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eLearning Learning
June 4, 2021

Developing Mutually Beneficial Learning Relationships

By building learning relationships and alliances, IBM has increased its impact on its partners and customers. In this Powered by Learning podcast episode, Sonia Malik, the Learning Alliances Manager and Strategist at IBM, explains how learning relationships can benefit the company and a targeted learner community.


Show Notes:

IBM Learning Alliances Manager and Strategist Sonia Malik talks about the value of learning relationships and how they can help an organization reach learners and achieve its business goals. Some of her key takeaways include these points:

  • IBM is able to reach millions of learners by building alliances and partnerships.
  • The company incentivizes learners by providing opportunities to earn badges or micro credentials.
  • IBM has pivoted to respond to the changing needs of learners as a result of the pandemic, remote working, and shifting demands in the workforce.
  • IBM supports micro-learning because short bursts of learning help people learn better. Educators should look at the learning journey versus one-time learning to have greater impact.

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Announcer 1: This is Powered by Learning. A podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations.

Announcer 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at

Susan Court: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host, Susan Court, with me is d'Vinci CEO, Luke Kempski. Today, we are going to talk with Sonia Malik, the Learning Alliances Manager and Strategist at IBM, to talk about the importance of developing mutually beneficial learning relationships. She joins us today from her office in Boston. Welcome, Sonia.

Sonia Malik: Thanks for having me, Susan.

Luke Kempski: So glad you could join us, Sonia.

Susan: Sonia, start out by telling us a little bit about what you do at IBM, and your journey and how you got there.

Sonia: Well, how much time do you have?

As you mentioned, I am Learning Alliances Manager and Strategist at IBM. IBM, as you know, is made up of a lot of organizations which we've acquired over years. Each of those organizations operates as a business unit inside of IBM, with their own sets of products, solutions, as well as customers. Each of them has their own education strategy, routes to market, customers they need to reach. As a strategist, really, my role is to help them maximize their footprint. Whether that's looking at different offerings, whether that's looking at various routes to market, like some of our learning alliances, to maximize their reach. That's basically what the learning strategist does.

And then alliances manager, of course, is working with the alliances to just make sure that I'm an advocate for them inside of IBM, and I'm IBM's advocate at the learning alliance partner. We work together to really maximize the reach for IBM through these alliances.

Luke: That's great. Sonia, could you talk a little bit about how the learning relationships in the alliances actually extend IBM's business impact, the success of the actual business?

Sonia: Yes, sure, Luke. The way I look at learning alliances, I think there are three or four different kinds of learning alliances, right? We've got delivery partners, and these are some of the traditional delivery partners that conduct training on behalf of IBM to customers, as well as business partners, and that could be face-to-face learning. Then we have delivery partners like the MOOC platforms, like Coursera and edX, where they would be more of platform partners, where all the training is digital. And then we've got content partners, marketing partners, as well as credential partners.

IBM has a huge portfolio of products and solutions. We very often need help with developing content, to address our entire portfolio. So I think with our learning alliance partners, we do a couple of things. It gives us the global scale and reach that we need. It gives us the ability to have additional resources to develop content because otherwise, we'd be really, too slow at it. Through the marketing partners, we are able to amplify the messages, and really reach out to a lot of varied audiences across the world. Then through our credentials partners, of course, we are able to recognize and reward and motivate the learners by recognizing them with credentials.

Luke: That's excellent. We all know and think of IBM as big, but can you give us just a little idea of the scale.

Sonia: You mean scale in terms of products and solutions or learners?

Luke: And the number of learners that you reach.

Sonia: It's a significant number. I think if I was to try and put a number on it, it's through our traditional learning partners like the Global Knowledges and the Learn Quests of the world, as well as through our MOOCs. It's multiple of millions enrollments that we're talking about, as well as unique learners that we're addressing.

Luke: Yes, that's great. When you see the partners that you're trying to connect with, what does a really successful learning alliance look like for you?

Sonia: When we approach learning alliances, we're really looking at the why, right? Why do we need to partner with them? I'll take us back, historically, a little bit. IBM used to do all their training direct. We had classrooms, we had lots of instructors, and we delivered training directly. We realized that we just didn't have enough feet on the street. That was the first time, and I think this goes back about eight years, is when we realized that we needed to expand, and we needed to really develop a network of delivery partners.

That was the first time that IBM started doing training through partners. If I go back to, that was the first step, and that was when we started having a lot of, all the classroom training being done by our partners. Then about four years ago, we saw a shift in our audience. Our learners were shifting. Whilst traditionally IBM had, the enterprise customers were our primary audience, we got to a stage where we felt that we needed to reach individual learners. We needed to reach higher education students. And so that drove the need for a different kind of partner, which was some of these platform partners.

It all starts with a need, right? You're identifying a need. In this case, we needed the global scale, we needed the reach, we needed access to different kinds of learners, which was the consumer, in this case, higher education. These delivery partners met those needs for us. I think a successful learning alliance partnership is really about clearly articulating why you need the alliance, identifying an alliance partner that can meet those needs for you, and then developing a relationship and a program that is mutually beneficial.

At the end of the day, it's not only about what IBM want from the alliance partner, it's also what the alliance partner wants from IBM. Really basing the relationship on mutually beneficial strategies is what makes it successful.

Luke: That's great. As we talk here in May of 2021, what kinds of changes do you see most in the learning that you're doing? How are these changes impacting your role at IBM?

Sonia: My God, Luke, we've just gone through the biggest experiment in education that had to happen. Let's talk about some of the huge momentous changes that have happened for us. One, work from home, and the fact that today, we are looking at a hybrid workforce. We are going to be looking at a hybrid workforce. I think for our listeners also sitting out there, life has just all of a sudden gotten very complicated because we went from doing a lot of in-person learning, to 100% digital learning and self-based or synchronous digital.

Now, the pendulum is going to switch to the middle, and is going to probably settle in at a hybrid. As L&D professionals, we're going to have to think about, how do we make this learning experience work for both audiences? How do we really transcend and feel the person who's attending the course digitally, as included as the person who's sitting in the class? I think that's a huge challenge that I think our L&D professionals are going to face. Definitely, the hybrid workforce was a challenge.

We're also seeing a focus on topics like mental well-being, physical well-being, culture, resilience, social justice, inclusivity. All those topics are things that I think a lot of learning professionals probably did not develop a lot of content around but are now forced to do that. We're seeing new leadership requirements, also. The whole conversation around leaders being more empathetic, and trying to be more compassionate and humane, again, means that our leadership training has to pivot a bit. Not to mention the fact that, and I'm sure you've done a lot of this in the past year, is we've all done onboarding of new hires.

How do you onboard new hires and make them feel included into this organization? Then, the skills requirements are changing. Yes, I'm in the technology industry. Of course, for us, skills are super dynamic and keep changing, but even if you weren't. Even if we look at, let's say the hospitality industry, or the retail industry, or even the food workers, the food service workers, everyone's had to develop new skills. And so I think the pace at which new skills need to be acquired is changing.

And then finally, we're seeing this huge need to work with higher education to help drive job readiness skills through degree programs. Because we now have a lot of people who are out of jobs, and probably going through graduate programs, who need skills which get them ready for the workforce. All these things really impacted our role at IBM, and helped us develop new programs and partnerships that we wanted to make in the future, keeping all these challenges and opportunities in mind.

Susan: It almost sounds, Sonia, like the role of training is even more important today, after this last year, than ever before.

Sonia: Absolutely, Susan. I think if you read any of the research papers and things, they all talk about how learning finally has a seat at the C-suite table, because everything-- Let's talk about everything that an employee wants today, whether it's being comfortable in a remote workplace, whether it's culture, whether it's inclusivity, whether it's talent, or it's leadership, every single thing requires learning behind it because there's a new way of learning, there are new skills to acquire. And so yes, the L&D departments have become really, really critical for achieving business success today. No matter what size of organization we're talking about.

Luke: Yes, for sure. I've heard you refer to the concept of agile learning. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you mean by that?

Sonia: Agile learning, we all talk about different things. We talk about life-long learning, we talk about continuous learning. When we're talking about agile learning, that's what it is. It really is an iterative form of learning that's done in the flow of work and is done in microbursts. The objective really, is to make sure that a learner, whether it's an individual who's learning for their own career resilience, or whether it's an employee at an organization, the agile learning really needs to motivate the learner to be self-directed, but at the same time, it needs to align with the strategies of an organization.

There's almost this infinite loop kind of thing, which goes between the skills acquired and the direct impact it has on the earning ability of an employee. And that really couple of different aspects where we want to-- Well, when you talk about agile learning, there are really four main drivers. It needs to focus on business outcomes rather than knowledge gain. We're not learning data science for the sake of learning data science; we're learning data science to apply the learnings to improve our business outcomes.

It's about having a growth mindset, as opposed to thinking, "Oh, I'm not a creative writer." No, you're not a creative writer yet. Let's develop some skills to help you get there. We need to think about learning in real time. It's not once a year or twice a year activity that's done anymore, it's something that's continuous. Again, like I said, it needs to be in the flow of work. Finally, it's not something you and I do in isolation anymore. It's compounded by the social impact. It's about me learning something and sharing it with 10 other people, and really amplifying the message.

I think that's what agile learning is all about. I think it's all about driving and developing, A, a learning culture. And from the learning and development professionals’ perspective, I think it's a huge opportunity. It's an opportunity to deliver these microbursts of learning, but not as individual assets. Let's not think of them as individual assets. Let's think of it as a learning experience. That we're delivering something that we want to engage and motivate the learner in, and also reward and recognize them for it, so that they are motivated to keep progressively developing their skills.

Luke: Is that where the credentials come in?

Sonia: Absolutely. I know IBM, when we started, we did it as a really small pilot. We wanted to see how digital credentials would work. The results were amazing, from a learning perspective, from getting people to complete a course. For all of us learning professionals, we know one of the biggest challenges with digital learning and self-paced learning is completion, because we all get bored, we move away, we get distracted. We all start all these courses, but how many of us really complete them? And so digital credentials really showed us that they drive the behavior of completion.

Now, Luke, it's not just the technology companies that are looking at credentials. You have the conversation of micro-credentials across the board. We've actually seen, and I think you probably know, IBM coined the term. Our ex-CEO, Ginni Rometty, had coined the term new-collar a couple of years ago, which really identified a job or a role where a degree was not required. We're saying, "Okay, there are a lot of jobs out there today where you don't necessarily need a four-year degree, but we still need some kind of benchmarking of skills." That's where the micro-credentials come into play.

What's really, really exciting here is, Luke, the fact that these are verifiable skills. As an employer, if someone sends you a resume with a badge, you can click on the badge to see exactly what skills have been acquired, and what learning or what activity has been done to achieve it. I think this world of micro-credentials is one to watch for, because I think it's really going to help drive the workforce inclusivity that we so seriously need. And from an L&D professional's perspective, it's that hidden power that you can use to drive someone to completion, to really progress, to do a skills progression through a learning path. I think it's definitely a very powerful motivator.

Luke: Yes. I know that IBM has been at the forefront when it comes to micro-credentials and using badges. And has been doing it for more years than a lot of organizations. How have you seen it be adopted, and how has it impacted the business?

Sonia: For us, badging has been extremely successful. If I look at it inside of IBM, it's provided IBM as a way to take inventory of the skills that employees have today. Because if for any of us that are involved in future planning, or are trying to develop a future-fit employee base, we need to think through, what do we do? How can we take stock of what skills someone has today? Then look at, what do we need to develop for the future based on our strategic objectives, and then how do we get there? And so the badges have been a great way to allow us to take an inventory of skills that we need, and give us a measure of the new skills acquisition that we're having.

I'll tell you, as an individual, at IBM, we have something called THINK40. Every single IBM’er has to at least do 40 hours of learning in a year. But now what they've done is, they've created these different levels. At the base level there's, you've met your THINK40 requirements. Then they've created a super learner, which is 80 hours. Then they've created a champion learner at a bronze level, but the champion learner at the bronze level also, besides getting I think about 120 hours, also has to earn one badge. And then when you go to the silver level, it's 160, and you have to earn two badges. And then finally at the gold level, it's 200 hours of learning and four badges.

It's a great way to gamify things too, and really encourage learners to ramp up their game, learn more, earn more badges, so that they can drive more visibility for themselves and for the company, too. It's been an amazing successful venture for us, not only from an employee engagement perspective, but also in helping us develop a future-fit employee base with the skills that they need.

Luke: I have a feeling that a lot more organizations are going to be adopting that approach, in terms of offering learning, not just inside their organizations, but also out to individual learners and to learners within their customer base. As we wrap up, Sonia, can you tell us a little bit about what you're most excited about? What's next within IBM and the learning relationships and alliances area that you work in most often?

Sonia: Oh, there's so much. I think there's so much to look forward to, really. I think we've been handed a unique opportunity to rewrite the rule book, when it comes to education, literally. And I think it's a time when we can all experiment and work with-- Really fine-tuning our learning offerings for the different learning audiences that we have. I think personally, for me, if I look at the various learning alliances that we have, I think there are a couple of opportunities that I'm excited about.

I'm excited about really expanding IBM's reach through new audiences, really partnering with higher education as an example, to not only help grow the skills of people who are going through their degrees, but also really driving it from a social impact perspective. Really using the power of education to make a difference and drive workforce inclusivity. We're doing that through credentials, we're doing that through learning, we're doing that through partnerships. Through credentials, whether it's job boards like ZipRecruiter, through our partner, Credly.

The other thing that I'm really excited about is also potentially being able to work on giving our learners some hands-on experience on real-life projects, and some practical experience. I think that's the other thing that I'm really excited about. For L&D professionals in general, I think there's like Susan mentioned, there's new focus on L&D and their importance to achieving business success. And I think it's our time to shine because whether it's technical skills, whether it's mental well-being skills, whether it's resilience, we're critical in all of them.

Luke: That's great. I think that our turn to shine is a great place for us to wrap up today. It's so good talking to you, Sonia, and listening to your insights about what's going on at IBM, and how the disruption and reinvention of education is moving forward.

Sonia: Thank you so much for having me, it was an honor.

Susan: Thank you, Sonia. Very, very interesting, and definitely an exciting time in L&D. We're all looking forward to ways we can affect change, both in the workplace, in our world, and we'll definitely look to you and to IBM for some exciting things in the future. Thanks for joining us.

Sonia: Thank you.

Susan: Luke, what a great conversation with Sonia. She's so passionate about what she does. What are some of your takeaways from the conversation today?

Luke: There were so many, I'll try to boil it down pretty quickly here. First off, what she's doing is a really huge scale when you talk about reaching learners really, all over the globe. She's actually impacting up to about two million learners. That is quite the scope. She does that with the partnership through the learning alliances that she's established, and they help her with delivering the learning, with the content, with the marketing, and then recognizing the learners with the micro-credentials that she talked about.

Also, talking about how the changes to digital learning have impacted her, and what they're doing from a distribution standpoint, and now swinging back to a little bit of hybrid with people still looking for opportunities to learn together in person, especially in higher education, but then also still having those ability to reach students and learners through the digital channels, either asynchronously or synchronously.

Also, seeing changes in content, on the softer skills side, with diversity, equity, and inclusion content. Also mental health, and compassionate leadership emerging based on the happenings of 2020 and going into 2021, and the increasing importance of technical skills, especially those that are related to job readiness. With employees, demand a needs for more learning and constant learning, she also talked about the concept of agile learning, that were microbursts of learning that are in the flow of work.

To use those learning interventions that are focused on business outcomes, on growth, and on real-time learning, and to also offer the ability to interact and have social interactions around the learning to amplify it and help it resonate for longer term. All kinds of exciting things there, and then the micro-credentials that IBM has been doing for several years now, and how with badges related to that, it's really starting to have a positive impact on their business.

Susan: Definitely a great way to empower people and motivate them to learn. I love too, when she was talking about the microbursts of learning, she definitely made mention of thinking about it as part of a learning journey and not just that one-off learning, so Important to remember that as well.

Luke: Yes, absolutely.

Susan: Thanks, Luke, and many thanks to Sonia Malik of IBM for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about, you can reach out to us on d'Vinci social channels, through our website,, or by emailing us at

Announcer 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at


Luke Kempski

By Luke Kempski, CEO

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