Why “Learning” is My Word of the Year

We know that learning is important, not just to meet future business needs but also to help build an employer brand that attracts and retains top talent. But what many of us don’t know is what kind of learning to deploy.

Dirk Verburg
Think about talent in a whole new way

Turn your workforce into a true force


If you’ve been paying any attention to what’s going on in the human capital world, you know that 2020 is most definitely “the year of employee learning.”

A global skills shortage, the rapid impact of advanced technologies, demographic shifts, and disruptive business models have created a need to transform our workforces—rapidly and continually—to realize the full potential of individuals and power the business into the future. 

This will be a year that will test our ability to effectively assess changing conditions and adapt accordingly.

This year, an increasing number of companies will realize that they can no longer “buy” talent to fill their needs; they must go out and “build” the workforces they need through deliberate and thoughtful approaches to employee learning.

This will be a huge challenge for many organizations that either do little to provide learning opportunities or are mired in outdated and ineffective models of learning. Study after study by both academic institutions and leading human capital companies confirm that we are not doing enough, and what we are doing is missing the mark.

Current research from Gartner’s “Future of Work” study notes that, while 73 percent of CHROs believe that “building employee-critical skills and competencies” are top priorities, only nine percent feel their workforce is actually prepared for the future of work. Nearly half (46 percent) are concerned they don’t have the skills needed to drive their organizations’ future performance. That is a pretty severe indictment of our current approach to learning.

Employees have similar desires and concerns. Only 20 percent of employee respondents in the Gartner study believe they currently have the skills to meet current and future job demands. It’s no surprise then that employees, aware that they could get left behind as the very nature of work changes, are hungry for new learning opportunities.

A 2019 study by Harvard Business Publishing and Degreed revealed that nearly half of all employees surveyed were unhappy with their employer’s learning and development programs. That is a real concern in a tight talent market where numerous opinion surveys reveal that employees value things like career opportunities and organizational culture well above salary.

So, we know that learning is important, not just to meet future business needs but also to help build an employer brand that attracts and retains top talent. But what many of us don’t know is what kind of learning to deploy. There are many approaches, and not all will be a good fit for your organization.

It’s important to understand that many workers, particularly those from younger generations, are looking for new ways of learning that allow for greater customization in both mode and content. Previously, far too many organizations developed boilerplate learning programs that were applied to all employees in one particular level of a company, all at once. Everyone got the same training in the same way, even if they didn’t have the same learning requirements. Younger generations want more control over what and how they learn.

Seventy percent of operating budgets are spent on talent—making talent a company’s single largest investment. Yet, companies have little insight into the skills they need, who to hire, who to develop, and which leaders will drive results—making talent the single largest threat to a company’s success. 

All of the above begs the question: how can companies generate the highest return on investment that will drive growth into the future? The key can be found in taking the time to identify the knowledge deficits within your organization and the best way for individuals to learn.

This will require you to take a methodical approach to redesigning your strategy. As new modes of learning are developed, we’re recognizing that each employee has unique learning needs and preferred ways of learning, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. 

We see many organizations still heavily reliant on classroom-based learning. When designed effectively, group learning can be a very successful way to develop collaboration skills, hone critical thinking skills, bond and build a sense of team camaraderie, and foster a consistent culture within an organization. But only a small percentage of learners are well-served with this approach. Here are a few things to consider as you seek to design a program that prepares all employees for future success:

  • Know what skills you need: Before you can design an effective learning program, you need to know more about what your people need to learn. This starts with translating the business strategy in a workforce plan. This workforce plan needs to be compared with the current workforce in order to establish the delta. The next step is to define how you will bridge the gap. This often will be a combination of upskilling and reskilling, redeployment, and career transitions. 
  • Reimagine career paths: Traditionally, career paths were reserved for individuals who were expected to be able to move to more senior positions. However, the talent spectrum is much more multifaceted today. Not all employees are interested in moving to more senior positions; some people seek different career paths (e.g., moving to another discipline or geography). Companies cannot afford to rely on “hire and fire” anymore in today’s labor market, and demands on the labor market are continuously evolving. Therefore, career development plans not only need to be strategic and support the business objectives of the organization, they also need to address each employee’s skills and ambitions, as well as the demands of the (future) internal and external labor market.  
  • Eliminate redundant learning: One of the biggest mistakes organizations make around learning is plugging people into programs that teach them things they already know. Not only does this waste time and money, it also creates a sense among employees that the organization’s approach to learning is random and unfocused.
  • Drive efficiency with mass customization: Every person has a preferred learning style. Some people excel at independent learning. These individuals tend to be curious, engaged, and very self-motivated; all they need is access to learning materials and time to absorb them. Others are more motivated by just-in-time learning that provides access to targeted micro-learning tools exactly when needed. Some people need a more hands-on experience, where they have access to an instructor or a coach. And then there are people who need co-learners around them to exchange ideas and to develop insights. Organizations need to recognize this and offer learning in a variety of platforms and modes. 

The challenge for organizations when designing training programs is to be more deliberate in the way they deliver learning. Try to identify program elements that would benefit most from classroom delivery, and decide which elements can be better delivered through webinars, micro-learning, and either virtual or in-person coaching.

Many organizations are making skill building a priority. If your organization is in that category, ask yourself: are you doing a good job connecting employees with development opportunities? Are the types of learning experiences you’re offering achieving results? And, does your current culture support development of new skills? 

If you answer yes to all three questions, your talent pipeline is most likely strong and deep. But if you answer no, the absence of a focused plan to deal with the future of work might make you vulnerable to a future skills shortage.

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