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Survey Results: The Critical Need for Continuous Learning & Career Development Programs

“To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalized when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint.” Garvin, Adamson and Gino

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To comment that the nature of work is continuously changing is a huge understatement in our environment. We are living and working in the midst of a technological shift which will see robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) at the heart of many industries and daily experiences. According to the World Economic Forum, the world is facing a crisis whereby jobs are disappearing faster than they are being created. Yet companies are struggling to attract people with the right skills, and people worry how new technology will threaten their livelihood.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that much of the transformation that is taking place worldwide is caused by forces beyond any one country’s control. To tackle this disruption in the working world, a new model of work must be developed. This is a challenge that will require multi-pronged solutions to begin to address its impact.

Many CEOs and industry leaders have started to tackle the challenge of working and thriving within this new economic world order and, for many, the underlying strategy is the company-wide endorsement of innovation. And the greatest contributor to this strategy is internal continuous learning and career development for their workforce.

Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum report (as previously referenced), one of the most significant  solutions to the current job market crisis stresses the importance of adopting continuous learning and development at both the organizational level and at the personal employee level.

Today’s market requires that organizations build on and transform what were previously acceptable norms in education and training. Companies are quite proficient at designing and delivering excellent compliance training programs, but the problem is that this training mode of learning is becoming less relevant in companies today.

To keep up with the pace and level of workplace changes, a company will need to develop a culture that supports continuous learning and that goes beyond legal requirements. In a learning culture, learning happens all the time, at training events but also on the job, socially, through coaches and mentors, and from experimenting with new processes.

What Do We Mean By an Organizational Culture of Learning?

Essentially, this concept underlines and shapes certain behaviors of people in the organization. For example: Does the work environment encourage employees to learn and develop competencies? Are there opportunities for employees to learn while working? Are they encouraged to seek out knowledge and skills on their own? And take risks and experiment? Does the organization support sharing information among business units? Is the workplace conducive to social learning?

But perhaps most importantly, no one within an organization must feel threatened or discouraged to speak out, no matter the subject or the perspective. A learning culture that promotes psychological safety and vulnerability improves the chances that your company will learn faster than your competitors.

In a culture of learning, the responsibility for learning centers not only with managers and teams, but is principally guided by the employee. He/she is expected to seek knowledge and skills and apply that learning when and where it is needed. Employees need to identify skill gaps, recognize areas to improve current performance, and ensure that they keep up with advances in their profession.

Employees will also need some insight into organizational goals, performance requirements, and their ability to meet those organizational expectations. In total, companies and employees will need to work collaboratively in an environment that is more transparent and encourages a bottom up approach in the workplace.

SelectHub has run a survey of 104 HR practitioners from North America to investigate how organizations approach and perceive the concept of continuous learning. Our aim is to unveil the perceptions and behaviors of human resource (HR) practitioners in charge of learning and development and address the degree to which these perceptions and behaviors align themselves to industry forecasts and recommendations. Our analysis will also examine perceptions and practices that may be counterproductive to the goal of business growth and success.

Organizational Perceptions and Behaviors Regarding Continuous Learning

While industry research shows that one of the most important sources of an organization’s competitive advantage is a strong corporate learning strategy, there are still a significant number of businesses that think training and learning is costly, a waste of time, and difficult to assess.

But while this business perception continues to influence HR policy, worldwide trends are also pointing to the fact that companies are increasingly seeing the benefits of developing a continuous learning strategy within their organizations. In fact, new industry research on this subject shows that areas like skills and capability development have steadily risen to the top of HR and business leaders strategic priorities.

An examination of the responses to our survey reflect this duality in the thinking and behavior of organizations. While acknowledging the benefits of investing in continuous learning initiatives for their employees,  companies were, in some cases, struggling to reconcile the benefits against the drawbacks. The majority of respondents had an overall positive opinion of the benefits that a continuous learning strategy delivers. In fact, benefits such as personal development, employee retention and engagement with learning were all given high or very high ratings (as shown in Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Benefits that continuous learning introduce to organizations

Their responses are in full agreement with many human resource development (HRD) professionals in the marketplace that emphasize the positive potential impact on motivation and job satisfaction emerging from workplace environments that have created constructs to support a learning culture. In addition, there is evidence of a decrease in turnover which in turn led to increases in a company’s overall performance. Employees will feel happier at their jobs if they believe that management cares about their success and goals beyond the company’s bottom line.

There is a cascading effect from ‘happier’ employees: improved productivity and higher rates of retention. Long-term profits and success are dependent upon the retention of top talent in a company. But the lack of opportunities for advancement and growth is a major factor for an employee to leave his/her position. This scenario is a common one in the workplace and can be improved upon by providing the right learning opportunities. Ultimately, spending more money to help your current employees advance and thrive makes greater business sense than hiring new ones.

On the flip side, our respondents also underline potential concerns about continuous learning programs. What we are seeing, in fact, is an example of organizations struggling with this relatively new business concept – investing in learning and development to the dual benefit of company and workers.  For example, a similar majority of respondents (that had previously praised the benefits of learning), now expressed a strong concern for some of the effects that they associated with implementing the learning strategy. The top 4 issues of concern identified by respondents were the following:

Figure 2, below, quantifies those concerns:

Figure 2: Concerns regarding continuous learning

Assessing the Impact of Continuous Learning on Career Development

Despite the resistance to a full-fledged commitment to a continuous learning strategy, companies are acknowledging the need for innovative workplace strategies, that include career development, to combat a looming skills shortage issue. Some include providing employees with wider exposure to roles across the firm, and stepping up efforts to target and recruit a more diverse talent pool.

These efforts represent a good start to building a bridge between continuous learning and career development. An important signal is that companies across industry are investing more and more in learning strategies and career development. Consequently, overall continuous learning is gaining prominence in many human resource management strategies across the marketplace. But perhaps not fast enough due to difficulties in finding the right metrics to assess the success of such strategies.

We have noted the same trend among our respondents. Companies are embracing this organizational change with some degree of caution, a full 59% of respondents acknowledged the positive impact that continuous learning has on career development. But the reservation comes from the difficulty to quantify this impact (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3: Continuous learning relationship with career development

When asked about the type of learning that had the greatest impact on career development processes for their organization, team-based learning came out on top, with collaboration with customers and providers in second place, and peer learning in third place. Figure 4 illustrates these findings:

Figure 4: Type of continuous learning with the greatest impact on career development

As our respondents confirmed, the greatest impact from training within a work setting comes from an approach that prioritizes collaboration. In fact, all 3 top choices require collaboration, teamwork and communication. Team-based learning can include professionals working in a group that may come from different backgrounds and levels of experience in the company. The benefit: each one brings a unique and valuable perspective. Their combined knowledge and various strengths can be more integrative than relying on information from one source: the instructor/facilitator.

Peer-led learning works in a similar way, especially in the workplace. Someone from the marketing department might feel more comfortable asking a programmer from the IT department how a certain software works, versus sitting through a lengthy slide presentation on the same topic. When designing learning modules, instructors can use this peer camaraderie to their advantage by including team-based strategies in their course design.

Learning from customers and suppliers is perhaps one of the most important forms of knowledge acquisition. Why? Primarily because customers provide an employee with some of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. Customers demand straightforward answers and solutions to their problems and usually allow little leeway for excuses. As a result, working with customers pushes employees to be at their most creative as they work to find solutions to their customers requests. In addition, collaboration with suppliers leads to the acquisition of industry knowledge and best practices.

It is a promising development that organizations are making accurate associations between the various  learning models and the degree of impact that they can have on career development. This knowledge will facilitate establishing key performance indicators that can quantify the benefits of the relationship between the two.

Potential Roadblocks to Implementing a Unified Continuous Learning and Career Development Strategy

As shown in Figure 5, according to our respondents, company culture (41%) was perceived as the greatest roadblock to the strategic adoption of continuous learning in furthering career development for their employees.The transition to a learning culture can be slow and uneven.

A learning culture must change many practices that are deeply ingrained in an organization. Change is never easy and this scenario requires changing people’s attitudes as much as practices and procedures that have been in place a long time. The difficulty to engage and motivate employees was also considered a significant barrier by 34% of respondents.

This is probably best explained by the fact that in many organizations, the training and development function is centralized. This centralized model is now outdated and within the context of a learning culture would be discouraged.  in this model, employees and managers rely on this central body to provide new competencies and training and exclude employees from participating in the process of directing and managing their career development.

An organization building a learning culture decentralizes the learning function and works towards facilitating and supporting learning throughout the workplace. In place of many structured workshops, a learning culture model identifies the importance of learning from one another and makes teamwork the foundation of this model. A fast learning culture embraces collaboration, admits mistakes without apprehension, and encourages taking new opportunities. This behavior not only encourages learning but allows employees to be more confident in steering their self-development.

There are 3 other barriers identified by our respondents that stand in the way of combining learning with career development and, in some respects, they are all interconnected. One of the difficulties with this strategy is that its results are long-term and the business investment will not immediately drive up the bottom line. This investment will produce results – a body of employees that will function with increased productivity, confidence to be innovative and the ability to drive their own development – but it must be accompanied by a strong belief in the power of learning to transform business outcomes. But if the rate of progress for this investment is too slow, obtaining buy-in from executives may be difficult to achieve.

In fact, 30% of respondents believed this was a critical barrier to implementing this learning strategy and career development programs. This lack of buy-in from CEOs means that a long-term strategy will not be designed or implemented and, in turn, a dedicated budget for this strategy will not be available. The survey findings revealed that 31% of respondents thought the lack of a strategy was a critical barrier while 35% believed that not having an appropriate budget for software and services was the most critical barrier.

Bottom line: moving toward the framework for a continuous learning organization produces a slow but incremental progress that will not only improve productivity and reduce errors, but, managed well, will be a critical source of your competitive advantage. But this is an undertaking that requires a serious commitment from business leaders before it can become a working reality for everyone at the organizational level.

The goal is to understand the basics of training and development and integrate it with other human resource development practices, like career development and leadership, leading to a comprehensive corporate culture of learning. Josh Bersin argues that a successful corporate learning strategy focuses on deep expertise development, collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the continuous reinforcement of expertise.

Figure 5: Internal barriers to combining continuous learning with career development programs

 Benefits and Responsibilities of Continuous Learning at the Employee Level

Much of this report has focused on responses to our survey from human resource professionals with respect to their views and perspectives on continuous learning and career development from the organization’s perspective. As we have emphasized, the scale of economic and social change, globalization and an ever-changing technology has transformed the concept of education and workplace training.

This transition, as also discussed, has not been simple nor has it been uniformly embraced by all organizations. But knowledge and skills of employees are to be constantly developed and this reality is no longer challenged. So the secondary question now becomes: How can employees positively address the stress of working with uncertainty and fear of job redundancy, while, at the same time initiating and self-directing a program of ongoing development?

One of our questions asked respondents to evaluate the benefit that employees could derive from an HR strategy that combines continuous learning and career development.

Figure 6: How employees benefit from an HR strategy that combines continuous learning and career development

As shown in the graph above, there is a strong consensus that what is good for business is also good for employees. Almost 50% believe that an effective learning strategy ensures that employees can adapt more seamlessly to changes in the job market, provides them with a competitive advantage, and helps them advance more quickly in their career.

This is not only a positive finding for both business and employees, but it contributes to a stronger commitment from both sides of the equation to this very important strategic change.

The employee role in supporting his/her company’s initiative in continuous learning is very significant. Training must become learning and the responsibility for helping to foster this learning environment comes from employees willing to embrace these practices with a positive and constructive attitude. Companies can encourage an employee’s self-development by providing meaningful performance feedback, providing choices for learning, and rewarding participation in learning activities. But so too, employees must put into practice a way of working that promotes the sharing of knowledge and skills among units, and the successes and failures across the organization become learning opportunities.

Learning in this collaborative, team-focused manner when applied in the workplace will advance the organization’s strategic goals.

Employees that are well-informed and highly skilled behave in a more self-reliant manner. They will feel empowered to learn about organizational directions and how these might impact future performance requirements. Working in continuous learning environments may also provide constructive support to employees that may be confronted by a decision to change career directions. In any situation, this could be a difficult challenge, but an employee that has participated fully in their company’s learning opportunities will confront this hurdle with much more confidence and a greater likelihood for successful reemployment.

Technology to Support the Strategy

Implementing a continuous learning vision requires automation. Our respondents pointed to a variety of learning software solutions that they require for career development plans. Some organizations (28.8%) report that they intend to use the same tools that they have in place indicating that they are happy with what they already have.

Other organizations would like to add new capabilities to human capital management (HCM) (25%) or learning management systems (LMS) (7.7%) technologies. These organizations may be at a point where it is likely that they do not fully leverage the technology they have in place or they are just starting to draft their vision regarding continuous learning. Such organizations might need consulting services from incumbent vendors to help them take advantage of existing learning technology capabilities.

Content authoring (33.7) and content libraries (20.2) are an expected requirement, as organizations are looking for the opportunity to create their own content and to buy readymade content from subject matter experts. The fact that content authoring was rated highly (almost 34%) suggests two possible explanations. First, companies want the opportunity to put their stamp on the learning content that they deliver to their employees. This stamp is not just a display of ambition but can possibly reflect the fact that, due to a company’s unique niche business challenges, a suitable product was not available. Second, it’s possible that companies have not thoroughly researched the learning content vendor market and are not aware of the wealth of learning content options available for purchase.

It is encouraging to see that many organizations look for cutting edge technology like learning experience platforms, social and informal learning, microlearning, and open learning. These technologies focus on learner engagement and are the best at supporting a culture of learning. They help companies decentralize learning efforts and enable learners to take responsibility for learning and career goals and pursue self-development. Such learning applications complement structured learning, with features that help employees learn from one another, receive smart recommendations, or find the expertise that they need anywhere/anytime.

Figure 7: What technology are you planning to use for learning modules to improve career development?

An Analyst’s Point of View

Business leaders and HR developers need to stress the importance of redefining the business profit and loss model. Too much emphasis on short-term profit taking can lead to a large deficit in long-term value creation and sustained growth. A strong market orientation to business profitability is not wrong, but it should be complemented by a business climate that rewards learning and innovation. This investment by business will reap high rewards towards future goals.

As we have noted, respondents’ concerns regarding learning and development confirm this emphasis around the issue of cost. Thirty-six percent of respondents focused on cost and the difficulty in calculating the return on investment (ROI), while 35% thought difficulty in assessing the value of the strategy was a problem and 37% believed that their investment in an employee might not pay off if he/she were to find employment elsewhere (Figure 2). An important point to emphasize here is that these are not frivolous concerns. The fast changes and challenges that are taking place in our economic environment have broadened and deepened the responsibilities of financial managers to maintain strong profits while containing and reducing expenses.

But respondents to our survey also understand that having a learning and development strategy can lead to financial benefits such as increased employee productivity and closing the skill gap that exists today within organizations. (Figure 8). According to the 2016 ManPower Talent Shortage report, employers are reporting the highest talent shortages since 2007.

Figure 8: Benefits of adopting a strategy that combines continuous learning and career development

In addition, a strategy that combines continuous learning and career development helps mitigate the cost of other HR challenges. Important examples are employee retention and succession planning. Numerous studies demonstrate the high cost of employee turnover, since the cost of hiring, onboarding, and development per employee are significant. Furthermore, the impact of having unfilled positions has many negative side effects. One serious effect is employee burnout caused by existing employees having to take on extra responsibilities. Another is the failure to fill client orders which can result in loss of revenue due to refunds, discounts, or, more seriously, clients going elsewhere.

Moreover, from a succession planning perspective, not having sufficient internal talent to fill key positions across the company can have negative long-term implications. A continued drive in innovation is dependent upon specialized expertise and a thorough knowledge of internal business processes. Without these supporting features in place, a company’s growth and success could be stalled as a result.

The challenge becomes how to balance the tension between the cost versus the benefits of learning and development, and, more importantly, how to convince (with tangible metrics) decision makers that an investment in this strategy today is focused not only on ensuring a productive and innovative work environment, but also in addressing future disruptive forces that our complex economic and social order will force businesses to address.

Conclusion

The analysis of our survey results have shown a remarkable consistency with much of the industry analysis available on this subject. Essentially, they have reinforced the need for organizations to become  ‘learning organizations’ in this harsh climate of economic uncertainty. The concept is not new, but was introduced in the 1990s by Peter M. Senge’s, The Fifth Discipline, and made a compelling argument for the benefits to business to promote employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.

The demands of our economic climate – intensifying competition, technological advances and increasing customer demands – are still with us. However, both our survey and industry analysis conclude that the ideal of the learning organization has not yet been attained. The were factors identified (from both sources), that impeded progress. From our survey and industry analysis , the following 3 factors were the most significant at slowing down the progress of instituting learning organizations:

  1. The over-emphasis on the cost of implementation and the lack of confidence that this investment in learning would yield positive results for the company. Many managers and business leaders were incapable of focusing on the long-term results and remained fixated on short-term expenses. This proved to be a major obstacle, as the strategy was never fully accepted, nor allowed the time to mature and yield its results.
  2. Proper standards and tools for assessment were never put in place. Without these, companies could declare victory prematurely, without delving into the particulars or comparing themselves accurately with others. Or, conversely and with greater relevance to our survey respondents, the lack of a measurable progress and its connection to the company’s profitability, prevented some organizations from fully adopting and working with this strategy. Nor was there a willingness to allow the changes time to produce results.
  3. The concept of continuous learning was aimed at CEOs and senior executives rather than at the managers and units where the bulk of the work is done. The success of this strategy relies on bottom up acceptance and buy-in, in order to have a strong foundation to build upon. Excluding middle management and their employees from the discussion sent out the wrong message and discouraged strong participation.

But despite some setback and struggles with this strategy, the overall results point to an acceptance of the value of continuous learning in an organization, both in times of economic and social challenge as well as in times of prosperity.

Going forward, this concept will continue to gain validity and acceptance among HR professionals and business leaders.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that can be foreseen from this survey is the conversations that can take place, among employees at all levels, regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their organization. A survey on learning and development should be used as a diagnostic tool to promote and foster learning.

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