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What’s the next phase for corporate learning?

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Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

My company just completed a year-long study of corporate learning organizations based on a survey of approximately 1,000 learning professionals and many interviews with learning leaders.  Its goal: to find the practices that have highest impact on people and business performance. The research results, including the 15 practices that have highest impact, are detailed in the comprehensive report, The Definitive Guide to Learning and Development.

For this column, I will focus on the overarching takeaway from the research: Corporate learning is evolving from learning in the flow of work to growth in the flow of work.

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Of the 94 practices we studied, those that have highest impact on business and people performance outcomes are the relevance of a company’s learning offerings and the way they support employee growth. This makes perfect sense. Many people are feeling stressed and sometimes overworked; they are also aware of other job options. If your company can deliver relevant and meaningful learning opportunities that help people grow, you’re making a positive impact on employees and paving the way for business success.

Our research found that the four areas that today’s learning organizations should be focusing on are programs and initiatives designed specifically for career growth; leadership development with an emphasis on cultivating a growth mindset; a learning culture that facilitates mentoring, coaching and job mobility; and L&D innovation resulting from adoption of skills technologies, microlearning and other new solutions.

Skills training alone is not enough for growth

Certainly, employees need certain granular skills to do their jobs. But, in order to put new skills to work, employees need context, experience and mentoring. This comes from taking a stretch assignment, working on a new project, meeting someone who can help fill in knowledge gaps or similar activities. There’s no point in providing skills training without such opportunities.  That’s what’s we mean when we talk about stretching the role of L&D to focus on growth, not just learning.

Published in June, McKinsey’s Human Capital at Work: The Value of Experience report shows that most of an employee’s long-term earnings comes from the experience gained by taking on new roles or even new jobs. In other words, people grow (both personally and in terms of income) through new assignments, projects or jobs; skills training alone provides limited value.

We know this in our own lives. A course may increase our knowledge or awareness about a particular topic, but turning that knowledge into an actual capability comes through experience on the job. This is why providing such growth opportunities is important for corporate L&D.

Research shows that scientists, engineers and most businesspeople benefit from multi-disciplinary skills, or what is called T-shaped development. (Think about the vertical line of the “T” as an area of specialty and the crossbars representing knowledge and skills in other areas.)

When I interviewed Vidya Krishnan, the CLO at Ericsson, about the company’s plans to develop skills related to 5G, she explained to me that 5G technology is changing almost everything in the telecommunications industry. New products and services, new business models and new consulting skills are being created. So, a great 5G engineer or product manager needs to understand not only 5G technology, but also many new adjacent domains.

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Think about global climate change. No single domain can address this critical issue. We need energy engineers, meteorologists, economists, behavioral scientists and politicians to come together. In the context of a company, such challenges would be tackled with cross-functional teams. Corporate L&D teams have to take a lead in encouraging and supporting such cross-functional projects.

What this means for HR and L&D teams

Our research provides a clear roadmap for this transition, and much of the work done over the last years will provide an excellent foundation.  Microlearning offerings, LXP investments, skills engines, capability academies and talent marketplace platforms all give organizations a head start on making this change. Certainly, the need for compliance training, onboarding, technical training and operational skills remains. But L&D and HR leaders must put all of these initiatives into the context of employee growth.

By building the right learning experiences and critical future skills, learning organizations can help workers amplify their future growth potential while ensuring sustained business success. Learning is the linchpin—the most critical piece for developing skills, enabling growth and resolving the talent crisis of today.