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It’s Time to Face the Three Challenges of Learning

Jun 29, 2023 | Public | 0 comments

Michael Austin/theispot.com

Most executives acknowledge that learning is crucial to the performance of their business. But at a recent research workshop that my team and I ran with executives from over 40 companies, it became clear that organizations’ traditional learning models are facing pressure from the emergence of new work models. The participants identified these three learning challenges as the most acute:

1. Increased workloads have reduced learning time. Eighty-eight percent of executives at our workshop chose workload pressures as one of their top challenges. They said that many employees, particularly those managing others, feel that their workloads have significantly increased in recent years. Some shared sensitive internal data that suggests burnout has increased during that period. The net result of higher workloads is that employees not only lack the headspace for learning but also feel pressured to prioritize work tasks over learning activities. Battling this challenge will require leaders to maximize the value of any available learning time.

2. Hybrid work has increased the complexity of learning. Two-thirds (66%) of executives said that flexibility in terms of where and when employees work is an important challenge. Executives fretted that employees may not be connected in moments that matter for formal and informal learning. Managers reported that they find it more difficult to identify development opportunities for remote employees and that they fear that remote work is having a negative impact on how people share tacit knowledge. Indeed, research shows that 47% of employees are concerned about missing out on informal learning opportunities while working from home. Addressing this challenge will require leaders to build a robust learning strategy in a hybrid business environment.

3. A tightening labor market has brought skill shortages. Sixty-five percent of executives identified finding workers with specialized skills as a major challenge. Many of the executives we spoke with said their companies have historically looked to the external labor market for these specialty hires. However, as the market tightens, particularly for hard-to-find digital skills, the focus has shifted to boosting the skills of internal employees. Reskilling has always been seen as important, but now it’s critical. Tackling this challenge will require leaders to align business strategy with expertly executed upskilling and reskilling initiatives.

While these are tough challenges to face, executives also acknowledge how important it is to solve them. Skill shortages are one reason, but there is also the significant motivational impact of successful corporate learning.

In today’s volatile labor market, where employees are quick to move from one job to a more advantageous opportunity, the chance to learn something new that will be valuable in the future is a central reason why they stay. Indeed, studies show that 76% of employees say they would stay at their jobs longer if they could benefit from learning and development support.

Moreover, in the face of growing concerns about workplace inequalities, there is a perception that skills-based learning can help to significantly reduce them. This is particularly the case for employees who are not highfliers, who don’t have a college degree or an educational certificate, or who have historically been excluded.

How Companies Are Relearning How to Learn

So here is the paradox: At the very time that learning is seen as a crucial part of the business strategy of many companies, those tasked with delivering on a learning agenda describe significant uphill battles.

Still, I’m seeing experiments by managers who are rising to the occasion by trying out new ways of learning and new ways of delivering learning that can be models for others in similar situations. Here’s how they’re addressing the three essential concerns.

1. They’re using personalization to maximize the value of learning time.

One way of making sure every hour devoted to learning counts is by closely aligning learning with the specific needs of the learner. This kind of personalization is typically hard to deliver at scale. But experimentation with virtual and online instruction has opened up routes toward personalizing learning.

One approach is to develop learning plans, or pathways. At the Dublin-based law firm Matheson, the learning team offers 12 learning pathways (that change annually) from which employees can choose, such as the client experience or environmental, social, and corporate governance issues. Each pathway is a blend of participation in core projects and tutorials delivered by employees who are subject matter experts. One important innovation is that the pathways are available to both lawyers and business service employees. A member of the learning team told me that the approach is designed to break down the traditional siloes between those communities and embed learning into the natural flow of work.

Experimentation with virtual and online instruction has opened up routes toward personalizing learning.

Other organizations have approached the task of personalized learning by using AI-driven career diagnostics. Accenture developed an AI tool called Job Buddy to help employees build individual learning plans based on data about themselves, their group, and the external labor market. The tool was designed to use machine learning algorithms to suggest career paths and upskilling opportunities based on an individual’s current job, skills, and experience. Following this individual diagnostic, a learning platform provided resources such as online courses, workshops, and mentoring programs.

2. They’re leaning into the hybrid experience.

The pandemic increased the prevalence of hybrid working and set the scene for learning to be as flexible as work is.

The pandemic increased the prevalence of hybrid working and set the scene for learning to be as flexible as work is.

At global online marketplace Etsy, peer-to-peer learning has always been a priority. Zofia Ciechowska, Etsy’s vice president of strategy and operations, told me that learning is viewed as an opportunity for employees and even vendors to share their knowledge, skills, or craft with the community. Employees have run courses on a vast range of topics as diverse as how to navigate the Tokyo subway system and how to make a candle. The sheer variety of courses is a reflection of Etsy’s culture and mission of keeping commerce “human” by enabling people to showcase their talents and educate one another.

Crucially, in the spirit of hybrid work, Etsy’s workshops are delivered both face to face and online. Employees, whatever their work schedules, are able to participate fully. This rich community-based learning program has successfully driven informal connections, piqued curiosity, and resulted in robust employee engagement scores.

The learning team said it has been fascinating to see the benefits of learning flow in both directions — for the person being taught as well as those delivering the courses. Employees get a chance to show off their passions and engage with their peers by sharing knowledge they are proud of.

3. They’re reducing skill shortages by focusing on transferable skills.

In the face of tightening labor markets and skill shortages, the most obvious learning strategy is to focus on reskilling current employees rather than recruiting new ones. The challenge, as many executives shared, is that this is fiendishly hard, particularly at scale.

As an international bank, HSBC is changing constantly, and reskilling is essential to delivering on its strategic plan. The bank is working to ensure that all employees are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to grow in their careers so they can be successful now and in the future.

The bank recently rolled out a skills-based development program for internal candidates who want to pursue a career in wealth services. By spending 20% of their working time over a period of three to nine months, participants were able to identify, assess, and develop the transferable skills they needed to move into relationship manager roles in the bank’s wealth and private banking services businesses.

“This pioneering program is helping us build a strategic talent pipeline for a very important part of our business,” said Laura Powell, HSBC’s global head of HR for wealth and personal banking and global functions. HSBC plans to extend the program to external candidates later this year.


Only 2% of executives who were part of our research workshop on learning said they believe that instructor-led learning will be a priority for their organization going forward. Instead, 39% said that “in the workflow” learning would be more important.

What has come through crystal clear is that while some of the more traditional forms of learning are diminishing, experiments and new projects are demonstrating how significant challenges can be overcome.

 

The post "It’s Time to Face the Three Challenges of Learning" appeared first on MIT Sloan Management Review

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