Changemakers: JPMorgan Chase Partners with its People to Create a Culture of Learning

Companies reveal their values by prioritizing employee well-being during challenging times. At such moments, Impact Employers center their actions around long-term objectives for growth and impact that put employee advancement at the forefront. Developing talent has never been more important or more challenging, and companies must work diligently to find the best ways to prepare workers for new roles that emerge within their businesses. As the U.S. moves through this phase of pandemic recovery, employers are amplifying employee voices on vital issues like learning and support that enable them to succeed on the job and in life.

JPMorgan Chase is an Impact Employer that’s leading on both fronts. As a Founding Coalition Company of the Recover Stronger Initiative, they’re prioritizing talent development while building a culture of co-creation with workers — strategies featured in JFF’s Recovery Playbook for Impact Employers. The company is leaning into the opportunity for change presented by the pandemic and is helping its employees embrace new skills and lifelong learning.

JPMorgan Chase is a global leader in the financial services industry. With more than 156,000 of its 260,000-plus employees based in the United States, it is also a leading U.S. employer. Carey O’Connor, senior strategist at JFF, recently spoke with Jesse Jackson, JPMorgan Chase’s Chief Learning Officer, about how the company is helping its employees embrace lifelong learning as they adjust to new workplace realities.

CO: What does lifelong learning mean for you?

Jackson: Lifelong learning is not a new concept, but it has particular relevance now, when we are all undergoing such significant change. We are accustomed to thinking of learning as something that only happens in a lab, classroom, or library. We think learning is something you only do early in life — when you graduate from school, learning ends.

This rigid view of education and how we learn is ironic: we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to take a course in a classroom with an instructor, but when we interact with someone with similar expertise (or perhaps even more expertise) at work, we do not view that interaction as learning. This view is also counter-productive. Because we do not internalize the connection between career progression and learning, we are artificially limiting our career progress.

Lifelong learning is focused on changing this rigid mindset — to view education and career as intertwined and to view all of life’s opportunities and challenges as a chance to learn and grow.

Having the mindset of lifelong learning is even more important now, as we all navigate tremendous change in our lives. Instead of viewing the changes as waves crashing over our heads, lifelong learning helps us stay afloat on the waves and even steer our way through them.

How do you translate and apply this thinking in your role at JPMorgan Chase? How is the company helping its employees become lifelong learners?

JPMorgan Chase has many educational benefits and programs for its employees, but employee usage was lower than we liked. This is particularly problematic given the digital transformation occurring within the business and our economy. The pandemic accelerated the already decreasing half-life of skills. We know our employees need to be constantly building and expanding their skills, particularly their digital fluency, but our employees were not engaging with the resources we provided.

We decided to go back to the drawing board to rethink and redesign employee education with the employee experience in mind. Using an employee-centric design process, we transformed our education benefit offerings to provide employees with easier access to tuition assistance, greater clarity on certificates and degree programs we are offering and how they connect to internal positions, and expanded access to internal training related to internal promotions.

What is employee-centric design, what was the design process like, and how did you engage your employees?

Employee-centric design is a process that starts with identifying the employees for whom you are designing and ends with solutions that are tailored for their specific needs. The design process includes particular focus on user experience — how the employees interact with and emotionally connect to the process.

JPMorgan Chase employs over 150,000 employees in the United States, so we had to first define and understand the population we were targeting. The majority of our organization is digital natives who grew up on computers and smartphones. The benefits we provided needed to appeal to their preferences on how to engage with education.

To design something fit for their purpose, we had to understand their lives, their daily challenges, and their views on education and career. We started by reaching out to a broad cross-section of employees and working with them to understand their personal approach to learning while working, and navigating JPMorgan Chase’s education offerings. We videotaped (with their permission) how they interacted with our existing processes and portals to access and use education benefits. We studied the results to deeply understand their user experience. We also conducted numerous surveys, focus groups, and interviews to build out our understanding of what our employees wanted and needed.

Employee voice and understanding the realities of your people are crucial for designing programs that meet them where they are. What surfaced and stood out from this process that made you think about the experiences of your employees?

We learned a great deal. Not surprisingly, we heard several practical concerns. Employees wanted an easier approach to selecting and enrolling in education. We had weblink sprawl, making our existing processes difficult to understand and use. Employees also wanted more scheduling flexibility; they are busy people who may have small children, or be helping an elderly parent or younger siblings. They also need a different approach to financing education. The traditional reimbursement arrangement does not work for employees who may not have the financial flexibility to pay for these programs out of pocket. Lastly, the learning had to be connected to job opportunities. They wanted to see a clear link between their learning and the opportunity for career mobility.

We expected to hear these practical concerns, but we also learned more nuanced information that was very insightful. We heard from many employees that they didn’t see how to connect their career aspirations to a specific degree or program. They needed help thinking about their career options and connecting those options to both the right education credentials and an institution that offers those credentials. They also needed help understanding how to value different skills. Businesses have a good structure for helping employees understand how they can monetize a degree program or a certificate, but not how to monetize skills.

How did you turn these valuable insights into action — applying what you learned from your employees to designing and actualizing a solution?

While building our understanding of our employees’ needs, we also studied current education providers, both traditional and nontraditional, with our employees’ needs in mind. We found that JPMorgan Chase had many great education programs and partnerships, but they existed in a bespoke manner in select locations. Our focus was to bring everything together in one place for all employees using a user-friendly interface.

We ended up integrating both non-accredited learning assets and short-term credential bundles offered by accredited institutions. This provided a range for employees to explore and select from. We also invested in a learning aggregator to help us create curated learning pathways and measure outcomes. It is hard to understand educational outcomes when you partner with an educational provider. The aggregator helps us see which programs yield better career outcomes for our employees, and which organizations are offering “best of breed” educational programming regardless of geography.

We designed and built a new digital portal and process for our employees to engage with their career and learning opportunities. A lot was required for us to build out this site, but it also allowed us to decommission the weblink sprawl.

Finally, using a proof of concept, we launched a pilot program in 2020 in three locations — Dallas, San Antonio, and Chicago. We wanted to make sure we “nailed it before we scaled it.” The program ran for approximately nine months, and the results were astonishing. We saw a three-fold increase in usage of tuition assistance and a seven-fold increase in course completions and course adoptions.

When it comes to developing with equity in mind, new tech often has a bad rap. How are you making sure employees of color and women are not left behind?

We made deliberate decisions to prioritize inclusivity in how our programs were structured, taught, and evaluated. We were very intentional in our marketing to ensure we appealed to employees most likely to benefit from the program. And we use metrics to monitor usage and outcomes by different demographic groups — to make sure that what we are providing works for every employee.

With all of the Changemakers we talk to, we see an intrinsic drive to reshape their company in a positive way. At the end of the day, why is this work important to you?

I want to help other people understand how lifelong learning can be immensely rewarding and provide them a roadmap for their future success. As a lifelong learner myself, I have been fortunate to have many great teachers and opportunities to learn in my career. By approaching my career transitions and challenges with an open attitude to learning, I have been able to move into and succeed in positions outside my traditional career path.

For example, I am a bit of an “accidental” chief learning officer. I did not have the traditional background of a learning leader prior to accepting my current role. I started working at JPMorgan Chase many years ago in their management development program, after five years in the U.S. Navy. The management development program gave me the opportunity to learn, and I leaned into it.

I started as a teller and moved into successive positions of authority within consumer banking management, including sales manager, branch manager and division manager. Each position required me to obtain and use a different skill set. My focus on lifelong learning helped me quickly build the skills I needed; eventually, my broad skill set and understanding of the technical requirements of many positions in consumer banking helped me obtain my current position as chief learning officer.

Throughout my career, my interest in learning has helped me to quickly obtain the skills I need and given me the confidence to take on positions outside my then-current areas of expertise. I want to help other people have that same confidence and ability to drive their careers where they want to go.

Across the companies we know and work with, a community of corporate visionaries is emerging; people are stepping up to do something extraordinary in an extraordinary time. What advice do you have for someone else who wants to meet the moment and encourage their company to positively impact the lives of employees and their communities?

First, creating a user-friendly employee learning system is not enough to effect real change. Employees need and want to understand how gaining new skills or a different credential will help them achieve their career aspirations. Your messaging needs to connect learning directly with employees’ career desires; you can be a banker, you can run a branch office, you can lead a team. Publishing individual stories highlighting how employees moved up the career ladder after completing additional education or training also helps.

Second, don’t wait for the perfect technology or for “when things settle down” to start driving change. The future of work is going to show up whether you do something or not. Don’t wait until you have all the answers or for the perfect moment.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org