Despite disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, Corey Muñoz ensures KPMG employees are learning—whether virtually or in person.
In January 2020, professional services firm KPMG opened the KPMG Lakehouse, an 800,000-square-foot learning, development, and innovation center based in Orlando, Florida. The $450 million facility is a place where the firm’s 35,000 professionals could meet with colleagues and clients to explore potential disruptors, new business models, and breakthrough solutions.
“It’s the largest capital investment the firm has ever made,” says Corey Muñoz, chief learning officer and partner with KPMG US.
“People are core to what we do,” he says of the firm that specializes in audit, tax, and advisory services. “Our messaging to managers and leaders within the firm often highlights the importance of a learning culture. Lakehouse is a visible sign of our strong commitment to the value of collaboration and learning.”
Unfortunately, a few months after opening the facility, KPMG had to close the center because of COVID-19. However, that didn’t slow its L&D efforts.
Ready for the unexpected
Muñoz shares that “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable” is a simple idea that has steered him through his career and also prepared him for the uncertainty the pandemic has brought on.
Ambiguity, discomfort, and change seemed to be the running theme for businesses throughout 2020, and KPMG’s talent development and learning function was no different. Muñoz explains that his guiding principle and the notion of pushing himself to move into different spaces not only helped him personally navigate last year, but he put them to use as he led his team through the adversity and adjustments they experienced.
The talent development and learning team had to redesign the bulk of its programs to be facilitated and delivered as a virtual experience. Team members learned to use a combination of learning modalities, including online courseware, virtual classrooms, and stand-alone digital assets, and they found ways to use technology to support collaborative elements such as coaching.
“It was all hands on deck. We were redesigning everything, and our learning professionals started to feel like they were always designing, always deploying. The flipside is that the collaboration across the talent development team was the highest it’s ever been,” he says.
As people came up with new ideas and innovative ways to redesign programs, they would immediately share them with others for input. “Everyone was working together to make every idea better. Our folks were really connecting to help co-create,” he says. “That’s how you grow and develop.”
A guiding road map
Another key element that aided Muñoz and his team in their support of employees to not only survive but grow through the turmoil of the past 18 months was the firm’s development of a competency framework and learning paths.
The learning umbrella includes technical and professional skill development, leadership and management development, succession planning and high-potential identification, and general talent and performance management processes. He adds that KPMG has a diverse workforce with myriad backgrounds and skill needs.
“Development is far from one size fits all in our organization,” he states. In 2018, the talent development organization examined the necessary technical, business, and leadership skills required for each role.
“When it comes to the variety of skills, we really have to guide our professionals,” says Muñoz. And with the competency framework and learning paths, “for the first time across the firm, we had a consistent way to talk about capabilities.”
Muñoz continues: “What that does is articulate not only what employees need to learn, such as focusing on providing feedback or coaching, but also how they should learn. It articulates the path forward: Take this course, do this activity, practice this skill.”
The learning paths likewise offer ideas and guidance on growth assignments, coaching, mentoring, and more. Muñoz says that while “formal programming serves a purpose, we also need to connect people to others through exposure. And they need to have the right experiences to accelerate development.”
Essentially, learning paths provide a structure of integrated development that include traditional learning programs combined with access to knowledge assets, collaborative experiences with experts, and informal or self-directed options.
For example, in addition to traditional courses, KPMG’s Leadership Advantage program, which focuses on high potentials, has participants lead a team or specific project or take part in a firmwide initiative. That gives them exposure beyond their business unit and helps accelerate their development and readiness toward a more senior role.
The focus, Muñoz asserts, is on helping individuals understand that “they must not only consume programmatic learning, but they also practice skills, talk to the right people, and engage in the right way.”
He adds that it’s all about “making development a constant and continuous journey. The goal is to help people understand this is what good learning looks like. It’s not just about completing courses. What really helps people understand the path forward to help build a certain capability?”
Leverage tech as an enabler
KPMG has several flagship programs that focus on career milestones or transitions. For instance, some 1,500 people a year work through a new manager program. In addition to exploring core skills content and how individuals’ roles have changed, program content and experiences are designed to reinforce the firm’s values and culture.
Muñoz makes clear that for today and in the future, technology will need to play a critical role in every employee’s learning path.
Case in point: He and his team analyzed all the components of a four-day, traditional classroom-based program. What could move to an independent e-learning course? Which activities should remain as an interactive simulation role play? What content should have a one-way, lecture-style solution or focused knowledge asset? Muñoz believes that only after they answered such questions could they explore technology for delivering or facilitating content and experiences.
“This process allows us to build connectivity between the different learning content and hands-on experiences but done so from a virtual environment. We’re reshaping the time that we spend together, even online, to really focus on the frameworks that we’re teaching.”
Muñoz adds: “We are still focused on the learning experience even if we can't do that in a traditional classroom. We use technology to help enable that experience, not as an end in itself.”
Additionally, by moving to virtual delivery options, KPMG is able to expand the reach of its talent development programs. “There are fewer limitations in terms of space and capacity,” says Muñoz. “This means we can enable open enrollment and self-nomination, in addition to tapping individuals we think would benefit.”
Finding the right mix
To meet this diverse workforce’s learning and growth needs, Muñoz and his team—instructional designers, trainers and facilitators, learning technologists, and project managers as well as relationship managers who direct the front end of the learning process, such as needs analysis—partner closely with each business unit.
The firm has a formal governance process, whereby the talent development team works with the business units to translate the firm’s business strategy into capability and skills needs and then ultimately learning plans. Together, they explore current and future skill requirements, and then Muñoz’s team prioritizes those needs from a learning perspective.
“The business owns the strategy. They focus on what the business priorities are and how they’re going to win in the marketplace,” he explains. “From that conversation, we help shape the capability and learning agenda.”
Those priorities can change from year to year or even sooner, Muñoz notes, so it’s imperative to keep the conversation going. Data science and literacy may top the list today, but then a change in the market can make digital skills and emerging tech rise in importance tomorrow.
“If we don’t have a conversation with our leaders upfront about the right mix of learning needs, whether that’s something technical or something related to leadership, we won’t have the right ratio of development solutions,” Muñoz says, adding that the firm is always evaluating and scanning for development opportunities and emerging priorities.
For example, the firm launched Accelerate 2025 on July 1, 2020—the first day of Chair and CEO Paul Knopp’s tenure. This strategic initiative will ensure that more individuals from underrepresented groups choose KPMG as their employer of choice, build careers at KPMG, and advance to leadership positions within the firm and within the profession.
“Whether it’s people of color, women, or some other demographic groups, we have to create programs that are targeted on helping them continue their own career development and build leadership and management skills. But we also want to help them by providing networking and exposure opportunities,” says Muñoz.
The talent development team is tasked with continuously re-examining this initiative so that there is support for employees after they transition to leadership positions as well as effective programming in place to ensure their readiness before they move into leadership.
“This sort of programming can have huge implications for the talent development agenda over the next four to five years,” Muñoz states.
He believes that the mistake some organizations make is focusing their learning catalog and development paths solely on technical skills or compliance, leaving gaps in business-related or management capabilities.
“We want to make sure that we help our business leaders understand that there’s not an infinite amount of time, so we have to be thoughtful and proactive about how we prioritize skill development,” he explains. “It’s not just a one-year look. It’s a multiyear journey, and there’s a sequence to learning and development.”
Doubling down on in-person experiences
After the pandemic subsides, KPMG intends to keep its online learning deliverables, but it’s not abandoning Lakehouse or in-person learning experiences. If anything, Muñoz says more than ever the talent development team and employees alike are looking forward to bringing people together.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but we really plan to double down on the importance of in-person learning when it’s safe to come back to Lakehouse. Time together becomes even more important because it may be less frequent in a virtual world,” says Muñoz. “We think it’s critical to our learning strategy. We’re 1,000 percent committed to it.”
A key goal of Lakehouse is to offer employees “time and space to actually learn and step away from the day to day,” Muñoz explains. “It’s a powerful way to support collaboration, engage in learning, and build resiliency.” However, the activities and interactions that take place there may look a little different than originally envisioned.
“We’ve learned over the last year how to reshape and repurpose the time that we bring people together. It’s allowed us to make plans to use the time at Lakehouse differently,” he says. Instead of employees spending their time in a classroom learning the latest tax laws, for example, Muñoz and his team will reserve that precious face-to-face time for learning activities like simulations and role plays for those working on their leadership skills.
In addition to learning and innovation, Lakehouse celebrates KPMG’s culture, so there will be more experiences that explore content areas such as ethics and the firm’s values. “Lakehouse has been designed to be a home. It’s a center that’s focused on learning, but it also reinforces the values, leadership, and history of the firm,” Muñoz notes.
“We need people to interact with and learn from each other, to network and collaborate, to take time to make connections and reflect,” says Muñoz. “These are things that may not be core to a specific program, but they are core to the firm and to our individual professionals.”
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.