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FlipTales – Stefaan Van Hooydonk and the Tao of Unlearning

Did you know that the ability to unlearn might be what got you to where you are today? And that it may be the very thing that will help you grow in life, business and your career? No, we aren’t talking about forgetting. Unlearning is connected to understanding. The American author Isaac Asimov said it best: “I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.” Chief Learning Officer Stefaan Van Hooydonk is one Flipster who lives by these words. Schooled in Latin and Greek, and proficient in Dutch, English, Mandarin, German and French, Belgium-born Stefaan pursued his passion for Eastern and Western schools of thought, and attempts to apply both in his line of work. Unlearning, he swears, has stood him in good stead and guided him as he built from the ground up Flipkart’s exemplary internal knowledge management engine.

FlipTales – Stefaan Van Hooydonk and the Tao of Unlearning

Dave Morris, the British author and computer game designer, once said, “A new medium always has a period when it is struggling inside the confining box of an earlier medium. Creators have to unlearn what they knew before they can see the fresh, uncharted vistas stretching before them.” Just as learning is important, so is knowing how to unlearn, for it is perhaps the single most critical skill you can develop in order to get ahead. What’s the last thing you unlearned? For Stefaan Van Hooydonk, Flipkart’s Chief Learning Officer, unlearning happens every time he takes up a new project. “Unlearning for me is to be really conscious about the company I’m working for,” says Belgium-born Stefaan who has left his imprint upon companies in Europe, China and, now, India. “After all, every company is different in terms of their structure, culture and maturity, as well as what they want and what they don’t want.”

Responsible for setting up global innovative learning departments and corporate universities at Nokia, Agfa Healthcare and Philips, Stefaan joined the Flipkart family in August 2015. The following January, he helped Flipkart launch Flipskool, a robust vehicle for Flipsters to accelerate their learning. He says, “Despite my 20+ years of experience, I made sure that when I joined Flipkart, I would not be coming in with preconceived ideas.”

Just out of curiosity, how does Stefaan Van Hooydonk unlearn every day at work?

“I keep my entire ‘rucksack’ behind the door when I’m in the office, and try to build up a new rucksack when working,” he says with a studious smile. Considering the effort that Stefaan invested to launch four academies under Flipskool — including a ‘Happiness Academy’, which focuses on Flipsters’ passions — little wonder that his rucksack of experiences is getting bigger and bigger every day. What has also helped fill it up are the different scenarios and different ways of doing things that he has observed at Flipkart.

Stefaan explains that he finds it more interesting to reinvent things from scratch and, given his experience, to do something that is tailor-made for an organization.

To understand how Stefaan Van Hooydonk has reinvented Flipkart’s internal knowledge management engine, and what makes him tick when he’s not unlearning, read excerpts from an engaging interview.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk on unlearning

Does learning define the culture of an organization?

That is a very good question! A smart acquaintance once told me that if you want to [inlinetweet prefix=”@stefaanvanhooyd on #unlearning: ” tweeter=”” suffix=”#FlipTales”]change the culture of a company, change the way its employees learn[/inlinetweet]. And no, it’s not about changing the way people go to class. Rather, learning is about sharing; it is about the interaction that helps you to learn. I feel that Flipkart is at a crossroads today, deciding the kind of company it wants to be and the type of learning that it needs to go with its goals. I mean, the startup life is a roller-coaster with ups and downs and is all about going on adventures. As a result, clear planning and development and longer-term developing had never been part of the system. But that is changing. Earlier, the focus on the development for ‘now’ was important to the company, but the focus on development for ‘tomorrow’ is coming in gradually.

You studied Latin, Greek, and later economics, and then moved on to investment consultancy. How did you end up becoming a corporate university architect and mentor?

I began doing investment consulting in China in beginning of the 1990’s. This was when China was taking its first steps towards capitalism. At that time, investment consulting actually meant helping foreign companies set up shop in China, be it by helping them look for joint venture partners, doing market entry strategies for them, or other kinds of support. Every time a JV was signed, the next question that would come up was, “Where do we get the manpower from?” Bringing manpower from abroad wasn’t a viable option. For starters, they wouldn’t understand the language or the industrial landscape. And though the Chinese were great at hard-core processes like engineering and production, they weren’t good at finance, management, marketing, human resources and the like. So developing their skills was the only option. So that’s how I got interested quickly in programs that could accelerate their knowledge growth, lead to management development, etc. I even set Nokia’s corporate university to train their 8,000 employees in China and Hong Kong in non-technical and technical areas.

Were there any challenges that you faced when you joined Flipkart as chief learning officer?

When I joined Flipkart in August last year, I found that while there were some learning pockets or groups here that were doing a good job for their own group, no Flipster outside their group was aware about this. Moreover, in the last few years, Flipkart had been focusing only on customer loyalty and service, and had not spent enough time on internal processes. So, one of the first things we did was to bring the learning groups together, and made sure whatever we did, everybody would know about it. And that’s how Flipsters began becoming aware about all the good stuff that was available in the company.

We even extended this practice to Myntra. We focused on learning that every Flipster needs, that you need and I need. And there’s so much stuff out there, one doesn’t really need the learning group at Flipkart or the Flipskool to help you with that. Now, we are also focusing on warehousing and management development too — you know, making sure that all managers start performing in a structural way.

We’ve also turned our attention towards product management, and ensuring that product managers have the same vision of work and the necessary skills. The bottom line we’ve stressed on is this: If you feel you can do it, go for it — we’ll approve everything. We’ve also added an extra bit to this endeavor: Establishing the Happiness Academy at Flipkart for engagement and for fostering a happiness community. So, for Flipsters who really love photography, sports, cooking, etc., we create a platform for them to come together.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk, Chief Learning Officer at Flipkart

Flipkart launched Flipskool in January this year and you are at its helm. What is Flipskool all about?

Flipskool is a vehicle for Flipsters to accelerate their learning, but it is not a traditional training department. Rather, we want to equip Flipsters to the highest possible level so that they are employable both inside and outside of Flipkart. [inlinetweet prefix=”@stefaanvanhooyd on #unlearning:” tweeter=”” suffix=”#FlipTales via @FlipkartStories”]Flipskool is the platform for modern workplace learning[/inlinetweet] with social collaborative tools to gain and share knowledge. We are looking at both short-term and long-term coaching experience, instead of a series of courses (or certification modules). The idea is not to force employees to learn something; Flipsters who show eagerness can learn and share their knowledge.

In other words, Flipskool is an in-house university with programs and curricula that gives Flipsters the luxury of learning at their convenience. Flipskool comprises the Flipkart Way Academy, E-comm Academy, Supply Chain Academy and the Happiness Academy. In fact, Flipkart is among the first companies in the world that established a Happiness Academy!

That’s great! What was the idea behind starting the Happiness Academy at Flipkart?

It was probably part of the unlearning program! I’ve always felt that I have to do something crazy for the crazy company that Flipkart is, especially considering the workforce here is virtually all millennials for whom individualism is really important, and where the learning model has to be about offering knowledge that goes beyond the here and now. I joined Flipkart in August last year. At that time, Mekin Maheshwari [Flipkart’s erstwhile Chief People Officer] and [Flipkart Group CEO] Binny Bansal told me that they wanted to something iconic for Flipsters. I also remember Mukesh Bansal [co-founder of Myntra and former chief of commerce platform at Flipkart], at the time, saying that we really need to do something crazy! That’s how the idea came up.

The Happiness Academy aims to create an environment where Flipsters feel they are a part of the Flipkart family, and get to interact easily and seamlessly with each other. At the Academy, we are focused on celebrating Flipsters’ passions and hobbies and we do this by inviting them to join online communities and participate in events such as photography, cooking, dance and sports. This makes Flipsters happier and engaged, and increases organizational performance.

You can read Stefaan’s case-study on the Happiness Academy at Flipkart here.

Are you happy with the change you’ve been able to bring about at Flipkart?

Yes, absolutely! Considering that we launched Flipskool only in January this year, it’s a big thing for us that we’ve already set up a new benchmark for equipping people to the highest possible level. That, too, in just these 11 months! This makes me very proud of the team here and of everything we’ve achieved.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk Flipkart Chief Learning Officer

What do you see in the future for learning as a whole and learning at Flipkart? Where do you think we are headed?

I feel that when it comes to concept learning, Flipkart is headed towards the idea that ‘[inlinetweet prefix=”@stefaanvanhooyd on #unlearning: ” tweeter=”” suffix=”#FlipTales via @FlipkartStories”]work is learning and learning is the work[/inlinetweet]’. Earlier, the company didn’t really have an appetite to help people develop more than that which was necessary beyond the foreseeable horizon. I’m noticing there is a shift in this attitude today, and the company is focusing more on the careers of Flipsters and helping them grow, which is great for both Flipkart as well the individuals. However, when it comes to going beyond learning, such as giving Flipsters stretch assignments or letting them move from one department to the other, Flipkart isn’t fully there yet. But then this has just been the way we’ve typically worked.

Now, [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”FlipkartStories” suffix=”#FlipTales”]at Flipkart, you can see learning move towards long-term goals[/inlinetweet]. Analytics have become really relevant, and the idea about going back to school, or taking evening or weekend classes to be part of that journey is a change we may see at Flipkart in the future. Another shift at Flipkart for the future may be creating a culture that encourages open conversation, sharing and collaboration among Flipsters, and that it’s okay to go out and to learn.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk - FlipTales

Tell us about your love for yoga and meditation…

India is the birthplace of yoga and the spiritual home of famous meditation traditions. I’ve developed a liking for yoga and meditation while residing in India. I’ve already completed the Inner Engineering program at Isha Yoga Center near Coimbatore, and will going there soon for their Bhava Spandana program.

You mentioned that you love visiting Indian temples. Which ones have you been to?

I’ve developed a liking for India during my stay here, and love to visit temples — more for their architectural brilliance than anything else. I have visited the temples in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. Last month, I visited the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra. In Karnataka, I’ve visited the Hoysala temple in Belur and the beautiful temples at Hampi. There was also Shravanabelagola close by and I found it beautiful. Chandragupta Maurya is said to have died here after he became a Jain monk and assumed an ascetic lifestyle, and I liked this bit of history that seeped into the temple’s history.

We heard that you play the ukulele. How did that happen?

This was around two and a half years ago. I had gone to visit my eldest son who was studying at Shanghai, China. He was looking to buy a guitar, and we went to the market to purchase it. While we were at the shop I noticed these several small guitar-like instruments called ukuleles. I decided then and there to buy one, and told my son, “You buy your guitar, I will buy this ukulele!” That was how my tryst with the ukulele began. It was fun!

The ukulele is a four-string instrument, and one can play songs with just three chords, so you’re quickly busking out tunes. When I was in Belgium, I had learned to play the guitar, since they didn’t teach ukulele at music school. Since it is easier to learn, the ukulele was the obvious instrument for a beginner like me to get started on. I know just about 10 chords or so, and there are plenty of three and four-chord songs out there that one can play on the ukulele. I’m really good at playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on my ukulele, and can play it blind. I haven’t played my ukulele in the last six months for lack of time though.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk at Hampi, Karnataka
Stefaan Van Hooydonk with his wife Jeltje on a visit to Hampi, Karnataka

Is there any particular thing you’ve learned throughout your long career that you feel people who are starting out need to start learning right away?

I believe that [inlinetweet prefix=”#Unlearning via @stefaanvanhooyd: ” tweeter=”” suffix=”#FlipTales”]people should start with meta-earning, which is essentially learning about learning[/inlinetweet]. In today’s world, there is so much information coming to us. However, though people have been trained to become good workers, they haven’t been taught how to become good knowledge workers, or even how to make sense of all this knowledge overload, how to do speed reading, or tips and tricks to learn more efficiently. For example, how many out there know that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn faster than those who don’t? The second thing that people should learn is how to deal with others. After all, it is not a knowledge society anymore; it is a network society.

Stefaan Van Hooydonk has created a legacy that is sure to grow and develop as Flipsters participate deeply and learn to unlearn just as he did. We wish him the best as he continues to reinvent the at-work learning experience for Flipkart.

FlipTales is a Flipkart Stories original series. Read more inspiring profiles here

Photographs by Arjun Paul. Additional photographs courtesy Stefaan Van Hooydonk

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About the Author

Arjun Paul

Arjun Paul is Lead Designer at Flipkart Stories. He also curates the FlipTales section, with human stories about people at Flipkart.

Bijoy Venugopal

Bijoy Venugopal is Editor, Flipkart Stories. A former journalist and widely published travel writer, he was the Travel Editor at Yahoo India. He has worked with Rediff.com and Infosys, besides moonlighting as a biographer for the rock band Thermal And A Quarter.