Interview - The Learning Makeover at Novartis

Interview - The Learning Makeover at Novartis

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” ― Georg Christoph Lichtenberg


It has become common sense that for competitive success and survival in today’s fast-moving environment, learning must become an integral part of workplaces. We are witnessing a sharp rise in the importance and reputation of L&D that is now on equal footing with finance, marketing, and other high-priority departments.


Human Capital interacted with Brigitte E Gubler and Sriram Rajan, Novartis Learning Institute’s Global and India Heads, respectively, to understand the changing imperative of learning at work and discuss the breakthrough corporate learning initiatives that are driving strategic change and innovation at Novartis - one of the world’s biggest pharma giants.


1.  Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty”. What’s your take on this quip?




Growing old is inevitable but stopping to learn is a self-inflicted poor choice. In a world where change is the one constant; continuous learning is what keeps you relevant. Seeing the world and every event as a learning opportunity means that you are growing. Age is a number given to you, but learning is the ‘passport’ to fulfilling your potential for every day you walk on this earth.

2.  In the increasingly VUCA world, building a learning culture is not just a nice-to-have adjunct but a must-have necessity. What according to you, is the most significant shift in the L&D space?




Learning is power - to apply, push forward, adapt, reinvent and outperform. If you ignore learning and don’t make it a priority, you are creating a ‘reactive’ organisation - one that is on the slide and then plays catch-up. The VUCA world is not an environment of catch-up.


So learning is a must, and accessibility is critical. It has to be readily available at the learner’s fingertips to help solve today’s problems and explore tomorrow’s options. This means that learning is at the centre of everyone’s role. Organisations need to have learning integrated into associates’ workflow to enable them to control their journey. So, learning is no longer a mere add-on to Performance Management System, but a system in itself that is pushing into new frontiers and challenging what we’ve done before — learning and unlearning.

3.  Organisations are stepping away from traditional tick-in-the-box training and embracing learning that is engaging, relevant, and effective. At Novartis, how has the L&D function transformed over the last decade?




Transformation is the keyword here, whether it be from a business perspective where two powerhouses of the pharmaceutical industry (Ciba-Geigy & Sandoz) merged in 1996 to form Novartis, or from our continuous quest to “reimagine medicine” for our customers and patients. The process of transformation never stops, as learning has to adapt to enable associates in becoming the best versions of themselves. 


Novartis is Latin, meaning “New Arts/ New Skills”. So, transformation is at the heart of everything we do. For learning, the critical transformation is becoming agile and fluid. Even in a necessarily, heavily regulated industry, the learner has to be provided with the knowledge that can be applied - not just known. So, learning for our 108,000 associates is now going beyond an ‘event’ and taking shape as a ‘lifelong endeavour’. Learning and the roles of associates are now merged as the L&D function is creating an environment where knowledge, development, and application are all the same. This is entirely different from what was ten years ago when associates were taken away from work to learn.


4.  ‘Continuous improvement’ and ‘life-long learning’ are mantras for many organisations today. What is the learning approach at Novartis? Could you outline some examples of how you at Novartis provide modern learning solutions to employees?




At Novartis, we have cultural aspirations to be inspired, curious, and ‘unbossed’. Led by our CEO Vas Narasimhan, our key focus is on how can we ‘unboss’ learning by infusing ‘inspiration & curiosity’ amongst all our associates globally. This has led to reimagining the learning architecture at Novartis. In addition to existing relationships with Skillsoft & GetAbstract, some of the key initiatives are an enterprise-wide partnership with Coursera and LinkedIn. We’ve made learning available to all, by removing nominations and approvals. This is a demonstration of being ‘unbossed’ as the learner takes accountability (aligned with our business purpose), and their leaders remove the obstacles and share the accountability of their development. Our leaders are even compiling playlists of great learning books and resources. These are shared on our learning portal.

5.  Today’s complex and rapidly changing business environment requires a different approach to leadership development. How do you nurture existing and emerging leaders at Novartis?




Given the cultural transformation that we are in the midst of, leadership development becomes a very critical component, and given the fact that India is the next big story in terms of growth – it becomes even more important. At Novartis, we have an entire suite of leadership interventions tailored for associates in an individual contributor role, going all the way up to an enterprise-wide leadership level. Our focus is to provide high-touch and immersive developmental experiences where we leverage not just our leaders’ skills, but also a range of tools that offer digital and social learning. 


At the core of our developmental journey are leadership expectations and our values. Some of our journeys can extend up to and beyond 12 months. This is done to ensure that development is not seen as a ‘one-time’ activity but as a sustained intervention. We utilize the best from within our business and also have tie-ups with schools like Harvard to run some of our leadership programs. We also run a specific program that focuses on grooming our high-potential women leaders. When you speak of partnership, our CEO Vas Narasimhan is the sponsor of some of our programs. This allows participants to be mentored by the CEO himself.


6.  The shrinking shelf-life of skills is one of the biggest challenges the world of work faces. The knowledge and skills that employees acquire are quickly becoming outdated. What are the new skills critically needed in a company like Novartis? Also, how do you tackle the upskilling and reskilling challenge?




The skills required today will be redundant tomorrow is a saying I’ve heard. I recently heard from Professor Gary Bolles (Singularity University) that for children who are currently in elementary school, 65% of the jobs they will do, don’t currently exist. So there’s no reskilling, only upskilling, which will depend largely on the function and its required needs. 


If you consider skills and behaviours, an area that needs ongoing attention is how adept our associates are with data and digital. It’s the one skill which I think will define success for most organisations in the near future. On the behavioural component, we have a strong focus on cultural transformation to build an empowered workforce. At Novartis, the culture is about values and behaviours as much as it is about performance – and that’s where this piece become business-critical. Lastly, the medical landscape in India, like everything else, is changing too. So, we must focus on helping our associates in building a deeper scientific temper. This not just means building technical expertise, but getting them to see situations in a more empathetic/compassionate way, thereby helping associates to look at themselves as individuals who don’t merely think ‘prescription’ but progress towards creating an entire ‘ecosystem of care’.


7.  Today, people are overwhelmed with content. Given the digital information bombardment in work environments, employees feel jaded by the information overload (an enormous amount of accessible information) and noise (relevant information getting crowded out by irrelevant information). How do you create personalized learning experiences at Novartis?




Again, I’ll introduce the word “unbossed”. In today’s world of information overload, an empowered associate is in control, rather than being a victim of information bombardment. At Novartis, learners do not need line managers’ approval to attend programs. This is powerful, as we have now empowered the learners to curate their own learning – and that is as personal as it can get. Each associate literally now has the opportunity to ‘personalize’ their development. The line manager and learning team have the responsibility to ensure that learning benefits the associate. All this is happening whilst the learner can own their journey. Additionally, the learning community needs to continue curating content that is available for both today’s and tomorrow’s needs.


8.  Just like Rome was not built in a day, deep and sustained learning cannot be accomplished in a jiffy. Most organisations never know how much of the training has been absorbed and if the efforts have moved the needle on talent development. How do you approach integrated learning at Novartis? Also, how do you measure the business impact?




For us, it’s fairly clear that when we get to the drawing board – we begin with the end in mind. This helps us articulate clear business priorities/metrics we know we can impact. For example, a lot of our inputs come in from the insights we draw from engagement surveys. The skills that we then focus on are picked with the intent to move the needle on that metric. Some of the other tools we use to map the managerial/leadership effectiveness are 360-degree surveys and pre & post-program manager feedback. Our other key business driver is the social impact. One of our onboarding programs that won an award earlier this year at the ATD, now also requires our associates to work with non-profit organisations. So for us, the impact is not just what we do within Novartis, but also in the world around us.


9.  Novartis is indeed going big on learning. What is your next frontier to explore in L&D?




Innovation being key at Novartis, we recently concluded Phase 1 of the ‘Future of Learning’ research project. Being run globally, it meant we got inputs from multiple geographies and ethnic groups. Hence, we are focusing on four key themes around making learning more – Integrated, Contextualized, Personalized, and Socialized. This, in turn, will help us achieve our larger goal of identifying better ways of linking people to - (a) Knowledge (b) Learning (c) People.


10.  Amid seismic shifts, the time to adapt is now. What are your tips to becoming an L&D pro?




Great question. It helps us end where we started. Be it L&D or any other line of work one chooses, more than becoming a pro – the key is asking “how does one stay relevant?” With almost a third of the people in most organisations learning at least one new skill in the last three years, having foresight on what’s coming is no longer a differentiator – it’s the bare minimum to survive. Also, L&D professionals must be able to use their insights and lead the business to keep learning. A colleague once told me that “you need to learn one new thing a day, that’s 365 things a year. So be the leader of learning, not just the designer or deliverer.”





Ankita Sharma works as Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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