A gap in the Learning & Development landscape is plaguing businesses, reducing profits and slicing employee retention. It’s perhaps best described as a chasm between what businesses are trying to achieve and what they’re accomplishing.
The good news is 63 percent of workers now participate in job-related learning, according to the Pew Research Center. Executives are generally paying more attention to learning. Eighty percent of “L&D pros agree that developing employees is top-of-mind for the executive team,” according to a LinkedIn analysis. Meanwhile, 90 percent of executives believe L&D programs can help close a skills gap.
However, most employees aren’t getting the training they need. Three-quarters of organizations “currently focus primarily on traditional learning and development methods that fall short of empowering employees to acquire skills and take responsibility to improve the work itself,” according to a research report from Bersin by Deloitte titled High-Impact Learning Organization: Maturity Model and Top Findings.
Too often, today’s learning programs aren’t designed for the modern workforce, people who rarely have time to spend hours on an instructional course. “Today’s employees are overwhelmed, distracted and impatient,” Bersin declared in an infographic called Meet the Modern Learner. They can only spend 1 percent of their time on training and development. That aligns with LinkedIn’s research, in which half of L&D professionals say that have trouble getting workers to make time for learning.
While companies in 2016 spent just over $800 per employee on learning programs — $100 more than the previous year — the amount of time spent on learning dropped to 44 total hours, down from 54 in 2015, according to Training magazine’s annual industry report.
The upshot is that while most employees take part in some training, the most important connection isn’t being made: bringing together the right training with the right employees. Businesses aren’t ensuring that relevant L&D opportunities reach those who would benefit the most from them.
That hurts the bottom line. Successful Learning & Development is essential for employee engagement, and a study by the Corporate Leadership Council found that engaged, committed employees are 87 percent less likely to leave. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace said businesses should make sure their attraction and retention strategies not only highlight but also “deliver on” learning opportunities. “When employees feel they are learning and growing, they work harder and more efficiently,” it said.
Become a ‘Learning Organization’
The best way to address these problems is to transform how an entire company functions, Dani Johnson, vice president and Learning & Development research leader at Bersin by Deloitte, said, adding: “Organizations should shift away from viewing Learning & Development as separate, external activities … Instead, they should focus on making employee development the responsibility of the entire organization — creating a true learning organization.”
Deloitte recommends creating “the right conditions, instead of the right content.” That means offering “feedback loops and collecting data to help employees make better decisions about their work and their own development.” The more managers make an analysis of employees’ skills and growth an integral part of the work week, the more employees will see learning as a part of their job.
We asked people with diverse professional backgrounds for their ideas about how businesses should get the right knowledge to the right people. Their answers:
“Make it all available online,” said Katie Mehnert, a former corporate network leader turned entrepreneur.
Even with all of the modern interconnectivity available, 41 percent of the training in businesses was delivered in a classroom setting in 2016, while 30 percent was provided online, including webcasts, Training magazine reports. But Deloitte found that the vast majority of workers want online courses in brief chunks, explaining: “Most learners won’t watch videos longer than four minutes.”
There’s also a striking absence of L&D options available via mobile devices. Only 3 percent of training was delivered by mobile in 2016, even though workers are increasingly looking for mobile resources.
Besides making training available in bite sizes, businesses should work with employees at all levels to map out individualized learning strategies.
“Discuss training and development programs during your annual review and agree with your manager which you will take that year,” recommended Alissa Butterfass, former marketing manager at a New York area Fortune 100 company.
This doesn’t mean managers should decide alone what the right development steps are for each employee, noted J. Parrish Lewis, project director for a nonprofit community benefits organization in California. Employees and supervisors should exchange ideas in both directions about areas where each could use training.
“The annual review's the perfect opportunity for individual feedback from each employee, and for the employers to give honest assessments,” Lewis said. “When I’ve conducted reviews, I’ve emphasized that I want to work with staff to support their professional growth. I want the same for myself as well. So I consider this as a give-and-take process with both managers and staff equally invested.”
Pay for It
“Give employees a planned number of paid days and a budget to do continuing education, training, development,” said Butterfass. Otherwise, she and others agree, the learning won’t happen.
Judy Stasack, a former business development professional in the energy field, encourages executives to take another step: “Provide temps so employees can really be attentive to their training and not have their work back up. A lot of people won’t attend when they know it means double duty or a pile when they get back.”
Make it Mandatory
Leo Downey, chief information officer for a Maryland plumbing/HVAC company, believes L&D programs should be mandated.
“Usually the people who most benefit from training are the people who are already pulling 60-hour work weeks, and the company doesn't want to lose that productivity,” he said. But when businesses require participation — and require supervisors to make it feasible — there’s a much better shot that it will actually take place.
There’s also another benefit to making learning mandatory, said Jeff Jackson, who has spent 20 years as a sales professional and trainer. To some employees, participation doesn’t sound enticing, the resident of New York’s Rockland County said, but once they experience it, they’re pleasantly surprised.
Hone Areas of Strength, Not Just Weakness
Several people we spoke with complained that businesses too often focus training on areas in which employees are struggling.
“Play to people's strengths and get training that helps them improve even more in those areas, instead of only providing training in their weak areas,” Butterfass said. “Yes, you may need training to become at least competent in a skill ... I would rather have a company put me in a position that leverages my strong areas and continues to build on them than continue to focus year after year on an area that I was never going to be the best at. Not every person is going to be great at everything.”
Such misplaced priorities can hurt company morale, said Sandy Belknap, a Boston area communications strategist. “Businesses need to focus more on top performers and help create development plans. Too much focus on underperformers often negatively impacts the more motivated and productive team members.”
Harness Employees as Teachers
A business shouldn’t forget that one of its best resources for teaching is the expertise of its own staff. Building a successful Learning & Development culture means giving employees not only time to learn but also time to train each other.
“Offer incentives to those employees who have expertise in a certain area and can demonstrate leadership by hosting a development seminar or two,” said Lila Kawas, a New York City public school teacher. The “intrinsic motivation” associated with getting to share their skills is often motivation enough, but businesses could also offer rewards like “tickets to something or a gift card” as incentives, she said.
Follow Up Regularly
“Training and L&D are great for groups and individuals, but there needs to be some type of follow-up,” said Jennifer Malach, an executive and career coach in the New York area. A manager or designated coach should make sure learning “sticks” and help people “apply that learning to real-life situations.”
“Don’t wait until the one-time annual review,” she said. “There should be ongoing conversations not just with managers but perhaps also with peers, direct reports and the whole team as well.”
Overcome Your Fear
Employers need to get over their “short-sighted” fear that “any education or betterment of their lower-paid employees will lead them to seek higher pay or to move on,” said Downey. “Imagine if they took pride that all their former employees were trained well enough to excel in any company they move on to. Eventually they would have so many qualified candidates beating down their door. But at first glance, adopting that attitude is not intuitive.”
As the saying goes: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
In the end, different styles and programs will mesh with different company cultures and even different types of employees. “One size does not fit all,” Kawas said. That’s why it’s helpful to “differentiate and offer a variety of development programs.”
With frequent checkups on how well the plan is going, and data showing which efforts are working best, each business can become its own “true learning organization.”