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Exploring Curiosity in the L&D function: A fragile yet crucial connection 

Chapter Excerpt from

'The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto"


Stefaan van Hooydonk

"It takes curiosity to learn. It takes courage to unlearn.
Learning requires the humility to admit what you don’t
know today. Unlearning requires the integrity to admit
that you were wrong yesterday. Learning is how you evolve.
Unlearning is how you keep up as the world evolves.”

— Adam Grant

Organizational Psychologist, Wharton

"What would it take to teach a group of young pupils in a deprived neighborhood and a substandard school?” What would it take to teach a group of young pupils in a deprived neighborhood and a substandard school?” was the question Erin Gruwell asked herself. Played by the actress Hilary Swank in the movie Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell is a young teacher ready to do good and is unburdened by limiting beliefs. Instead of joining the ranks of her sarcastic teacher colleagues at her school, she embraced her students with all her positive might. In the process, she creates psychologically safe conditions conducive for learning to become possible even for the “lesser” students. 

Few of us have been blessed to be guided by an exemplary teacher like Erin Gruwell. Many of us have had a good experience with a couple of passionate teachers throughout our schooling days. We remember these teachers fondly. Most of the time, we have erased the other teachers we enjoyed early in life from our minds. The fact we make movies about remarkable teachers is a sign they are more the exception rather than the rule.  For Erin Gruwell, being a teacher was not a job; it was a calling to make the lives of the young people entrusted to her better and to enable her students to become better versions of themselves. Her curiosity sparked the curiosity of her students.

Male Teacher with Students

We have spoken earlier in the book about the positive effect of curiosity on engagement, innovation, change acceptance, and productivity. The link of curiosity to learning is equally important: curiosity primes our learning pump. When we are in a state of curiosity, our minds prepare our brains to welcome new information better and deeper. As a result, curious people learn faster and remember better what they have learned.

When we are curious about a specific topic, we can learn and remember unrelated topics better.
When we are not curious, or when we are forced to be curious, we will respond with resentment, boredom, or both, and as a result, not learn. The more a company forces learning on its employees, the more they create compliant and con- formist doers. On the other hand, the more they empower employees to learn what they need and want intrinsically, the more they create curious, engaged, and productive thinkers and doers.


It is good to be curious. It is also good to make people curious. Even better is when we train people on how to strengthen their curiosity muscle.

The research firm Gartner predicts only 20 percent of employ-ees have the skills needed for both their current role and their future career (Gartner 2018).

We know the “half-life of skills” has been decreasing. A curious person in the fifteenth century like Leonardo da Vinci viewed knowledge as something permanent. Not anymore. Overall, the skills we learn in school only help us for the first five to ten years of our career. If we don’t upskill ourselves, we become a cognitive dinosaur. In industries such as IT, old skills become redundant even faster.

What is holdIng the learning and development function back?

When discussing the state of the L&D profession with Professor Nick van Dam of IE University, he made the analogy of the L&D function with the IT department. He shared, “Thirty years ago, the IT department was the tactical help desk you visited when your computer was broken, now they are one of the most strategic groups of the organization. L&D is still behaving as if they are the tactical help desk while they have the opportunity to transform themselves.”

Elliott Masie, global authority on corporate learning answered this question eloquently. When we spoke, he identified four areas holding back learning and development teams in organisations.

  • They confuse teaching with learning. L&D is structured as a scalable teaching environment benefiting the organization, not a scalable learning environment benefiting both the organisation and the employees.

  • Data-savviness and smartness. According to Mr. Masie, “Curiosity involves evidence and data. Why do you teach this course as a five-day course instead of a five- hour course? The answer in most cases will be because we have always done it this way. A data-smart answer would be: we tried it for five hours and we tried it for five days and here is what the evidence shows.”

  • Technology systems optimise delivery, not the experience of an individual. Technology is not consumer grade. Mr. Masie continued: “I have been beating up the Learning Management System (LMS) community for thirty years. They track whether you have followed a course, they don’t tell whether you should watch the thirty-second, three-minute, or thirty-minute videos, read the pdf, or do something else—our systems don’t enhance curiosity.”

  • Business sense. “Most of the L&D people are business naïve. I have not seen a single CLO become a Fortune 500 CEO. We (L&D) don’t always get what the business is all about.”

According to another equally respected thought leader, Donald H. Taylor, chair of the UK based Learning Technologies Conference, what is holding L&D back is the fact it is not innovative and future-oriented enough.


"L&D is still too fond of its historic identity of creating and delivering courses. In the light of the changing landscape of content being freely available any- where, the increased speed of doing business, tenure of employees is going down, the complex nature of reskilling, and the changing social contract and expectations between employees and employers all contribute, the traditional focus of L&D is ready for a change."
—Donald H. Taylor

Lori Niles-Hofmann, global learning strategist, echoes the above messages when sharing, “The most successful L&D teams are those who focus on culture instead of training, those who encourage a curiosity pull from the employees rather than a top-down compliance push for training.”

Clearly, forward-thinking L&D groups in forward-thinking companies are proving Nick van Dam, Elliott Masie, Donald H. Taylor, and Lori Niles-Hofmann wrong, truth be told. The innovators, however, are more the exception than the rule, yet being early adopters, they show the rest how to shape innovative learning organizations. Many of the L&D groups are still laggards; they are more tactical than strategic, more pleasers than challengers, more reactive than proactive, and more course administrators than culture changers.

Teya: Brazilian innovatIon

A good example of a forward-thinking L&D provider for me is the Brazilian company Teya. I have come to know their founder, Alexandre Santille, well as a successful learning innovator and advisor. He shared with me one of his customer projects he was doing for a large agro-business customer. He was asked to do a train-the-trainer program to equip the technical trainers of his client company. When he and his team realised the assigned participants of this training program were appointed by their managers to become trainers rather than wanting to do it themselves, he set out on another trajectory.

He mapped the influencers in the organization and posited a simple question to everyone. “Who do you go to when you have a question?” What they did was to map the hidden potential of employees who were already sharing knowledge and were intrinsically pleased to do that. This led to a very different list of names of people than the experts who were nominated to become trainers. This initiative unveiled an important aspect of the learning culture of the company that was not hitherto visible to the L&D professionals.

When sharing these findings to the management of his cli- ent, they immediately saw the potential of their influencer population and agreed to change their approach. Mr. Santille shared an extra insight of this project: the “informal learning booster colleagues” were not necessarily the best experts in their areas. They were, however, the most willing to help and support their colleagues.

Every employee contributing to collective knowledge

The image L&D enjoys in many organisations is low, yet the challenge facing organisations in the space of creating a culture of employee-driven learning to support skilling, up-skilling, and especially re-skilling are, however, daunting. The World Economic Forum has predicted 40 percent of the core skills of our current workers are expected to change in the next five years and 50 percent of all employees will need re-skilling by 2025. Re-skilling means radical change for both the individual as well as the organisation. It involves, for instance, training a low-level call centre employee into a machine learning expert.

It also means, L&D is the driver for learning culture change and challenges the status quo toward embracing curiosity at the organisational level as well as encouraging curiosity at the individual level.

A company carrying a high reputation when it comes to innovation in learning is Google. They have clearly gone beyond the paradigm that learning is all about creating and delivering courses to be consumed by employees. They turned this para- digm on its head and instead of treating corporate learning as consumption, they have made it also a function of contribution.

The idea is quite basic yet very powerful. It is built on the belief every employee has unique skills and experiences that can be beneficial for their peers. So instead of relying on external experts to teach programs, first the company checks whether they have internal resources who have the knowledge and are interested in sharing them. With their "Googler2Googler program", they have created a culture of appreciating the knowledge and expertise of every employee and created a platform for employees to share their knowledge, even in non-business-related areas like mindfulness.

I have been replicating this philosophy in several companies with great success. In my own experience, the attendance at sessions delivered by peers is ten times greater as compared to the external speakers or trainers. Engagement to learn from a knowledgeable peer is also higher than learning from an external resource who may or may not be knowledgeable about the specific corporate context on the ground.


Once we understand the power of empowered curiosity and learning, one could ask the question of why many organisations are giving lip-service to supporting growth and development for their employees and why they are not more demanding of their L&D teams, especially when the same CEOs say, they have a real skill challenge on their hands?

I have been a chief learning officer for Fortune 200 companies for the biggest part of my career and have observed huge differences in how companies frame, value, and encourage learning and growth among their employees. While some companies are creating a positive culture for employees to grow, discover, and learn, many companies are paying lip-ser- vice to learning and individual growth.

Fortunately, I have had the chance to work with CEOs, CFOs, or CHROs who believed learning, growth, and curiosity were not a cost but an investment. At the same time, I have personally observed many organizations stifling curiosity of new employees the very moment they join the company, companies minimally investing in training the employees just enough so they can do their current roles (and not prepare them for potentially next roles) and treating growth and development as non-productive time that should be avoided as much as possible.

A good example of an executive leader and role model for curiosity is Vas Narasimhan, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company Novartis. He ensured curiosity became an overarching corporate value for the company and worked with his CHRO and Simon Brown, the company’s chief learning officer to “go big on curiosity.” Simon Brown’s aspirational target of one hundred hours of learning per person per year is encouraging employees to have a broad definition of learning, has democratised access of all available content to all employees (even if the content is not relevant for the employee’s current role), and communicates regularly to employees the value of curiosity. Vas Narasimhan, clearly being a curious leader himself, acts as a role model for all to follow and underscores the importance of learning in his communication.

This kind of behavior at Novartis supports a trend we have been observing in recruitment: for young professionals learning and development opportunities trump salary in their decision to join the company of their choice. Added to this is a new mindset in the workforce: employees are looking for an organization where they can be their authentic selves.

They are looking for companies with a clear organizational purpose, where they can grow toward mastery in their chosen fields and where they can go about their day job with as much autonomy as possible. They are looking for self-determination.

Another inspirational example is the airline engine company Pratt & Whitney. The vice president of their supply chain group, Jim Hamakiotis, introduced curiosity in his organszation to empower employees and help the organization become more agile. To manage this culture transformation process, he hired Vincent-Pierre Giroux in early 2020, reporting directly to him. Since then, Mr. Giroux has been driving a culture transformation based on curiosity, first within the executive team before rolling it out across the organization. I can attest personally to the energy of Mr. Hamakiotis and the commitment of his entire management team as I was invited to address the team and talk about the power of workplace curiosity in early 2021.

Vincent-Pierre Giroux has embedded curiosity in leadership development programs and in team collaboration initiatives. Beyond L&D, he is using curiosity to redesign their offices for a post-COVID-19 hybrid reality and is using curiosity as an intentional lever to strengthen the company’s diversity and inclusion agenda. What began with a humble start in their supply chain business is gradually finding its way to the broader organisation, even its parent organization Raytheon.

While the C-suite decides on the budget, middle management defines the details of what the learning agenda is. Learning is decided by business management, not L&D and then pushed to the employees. This is done often without checking with employees whether they need this training or whether the organisation benefits from this training.

The learning strategist Charles Jennings calls this the “conspiracy of convenience.” Both the manager and L&D con- spire in pretending they are doing something positive about developing their teams. The manager can say something is done and L&D is happy to comply, while deep down both realise nothing fundamental will change. Who has not done leadership training or sales training, only to realize one year later, the original problem to be tackled by the training is still rampant in the organization? In the next story, we will see an example where it is not middle management who sets the agenda, but the chief human resources officer who creates new space for learning.

Curiosity mindset training

Niklas Lindholm is chief HR officer of one of the oldest companies in the world: Fiskars. The company was founded in 1649 and has kept innovating all these years. In the HR and learning space, Niklas has also been innovating. One of the new developments he shared with me was they reframed how they approach leadership development. Instead of focusing on feeding concepts like strategy, operational excellence, or finance, to leaders, they are focusing now on building deeper self-awareness among their leaders.

What started as a program for their top 250 is now being rolled out across the organisation to all employees. Other companies, like McKinsey & Company, have also been investing part of their L&D budgets to allow their employees to explore themselves at a more personal and deeper level and clarify questions like: What is my purpose? What are my values? What are my (limiting) beliefs?

Fiskars and McKinsey are good examples of companies going beyond teaching their employees in primary and secondary skills. Primary skills refer to the skills and knowledge supporting core business processes and secondary skills refer to skill and knowledge supporting individuals with their individual growth. Training in primary skills would cover topics related to supporting the core processes of the organisation such as product or process training or for instance training to learn how to perform the current role (e.g., knowledge of how to write new code or operate a piece of machinery). Secondary skills training is training to help employees. It would be like training new employees business etiquette or teaching new managers the basics of people management or leaders on topics such as strategy.

This is where L&D teams in most companies typically draw the line. Some companies have been exploring with “tertiary” or meta-skills, i.e., skills to build individual and organizational future muscle. This is the realm where employees are invited to explore and improve their habits and mindsets like growth mindset, resilience, and curiosity. Given the increasing body of research and knowledge that mindsets like curiosity are trainable and not fixed, few L&D teams are looking at training these mindsets as the next frontier for L&D to tackle.

Yin and yang

When it comes to curiosity, there are two complementary philosophies. The first philosophy is grounded in the belief curiosity needs a conducive environment. If we ensure the right environment, employees will show up curiously. All efforts are focused on creating the right external conditions for the employee to learn faster and better. The second philosophy believes it is important for the company to proactively support the employee in embracing an individual curious mindset.

The first school has as object of attention the nurture side of the equation; the second school focuses on the nature side. Companies like Novartis adhere to a 'nurture' approach, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is a good example of the 'nature' approach. I introduced this company in the last chapter. The company adopted intentional curiosity as a strategic enabler since 2015. They have fully embraced workplace curiosity, having gone deep in the research and broad in the application of workplace curiosity. In terms of learning, they have been adopting the mindset that individual curiosity can be influenced positively.

As a focus of their attention, the company has designed curiosity activation training for both individuals and teams. Training has been centered around teams to become better at idea generation strategies, techniques to welcome new ideas in the group, and approaches to implement new ideas faster. Simple yet powerful techniques like encouraging employees to use the word “and” instead of “but” when replying to colleagues are introduced into teams.

Adrian Stäubli, global head talent development at Zurich Insurance Group, introduced me to another good example. At the suggestion of his team member Nina Wittmer, Nina and he created a network of “curiosity ambassadors” to help the company move its learning agility needle. Adrian Stäubli and Nina Wittmer were conscious with the changing focus of the company on improving the “sustainability of work” that the L&D strategy also needed to step up. Stepping up meant, among other things, improving the impact of learning, helping employees to navigate the large offering of training programs, and increasing the level of L&D related communication to employees around the world.

One of their special solutions to achieve this goal is to bring together a network of “curiosity ambassadors.” They have tapped into the energy of 170 global colleagues outside of their department and engaged them around this common goal. The focus of the network is to act as role models for the organization. Mr. Stäubli and Ms. Wittmer provide the overall purpose of the community, guidance, and inspiration and the 170 curiosity ambassadors carry the message forward in their respective organizations with zest.

What is also remarkable about the Zurich Insurance Group case is an organisation in the insurance space is embracing curiosity. The insurance business is typically risk-averse and traditionally values compliance more than curiosity. Mr. Stäubli shared with me that is intentional. They realize, although Zurich Insurance Group is in the business of managing risks toward customers, it does not mean there shouldn’t be room for innovation. They are encouraging employees to explore new knowledge and skills and are proactively creating a group of role models to lead the way.

In my view, a dual focus is the best, one where there is equal focus on both the intrinsic as well as the extrinsic layer. PepsiCo is also a good example of a dual approach. Soon after she joined in February 2019 as chief learning officer for PepsiCo, Molly Nagler and her team started exploring ways to create a curious environment for the PepsiCo employees. When doing a curiosity program with them, they shared they have partnered with the learning experience technology company Degreed to create a customer-grade experience. The platform also helps in recommending a variety
of content-assets based on the employee’s goals, allowing people to follow colleagues, creating personalized learning pathways, and sharing competency improvement progress.


Molly Nagler and her team are also beginning to approach curiosity as a skill able to be influenced, learned, and developed. They have been curating over one hundred resources for curiosity, from articles about its business value to how curiosity can strengthen your relationships. But they aren’t stopping there. I have supported them in baselining their organizational curiosity within the PepsiCo university team as well as across the organisation. This benchmark has given input to a dedicated team to work on a strategy to:


  1. Develop curiosity prompts and exercises that can be used in team meetings in under fifteen minutes.

  2. Create short-content modules that can be embedded in our existing leadership and management programs.

  3. Record videos from senior leaders sharing mini case studies on the role of curiosity at work.

We spoke earlier about the difference between productive and unproductive curiosity. Productive curiosity starts with new questions, focus to reach an answer, and discipline through- out. Erin Gruwell is a good example of a secondary school teacher bursting with productive curiosity. Regardless of whether you focus first on creating a conducive environment or also focus on curiosity as a skill to be learned and devel- oped, L&D has the opportunity to become the competitive differentiator for their organizations.

Why don’t we stay on this topic of innovation for a bit longer and explore the relationship between workplace curiosity, corporate success, and marketing? What exactly is the influence of curiosity on marketing? I am sure you can already think of advertisements that piqued your curiosity. This will be the focus of the next chapter

This chapter's big ideas 

The burning platform and the case for change for the learning and development function is clear. Industries are changing at remarkable speeds; new employees are handpicking those organisations who are promoting curiosity and learning. Like the IT department thirty years ago, the learning and development department can reinvent itself to support the challenges facing their companies.

Some companies are responding to these challenges with ambition and curiosity; some prefer the status quo. Some are encouraged by their CEO to do better; some challenge themselves to do so, some don’t. The challenge remains. It is not a question whether learning and development departments will change, it is when will they?

The strategic importance for L&D to be a change agent becomes clear with the following data. A survey of 1056 European knowledge workers by the Center of the Future of Work - Cognizant found most workers seem unaware that reskilling is important. A staggering 65 percent of them expressed confidence that their current skill set would carry them through their career. Many employees don’t see the need or know what to learn or how to reskill themselves.

Often, they just don’t have time to learn, reflect, and improve. In my own research of curiosity among leaders, 60 percent of middle managers indicate they have no time to learn new skills or to explore new ideas.

We can learn from the best practices. The traits of curious learning and development teams are they are not afraid to explore new approaches, question themselves, challenge their long-held beliefs, and work with their CEOs to drive impact. They are curious about the science of learning, about the changing role of their trade, about the individual success of each single employee, about the success of their company and its customers, and about the culture they can influence. They also specifically train the leaders and employees in their care on the concept of curiosity.

Questions for reflection

  • How is your company teaching employees to get better at mindsets such as curiosity?

  • Is the L&D agenda in your company focusing on the individual and organisational learning?

  • Why or why not?

  • Are you tapping into the collective knowledge of your employees? Is every employee invited to share her/his knowledge across organisational boundaries?

  • How much are you embedding curiosity in your corporate training programs (new employee onboarding, sales, leadership)? What would happen if you added more?

  • When it comes to looking at L&D through the lens of curiosity, what would you advise your company to start, stop, or continue?

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