Mining the MOOC: HR Looks to Online Courses to Recruit and Retain Talent

Mining the MOOC: HR Looks to Online Courses to Recruit and Retain Talent

(Quoted in Skilled Up Article: Originally posted 8/25/2014)


Can MOOCs help companies recruit and retain employees?

This idea is gaining currency in corporate America, thanks to high-profile announcements from AT&T and Starbucks this summer.

“This will widen the pipeline of STEM-trained talent,” says AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson of the company’s new “nanodegree” with Udacity, one of the pioneers of the Massive Online Open Course platform.

“Our investment in high-quality education will attract and retain passionate partners who will move our company and our economy forward,” proclaims Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in the company’s announcemennt of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan with Arizona State University, a new employee benefit program that leverages Arizona’s MOOC-type technology.

When corporate leaders across the spectrum talk like this, HR leaders should take notice, according to Jeanne Meister, partner at Future Workplace, a corporate learning and talent management consulting firm, and co-author of the best-selling business book The 2020 Workplace. She says it’s high time for all corporate HR leaders — not just those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields —  to include MOOCs in recruitment and retention plans.

In “2014: The Year Social HR Matters”, a manifesto published in Forbes in January, Meister identifies MOOCs as an essential part of the “social media playbook” that HR departments should put in action this year. “If you don’t, you’ll be left behind,” she says.

Bryant Nielson, executive managing director of Capital Wave, Inc., says, “MOOCs are starting to find their place, and it turns out that place is much larger than could have been anticipated.” In a series of articles on “13 Megatrends in MOOCs,” Nielson discusses MOOCs’ multidimensional reach, culminating in how this platform is poised to become a significant relationship builder.

Meister says, “It will be only a matter of time before more companies get in on this and start launching MOOCs to recruit new hires and train them in skills needed for success at their company.”

“Lurking” and LinkedIn searching

For HR professionals not ready or able to develop custom MOOCs for their companies, there are several ways to begin tapping into the power of this emerging platform and to use online courses to recruit new talent.

First and foremost, as The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported, MOOC providers aren’t just potential partners, they’re also “officially in the headhunting business, bringing in revenue by selling to employers information about high-performing students who might be a good fit for open jobs.”

According to research from Bersin by Deloitte, more than 350 firms — including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter — have paid MOOC providers Udacity and Coursera to match them with top students.


Others working in the recruitment and talent management fields are simply lurking in the MOOCs, scoping them out for students working on specific skills desired by companies.  For example, many MOOCs focus on highly specialized programming languages, making these course participants catnip for technology industry recruiters.

“I’m in the heart of the Silicon Valley — it’s a brutal market, and we’re always looking for ways to find talent,” says staffing and human capital consultant Erica Golden. In an article titled “Looking for Purple Squirrels? Try a MOOC,” Golden makes the case that checking out MOOCs on a regular basis will increase recruiters’ odds of finding that highly desired candidate.

“Employers want what MOOCS are teaching,” she wrote. “Not only are MOOC students voluntarily mastering in-demand subject areas, they’re also demonstrating key soft skills that employees look for today: self-motivation, adaptability, collaboration, drive for learning, etc.”

Aquent, a global staffing firm that finds jobs for marketing, creative, and digital professionals, has gone a step further, becoming its own MOOC provider. To date, more than 28,000 students have taken coding, design and other MOOC courses offered through Aquent’s Gymnasium portal. This has become a way to attract talent that Aquent can then place with clients.

Embrace the idea with an open mind because this is going to be the future of professional development.

“It’s great to be able to help designers and web professionals acquire new skills.” Matthew T. Grant, director of content for Aquent, noted in a recent company blog post.. “It’s also great to be able to provide our clients with both free training resources and talent who have current, in-demand skills.”

While MOOCs have come under fire for having low completion rates, this data point has become an important new metric by which recruiters can assess candidates. “A number of recruiters are starting to consider candidates who have completed a MOOC,” says Kevin Wheeler, president and founder of Global Learning Resources, Inc., in “Why MOOCs Might Revolutionize Your Recruiting Methods,” on “Those who do finish a course are often the most motivated and have demonstrated their ability to stick with a task to completion.”

Overall completion rates will likely only continue to improve as more MOOC-type learning communities develop and as more recruiters lurk within them. Patrick Hauenstein, president and chief science officer of OMNIview, a talent selection and management HR software company, wrote in “Revolutionizing Recruiting Through Learning Communities,” that, “Visibility of multiple recruiters and career opportunities in the communities can provide the motivation to complete credentials, have other members validate completion of development goals, and actively participate in the community to demonstrate to recruiters their commitment to learning.”

Making it easier for recruiters to source these prized MOOC “stickers” is the new Direct-to-Profile Certification program launched last year by LinkedIn. They partnered with online education companies, including Coursera, edX, Lynda, Pearson, Skillsoft, Udacity and Udemy, so that those who complete an online class from one of these providers receive an email with an automatically-populated certification field, complete with the details of the course just completed, that can be seamlessly added to their LinkedIn profile.

Golden now includes MOOC terms in her LinkedIn and general browser searches and suggests other recruiters do the same. “Embrace the idea with an open mind because this is going to be the future of professional development,” she says.

Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for the Global Economic Recovery, a study produced by Bersin by Deloitte, concurs with that assessment. The report details the “explosive” usage of MOOCs overall (some 24 million users to date), with “more and more business programs becoming available every day,” including Bank of America, Yahoo, 1-800-Flowers, GE, and others experimenting with MOOC-type training content.

The takeaway for HR professionals? MOOCS “will become a become a major source of training content for your organization” and “soon you will be recruiting people with brand-name, online degree certifications.”

Using MOOC communities to engage and retain talent

Future Workplace’s Meister says MOOCs are certainly on HR leaders’ radar. Last year, in the firm’s survey completed by 195 corporate learning and HR professionals, 70 percent of respondents say they saw opportunities to integrate MOOCs more fully into their company’s learning programs.

Earlier this year, Meister held a workshop with her Workplace 2020 focus group, consisting of some 100 HR leaders. The majority of those leaders are now engaged in curating MOOCs, trying to assess how this technology can fit within their strategic plans.

Spurring this activity is the rising recognition that MOOCs have become part of “pervasive technology,” the new world of social, mobile, analytics and cloud-based  (SMAC) platforms that companies must incorporate into their practices to fully engage and retain today’s workers.

“The inexorable pace of change and the increasing technological sophistications of candidates – Millennials, especially – will leave Luddites behind,” Meghan M. Biro, CEO of Talent Culture, argued in a post on The Dice Report earlier this year.

A survey of 1,538 adults in the U.S. posted on The New Talent Times, a blog about recruiting and managing the modern workforce that’s operated by LMS consultancy Software Advice, also highlights MOOCs’ mass appeal. Among the findings:

  • More than half of 18-24-year-olds noted that access to training through MOOCs would positively affect their decision to apply to a company.
  • 73 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 60 percent of 25-34-year-olds says they would participate in MOOC-based training.
  • 58 percent of 18-24 year-olds says access to MOOCs would impact their decision to stay with a company, while more than half of 25-34-year-olds agreed.

Barriers still exist

Despite such compelling data, however, significant barriers to MOOCs gaining further foothold in corporate America exist. There appears to be a general awareness problem, as recently highlighted in the The Employer Potential of MOOCs: A Survey of Human Resource Professionals’ Thinking on MOOCs, a study conducted by RTI International in partnership with Duke University and funded by the Gates Foundation.

In that survey, only 31 percent of respondents had even heard of MOOCs. And just last year, the Financial Times ran a report with the headline “MOOCs Are Treated with Suspicion by Students and Recruiters,” which indicates that the reputation of MOOCs is still very much a work in progress.

Other obstacles include general financial and organizational/structural concerns. While creating a custom MOOC could be great way to attract and develop desired candidates, HR departments “often don’t have budget or the bandwidth” to launch such initiatives, says Global Learning Resources’s Wheeler.

And while many managers may be delighted to point employees at the currently available no- or low-cost MOOCs, larger organizations with more formal training departments may be a bit more wary, if not downright threatened, by such culture shifts. As Meister notes in “How MOOCs Will Revolutionize Corporate Learning and Development,” published in Forbes last year, “Incorporating MOOC concepts inside the organization will ultimately challenge the human resources and corporate learning departments to rethink and re-imagine their value proposition.”

Still, Meister and others believe that more embedding of MOOC-type technologies into corporate America is inevitable. Though the majority of the RTI survey respondents had not yet heard of MOOCs, once they had read a description, most were highly receptive to MOOCs’ potential use in recruiting and hiring decisions and especially positive about the role those courses could play in professional development training.

The RTI study that highlighted this general awareness problem was early research, focused on North Carolina companies only; a national survey is now in the works. The study featured in The Financial Times also revealed that 80 percent of the managers and directors surveyed believed that their own companies would use technology to deliver more workplace learning in the future.

Capital Wave’s Nielson says that his corporate clients are becoming increasingly interested in MOOC-type training that is firewalled instead of open, as a way to harness the interactive capabilities of that technology within a protected, private environment. “They don’t want it open – they don’t want lurkers,” he says.

MOOCs’ ability to engage participants and capture key people analytics may well be their ticket into big data-focused corporations. “Recruiting has been more of an art when it should be more of a science,” Global Learning Resources’s Kevin Wheeler says.  He believes MOOCs can offer up “a lot of refined data that would be useful to the recruiter” and points out that Google dramatically changed its recruiting assumptions (previously based on GPA, type of school) after looking at actual data.

“Their new criteria includes: are you ready and motivated to do the work we do, are you a fast learner, have you ever done something that connects to Google,” he says. “All this can be seen in a MOOC.”

MOOCs can also foster desired “stickiness” to the employer brand, with current and potential employees remaining connected to the company via engaging content. Hauenstein’s OmniView, for example, is developing a MOOC-type interface that could serve not only as a corporate learning hub but also a place that HR departments could partially or completely open up to promising candidates.

Despite some pioneers and much promise, the effect of MOOC technology in the corporate world is in absolute infancy.

“Many companies currently keep resumes in a talent database, and that’s about it,” he says. “Offering promising candidates access to a rich MOOC portal could be a great way to keep them more engaged and interested in your company.”

Despite some pioneers and much promise, however, the effect of MOOC technology in the corporate world is “in absolute infancy,” Nielson says. “It’s already impacted academia — not as a tsunami, perhaps, but certainly a large wave. For corporate America, it’s still a rock in the pond.”

That may soon change, as more players like AT&T and Starbucks create a ripple effect. “Business leaders are hearing about MOOCs and challenging their HR leads: Why can’t our corporate university, our corporate learning be more like this?” Meister says. Nielson ends his series of articles noting, “Smart companies are starting now to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this new and evolving digital learning environment.”

As Bersin’s report succinctly puts it: “Watch this space.”