Article: Learning and development – hope or reality?

Learning & Development

Learning and development – hope or reality?

Productivity in most sectors has been stagnant for a decade and, in all sectors, falls short of expectations.
Learning and development – hope or reality?

In the last two decades, we have seen an explosion in the range, power, and accessibility of tools to help us to communicate and learn.  Within seconds, we are able to connect with an expert on virtually anything, anywhere in the world.  We can search for and find articles, white papers, and instruction sheets on how to do almost anything from how to tie a bow tie, to how to speak another language, and even how to make a bomb.  In addition to what is generally available, most large organizations also complement this with internal Learning Management Systems, crammed with additional materials, many focused on each organization’s unique needs. 

So, surely, we must be the most skilled, the happiest, and the most relaxed generation of workers ever … shouldn’t we?  We have, “How to do anything” right at our fingertips.  But, wait, the evidence does not support this, does it?

  • Productivity in most sectors has been stagnant for a decade and, in all sectors, falls short of expectations;
  • Stress, mental illness, and short-term absenteeism are at record levels;
  • The quality of people management is generally poor and a primary trigger for attrition, grievances, and low employee engagement;
  • Social intercourse is characterised by disrespect, aggression, and curtness.

So, what is going wrong?  

Across the board, we are not investing in effective development.  Much of our current learning and development activity is driven by populism, cost, and HR’s passion for simplification.

Hopefully you work in an organization that is an exception.  If you do, that could well be exceptional!  But many face the harsh reality that learning and development needs may be clear, but addressing them may not be prioritized.  Ask any executive if they believe in learning and development and you will almost certainly receive an unequivocal and rapid response of, “Of course.  It is critically important.”  Ask stakeholders the same question and you will elicit a similar response. Ask, the senior finance managers the same question and responses will be far more guarded.  Even though we now know that investment in Employee Engagement can produce demonstrable financial returns, the same is not yet believed about investment in wider learning and development.  

When prioritization of limited funds is needed, senior management pays more attention to initiatives with demonstrable financial return, and with the potential for short term results – urgency beats importance.

This is not to say that many of the tools we now have are not valuable.  Quite the contrary.  Many learning needs require access to information – knowledge.  And, contemporary tools meet that need exceedingly well. But, even more require development of skill … and, that takes time, practice, and refinement.  As the cliché goes, “You can learn about riding a bicycle from a video but you can only learn to ride one by doing it.”  And, therein lies the rub.

Across the board, we are not investing in effective development.  Much of our current learning and development activity is driven by populism, cost, and hr’s passion for simplification  

I see the following problems:

  • Many organizations that have cut-back on face-to-face experiential development, have not done sufficient research to understand which needs require that form of development and which needs can be addressed well by merely providing access to information, or learning.
    For example, it is perfectly feasible to learn, ”How to evaluate options when making a decision” by watching a video or even reading a book.  But, if you want to learn, “How to undertake the negotiation that making that choice may lead to,” eLearning is most likely not going to equip you with the skill … only an appreciation for and understanding of it.
  • Most organizations are not equipping their employees, especially managers, with the skill needed to take control of their own development.  This leaves those individuals floundering and wondering what to do next.
    Yet, it is easy to equip individuals with the skills needed to reflect on their past, define their desired future, self-assess, identify skill and knowledge gaps, identify appropriate learning and development options, select appropriate courses of action, implement their plan, and evaluate its impact to inform the next cycle.  But most organizations don’t do that!  Why? It takes time, effort, and funding, and only produces long-term impact.
  • Most organizations appear to assume that, “If we make enough material readily available, everyone will become highly skilled.”  That is about as robust as, “If we make healthy food and opportunities to exercise available, everyone will be healthy and fit” … and, we all know how well that works!  Development simply does not work like that.  
    Evidence is growing that most Learning Management Systems are seriously underutilised and that individuals typically access such learning options only when specifically triggered to do so, when a crisis occurs that might be addressed that way, or when they already have a passion for a subject.  They don’t typically engage in strategic development.

Most organizations prioritize any genuine development activity based on short term needs such as:

  • Job-specific training (often part of on-boarding)
  • Health & safety training
  • Compliance training (e.g., to satisfy legislative, fiscal, ISO, or regulatory requirements)
  • Wellness, diversity, and stress management … or other high profile topics
  • Procedural changes e.g., new performance management process
  • Populist topics e.g., the latest management buzz topic.

Generic management, leadership, and personal effectiveness skills development has been ruthlessly cut over the past few years … and we will pay the price for that!

At the same time, many organizations, especially multi-nationals, are focusing on immediate challenges such as Brexit in the EU, the so-called trade war between the USA and China, concerns about instability in the middle-east, growing economic presence from Russia, ….  Of course, these are massive challenges and need attention.  AND, we need to lift our heads and look forwards.

Population and economic growth data, when combined, show that we are heading towards a much bigger and more difficult challenge.  By 2030 most predictions now show that we will have a substantially reduced working headcount, a dramatically higher demand for highly-skilled staff and a much reduced demand for low-skilled staff.  Resourcing our prevailing demand will become difficult. Resourcing growth might become impossible. 

Most organizations are not equipping their employees, especially managers, with the skill needed to take control of their own development.  This leaves those individuals floundering and wondering what to do next

The only sustainable longer-term solutions are for organizations to:

  1. Rapidly increase real productivity – units of output per unit of human resource input;
  2. Rapidly develop the skills needed to achieve 1. above and to meet the demands for higher in-post skill levels.

Achievement of these will only be possible if we see rapid increases in the skill levels of management and leadership.  This will first require attention to the processes via which they are selected but, more importantly, serious investment in pre-appointment, on-appointment, and post-appointment skill development.  We don’t need managers and leaders who KNOW HOW to do their jobs; we need managers and leaders who CAN do their jobs and DO them well.  Second, if we achieve the needed productivity levels, repetitive and mindless work will have been got rid of.  So, we will need to invest in the development of individual contributors as they take on the work which requires skilled human intervention and thus cannot be automated.  

Bottom line, the development pendulum may well need to swing back to include more strategic investment in genuine development, not merely learning.  The current level of cost savings being accrued from eLearning, on-demand learning, and web-based workshops may prove to be financially ill-advised.

 

Topics: Learning & Development

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