or unconsciously, HR leaders run the risk of compromising on impact as they focus speed and scale. This can potentially lock them into a mental model somewhat akin to compliance training – in essence a deployment more focused on knowledge dissemination than on learning application. But Bayer’s upskilling initiative (which was achieved through an IMD Sprint program) reached over 12,000 people within nine months – onboarding around 500 participants every week – and achieved a completion rate of 83% with measurable impact and behavioral deltas that surpassed expectations. Such programs are changing the mindset that cascading at scale need not result in low impact or quality.

How was this achieved? Firstly, as mentioned, the triangular relationship between scale, speed and impact was reconfigured, so all were accorded sufficient attention. Secondly, impact was maximized through sharing of real, personal experiences. And, lastly, Bayer and IMD recognized the appetite for learning among its workforce and co-created a program that met employees’ expectations.

I really enjoyed the platform, the videos, the content and the subject matter experts. I also really appreciated the variety of learning and that the participants walked away with a plan.
- Bayer Manager
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Lesson 1: Rethink the triangle.

Quickly building critical mass is one of the key components of driving cultural change and creating impact. One of the ways in which Bayer’s program resolved the tension between scale, speed and impact was through combining engaging multimedia asynchronous modules with synchronous1 live discussions in small groups.

More specifically, further to participants interacting with IMD’s cutting-edge content in a self-paced manner, live synchronous sessions, attended by 500 people, updated Bayer’s managers on the latest thinking on a particular concept (such as psychological safety). The 500 trainees were then split into groups of 30, each led by an in-house facilitator. We will go into this role in greater detail in Lesson 2 but, essentially, this role was fulfilled by a senior manager from Bayer who could show the trainees how they had practically applied these concepts to the organization’s business.

Each group of 30 managers was then further divided into groups of five. This gave the trainees an opportunity to talk about how these concepts could apply to their teams and discuss any problems they foresaw or had experienced. The final stage was for the individual to apply the learnings in their work lives and to decide on next steps. These different units of interaction, as we call them, were a key factor in enabling impactful learning for large populations in a short period of time.

Impact also requires engaged learning and as such, it makes sense to reflect on what is a reasonable period to allocate participants for learning, allowing them to maintain focus and benefit fully. Bayer discovered that the optimum daily learning period for its workforce was 1-1.5 hours, spread across a two-week program. Managers were engaged through live interactive sessions every other day, which achieved an 80% live-session attendance rate. Peer-review assignments, cutting-edge research, engaging articles, AI-enabled assessments, practical toolkits and further discussions with in-house facilitators on the third week created a fully rounded, interactive experience and helped participants to take accountability for their own learning.

The program was useful and relevant – good resources, good discussions and the small group sessions created a safe environment to share experiences. This will help my leadership skills and development.
- Bayer Manager

Lesson 2: Tap into real experiences to add power and credibility to the learning.

Internal resources often become untapped opportunities for creating lasting impact. Sharing real experiences can engage, inspire and build a culture of trust and transparency within teams. That is why a significant key to the success of Bayer’s upskilling at scale program was the training of senior managers to become in-house facilitators. Their role was to disclose, listen and facilitate discussions.

In-house facilitators led the second unit of interaction (made up of 30 people). In this session, they shared their experiences around the topic in question. Not only is this level of disclosure engaging but it also signals transparency, making participants feel more comfortable about participating in these types of conversation with their seniors. Further, it positions the facilitators as role models.

Facilitators’ examples encouraged participants to share their own personal experiences. In the following session, facilitators circulated among the groups of five, picking out common threads. They subsequently facilitated discussion by addressing the group of 30 to consolidate learnings and determine the best solutions.

Such focused individual attention from a senior manager, who is also willing to be open about their own experiences, makes employees feel valued and trusted. This results in high levels of engagement, as evidenced in the high completion rate of the Bayer program.

Facilitators were well prepared with relatable examples. They weren’t afraid to share their vulnerability with sincerity and gave teams the opportunity to discuss amongst themselves. It was great to hear the facilitators’ perspectives as well as what they’re doing to overcome the challenges they currently face.
- Bayer Senior Leaders

Lesson 3: Foster a learning community.

The Bayer program brought out its participants’ appetite for learning. The training wasn’t mandatory and yet, simply through word of mouth around the business, the number of participants grew from 5,000 to over 12,000. A typical completion rate for massive open online course (MOOCs) is around 7%, so, in other words, 93% of people don’t reach the end of the program. An online program with interaction can sometimes achieve a 25% completion rate. In comparison, an extremely impressive 83% completed Bayer’s upskilling at scale initiative.

This was due not only to having resolved tensions in the triangle and utilized in-house facilitators, but also by making content accessible to employees around the world. The training was delivered in seven languages, across 95 countries and six time zones. And each cohort was mixed in terms of geography and function, creating a newly connected global community of colleagues.

Chat forums and community sessions further encouraged this learning community. Such interactive processes tapped into participants’ eagerness to learn; provided materials that worked for them; and kept them accountable for their progress through peer reviews.

I liked the cross-section of teams and the diversity of thought that came from this.
- Bayer Manager

Why upskilling at scale is important

Bayer realized that upskilling is an ongoing process that needs to be rolled out to a critical mass of employees, rapidly and efficiently. The organization subsequently sought to create a democratization/cascading strategy that works for them – and to great success.

Nowadays, employees expect this type of dynamic, well-thought-through program. A failure on the part of employers to provide such learning opportunities may result in high employee turnover, as people look for an employer that will encourage their personal growth. Employees expect community, interaction and cross-departmental learning, as well as opportunities to share their experiences with others – and to do it all online, at their convenience.

Designing and delivering impact at scale and speed can be a complex process, consisting of a plethora of online meetings, conducted in multiple languages and requiring engaging, easy-to-access content. For best results, organizations should consider partnering with pedagogical and logistical experts to handle this complexity, so that their teams can focus on learning.

For many years, HR leaders have grappled with how to optimize learning experiences which simultaneously deliver on scale, speed and impact. The effectiveness of IMD Sprint programs, such as the one we co-created with Bayer, has finally enabled this enigma to be resolved.
- Paul Hunter 


Paul Hunter

Paul Hunter

Director of Programs and Learning Design, IMD Business School

Paul Hunter is a graduate of Cambridge University, Oxford University and IMD and has spent his professional career working in the field of business and education. Paul’s passion is to enable companies to reach their strategic objectives by maximizing the impact of their people and to assist individuals to fulfill their potential through enhanced self-awareness, positive growth mindset, mindset recalibration and skills development.

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