Disrupting Corporate Learning: From Top-down HR to Individual Employee Responsibility

Nina Haber -unless-
Posted by NINA HABER
Disrupting Corporate Learning: From Top-down HR to Individual Employee Responsibility -unless-

Nina Haber is an in-house trainer at Babbel, working on a new culture of continuing education for employees. In this article, she explains why she’s working toward a new way of thinking about HR and how the culture of continuing education should look.

A few years ago, I worked in the sales department at a startup with about 25 employees. Innovative, committed, dynamic: It had a corporate culture other companies only dream of. But then they introduced a highly elaborated organizational system with job descriptions for each employee. From that point on, everyone was only allowed to do exactly what was intended for their respective job. Within a short period of time, the atmosphere shifted: The spirit of engaged commitment turned into a rigid working climate after six weeks. Instead of exchanging creative ideas at the weekly meetings, employees were summoned – allegedly to be more efficient – only once a month. After two or three of these “new” meetings only half of the team appeared. No one felt responsible anymore for tasks that went beyond the established job profiles.

One system paralyzes the entire company in no time

An isolated case? Unfortunately not. From my experience, I know plenty of examples where highly developed organizational systems fail – also in the field of professional training. For years, I have observed HR staff who are trying to organize the best training and learning paths for employees. It starts with highly detailed job descriptions and ends with regulations for specifically selected training courses. Whether you drive an excavator or manage a team – careers become a long educational journey with the goal that the employees someday fit like puzzle pieces into predefined competence profiles. The problem is that most initiatives like this cost both the HR team and employees considerable time and energy, and in the end, the complex plans end up in a desk drawer and everyone involved is frustrated.

But why do such sophisticated, top-down systems actually fail? And more importantly, what solutions can HR offer so that employees can still continue learning?

5 reasons why we need an HR between equals

foto disrupt hr

#1 Standardized job descriptions
In my opinion, the failure of learning paths and competence profiles begins already with the standardization of job descriptions.

To explain this, I’d like to ask you a question: How many people do exactly the same job at your company? If you can’t name anyone, that wouldn’t surprise me. Today, there are very few companies where positions fully overlap in terms of requirements, tasks and responsibilities. That’s why HR creates families of jobs. This grouping of competences seems to be a balance between individualization and standardization. But here too, the competence profiles remain standardized – just within a family of jobs. The difficulty of grouping jobs is reflected not least in the high number of job families that are created. In some cases, these can even reach triple digits at large companies. After all, companies even tend to group together career development steps within a family of jobs.

#2 Everyone is unique – even in their careers
Once a company has been able to put together standardized job descriptions, they’re often hidden behind jargon and phrases among all the other countless job descriptions. And unfortunately, they don’t fit all applicants. After all, everyone has had different experiences in their lives and, accordingly, brings different motivations and competencies to the company – and to be honest, isn’t exactly this diversity among employees what modern companies want?

Also, as careers develop, this standardization is simply insufficient. Apart from the different personal experiences, don’t all employees have their own expectations and plans for their careers?

Personal development is individual for each person, which means that every career can only develop at an individual level.

The fact that standardization is doomed to failure is clear, and it’s no longer a secret. Nevertheless, standardized competence profiles and training paths are still widely used in companies and have only rarely been adapted to the needs of today’s employees. So is individualization the solution?

#3 Individualization and the presumption of knowing everything
Individualization sounds like a great idea, but it also comes with a major problem. Many in HR think that they know what employees should know and want to know on an individual level. Too often I hear from executives and colleagues that employees are not performing a task well enough, so they need to give them some training on topic X.

But then comes the question: Why do the people in HR (including me) think they know what each team member needs and what they want for personal development? And how demotivating is it for employees to be told what they supposedly don’t know how to do, often in spite of good performance?

In the past, I was often hired to lead this kind of training and can only say that the quality of such “forced” training is far below the quality of voluntary and independently selected training

#4 Planning a long career in advance
Let’s suppose that the first three steps are in fact fulfilled satisfactorily by the all-knowing HR and management. Then it still remains a mystery to me why employee careers are planned for a period of up to ten years. It’s obvious that the days are over when employees would work in the same company for their whole lives. Just recently, I observed a discussion about how young employees could be connected to a company for the long term. Why didn’t the discussion focus on getting the best out of employees and the company during their time together? For companies, this means focusing on the period in which the employees actually work at the company. Today, this is about two to four years.

#5 Knowing the future
Planning over a long period of time in advance brings with it another, almost unsolvable task.
If we plan careers and competencies over five or even ten years, we assume that we know the future of the company. But who can tell us today what job titles, positions and skills we will need in ten years? I can’t, because the future hasn’t been written and is therefore unpredictable  (at least for the most part).

Disrupt HR

The solution: an HR between equals

Is there any way out if plans, competence profiles, standardization and individualization are doomed to failure?
I see the solution in assigning personal responsibility for personal development. Employees should be able to decide voluntarily which trainings are necessary and relevant for them, and how many they want to attend when. My experience shows that, especially when attending a training comes from independent motivation, the quality of learning increases significantly and it pays off. Above all, this requires a rethinking of HR, because it requires trust in employees. However, this trust pays off threefold in the form of employee motivation, personal development and job performance.

Time for a new culture of continuing learning

When I first set up a training culture like this at a company, I myself was amazed at how well the training was received. After all, my courses were still standard seminars and not especially modern. Nonetheless, the voluntary basis meant that employees attended training with much more interest. Highly motivated colleagues with different skills and cultural backgrounds came together in courses and shared their own knowledge, got to know each other and often simply noticed that they weren’t alone and that others experienced the same problems and had already found solutions. This kind of insight is also extremely valuable for employees.

Two Women Learning

Babbel – a company with over 500 employees – was also able to introduce a training culture like this. We founded the Babbel Academy, where employees can voluntarily register for training. The topics are varied, interesting and, above all, relevant to their work. I’ve noticed over and over how well this works. The waiting lists are long, we receive very good feedback, we observe intensive and open exchange between employees with different qualifications and see many new ideas and whole projects that come from it. Meanwhile, our offering is increasingly in demand from other companies. That’s why we’ve opened our seminars for employees of other companies with a similar corporate culture.

Another great achievement is that we’ve been able to bring on more and more internal trainers and coaches with our concept. Internal trainers in this case are our own employees at all hierarchical levels, who offer their knowledge in the form of a training to other colleagues. Our role as organizers of the Academy in these cases is to support training development through train-the-trainer sessions and coaching. We also organize the participants and rooms. If all employees work together and show interest in further training on their own, for me that’s knowledge management at its best.

Summary: 5 tips for HR between equals

  1. Prepare a variety of offerings. Support and coach instead of prescribe.
  2. Trust the abilities of the employees and don’t try to fill in presumed knowledge gaps by decree. This is demotivating, and motivation is often more effective than specific qualifications.
  3. Give responsibility back to the employees. They’re the experts who know what they need better than HR.
  4. Make more of the company's expertise rather than just external training. That way, knowledge within the company can be better exchanged.
  5. Give employees the option to choose the topics and the number of training courses to attend. An unexpected training is often the trigger for important changes and more creativity.

Disrupt HR Infographic

Contact usHave questions about our language learning offering? Contact us — our Babbel for Business team will be glad to help.


Nina Haber, (former) In-house trainer 

Nina’s focus revolves around continuing education for employees. It is particularly important to her that employees are free to decide which training courses to attend, when to attend them and how often. For her, this new kind of training culture is no longer just a vision but daily practice with the Babbel Academy.

Reset Password


We’ll send you an email to reset your password.

Ready to see how Babbel will help your team learn in real life?

Schedule a demo with one of our consultants below!