Professional growth and development is one of the top drivers of employee retention, and as research increasingly shows, it is also one of the top factors contributing to a positive employee experience. A Qualtrics report on employee experience trends found earlier this year that opportunities for growth and development are the number one driver of employee engagement; research from the Consumer Technology Association indicates that high-skills training and professional development programs are among the top benefits that keep employees with their organization.
Enabling learning and development is not just a matter of rolling out programs, though. It requires organizations to actively build and sustain a culture that encourages people to improve themselves. What's more, it requires organizations to provide people with the resources needed for that improvement.
A healthy organizational culture is one that values learning
"Culture and continuous learning is fundamentally a focus on people," said Rosie Cairnes, Skillsoft's vice president for APAC. If corporate culture is to be healthy and support wider engagement, she explained, there must be adequate investment in people.
Employees themselves definitely appreciate companies that place value on their learning and development. One study by Culture Amp found that up to 54 percent of immediate employee retention is associated with the person's belief that their employer is contributing to their development, while people who feel they have access to the learning and development they need are 21 percent more engaged than those who don't.
"The ability for continuous learning is a differentiator by which savvy employees are deciding which corporate culture they want to be a part of, and is as attractive as any other benefit or incentive provided," Cairnes told People Matters.
"Offering a space and genuine commitment to continuous learning is in itself a culture and driving a positive culture for learning, including the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, is a competitive advance in the war for talent."
Make learning relevant by making it personalized
A survey by the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work found that employees are more likely to embrace learning if it is personalized to their needs, and especially if their employer provides them with the time and funding to take it up.
Roselin Lee, vice president of human resources for Shiseido Asia Pacific, shared that her team has seen significant success with customizing training programs to individual employees' needs. "I believe strongly in a philosophy called ‘people over process’, where we should meet the needs and wants of our employees and be flexible in engaging different demographics," she said. "My team works closely with partners, both locally and globally, to build programs that cater to various levels of employees and where they are at in terms of their professional development."
One important initiative they are working on, she said, is a level-based learning roadmap which focuses on different needs and skill sets in the areas of both technical and leadership development. The roadmap offers all employees four levels of learning and allows them to select the programs that will provide them with the skills they require—essentially trusting them to understand their own needs and progression, and to acquire the training that is most relevant to them. She said:
"Gone is the era when training equated to sitting in a classroom for eight hours. In today’s environment, we have to adjust to how our employees want to learn. The focus should be on empowering employees to integrate learning with work and skill themselves, through system generated personalized learning suggestions based on their individual aspirations."
Such a personalized, autonomous approach is the best way forward, agreed Nick Hutton, the Asia regional director of D2L. "Every individual brings a unique skill set to the table, so a one-size-fits-all model will not address everyone’s strengths and weaknesses across the board," he said. Citing a Harvard Business Review study, he pointed out that many professionals do understand their learning gaps and know what needs to be done to bridge them, and they are willing to put in the effort to do so.
Get employee buy-in by making it straightforward
Relevance and the autonomy to choose are only half the story, though. At the end of the day, many people still appreciate having some direction to follow, especially if that direction means that the organization will support them in terms of providing time and other resources. The pursuit of learning and development is no different. Research from LinkedIn has found that 68 percent of employees would rather learn at work—in other words, they would prefer that their employer set aside time from the workday for them to learn, rather than they having to find the time themselves.
"Employees should be provided with a clear direction and progressive path for learning to get to their career goals so that they’ll feel encouraged to take charge of their own learning," said Hutton. "Other ways to encourage learning within corporate organisation include making it easy for employees to discover learning opportunities through a clear and concise corporate library so they’ll always have the relevant learning easily accessible."
Incorporating learning into performance management would be another effective way of simultaneously structuring it and helping employees understand why it is necessary, suggested Andrew Chan, CEO of ACI HR Solutions. "I believe that not having employees’ buy-in on their training needs is a recipe for failure, as their motivation for training, and work matters in general, will be diminished over time," he said. "Having a structured training program in place would be highly effective. Every performance review should be followed by a training plan, one that can be executed to achieve and improve on the areas needed to upskill in an employee."
COVID-19: both a challenge and an opportunity for learning
Even as organizations move towards a greater focus on employee learning, however, the COVID-19 pandemic seems likely to throw a spoke in everyone's wheel. Executive attention and financial resources are now being diverted to tackling more pressing business needs: earlier this year, Mercer's 2020 global talent trends study found that over a quarter of executives plan to respond to the economic downturn by cutting back reskilling and learning and development initiatives, and this is likely becoming reality today.
At the same time, though, the crisis presents an opportunity for learning and development, partly because companies are attempting to prepare their talent pool for the post-crisis recovery, and partly because many people are more likely to start considering upskilling as a strong option for job security and seeking new employment. Chan suggested that employers should view the situation more as an opportunity: they should continue with regular training programs and embed these into organizational culture on a consistent basis.
The pandemic is also changing the focus on learning. Skillsoft's Rosie Cairns said that she has observed three unusual trends in learning solutions today, two of which are attributable to the COVID-19 crisis: the first is an acceleration of digital transformation, as organizations adapt to remote work, find ways of doing more with less, and deal with rapid change. The second is a growing focus on leadership acumen and developing a sound leadership pipeline to strengthen business continuity, which in itself involves a change in the way leaders are identified and trained.
Beyond COVID-19, she added, the third trend is the extent to which the concept of learning experience is dominating today's conversation. "It’s not just what is important to learn for today’s work. It’s just as important to design how learning is delivered to meet the expectations of the modern learner," she observed.