On-the-job learning more important than ever

Originally published in the Globe & Mail April 12, 2021

Learning-agile, continuous learning, lifelong learning – however you want to frame it, professional learning has evolved significantly over the past two decades. We’ve gone from organizations telling employees what training courses are required for their job, to encouraging employees to take accountability for their own learning journey and career. Long gone are the days when employees went offsite to participate in days-long training sessions, returning a week later and considered “trained.” Particularly over the past year, we have all been forced to be creative in our learning approach: both from an organizational and from an individual perspective. This is in part because skills and business needs continue to change so rapidly, and in part because an abruptly forced digital and remote work force has made some of our go-to learning methods obsolete (at least for now).

In a recent Future FoHRward workshop with Canadian senior human resources executives, it was found that some of the biggest obstacles to enabling a learning culture were the lack of agility and effectiveness of traditional programs, an overwhelming amount of content and the leadership mindset. In order to address these challenges, the following three aspects of learning should be considered – as individuals, as leaders and at an enterprise level:

BROADENED DEFINITION OF LEARNING Like Simon Brown, chief learning officer at Novartis was quoted as saying, continuous learning organizations are “blurring the boundaries between what is learning and what is work and creating the environment, whether that is cultural environment, technological environment, mindset, so that people are actually constantly learning and that the work becomes learning.” Progressive organizations are launching initiatives such as internal “gigs” (short-term projects) designed not just to cover capacity gaps, but also primarily for employee development – learning becomes the work and work becomes the learning. Other learning initiatives, including mentoring and digital skills adoption, are being taken to the next level, with the power of technology. For example, companies such as Together are helping organizations advance their mentoring programs through automation. Companies including Lemonade help make learning more engaging through gamification. Knowledge management and sharing is also an important component of learning – for example, many companies are encouraging sharing of user-generated videos and other content to bring colleagues up to speed more quickly and efficiently.

LEARNING IN THE FLOW In many organizations, there is no shortage of great learning content – the challenge is in deploying the content in ways in which employees want to consume it (that is, not by sifting through learning management system course catalogues). Learning in the flow requires that job-relevant content is served up at the time of user need. It seems impossible that until about a decade ago, we were able to get anything done without Google, YouTube and TikTok. And what would Netflix be without its automated recommendations (in addition to those suggested by our human trusted contacts)? Similarly, in a professional context, the power of technology enables an adaptive and curated learning journey, meeting employees where they are. The key word here is curated – self-directed learning has been a big trend over the past few years; however, drawing a parallel to the Netflix example, without leadership guidance and prioritization, ideally coupled with intelligent tools to create personalized experiences or “learner journeys,” we end up with an overwhelming amount of undoubtedly great content without context – leading to lower uptake.

LEADERSHIP MINDSET AND SUPPORT When times get busy, learning is the first thing to drop from our to-do lists – which is ironic since, according to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, it can be one of the most important ways to advance the chief executive officer’s agenda, by intervening in the places that matter most. In order to enable a learning agile organization, employees need to trust that learning is a priority. Leaders can enable this by:

  • Articulating a focused set of business priorities requiring skill development.
  • Protecting teams’ learning time, like they would other high-priority commitments.
  • Supporting to-learn lists, in addition to to-do lists.
  • Mandating time to learn, synchronously as a team (for example, lunch and learns) and asynchronously, based on how and when individuals learn best.
  • Having regular and open conversations about development plans, focused on current job, as well as career aspirations.
  • Encouraging on-the-job development, including “gigs” within other departments.
  • Treating all work activities as learning moments, and coaching employees to view them as such.

In this rapidly changing business landscape, learning is not a nice-to-have, but a critical part of business execution. Enabling the right mindset and ensuring employees are given, and take advantage of, the space to learn (not necessarily more, but better) is essential to build the agility we need for our organizations to survive.

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