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

by | 26.09.2022

In the previous part of this post, we explored competency mapping, organizational transformation, and employee learning paths. Here we continue sharing insights from our conversations with human resources (HR) professionals from 8 organizations with 100–10,000 employees, including FCG Finnish Consulting Group, the Finnish Legal Register Centre, Midagon, Talented, Thoughtworks, and Verkkokauppa.com.

Digital know-how and interpersonal skills are in high demand

We asked what kind of learning needs these organizations have. Naturally, skill requirements differ between industries and various functions in an organization. It wouldn’t make sense to list every conceivable topic here. However, we were able to identify some common themes widely relevant to many. Most organizations had learning needs for digital skills, ranging from basic proficiency to deeper knowledge of more specific technologies. Unsurprisingly, cybersecurity was identified as a topic of particular significance.

But perhaps more importantly, nearly all mentioned leadership and interpersonal skills. Project management and agile methods were considered necessary, especially for improving ways of working or helping in organizational transformation. Other topics mentioned include interaction, communication, facilitation, dialog, team building, giving feedback, psychological safety, self-awareness, empathy, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), customer understanding, and presentation. Many establishments have leadership training programs for their management but this is not necessarily considered adequate anymore. These foundational skills are nowadays indispensable for teams at all levels of the organization. The fact that leadership and interpersonal skills are not a part of many conventional, institutional degrees makes them even more relevant to learn at the workplace.

“We thought it had to be in-person learning. Then COVID-19 pulled the rug, forcing us to be more innovative.”

Online learning offers flexibility but its effectiveness is lost if not blended with social interaction

“We thought it had to be in-person learning. Then COVID-19 pulled the rug, forcing us to be more innovative,” recounts Alex Gibson-Massey, back then Global Employee Engagement Lead at Thoughtworks. When the pandemic hit, even the most ardent devotees of classroom training had to adapt. By now, many of us have gotten familiar with remote learning and online courses. Still, it’s not realistic to expect remote solutions to fully substitute in-person equivalents yet. The interviewees noticed a significant difference in engagement between the two. Participants can feel exhausted after interacting online whereas they are more comfortable socializing and networking when physically present.

In particular, online courses alone are not a replacement for learning in a group. Electronic course content can add structure to training programs and allow absorbing information in smaller parts. That can be helpful as people can take in only so much at once. But learning is not just about one-way information transfer. For people to learn, they have to interact, solve problems, share insights, tell about their experiences, and apply the information in practice.

Many of the professionals mentioned the 70:20:10 guideline, according to which employee development consists of approximately 70% hands-on experience, 20% interaction with colleagues, and 10% formal training. While the percentages are not exact, they remind us that training and courses, while prominent in the HR toolkit, are just a part of the bigger picture. Practical applications shouldn’t be just an afterthought in teaching.

People not finding the time to study on their own is also a frequent problem. Self-studying puts pressure on the individual and, as many of us know, it feels there’s nearly always something more urgent. Consequently, training might not reach the people who would need it the most. Adding structure, schedules, and social interaction can help alleviate this problem. For example, a cohort of people can study a course at the same pace with scheduled checkpoints to discuss the learnings and applications.

Internal training is suited for instilling values and sharing practical applications

Which training programs should be organized internally and when to acquire third-party expertise? In organizations with a lot of similar roles, it’s easier to build clear learning paths and find economies of scale in internal training. One of the main benefits of internal training is that it can be customized for the organization’s context. For example, it’s not enough to know what agile methods are, but people need to know how to apply them to their specific teams, products, projects, and customers. Teaching company culture and values, in particular, is relevant for every employee but not practical to outsource completely.

“Build an internal training fully attached to the company culture that can be then scaled to the rest of the organization.”

Yet it’s beneficial to regularly bring in knowledge from the outside, whether to hear about industry best practices or to help with limited resourcing. Many of the people we talked to had purchased training tailored to their own needs from third parties. Another practice was to train internal coaches who can support others while carrying out their main duties. A further method was to first hire an external trainer and then design internal training based on the learnings. One of the interviewees explains: “If we want to change something on the company-level we hire an outside trainer for the first round. That helps us build an internal training fully attached to the company culture that can be then scaled to the rest of the organization.”

Evaluating learning outcomes relies a lot on self-assessment

To understand the return on investment of various learning initiatives and to improve them, some sort of measurement of their impact has to be in place. Demonstrating effectiveness can make training programs also more attractive to participate in. Nevertheless, many of the organizations interviewed didn’t have a systematic way of evaluating learning results.

Ultimately, learning and development should be reflected in business outcomes such as improved productivity and employee retention. Those metrics, however, are not always actionable since they are difficult to attribute to individual learning activities. One of the simplest ways to understand the value is to rely on the judgment of the participants. If people attending a course find it valid and relevant, there’s probably a reason to trust that. But to know if people remember and can apply the knowledge in practice, you might want to ask them to do the assessment a couple of months after the course or training. Another method is to define the most important learning outcomes in advance, perhaps with the help of an expert in the field, and evaluate each of them individually.

The right balance has to be found since building a robust evaluation tends to have a cost on the agility of learning. The more people go through a course or a program and the fewer changes there are, the easier it is to evaluate it. Smaller organizations might not have the required scale for such extensive systems for all of their learning needs.

Does this sound like an awful lot to worry about? You don’t have to do it alone. MinnaLearn helps future-proof your workforce by combining award-winning online courses with expertly facilitated peer learning. Read more about our learning kits or send us a message at hello@minnalearn.com.

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