What HR professionals say you should know about workplace learning (Part 1/2)

by | 07.09.2022

Learning on the job is as relevant as ever. Today’s workforce must adapt to the demands of digitalization, modern leadership, and ecological reconstruction — to name a few. Conventional degrees alone can’t prepare people for their entire working lives anymore. The winning organizations are the ones able to up-skill and re-skill their talent, maximizing competence and retention.

How to successfully promote learning at your workplace? We interviewed human resources (HR) professionals from eight organizations with 100–10,000 employees, including FCG Finnish Consulting Group, the Finnish Legal Register Centre, Midagon, Talented, Thoughtworks, and Verkkokauppa.com. Here’s what we learned from them.

Competency mapping is considered valuable when it’s simple enough

How do you know which staff capabilities should be developed the most? Many of the organizations interviewed had mapped or were in the process of mapping their competencies and learning needs. This is mainly done to understand how the workforce proficiencies align with the business expertise needs. Typically the focus is on the set of competencies needed to execute the company strategy but the employees’ personal goals shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Huge surveys weren’t considered the most elegant way to go about this. Some organizations centrally collected learning needs from development discussions based on the desired growth areas the supervisors identify. Others had a more decentralized approach, having teams in charge of developing the necessary skills for their operation.

Systems with hundreds of key competencies and thousands of sub-skills were deemed too complex to be practical. The added value was not perceived to be high enough for the effort it takes. However, with the right granularity, standardizing the terminology about competence levels can be valuable. They can be further used for framing the compensation and reward systems, offering employees more transparency and fairness.

Proper tools have to be in place for maintaining an up-to-date understanding of people’s skills and knowledge. A spreadsheet won’t usually do since the information has to be widely usable and accessible in the organization.

Learning is a key part of a successful organizational transformation

Organizational transformations are a clear case of elevated learning needs across teams. The level of change readiness varies between individuals and organizations. It can be built up by equipping people with the relevant expertise for autonomously transforming their teams and functions. The interviewees shared experiences of renewal projects getting stuck due to people not understanding what the changes are, why they have been decided to be implemented, and how they are going to be carried out in practice. The demands on the staff are especially high if several changes are happening simultaneously.

“Too often companies try solving their problems by bringing in new people.”

Despite transformations being sometimes huge and costly undertakings, it may not be possible to avoid them indefinitely. “Too often companies try solving their problems by bringing in new people,” notes Alina Saari, the CEO of Talented. “Sometimes they need a more profound reform. As an example, hiring is not a sustainable way to fix employee churn. After all, longer tenures and internal career development are important ways to grow in a competitive talent market.

The most important renewal initiatives have to run through the entire company strategy. The leadership needs to be closely involved and the focus sustained long enough for real change to happen. A successful organizational change can involve training sessions, follow-up forums, and homework between them. Training just one individual seldom has the desired effect on a team’s ways of working. Involving the whole group instead can be an opportunity for reviewing common practices and building mutual understanding.

Employees must own their development, enabled by the employer

You can easily tell from people in a classroom if their attendance is not voluntary — and that those are probably not getting the most out of it. Learning is an active process requiring a curious state of mind and the right motivation. This is why the HR professionals were hesitant to introduce mandatory training unless necessary, e.g. for compliance reasons. Instead, they were influencing attitudes: helping people to see the value and reminding them it’s refreshing to participate in something out of the everyday grind.

“It’s different to say ‘go take this course’ versus ‘we have this learning program’.”

For all that, many mentioned that participation in learning at their workplace is distributed unevenly, with some employees barely utilizing any self-development opportunities. The conceptions of lifelong learning vary. People regarding themselves as experts may think they have already reached the apex. Some might think carving the required time out is selfish unless they are told to take a course. In some cases, occupational incentives (financial or other types) are stacked against learning. There has to be the right kind of stimuli in the operating environment to encourage these different types of people.

Flexible micro-learning is becoming increasingly alluring compared to comprehensive training programs. On the other hand, HR has to think about how to attract people in the competitive talent market. “The employers have to signal their investment into employee learning,” comments Alex Gibson-Massey, previously Global Employee Engagement Lead at Thoughtworks. “It’s different to say ‘go take this course’ versus ‘we have this learning program’.”

Still, many ask for classes since that’s what they associate with learning.”

When employees take the action themselves, they can typically choose from a set of learning opportunities offered by their employer. If there are no existing possibilities, they usually talk with their manager or someone from HR. The willingness to support these initiatives is high, although sometimes there are budgetary or other constraints. This can cause a mismatch between anticipation and reality. Matias Komulainen, Chief HR Officer at FCG remarks: “Our employee development program is diverse and formal training is just one of its elements. Still, many ask for classes since that’s what they associate with learning.” The employees might not think about all the other types of development opportunities. Instead of just being a gatekeeper, HR can defuse these situations by sparring, motivating, and challenging to find the solution that maximizes effectiveness and supports the business. 

In the second part of this post, we’ll cover which topics are currently in the highest demand, how to combine the best parts of online and in-person learning, when to design internal training, and how to evaluate learning outcomes.

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