Podcast: InStride’s Jonathan Lau on Learning, Technology and the Future

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Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

My guest today is Jonathan Lau, the Chief Operating Officer of InStride. They create learning programs around roles, not topics, and help to align a workforce’s skills with a company’s present and future needs. We’re going to talk about changes in the learning space, the possible role of AI, and how advanced technology like virtual reality could make learning more dynamic, all on this edition of PeopleTech.

Hi, Jonathan. Nice to meet you. I wanted to start out talking about InStride. Can you tell me what the company does? And what is it that you do that you think sets you apart?


Thanks, Mark. No, appreciate you having me. So InStride designs workforce education programs aligned to a corporation strategy to deliver a two to 4X financial return and meaningful social impact. These social strategic programs are offered by organizations to their talent to enable them to gain skills, degrees, which of course then will boost their productivity, increase retention, elevate careers. And all of this, we try to make sure that it’s debt-free. So it’s really trying to help this whole situation of learners and people, especially in the US, not having an education, or having to incur a lot of debt in order to have an education.

Maybe just give you a couple of examples of how we work with some of our amazing partners that kind of illustrate the custom and consultative approach and problem solving we bring to the market. So when Amazon was looking for a partner that could provide franchise-like capabilities to support thousands of their independent contractors that go and deliver your packages on the last mile, we built a new plot layer in our platform that allowed for [inaudible 00:01:55] onboarding, billing, and reporting for all of these thousands of little entities to then be able to support their employees to then go get educated, while, of course, then hopefully getting really excited about continuing to work at these companies and allowing these independent small businesses to be successful.

Likewise, when Intermountain Health was looking at building a custom cohort to fill this medical assistant gap that they have, we worked with the University of Memphis to co-design a program that allowed us to basically build more talent in the medical assistant space.

Then lastly, maybe just one last example. Medtronic is very big into looking at skills first hiring. They’re part of the business roundtable and a couple of different initiatives around trying to look at how to credential their job families, and then remove this kind of degree requirement. We worked with them to then actually adjust, look at all these different jobs, assess kind of the different job skills, rewrite job descriptions, and then align what we call career education paths to those new jobs, so that people understood not only what the job was and what kind of skills you needed, but how to get the education, which Medtronic was willing to fund, to then go into those jobs, right?

So in short, by being able to really understand what corporations are trying to do, and what the strategy is and what their needs are, we then work with these amazing university partners and skills providers that we have to then bring that best to bear, and then set up a scalable program that’s easy and efficient to manage to go fill these gaps.


Could you talk me through your development process? How do you identify a topic that you want to cover, and how do you go about designing and developing, working with your partners or on your own what you’re going to present to your users?


Yeah, absolutely. So at the heart of what we try to do is we want to make sure we find corporations or organizations that believe that investing in their people is the right thing to do, right? That’s the thing they want to pursue, that they want to be able to go invest in people’s education, that their people are going to be a competitive advantage for them.

When we have those conversations, then you have a very different way of talking through how do you think about that? What are your talent needs? What is your workforce? How are you thinking about your strategy, and where does then talent fit in? So when we have those conversations, then we get to understand, oh, okay, really your strategic need is… Maybe it’s keeping frontline retention, and so it’s about building a program that maintains and keeps your frontline more engaged.

So we have a lot of corporations that we deal with that maybe have a 30-day turnover for their frontline. And so even going from 30 days to a year would be amazing for them. And so how do we design a program that does that? We have some partners that say, “You know what? My biggest problem actually is we have a big frontline, but we don’t have a pipeline for the next generation of leader or the leaders of that or into the rest of our organization.” And so we work on programs that then showcase what are the careers for the people at the organization, and how to help move folks upwards within the company.

We also have some companies that really start off with a DEI focus. So maybe our initial conversation is, I really care about people, but one of our biggest challenges is diversity, equity, inclusion, especially at the different levels at the organization. And again, we can design a workforce education program that really ensures that you’re giving access to education to the broad set of folks, because often, actually the education credential and the skills is often what separates kind of the frontline from being able to move upwards in that company. And so we then design a program like that.

So really, as you said, what we’re driven by is really understanding companies that care and want to invest in their people, and then helping them figure out what’s the best way to go about doing that.


One of the things that I noticed in just looking over your website and your materials is you talk a lot about the impact that you have on debt, the student debt that could be built up over the course of getting new training, new learning. I was just struck by it, because it’s a pretty unusual angle, and I just wondered if you’d talk about it a little bit. What’s the thinking behind that?


Yeah, so I used to work for an education company [inaudible 00:06:15] education space for a little bit, and we had a B2C business, which was selling to consumers, and then we had a business that was going through universities and trying to sell to consumers. And what ended up happening was it was always trying to get the learner to pay, the consumer to pay.

And of course, that’s one funding source, right? And especially in the US, that’s the primary funding source for education. But I’m a consultant by trade, and so when you’re a consultant, you take a step back and say, “Okay, is there anybody else that could pay?” Right? Of course, the government could pay, right? The government’s looking at either wiping student debt or making college free, or [inaudible 00:06:51]. So the government could pay, but are there others that could pay?

So when we started going through that, what we saw was, hey, there’s another entity that really benefits from having skilled labor, and that is the employer, the employer of these corporations, right? Because ultimately, I’m working for a company. They are paying me for my skills, right? And so a company is actually the ultimate consumer of a skilled individual. So I said, “Well, can we get corporations to actually chip in and be a funding source for education?”

So we looked at that. And at the time, Starbucks had the College Achievement Plan, and there’s a number of corporations that were just starting this process, and you started to see some of that impact. And we saw, for example in the Starbucks program, people that [inaudible 00:07:40] education get promoted three times faster, they stay longer, right? And so you started to see that impact. So not only was it something that was great from a PR, brand perspective of saying you are a company that cares, which consumers care more and more about, and so there’s a social impact angle of it, but it does actually provide real, tangible ROI.

And so as a company, just by doing what you do best, which is investing in positive ROI projects, and activities and initiatives, which is what a company should do, right? You’re delivering shareholder return. You should care about your communities. Companies do that. But just by doing that, you are also, turns out, helping learners get educated, and covering for them, and so they don’t have to take on debt.

And on top of that, you are broadening the access because you’re leveling the playing field, right? Because as an employer, you are bringing, generally speaking as a frontline, a fairly diverse set of folks that mimic your community, right? And providing all of them access to the same level of potential education program, education coverage, so on and so forth, you are now helping them be able to go access education that they might have otherwise not been able to.

So one of the exciting things about this was we really saw that this was kind of a win-win-win, right? It’s a win for the corporation because now they get better talent and they get to build their pipeline the way they want and they don’t rely on anybody, it’s a win for the learner, ’cause they have a debt-free, as you said, education, and it’s also a win for the institutions because they have more folks that now are willing to go in, they’re supported, they will complete, and they will actually ultimately be successful, and you’ll have more alumni, which is also great for a lot of these institutions.


Let me take a step back from all that, your background and all that. Let’s step back. And if you look around the learning business, the whole landscape today, what do you think are the most dramatic changes that are at work right now, and what do you think is behind them?


Yeah. So I think the one thing that we’re starting to see more and more, and I think COVID helped this, and of course, all these continued disruption, is that companies are realizing more and more that their people are an asset, right? So if you look at a P&L, if you look at the line for where your personnel costs are, it’s always a cost, right? It’s expense. And then you always say, “Oh my gosh, the benefits are going up,” et cetera.

And I think more and more, you’re starting to realize with the pandemic, of, “Hey, oh my gosh, I can’t just let all these people go, and then try to figure out how to bring them all back. And then now my business is suffering because I can’t bring them back, because they all disappeared.” Right? And people are just trying to figure out, well, this whole change to remote work, so now you have a different set of people. Then they have to be more resilient, they have to be able to have collaborate and work. You need a different set of managers. Then suddenly, now you have supply chain. And so now, again, you’re trying to deal with micro decisions day to day and how to manage all that. And then of course, with AI, now you’re saying, “Well, guys, there’s a whole new technology wave coming.” And how do people deal with that?

So I think you’re seeing… The faster and faster changes we’re seeing in the market, it’s more and more important. If you want to be a resilient business and a sustainable business, then you have to have the right people with the right skills. And I think that’s one of the things we’re starting to see more and more, is I think more companies are realizing, “Oh, you know what? My people strategy is not like a CHRO. Let me just throw it on the side. I will go as a CEO, talk about people are important, and I’ll throw it over to the CHRO, and then I’m going to go do a bunch of other stuff.” Right?

I think now in that, we’re more seeing hopefully more and more companies, this notion of, “Well, actually my people are my strategy.” Right? I need to really make sure. As I think about three, four or five years down the line, I’m not going to make every decision right, but I need to have the people in the seats that can help make all the different decisions, and pivot and change and help guide the company in the right direction at every level, right?

So everybody from obviously the CEO and the CXO and the C-suite down to the frontline person to say, “Hey, should I be helping that customer out?” Right? “Should I be pushing back, or have things changed such that I need to do something different?” Because you know what, social media, one frontline person does something wrong, gets exploded, and suddenly now your whole company’s in trouble, or the image or your brand is bad because maybe one person didn’t make a right call, right? And so how do you make sure you have that talent that’s ready across the whole spectrum of your company?


Now, it always seemed interesting to me that learning is really such a human thing, and yet AI is becoming more and more a part of this human thing. And that leads me to want to ask you about AI. And what kind of role do you think it’s going to have in corporate learning in general?


I think there’s two impact of AI. One is AI as in general, as an empowering technology, right? And then I think this is the kind of Clippy example, those of us who back in the day remember the little paperclip from Microsoft who was kind of there and always there. And people made fun of it, but it was the first start of, “Hey, I’m over here. Give me something that helps me do it better.” Right? And I think what you’re going to see on that side is all new technology, right? Whether it’s the mobile phone, whether it’s email, you’re going to have a set of folks that are early adopters, and those folks will suddenly get a jump in productivity, right? Those companies and those people will suddenly get a jump in productivity. And then you’ll have a bunch of laggards, right? And the laggards will eventually catch up, but those that embrace it the fastest will have a competitive advantage, right? And there’s no if, and, and buts, right?

I was talking to somebody that was kind of doing content production for even in education. And they were saying, “Hey, I had to go hire a SME, a subject matter expert, to write a whole set of questions. It would take six weeks. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars because the subject matter expert was manually writing these things.”

Now, it takes us two weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to turn these questions around, right? So now you shorten your time, you lower your costs. Now, you can actually use that money to either reinvest in other things, or kind of really go create more advanced type activities and spend the subject matters expert’s time on even more important things, as opposed to just maybe creating a bunch of questions for a problem set.

So I think you’re going to see definitely, it as an empowering technology, right? And how do you go do that? And so I think from a corporate learning perspective, people are going to have to learn it, right? In the same way I had to go take an Excel class, I had to take a PowerPoint class back in the day, you’re going to have to learn, right? And those that learn it are going to need to do that, so as a topic, and two, as an empower.

And then I think on the other side, I think there’s going to be ways in which it helps you learn, right? It’s going to be kind of that assistant, where as you said, it is a very human activity. We did a study back in the day for the Gates Foundation, and one of the best prudent ways is around one-to-one personalized learning, this notion of personalized learning.

So back in the day, it was adaptive, right? Everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, these things are adaptive. That’s the exciting thing.” But really all adaptive was was trying to make it so that as you were going through, it was personalized, and the learning would change based on who you were and what you were trying to learn. Well, with AI and these large language models and et cetera, you can do that even better, because now I can truly have a conversation, right?

My master’s thesis was in spoken language system, and back then I just had to look at keyword pairs, right? I would hear what you’d say, and I would have a rule that says, if you said this, I will tell you this, right? And it was very one-to-one, because we didn’t have the processing power and the kind of enough machine learning to go do it.

Nowadays, you can have a system that really talks to you. And so if you think about learning language, how nice it is to not have to go find some person to talk to you and get really bored talking to you time and time again for your practice language. But now you have an AI that you can bore to death talking about whatever you like in a different language, but it’s talking to you, and now you have that practice, right? So I think that’s really what you’re going to see on the learning side. So you have the productivity, and then you have improved learning.


Okay. Now, one more question. There’s other technologies being developed that apply to learning that the industry’s looking at. Virtual reality is probably the most obvious. So what kind of role or influence do you see these new technologies having on the approach to learning online?


I love this. I think if you think about what education is, if you took a step back and tried to refine, it’s really kind of interactive media, right? It’s a type of interactive media, right? In the same way video games is an interactive media, learning is an interactive media, right? You have a set of content, you’re interacting with it, and as you’re interacting, you get better.

And so virtual reality is just one more step on the spectrum of having this interactive media be more and more immersive, right? So we went from screens to now clicking around and moving things back and forth with internet where it’s two-way. And so virtual reality now just allows you to make it even more immersed.

So at InStride, all the programs we have are online because we want to make sure we’re serving working adults and making it accessible anywhere, right? And we know flexibility access, being able to access for many device or a mobile device is important, right? And so that’s why we make sure we work with providers that are all doing online. And when I look at virtual reality, that’s just kind of the next logical step to make that access even broader, right?

So if you think about today, there’s still going to be a disadvantage of there’s going to be some skills that you need hands-on experience. And so you’re still going to be blocked if you’re too far away, you need to commute, you need to work two or three jobs, and you can’t get to a site. You’re still going to be blocked from some of those experiences that are very important for you to probably be really good at your job.

Well, if we can get to virtual reality or [inaudible 00:17:56] at scale, where it’s low cost enough, people have access to it, now suddenly, again, you just brought an access to that experiential learning, and so you then level the playing field even in that respect. So even if you’re a person that has to work two jobs and you have to [inaudible 00:18:12], et cetera, at night at home, you put on a headset, and now you are practicing how to operate on somebody, or you’re being able to go fix an HVAC machine, et cetera. And so you can still go move and get that credential. I really do believe that all of these technologies are just really, really exciting to kind of broaden that access and make education accessible to more people at scale.


Jonathan, thanks so much. It was great to talk with you, and I appreciate you stopping by.

My guest today has been Jonathan Lau, the Chief Operating Officer of InStride, and this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of Recruiting Daily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs, visit www.evergreenpodcast.com. To keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

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