Hands-on Training - Virtually
About This Episode
Joel Sklar, Senior Learning Designer at FM Global, shares how the global insurance company took its training program for Risk Consultant Engineers, which included training at a lab that replicates warehouse-sized fires, online.
The views expressed by guests are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Skillsoft.
Michelle BB 00:00:07 Welcome to The Edge, a Skillsoft podcast for learners and leaders alike. In every episode, we engage in candid thought provoking conversations on the topics of learning and growth in the workplace. Now, for this week's episode, I want you to take a moment and remember your first week at a new job, right? That very first week, you might wonder what's it going to be like these first few weeks? What am I going to learn? Well, if you're a risk engineering consultant for the business insurer, FM global, a 200 year old global insurance company that provides property insurance coverage for businesses around the globe, you might find yourself deep in the heart of a burn lab at the company's research campus in Gloucester, Rhode Island. This is a massive on-site learning destination full of state-of-the-art labs, where the company simulates real life disastrous events that could affect a businesses building its equipment.
Michelle BB00:00:57 And most importantly, its people. For example, when you walk into the fire technology lab, you'll see team members watch a stunning replica of a warehouse sized fire and learn how to rapidly, how rapidly it can grow out of control or envision yourself visiting the SIM zone. Hands-on training lab at the learning center in Norwood, Massachusetts, where they have a wet lab that allows students to see the effects of various types of industrial sprinkler systems. No matter what lab you're in your focus is learning how to help FM global business customers, their policy holders, who face hazards like this every day. Now, why take this more hands-on approach? Why engineer the risk versus using actuaries? Well it's because FM global places great emphasis on the very human concept of resilience, learning how to recover or bounce back quickly and challenging times. And that's where on location learning comes into play.
Michelle BB 00:01:54 When you're a risk consulting engineer and you get the call to visit a customer's facilities, you need to know the ins and outs of how and why ignitable liquids catch on fire and that fire can spread and you need to know how to help that customer prevent dangerous events, mitigate risk, and when needed pick up the pieces and recover. But what happens when a global pandemic changes almost overnight, the way you train and learn when suddenly your new employees can't fly out to the research lab. In fact, they can't go onsite at all. They still need to learn, but this time it has to be remotely. Does this sound impossible? Well, it's not. If you're resilient, our guest today is Joel Sklar, senior learning designer for FM global in the face of the pandemic. Joel and his team took a resourceful approach to innovating, to ensure that FM Global's training program would live on and uninterrupted and stronger than ever. And so Joel, welcome to the edge.
Joel 00:02:55 Hi there, Michelle. It's really nice to be here with you today. Well, Jill, thank so much now, before we talk
Michelle BB00:03:00 About the transformation, your team engineer, to bring FM Global's learning experiences into the pandemic era, let's take a step back. It, it might be helpful cause I don't think I did it justice, right? I think people need to get a mental picture of what it was like before. COVID-19 for your employees who trained to become engineers for risk consulting. So tell us a little bit more about FM global, your learning program and why it's so important for FM Global's ability to support its customers.
Joel 00:03:27 Sure. Michelle, well, you know, at FM global, we do engineer the risk, as you said. And so our engineers are the eyes and ears of the company. When they go onsite to all of our locations around the world, uh, to help our clients mitigate their risk. And so they look at a wide variety of different exposures when they visit a client's site, they're looking at, you know, how the building is constructed, what type of occupancy they have. So is it woodworking shops at a machine shop? Is it a large manufacturer, power generation, whatever it might be, what type of protection systems they have in place to help prevent against fire. And also we ensure against natural exposures as well. So, uh, natural hazards, such as a wind quake and flood, or also a concern about field engineers about six years ago, uh, we started to redesign our primary engineering learning program.
Joel 00:04:23 I basically, we went to a flipped classroom model where we wanted to move a lot of the lecture and theory out of the classroom and make that on demand, learning prior to the students coming into the classroom. And then while they're here at our learning center in Norwood, they get a lot more hands-on active time. And that was our philosophy for redoing the class. This ended up helping us out a lot when we had to face the challenges of the pandemic, because we already had designed classrooms, uh, classroom learning that was based on a breakout rooms with multiple groups working together to solve real life problems that they would encounter on the job.
Michelle BB00:05:06 Thank you, Joel. It sounds like for your learners, this is a very hands-on sensory rich experience. And frankly it would leave an indelible impression upon anyone who was there, right? So you've got the, you can feel the heat, you can smell the smoke, the dampness of the room. That's been sprayed with lots of water. Um, but then things changed very quickly and we enter the era of the pandemic. And now, um, you realize probably back in, I would, I would probably guess February, March timeframe, something is about to change. And so what were you seeing and what were you thinking as you realized that your learning program was going to have to change?
Joel 00:05:44 Probably back in February, as we saw the way things were going, we really started thinking about how we were going to move our learning to a remote environment because you know, we bring engineers from all around the world and we were very, we wouldn't be able to fly our engineers in and have them all get together in Norwood. Like we usually do through their learning career. So we will looking at our curriculum and analyzing it to see how we could move it to a remote learning environment. Um, one thing that we had in our favor is that we do have a lot of on-demand learning. As I mentioned before, to help students get the theoretical background, they need to become good FM global engineers. But the thing we're really concerned about is all that hands-on experience that they get in our labs in the Norwich learning center. So we had to think about different ways that we're going to be able to take that hands-on lab based learning and move it to a remote learning and find,
Michelle BB 00:06:37 Yes, you mentioned to me before we even started the segment that you've been using zoom. And one of the things that you've done that I think is actually really innovative is you've played with the backgrounds to help them get, to help them, to bring them into the experience. Maybe talk a little bit about that.
Joel 00:06:53 Well, there's a number of different technologies that we leveraged and when we were looking at different platforms for remote learning, the thing that zoom gives us that I think a lot of the other platforms are now catching up on is the ability to take students and put them into breakout rooms. Doubt was a core part of our in-person learning. And in fact, our learning center in Norwood has been designed to support that. So when we redesigned our program and because FM global does support our learning, uh, very well, they built us a new learning center where we have breakout rooms and active learning classrooms. So all of our curriculum is designed to take advantage of students being together in the large classroom and then going off into their small breakout rooms to work together in teams with mentors to solve problems that lends itself very well to the zoom environment, because you have the ability to take students from the large classroom, send them off into breakout rooms and work on that problems there that worked really well. And of course now the fun thing about zoom is it does have these background capability. And so a lot of our facilitators who are engineers and a lot of them are characters. They like to put a background up that might simulate the type of factory they're in or the name of the business. And so we have some fun with that.
Michelle BB00:08:13 Well, I think that's fantastic, but you know, you mentioned something that I want to touch on, right? So, um, you talked about the aspects of your learning programs that needed to change to meet the realities of this work at home environment. But you also said something, um, that I think is important that you probably carried through from the in-person training into this virtual environment, which is part of the experience and in such an essential ingredient is the mentoring, right? So you paired students with experienced team members. So can you talk a little bit about that mentoring program for risk consulting engineers? Why is it so important?
Joel 00:08:48 Entering is a critical part of our learning curriculum. And I think it's one of the most exciting things about the learning that we have at FM global. We bring in experience field engineers, we train them as mentors. We train them in coaching. And then we, uh, have them work with the engineers, both in the field and in the classroom. And this is critical because they have the, on the ground experience and the immediate experience to help the students with their confidence as they, as they become FM global field engineers. I mean, it is a very complicated job and it's a really big responsibility and you can imagine someone fresh out of college, they're an engineering student. They come to work for FM global. We train them, we put them out in the field to visit a client. They come to this big boiler and they say, wow, this thing could blow up.
Joel 00:09:42 And it's kind of scary. I really need to know how to evaluate this risk. The mentors are key to that because not only do they have all of the engineering experience, uh, from doing the job every day, but they are close to the students in age and experience. And they're very good at helping them make the transition from novice to experienced field engineer. Uh, the mentors that work in the operations, we always make sure that students get a different mentor when they come to the class and through all three levels, they'll work with a variety of different mentors. So they get a really good feeling for what it's like all around the world and what everyone's different experience has been in the field.
Michelle BB00:10:30 You know, I think that's so amazing because I imagine that that first time that you're onsite, it can be a little nerve wracking and you think about, Oh my gosh, this is, this is much perhaps bigger than what I even imagined. And that mentor is there to help shape and guide not only that experience and sort of help you manage through, but then also to be there as that point of reference when you need that additional, Oh gosh, confidence support, help.
Joel 00:10:57 Yeah. We also hope that the students feel comfortable enough with the mentors, that they can be a phone call away. If they're, you know, at a particular location, they encounter a situation that dealt with before they may say to the client, let me do a little more research on this and I'll get back to you that that night they can call their mentor up, send them an email, text them and say, Hey, I encountered this today. I know it's something you've seen before. Can you give me a little hand with this? And you know, it just helps not having to go to their boss all the time. They can go to a friend who is a mentor who can help them out. So we think that's very valuable. And personally Michelle, when I'm in the classroom and we used to be in the classroom, uh, seeing the interaction between the mentors and the students really gave me the greatest satisfaction because it's a really great thing.
Michelle BB00:11:46 Oh my gosh. How, how amazing and what a Testament to your learning program? Um, it's, it's fascinating. All the things your team has done in really a relatively short amount of time. I mean, think back six months, I guess I would ask you, Joel, what have you learned from your learners in terms of, you know, how this re-imagined experience is working for them? And that's probably part one, but part two is, you know, look, we're already six and a half months into this pandemic, seven months, what's on your mind for how learning is going to look in the coming months. So what is, what have you gotten back from your learners and then what do you anticipate doing in the coming months based on that?
Joel 00:12:23 Hey, Michelle, multi-part question. Let me think about that for a second. So first thing I'll tell you is that we really did, even though I told you, we did some pre-thinking about how were going to do this. Once they flip the switch March 13th, and they said to us, everybody's going home. We had about three weeks to get our first two weeks session ready for remote learning because engineers are critical. That is what we do at FM global, without the engineers, we cannot do our business. So we did work very quickly. The team worked very well together. I think it was very exciting. It was also very stressful, but we were able to recreate our entire curriculum in a very short amount of time. It took us about 12 weeks to do all of our, we have three, two weeks sessions that we poured it over to remote learning.
Joel 00:13:15 Now what I think we've learned from our students, couple of really interesting thing for your listeners. I think number one, the breakout rooms and the small groups are where the students get most of their learning. And that's what they liked the most. It is daunting for people to come into a larger zoom room with 24 people, especially if it's their first level and they've just been on the job for 90 days or so. And they have to speak up in front of this audience. People don't like to do that, but when we get them into the small group with their peers and with their mentor, they feel much more free to speak to, you know, take guesses. I mean, these are engineers. They don't like to be wrong. So we always have to fight that we want to support them. So they feel they're in a safe environment.
Joel 00:14:02 We also found, as we suspected that a time on zoom class is much more difficult than time in the classroom. So we set out whole length of the day to be five hours of learning. And, you know, I actually talked to some of my friends that have grade school children, and I asked them how long their learning sessions were. And they said, you know, about five hours. And I thought, well, if the fifth graders can do it, then our college aged students should be able to do it. We do two hours in the morning. We start at 10 o'clock. We give them a break for lunch, and then we go one, two afternoon. So we do five hours. We also found we have to give them breaks about every 15 minutes. They need a five or 10 minute break and lecture too long is the death of remote.
Joel 00:14:51 So we really had to even take our lecture sessions and pair them down to about 45 minutes. And then the rest of the time, they should be doing active learning with a debrief at the end recap what they've learned. So even though when we first redesign our curriculum, we pushed a lot of lecture to on-demand. I find now that I'm still pressing some of our more verbose facilitators, let's say, uh, to do some recording of their lecture session. So we can add that to the on-demand learning and have even less PowerPoint slides lecture in the live classroom. So those are some key points that we learned.
Michelle BB00:15:33 I love that. I love that. And you know, it sounds like you are taking, you're constantly looking at how the, the, the sessions are performing and how learners are, um, adapting and comprehending all of this content and then adjusting as you go along, which I think is incredibly thoughtful and, and also will help, um, improve the efficacy of the training. Yes,
Joel 00:16:00 Yes. We have continually, um, been changing and adapting the curricula as we've gone. So for example, our very first class was our level two class. That was the next one that was scheduled to go. So we put that together as quickly as we could. We rolled it out. And of course, you know, nowadays everything seems to be we're in pilot mode all the time. And you know, it really has been a learning experience. I think for people outside of the learning group, because we always like to dab use stuff. It doesn't have to be fully baked. If it's 80% done, we like to roll it out. We'd like to get feedback from the students and then language, we continue to adapt it as we go, rather than trying to put something out. That's perfect. It's almost impossible to do this whole environment has freed us up to be much more agile because I can say to my designers and to the facilitators, we're gonna give this a try.
Joel 00:16:54 And if it doesn't work, the students will let us know they will give us feedback and then we can adapt it and change it as we go. So that's been a really big benefit to this. Now we're just getting ready to do our second level two starting next week. And for the past two weeks, we have been frantically redesigning a lot of the sessions based on student feedback to take advantage of all the different technology capabilities that we have. And video has been a really big piece of this. So, um, as I mentioned in our pre-meeting, we've shot a lot of video, uh, just out of teams, for example, we'll interview a subject matter expert, we'll record it, edit it and put it out for the students to see. And that kind of immediacy that people are getting used to in the zoom world works really well and especially works well with our younger student group. Feel very comfortable with this.
Michelle BB00:17:51 I'm sure they I'm sure they do. And especially in the, in the YouTube era, right? Um, no, exactly. We're, we're talking about the future of learning. And so I have to ask this question because I have to imagine that one day we will be able to go back into an office space or into a research lab, much more freely. And I'm curious, based on what you've learned, how do you plan to operate? To what extent do you see us going back to on location learning entirely onsite? Right. So, so 100%, or do you think that that you'll be operating we're we'll, we'll be looking at more of a hybrid model in the future?
Joel 00:18:31 I absolutely think we'll be looking at a more hybrid model. I think that this opportunity, um, has been a great learning experience for the business, because I think that they have found that not everything has to be so regimented as the type of curriculum that we had before, where you had a specific on-demand learning period, a specific workshop, learning period, so forth and so on. You know, I think that we FM global really does value the in-person, um, relationships that come out of the classroom. And because we have these wonderful labs that you did such a nice job describing before, you know, we, we always want the students to see that, you know, the burn lab in Rhode Island, we, we set a whole bunch of plastic pallets on fire. And you know, I've experienced this too. You stand behind the glass windows 50 feet away, and you can feel that heat.
Joel 00:19:24 And it's very impressive. We don't want to lose that. We don't want to lose the abilities we have in these great hands-on labs. We have a Norwood, but I have been trying to get us to a university model for a couple of years now where students would take learning more at their own pace. It's not so regimented with all of this on-demand content available with everyone getting much more comfortable with presenting in a remote environment. We could have many more remote sessions with subject matter experts. We could have the curriculum matched more closely to what the students are seeing when they go on their trailing visits in the field. You know, one of the things I might've mentioned before, um, Michelle, is that our students, especially in the early, earlier part of their learning, uh, they follow an experienced mentor. We call a trailing and then after so long that they've gotten some more experience than the mentor start to trail them. What I'd like is for the learning to tightly aligned with the type of exposures that they're seeing in the field. So for example, if they're going to a food processing plant tomorrow, then we would have them take the plastics in construction learning the night before that would be much more adaptable. And we do call that a university model. I think that's what we'd like to get to over the next few years. It will take us some time, but I think that's where we're going. And that is what we've learned to wreckly from this experience.
Michelle BB00:20:49 Joel, I have to say, I am so incredibly impressed with the digital transformation that your business has made, especially, you know, I think that if you, you know, if you had asked us a year ago, could, could you take this kind of on-site learning and move it and shift it into a virtual environment? I'm sure everybody would have gone. Huh? That's that's so challenging. But what you've done is transformational for both FM global, as well as for your customers, for your policy holders. And so I think it just kudos to you and your team. Now for my last question, I can't believe how far this is, how fast this has gone by. And by the way, I really want to audit one of these classes because I'm, I'm fascinated. Um, but I have to ask you something that I've been asking all of my guests across all of these episodes and, you know, it's certainly relevant to what we've discussed today, about how some aspects of learning must transform.
Michelle BB00:21:39 Well, there are things that we know that we're going to want to maintain. Okay? So for many of my podcast, guests with whom I've spoken, the pandemic has allowed them has allowed us to look at things a bit differently. Perhaps we, we give ourselves a little more grace we've shifted our perspective. I've taken up a new hobby. I bird watch, don't even ask. So I've asked several of my guests this question, and you can frame it personally or professionally because the responsive responses, uh, to date have been absolutely fascinating. So this is a multi-partner number one. What have you started doing since the onset of the pandemic that you never would've thought you'd done? Number two, what have you stopped doing and are so grateful for one of my guests actually said she stopped setting her on her alarm clock, which I thought was fascinating. And then the third is what is something you're going to take with you out of this pandemic that you might not have done before continue? So it's a start, stop, continue.
Joel 00:22:34 Okay. Um, well, first of all, I guess, uh, I know this is cliche, but I really did learn how to bake bread.
Michelle BB00:22:44 Oh my God. Okay. What kind of bread and how often are you baking it? And did you, were you so upset when every grocery store ran out of flour?
Joel 00:22:52 Well, I didn't know anything about this at the beginning. And you know, it was all this talk about all the stores running out of flour and I thought, wow, I'm missing something. So I started visiting the King Arthur baking website, and I just made a delicious whole wheat loaf last Sunday, Michelle.
Michelle BB00:23:10 Oh, Joel, I'm coming to your house.
Joel 00:23:13 Well, it's funny because baking is kind of chemistry and you have to be very exacting to get it right. And that suits my personality very well. So I'm lending to, you know, a spoon and level flour and get all my, I know it's so silly when you asked this question, I was thinking, that's what I'm going to say. I love it. So that's one as a consequence, I've also been riding my bike a lot more because I'm eating all this bread. So, um, yeah, that's been good. You know, I did a 40 mile bike ride last weekend, which at the beginning of the summer, I never thought I'd be able to. So congratulations. It's an interesting question. And I think that, you know, this is a very upsetting time that we're in, but there are a lot of really good things that have come out of it. Like the bread baking, my guidance has been doing very well. I've been playing guitar more and all this really fun stuff because boy, we have a lot more time on our hands. Um, so I think that was part one. Remind me, what else you want to know, Michelle,
Michelle BB 00:24:11 You stopped doing like I'm not doing that anymore.
Joel 00:24:15 Well, the commute of course. Um, I mean, we did have flexibility prior to this, but now working at home all the time. And I worked at home, uh, for much of my career prior to FM global, I really enjoy it. And I think it's been good for the company because they have found that we can all get our work done and have these conversations just like you and I are having right now that do feel very immediate and personal and we're not missing that face to face thing, but I certainly don't miss the commute. That is something that's nice to get up every morning and use that time that I might have sat in my car to either work or do some fun hobby or get some exercise. Uh, and of course the whole wardrobe thing is like, you know, no more shopping for clothes or anything like that. So it's nice to be comfortable all the time and the last part of,
Michelle BB00:25:05 Yeah. So as we continue to create this new normal, like what, what's the thing that you're going to continue to do that you might not have done before is the baking the bread
Joel 00:25:14 Say, um, travel is a big hobby of mine. And so I do miss that dearly. Uh, we had three trips planned this year. We didn't get to do, and I hope we do get to get back to that. Um, but you know, I think that, um, even though we've been working very hard, it's kind of easier to get a better work-life balance. I mean, I can take a break now after this, let's say, go out and my work in my garden for a while, things like that. And I think that also thinking more about being close to home local community, how you can affect change locally, things like that. It really has opened my eyes to a lot of different things. So I want to try to reframe it as a, as a positive, as much as we can. I know a lot of people are not, you know, uh, are in Tufts tough, tough times right now, dire straits. And we have to remember them too. We're very lucky to have jobs and able to work remotely. Like this is a great thing. So, uh, just me remembering all that stuff I think is important.
Michelle BB 00:26:10 Thank you for that. I think that, you know, that's a great place to end our session and our time together, although I've enjoyed it so much. Thank you for taking the time to be with us on the edge. Um, and to our listeners, thank you for tuning into this. And every episode as we unleash our edge together on behalf of the entire Skillsoft team, we encourage you to keep learning, keep growing and in light of our conversation today, consider finding a mentor, being a mentor, or perhaps both. Thank you. Have a great day.
About Our Guest
Joel is a Senior Learning Designer at FM Global, responsible for leading learning development for their field engineering curriculum. Prior to FM Global Joel ran his own instructional design consulting business with clients including Raytheon, IBM, Fidelity and other Fortune 500 companies. Joel is the author of three web design textbooks that have been translated into multiple languages and has taught web and instructional design at both Northeastern University and UMASS Boston.
About Our Host
As Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle leads a global marketing organization, focused on transforming today’s workforce for tomorrow’s economy. Since joining the company, she has been responsible for Skillsoft’s global marketing strategy, which includes generating awareness, driving preference, and building affinity for Skillsoft. Additionally – and perhaps most importantly – Michelle serves as the company's brand evangelist, helping to build a vibrant community of passionate learners.
With more than 25 years of marketing, branding, and strategy experience, Michelle has made it her personal mission to support the advancement of women in business. Prior to Skillsoft, she served as Chief Marketing Officer of IBM Watson, where she was instrumental in developing the first “Women Leaders in AI” program, which honors women who put AI to work across industries and around the globe. She also served as the global head of marketing for The Weather Company, an IBM Business, helping companies understand how to anticipate, plan for, and ultimately make better decisions – with greater confidence – in the face of weather.
Michelle is a prolific speaker on a range of topics, including the war for talent, digital transformation, and marketing in a post-pandemic world. She covers these topics and more as the host of Skillsoft's podcast, The Edge, now in its second season. She has authored countless papers covering a range of business and marketing topics, was at the center of Skillsoft’s leadership role in DEI through free “Leadercamps,” and has taught two Percipio courses on the Pink Pandemic and Public Speaking.
Michelle is also a founding member of CMO Huddles, a group dedicated to bringing together and empowering highly effective B2B CMOs to share, care, and dare each other to greatness. Michelle holds a Master’s degree from Simmons University and sits on the pro side of the Oxford comma debate.