By Eric Wise
The digital skills gap and talent scarcity is not a short-term problem. To face this challenge head-on, companies need to start creating a culture of learning.
The evolution of skills and technology has hit a pace that is reducing the time available to acquire new competencies to a point where continuous learning is the most viable option not only for organizations that need to sense and adapt to changes with agility but also for individuals who need to stay relevant in the marketplace.
Creating a culture of learning sounds good as a catch-phrase, but what does it mean? The word culture implies a general sense of awareness and purpose across the organization, and ideally we want that culture to motivate the behavior we desire—in this case not having to push employees to learn and grow but rather that they naturally demand this behavior from themselves, their peers, and the organization.
Ideally, when done well, engagement will increase. There are many studies about the impact of engagement. The UK government commissioned a study that found that companies with higher employee engagement generate 27% more profit and that 67% of employees who feel engaged recommend working there. Maximizing engagement not only is more profitable but also makes talent attraction much easier.
Let’s look at some examples of how we can facilitate a culture of learning.
Communicate Your Vision (With Data)
In a recent webinar, Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, highlighted the rise of the hybrid role. The creation and growth of these roles will continue as automation, AI, etc. continue to push humans into nonroutine tasks that require more thinking than doing and leveraging new tools and techniques to get work done.
Not only do individuals have a personal interest in becoming more versatile, but leadership needs to have open conversations about how these trends apply to your company, what steps the company is taking in anticipation of future change, and what is being done to make it a rewarding experience.
Don’t Rely on General Benefits and Self Service
Some companies have subscription services and tuition reimbursement policies in place, but without clearly communicating the vision and providing specific guidance on continuous learning pathways and the important future skills in the roles, employees not only will avoid using these resources but also could experience demotivation in the form of being overwhelmed by the number of choices. Combined with a lack of clarity as to what learning pathways will offer the most significant benefit to them as an individual and the organization at large, this is the reason why gym memberships exist; you can watch YouTube workout videos for free, but most people prefer more structured guidance and personalized goals!
I’m a big believer in Aaron Hurst and his “Purpose Economy” views, which claim that purpose-oriented workers outperform their peers. There are three pillars in his work: professional growth, impact of work, and relationships. To enable a learning culture, you must align development across these three pillars. How much you weigh each one depends on the individual, so the easiest thing to do is have that conversation as part of the natural dialogue between leadership and employees.
Professional growth is often the easiest pillar to tackle. It means defining learning outcomes that lead to either improvement in useful skills (upskill) or adding additional skills that benefit a targeted new role (reskill).
Impact of work means that when employees engage in learning and acquire new skills and capabilities, they can contribute to projects in meaningful ways that utilize their new skills. Besides increasing engagement by being a reward, you prevent the newly acquired skills from lapsing into disuse, which lowers the overall ROI of the training dollar.
Relationships can drive engagement by rewarding participating employees with new connections in the organization, whether it is putting them on a cross-functional team for special projects or gaining access to mentorship from high ranked or more skillful peers. This approach can even be as simple as creating user groups or other informal “clubs” with other employees.
Don’t Forget About Recognition
Recognition is a critical part of the learning culture. From the top down, the organization should celebrate the acquisition of new, desired skills. Recognition can be achievement-based, by putting employees on essential initiatives. It can also be power-based, by letting a learner take active roles in projects that have high visibility to the public or executive leadership. Finally, it can also be affiliation-based, by giving them a chance to have colleagues they mentor or admire work with them.
The most impactful type of recognition depends on the personal preferences of the employee, but we all desire some aspects of each type. Recognition is especially important for the rarer, more technical skills, which already tend to be highly compensated and thus get diminishing returns on engagement when the recognition is only monetary.
Employees who thrive in a continuous learning environment will continue to be the most desired and marketable talent on the market. By turning upskilling and reskilling into fulfilling experiences for your team members, the result will be a culture that seeks out continuous learning as part of their regular activities. If leadership makes an effort to reward these behaviors appropriately with recognition, then the result will be skill acquisition and engagement that result in a win-win for the organization.
Eric Wise is director of enterprise solutions at Trilogy Education focusing on expanding our corporate training programs that help companies acquire, reskill, or upskill talent. In his role, Eric leads efforts to expand program areas such as data literacy and is heavily involved in instructor recruitment and thought leadership.