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Podcast: IBM Badge Program - Part One


This episode is part one of a two-part series featuring David Leaser, Senior Program Executive for Innovation and Growth Initiatives at IBM. IBM has built a culture of continuous learning, supported by a robust badge program for its employees. David describes the origins and outcomes in this interview.

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Susan Manning:                   Welcome to the Credly Podcast. Where we touch base with our issuers, earners and partners. And explore themes of interest in digital credentialing. I'm Susan Manning.

                                                      I'm speaking with David Leaser. David is the Senior Program Executive for  Innovation and Growth Initiatives at IBM. Welcome David.

David:                                        Thank you for having me.

Susan Manning:                   IBM is well known for its employee badge program and I'm curious to unpack where this program came from and how you developed it. So let's start with what problem were you trying to solve?

David:                                        Yeah well it started really with a business problem, getting people to take online training. And we had this great website called Great content. Great big data courses, analytics courses. Anybody by the way can take them for free, but the completion rate on the courses was just terrible. Like typical mooch, you know an 80/20 type of rule.

                                                      So we decided to start a pilot. And we thought if we added badges as an incentive to complete the courses, would that increase the engagement? We started this pilot. It took us about 120 days from start to finish to get the pilot off the ground. It was rapid paced. And within literally about 60 to 90 days after we implemented the badge program, we started seeing startling results from the program.

                                                      The number of people coming up to the website increased by 125% and the big number is this one- is the people completing those exams went up by something like 650 or 690, it was just an outrageous amount. Like 600% increase.

Susan Manning:                   Oh my goodness. So clear to say, employees were motivated by those badges.

David:                                        Very motivated to get the badges, get the completions, and get that signal of employability that badges provide.

Susan Manning:                   So when you started and you were very lean, as I understand it there were only two of you really creating this.

David:                                        There were, that's right. It was a small pilot. We were given a small amount of seed money and a little bit of resource to get it off the ground and literally it was two people. I think that was a key, is that we kept it lean and nimble and we didn't have a lot of cooks in the kitchen. And we were able to develop the entire IBM badge program, get it lifted in 120 days.

Susan Manning:                   How many badges did you actually start with in the beginning and what is it grown to now?

David:                                        We started with about seven different small programs and we now have more than a thousand different activities being badged. We just issued our millionth badge this month. And we have issued badges in 195 countries, which is every country on the globe.

Susan Manning:                   Congratulations.

David:                                        Yeah it's been great.

Susan Manning:                   When employees amass these badges, what do they do with them?

David:                                        Well they do a lot of things with them. The first thing they do is they share them on social media. So it's easy for somebody to take that badge, put it on their digital resume on LinkedIn, on Facebook or Twitter. That's the first thing that they do. So broadcasting their achievements is a big part of it.

                                                      But then IBM takes it to the next level. And those badges then inform our other systems as well. So we bring them into our expertise location system. They come into our talent management systems, our directories and [inaudible 00:03:25]platforms to show you what skills you have [inaudible 00:03:28] and what you should be getting next.

Susan Manning:                   Walk me through, for instance talent management. An employee who has ten badges in a particular area of expertise. What might happen?

David:                                        A couple things. So there's several different systems internally that are informed by the badges. The first one is that because you have this digital resume, it makes it easy for people to understand what skills you have and at what level. If you look at my name or somebody's name, you'll see you know the name and address and email and all on their resume, but you'll also see all the badges that they have.  So you'll see what skills they that have that are current. That's one area.

                                                      Also in our global services group where we have really an excellent system for deploying our top consultants all over the globe, those systems are now informed by badges. So instead of just saying, who's the closest consultant to an engagement and who's been here the longest, now we can see at the micro level who has the latest skills to help our customers. So that's a terrific one.

                                                      And the last part of it, which I mentioned, well there's some other things, but another big one is, we have a platform called  You're Learning internally at IBM. And after I have completed an activity and I've earned a badge, that goes into my learning profile. And it will show me based on these badges, because we build into the badges progression. Based on this, we recommend you do this next.

Susan Manning:                   I imagine that's pretty successful on the employee wanting to go on for the next...

David:                                        It's very successful. Back to that pilot that we did on big data or cognitive class. We originally called it Big Data University. The average person after they earned their first badge, came back to earn two badges and then three badges within a year. So it's harder to get to the third badge. You know the first one might be a foundational level skill. But when you get to the deeper progression, they get a lot harder.

                                                      At this point more than 50% of IBMers have earned at least one badge. So absolutely it has, it's taken off in a big way.

Susan Manning:                   And that clearly builds a culture of continuous learning too. It's an expectation.

David:                                        It is an expectation and what's great about badges is that they're personal. You now have the ability to earn a credential just like you did with your college degree that's portable and it goes with you. So I think that that's a big part of it.

Susan Manning:                   What I enjoy about badges is that my collection of badges is unique. Nobody else has the same set. And so you can really distinguish yourself as an employee. How have you worked with managers to leverage the whatever the employees are earning?

David:                                        Well you bring up a really good point. First, you know just backtracking a little bit about what you were saying, I think the great thing about badges is because they're granular, you can create a unique, differentiated, credential. Instead of having this broad certification, you can have a certification plus. With these different types of areas of expertise so you can create something that's very unique and targeted to the opportunities that you want to go for.

                                                      From a manager perspective, we now manage through dashboards. So we can very quickly see where the skill are, where the gaps are, where the dearths are. So we can look at, where does this company need to go? And what skills do we need to get there? Then we can literally created global heat maps to see where our skills are and where are dearths are and now we can say we need to focus on a particular area.

                                                      So for example, if the CPO in China comes to us and says, "We're ready to launch a new cloud-based product." Let's see how many skill we have around cloud, on our team. By the way, because it's internal/external, we can see it in our customer base too. So we can go out and we can look and we say, look it we need to start to create more conferences and events for our clients to get ready for this.

                                                      So I think of it as a readiness tool as much as anything else.

Susan Manning:                   I had to chuckle when you talked about heat maps. Of course the big data people would be putting, aggregating this data in such a useful way.

David:                                        You're right. And you know when you start to look at that data and we know like I said we have this tremendous amount of data, we have this massive database with our millionth badge. We now can get information and insight and we use of course Watson Analytics and we use our Cognos Suite. So we can get deeper insight into what that data means.

                                                      And let me give you an example of that. When you think about the way people create learning paths, it's typically you know take course one, take course two and take course three and so on. But what we're finding based on the badges, if you badge everything, right, everything goes into a collective skills registry. We're finding people are going to course one, but maybe they're going online to do something different in between that and course two. Or maybe they're going to a conference. And so now that helps us map out what a better progression strategy is so we can reduce the dropout rates.

Susan Manning:                   And definitely personalized learning in that regard because what fits for Susan might not fit for Peter.

David:                                        Exactly. So you can get down to the roles that people have and then provide really targeted prescriptions.

Susan Manning:                   Right. So from two people this grew to a massive system. It's really inspiring. Thank you for sharing this story.

David:                                        Thank you so much.

Susan Manning:                   Thank you listeners for joining us. If you'd like to suggest upcoming topics, feel free to write us at