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Build a social ecosystem of learning for marketers to learn both best practices and new practices from one another

Marketers say they are unprepared for the future.  The results of a study that Kantar conducted recently in partnership with the American Marketing Association found that just 41 percent feel properly equipped for the digital marketing age. Only 27 percent feel they have the right people, processes and tools and only 29 percent believe they get sufficient training.

There used to be a clear road for building the skills and expertise marketers needed to succeed. Entry-level marketers mastered their craft as apprentices shadowing senior marketers who provided a mix of coaching and on-the-job experience that brought the theory of formal classroom training to life. But with modern digital marketing, the ecosystem is constantly changing, and with it, best practices. Received wisdom is often obsolete as soon as it can be codified.

Each year for past decade or so, there has been at least one new practice that marketers have had to add to their toolkit and wrap into their thinking. Search, social, mobile, digital content, AI, programmatic, VR, AR — everybody from the most junior to the most senior is learning at the same time. This has broken down the traditional apprentice-coach model.

Meanwhile, as an industry, marketers are faced with a talent gap. The World Economic Forum has projected sales and marketing professionals as one of the top ten types of jobs that will grow between now and 2022. Yet college graduates are more likely to want a career in technology than in marketing. At every level, the demand for marketers — whether brand managers or digital specialists — outstrips supply.

The path forward begins with the need to make learning a priority within every marketing organization. Marketers must be prepared to step in where market trends prove inadequate, otherwise there will be a big gap of the skills and talent needed for the future. But this does not mean doubling down on the traditional apprentice-coach model. Rather, there must be a more inclusive and participatory social ecosystem of learning where everyone is responsible for teaching and learning from everyone else.

Many companies are leaning into a digital-first, self-driven model for ongoing learning. But despite stockpiling e-learning content, companies and marketing leaders are finding that their teams find it hard to carve out time to use these resources.

Part of the reason that self-teaching materials go unutilized is that, according to Korn Ferry International, only 15 percent of the global workforce is highly agile when it comes to learning, which is to say, they know how to teach themselves new skills to solve new problems in new situations. The overwhelming majority of workers require a structured approach to learning.

The best way for organizations to train talent is to build a new kind of structure that utilizes internal cohorts of social communities that include learners, teachers, and coaches, all helping one another. These internal teams must be able to access and employ an infrastructure that disseminates and embeds the broadly distributed knowledge that already sits within a complex matrix of marketing generalists and specialists.  Doing this well requires three things.

  1. Use subject matter enthusiasts as capability builders for new marketing practices. To keep up with the demands of the marketplace, marketing organizations have pace with change by bringing in marketing specialists like social media practitioners, e-comm experts, analytics and data scientists, and more. The current teams driving execution in these new spaces and overseeing these new practice areas are moving the fastest. But these teams must do more. Marketers need for these teams to move beyond their current roles as technicians and add the roles of teachers for the wider marketing team. As these practice areas become standard processes within a company (and mainstream within the marketplace), these tasks can be delegated to the mid-levels of a marketing team. And then, over time, as the broader marketing team becomes more skilled, the subject matter enthusiasts should focus on what is coming next, thereby creating a continuous flywheel of embedding new skills and practices.
  2. Build Leadership Confidence. Traditional marketing leaders trapped within an apprentice-coach structure have been faced with the difficult task of trying to coach and mentor teams to do things for which they themselves could use more training. Compounding this are the cultures at many companies that keep marketing leaders from feeling comfortable acknowledging their knowledge gaps. Organizations must embed methods for teaching new practices to those responsible for budgets and investment priorities. It’s critically important that senior marketers ‘un-learn’ outdated practices by building new skills and applying new thinking to adopt a more flexible, bolder style of leadership that will accelerate the pace of change within the entire company.
  3. Empower mid-level marketers to keep foundational thinking front and center. In the rush to keep up, many companies have focused their learning on very specific digital skills, not on brand strategy. In combination with the fact that over the past decade many organizations have centralized strategy, this means that mid-level marketers are less schooled in upstream brand thinking, which is the kind of innovative thinking that open ups new categories, that enables brands to compete with the myriad of start-ups disrupting every category, and that improves decision-making about when and how to leverage new technologies. Strong brands and sound strategy are more important than ever, so it is essential to build modern marketing essentials into on-the-job training curricula. Mid-level marketers need to understand how their day-to-day work fits into the strategic disciplines of brand equity, growth, insights, finances, and more. In fact, using mid-level marketers as teachers and coaches of an updated curricula rooted in strategy would complete the cycle of everyone helping and learning from everyone else. This is the best way for modern marketing learning to create the high-performance marketing team of the future.

The Organizational Practice works regularly with clients to design and strengthen learning programs that include an optimal balance of best practices and new practices.  If you want to learn how to build future-facing marketing capabilities, please give us a call. By benchmarking your organization against 10,000 marketers worldwide, we can work with you to identify what your teams need to learn, to figure out who should learn what new skills, and to design ways to best deliver these sorts of 21st century adult learning programs.