I am fortunate to meet with corporate leaders who aspire to innovate within their companies nearly every day of the week. Every now and then, you realize you are seeing something truly special occurring. Nestle is providing us with one of those examples.

Before I describe more on Nestle, here is the problem we all have that they are addressing. In our digital world, we realize a few common things worldwide.

We do not have enough digital talent to hire. Period. We are a generation away from having enough talent to fill the needs of today’s global company.

Our training systems are often centered on single moments, e.g. a one-time course. It’s not enough to shape new habits that are meaningful and long-lasting.

It’s not about building a super team at the center. It’s about indoctrinating an entire company in how to innovate in ways that evolve current business models.

Quite simply, in an era of major change driven by technology, the effective use of data and new digital models and tools, the old way of doing things isn’t going to work.

We now fast forward to Nestle. Six years, ago, Pete Blackshaw joined to become the global head of digital and social media. Pete, who is a marketing visionary and quite accomplished himself (P&G, Nielsen, Press Secretary, Author, Founder and more), realized early on that his ability to influence and empower leaders in the Nestle organization was more powerful than any single plan or action he could personally take. It’s a self-awareness that I’d like to see in more leaders.

So, he set a new course in the corporate world by setting up the Nestle Digital Acceleration Team (DAT) in 2012.  Pete and his team built a training program designed to serve managers from around the world who either have high competence or potential in digital or ecommerce.  A maximum of 18 people are invited for a period of eight months to move to headquarters in Switzerland and learn via sit-down sessions with global subject matter experts and via hands on work on digital projects that create value for Nestle.  The team works in a state-of-the-art Consumer Engagement Center, which includes a multi-media content studio.

Nestle is now hosting their eighth DAT wave with more than 100 participants from more than 50 countries involved thus far.

So why does this matter for Fortune 1000 leaders?  Here is why:

Talent – when innovation is involved, you must identify, train and create the new leaders inside your company.  This is true in any new wave of innovation.

Habits – improving innovation at a scalable level requires us to practice, make mistakes, learn and acquire a new rhythm, new knowledge and, ultimately, new habits. It’s like learning golf. You can’t take a course once a year and play well. You must practice and often get lessons.

Osmosis – too much training is in isolation or small groups of people who then don’t stick together. Nestle’s teams are in the same room for eight months, so the team is teaching itself what it is learning and the cross-training is a benefit that is almost indescribable in its power.

Local/Global – when the focus is on making individual countries and divisions strong, headquarters wins. When headquarters ramps up on what is next, but doesn’t truly train with the same intensity on a local level, it’s like a body builder who works on one arm, but not the other. After a while, it doesn’t work.

Daily Learning – DAT is known for a continual flow of idea sharing from external sources to the internal community, a continual flow of ideas via chatter and more. Learning is daily. Minds are open.

Community – the DAT alumni are now the new teachers in their countries or divisions. The impact of how Nestle innovates will only improve with time. Innovation is now scaling….everywhere.

The next critical item to evaluate is what “scaling” really means, since it can be tricky with innovation concepts. Here are two that Nestle is pioneering.

  • Reverse Mentoring – the DAT team members are reverse mentoring top executives on digital topics. They are  bringing different employee generations closer together and empowering emerging and established leaders.
  • Local “Virality” of  the DAT concept — there are already 25 local DATs in the markets to accelerate Digital agendas at the market or local level. Many of those DAT structures were developed by previous DAT alumni.  As an example, Ana Caldeira was part of the 5th wave of the DAT, then she went back to her home market – Portugal – to set up a local DAT before she received an opportunity to come back to Vevey (HQ) to manage DAT8.

Reverse mentoring and extension of the DAT concept in local markets are two of the best indicators that digital innovation is scaling in a manner that will impact Nestle’s team for the long-term.

On its surface, it seems deceptively simple.  All great models are simple.  Everything Steve Jobs did is quite logical, simple and almost frustrating when you realize others could have done it, but didn’t.

And that is for a few reasons, which is my last point.

As a leader in your organization, ask yourself a few simple questions:

Are we training the next generation of our leaders in our top countries worldwide right now?

Are we scaling innovation via our models and training or are we exporting ideas and hoping our network will do what we recommend?

Are we finding ways to teach our teams every day?

How many of our leaders move to HQ to learn so they can make our organization stronger when they return to their home?

If we are super honest with ourselves, are we just doing the type of training we used to do 10 or 20 years ago?

Digital innovation will require much more of us as leaders in the years ahead.  The evolution of our business models will accelerate, not stabilize.    Our workforces will be shaped by what we choose to do.

What can we learn from Nestle’s DAT?

Here are some great links by the way to learn more about DAT.

An AdAge article and farewell videos from DAT5, DAT6 and DAT7 teams.

Thank you to the Nestle team and Pete for the opportunity to look in, share my own insights and learn from the best example of scaling innovation in our industry.

Best, Bob