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TD Magazine Article

Tamar Elkeles

An interview with Tamar Elkeles, Chief Learning Officer, Qualcomm


Tue Apr 08 2014

Tamar Elkeles-970b51b7af7d070602cf94d2946a86ebd70f3358e103e374076cb13a99bad128

Chief Learning Officer



San Diego, California

Tamar Elkeles is the chief learning officer at Qualcomm. She is responsible for defining the strategic direction for the company's overall learning and development efforts. Elkeles's scope of leadership includes companywide training, executive and leadership development, internal communications, organization development, and learning technologies for the more than 30,000 Qualcomm employees worldwide.

Why do you place employee communications under the auspices of the learning function.

I firmly believe that "learning" is about information as well as training. Employees learn about the company, the culture, competitors, and what's happening in the business in many ways. We use an equation that training plus information equals learning.

That's why, years ago, we put employee communications underneath the learning function to give employees one place to get all the information they need. Whether it's learning about the company and the culture of the organization, or whether it's specific skill development, it's all learning that helps employees grow and enables them to become more productive and perform better.


What are the particular challenges or advantages for learning and development professionals at Qualcomm, a technology-based company with a high percentage of engineers?

About 65 percent of our workforce is technical, and that's both a challenge and an opportunity.

One of the things we've really focused on is mobile and trying to get employees to use their mobile devices for learning. We have a lot of early adopters here, and the benefit of having a technically savvy employee base is that employees are ready to embrace new technologies. We were one of the first companies doing e-learning and online learning because our engineers wanted innovative ways to get information outside of the classroom.

We are also fortunate at Qualcomm to have employees who really want to learn. They have a number of advanced degrees and they are used to academic education. We've tried to create lots of opportunities here for continuous learning and development. When someone with a degree from an academic institution graduates and joins Qualcomm they don't stop learning. They come to Qualcomm and continue to grow and develop.

There are a lot of new technologies being used every day, and the company is very fast paced. That pace drives my learning organization to always stay on top of new technologies and new learning opportunities. That's a challenge, but I think it's an even bigger opportunity for us.


Is that opportunity for continued learning one of the reasons why Qualcomm ranks extremely high on talent retention?

Yes. We have less than 4 percent turnover annually, which is unheard of in the industry. A key reason employees stay with the company is that we give employees an opportunity to grow and learn. We also are really big on moving talent across the organization.

We're very flexible; we still have a very entrepreneurial focus in the organization. If an employee has a great idea, there are a lot of opportunities to pursue that idea within the company. Qualcomm is less bureaucratic than some organizations, and we provide a lot of opportunity for innovation.

Our three values at Qualcomm are innovate, execute, and partner. We're always looking for people to be able to innovate, think differently, and come up with a new technology that's potentially going to transform our industry.

Why do you outsource your training?

I've always used an outsourcing model primarily because I'm always searching for experts. There are a lot of great vendors out there and we are fortunate to have them as partners. Qualcomm has a highly educated technical audience, and they want to hear from leading-edge thinkers who are the best in the field. I'm really interested in bringing those folks into Qualcomm and getting employees exposed to new ideas.

How do you see the role of the CLO evolving in the next 10 years?

Today, CLOs are involved in a lot of elements around talent, so talent management, organizational change, and organizational design are a larger part of the role. Consulting within the businesses is another key opportunity.

The work I do today is a lot around culture—dissemination of culture, maintaining elements of the culture, and evolving the culture. Succession management and talent reviews are another critical focus area. The CLO role has become a talent role in the company instead of just a learning role, and I think that's a key differentiator. People who are still just focused on training and development are missing opportunities to have a broader impact on the organization.

The CLO evolution also involves technology, and that means everyone in the learning function really needs to embrace new technologies and look for ways to utilize technology to provide personalized information, development, and content to employees.

You're working on a book with co-authors Jack and Patti Phillips, Measuring the Success of E-Learning—tell us a little bit about that.

One of the things that is really important is trying to get better analytics about the impact of learning outside the classroom. The book that I'm working on with Jack and Patti is about exploring what is going on in the enterprise today around alternative forms of learning; for example, mobile learning and social learning.

The next generation of learners is really adept at utilizing games and online resources to enhance their learning and sometimes even augment it. What we're trying to do is figure out how we measure that, and how we evaluate the effectiveness of these new digital learning components in the workplace.

Some people in elementary education are doing that research, but there has been minimal research done in the enterprise area. We believe that is a huge opportunity for learning leaders going forward—really understanding how effective mobile learning is; how effective social learning is; and how new technologies can best be used in organizations to increase employee performance and productivity.

What is the greatest hurdle a training and development professional experiences in the workplace?

It's always about getting funding; it's always about budget. I've been fortunate that our budgets tend to increase. What helps people overcome the question "Should we spend the money, should we invest?" is to really make sure that the learning is aligned to the business, and to make sure that there's a conversation with the executive team around the learning plans and specific learning focus areas.

One of the things that we do is create a learning plan for our different businesses. That's a conversation we have with a couple of hundred engineers, and a couple of hundred business people within the organization. We ask them: What is it that you need people to do differently? What are the skills that you need people to have? What are some of the behaviors that you want to see in your areas that are going to deliver results for you?

It's essential to engage in the dialogue with executives and have strategic conversations about how learning will impact the business. It's not about having a seat at the table; it's about initiating the meeting.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

One of the things that I'm doing is making wine up in Napa Valley. It's super fun and quite a departure from my day job.

It's a very different focus for me than learning and development. As a trained behavioral psychologist, I firmly believe that I can take a good manager and, through development, make them great; and I believe I can take a good engineer and, through development and new skill sets, make them even better.

When you pick grapes and you put them into a bottle after the wine-making process, they become what they want to become on their own inside the bottle. They transform themselves with minimal human intervention. Despite all the training in the world, I cannot change the behavior of the grape. It's a great experience and I'm learning a lot.

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