Encouraging Lifelong Learning in Your Company
Guest writer Steve Johnson contributes to this week’s installment on Lifelong Learning with his blog post, “Encouraging Lifelong Learning in Your Company.”
In my last article, I said to readers, “As a final note, make continuous learning intentional and give it high priority. Continuous learning is your responsibility, not the responsibility of your company, your supervisor or anyone else. To be able to effectively manage your career, you need to plan your future, that is, identify your goals and chart your path for reaching those goals. An important part of that path is going to be continuous learning. Plan your educational future now. In doing that, we encourage you to explore educational opportunities at Learning Without Scars for high quality industry- and position-specific education.”
Given the above, the smart company will still encourage and enable lifelong learning, as it’s in their best interests as well. Another quote from my last article, “At some point in the future, you could find out that management no longer feels you are relevant to attaining the company’s goals. You could find out that the job market feels the same about your resume.” One can say essentially the same thing about a company. At some point in the future, you could find out that your customers and suppliers no longer feel you are relevant to their futures. Investments in employee lifelong learning are investments in your company’s relevance, efficiency and productivity. They are crucial in meeting your customers’ needs, leading to higher customer satisfaction and retention. They are also crucial to employee satisfaction and retention. Your investment in employees is a clear demonstration of how you value them.
Enabling lifelong learning in your company should be a part of your employee development program. If you don’t have such a program, you should invest in one. As has been said before, “What about the costs?” The usual and correct answer to that is what are the costs of not investing in employee development? Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas.
- Commit to lifelong learning as essential to your company’s ongoing success. For example, one company I worked for started by committing to a minimum of 80 hours each year of continuous education for each employee. Select a qualified employee and assign management of and accountability for the plan. Determine where you are now as a company and where you want to be in a year; and in 2 years or 3 years. The company plan must include specific actions, completion times and results expected. Establish a budget for continuous learning and the systems to support the plan. A company lifelong learning plan will require a system to archive records of educational achievements, support company award programs, facilitate human resource planning and develop individual future educational plans.
- Employee participation is required for their own success, as well as the company’s success. For each employee, define specific learning activities, due dates, results expected. Incorporate short-term and longer-term measurable learning goals into the performance review process. Involve employees in the development of their learning plan; find out where they are and where they see themselves in the future. Make the connection as to how their learning plan relates to their own personal goals. Show employees where there is alignment with their learning plan and both their personal and company success. It is important for the learning plan to be formally agreed upon initially by both the employee and the supervisor or company’s training representative.
- Link learning outcomes to job qualifications and promotion opportunities; answer the employees’ question, “How can I get there?” Employees need to have a stake in their company as to their possibilities for personal and professional growth. Job design needs to show learning and knowledge requirements in terms of the steps involved in available career paths. This includes various types of organizational knowledge: company policies, financial, supervisory, managerial, human resources, federal and state laws and more. It can also include such things as technical knowledge, computer skills, accounting and financial skills, telephone skills, sales, customer service, group dynamics, and project management.
- In reference to the above items, immediate supervisors have a substantial stake in employee learning and development. Their success depends on their employees’ performance. Schedule regular supervisor-employee discussions for review of the individual learning plans in a non-threatening environment. Congratulate employees on their successes and deal with unacceptable results in an encouraging way. Discuss what employees see as obstacles to company expectations and how they can be overcome. Still, employees need to know what the company expectations are and that those expectations need to be met.
- Incorporate different types of learning styles into employee education based on what is most effective for each individual. People learn in different ways such as visual/spatial, auditory/aural, or kinesthetic/physical. As much as possible, tailor learning experiences to the individuals being taught. For example, I’m no car mechanic, but for such subjects, I can learn and then demonstrate my competencies much better in a “hands-on” learning environment. For public speaking, I needed a fair number of live experiences to be comfortable and effective. For me, negotiation skills required both book learning and role playing.
- It can be highly frustrating for employees who are sent for education in areas where they are already competent. Where you can, offer opportunities for “testing out” or demonstrating such skills and knowledge. You may also, however, run into situations where someone thinks much more highly of their competencies than is reality. “Testing out” can reveal the true situation to that employee. For some things where answers are “absolute” or factual, a written test may be most applicable. For other situations that are more situational or “gray,” discussions of performance in real business situations with a company supervisor or mentor may be more suitable.
- Companies need to be able to recommend vetted and approved learning resources for employees to help “show them how to get there,” as mentioned in item 3 above. The company also needs to help connect employees with these resources based on their needs. Develop a library of books and periodicals that reflect best practices in various disciplines like accounting, finance, management, business law and others. The library can include manuals for common business software used. Materials that can support development of skills in project management, team building and the so-called soft skills should not be ignored. Include company hosted opportunities for group sharing and learning. For example, a company may want to bring in an outside provider where all employees participate in team building education.
- Develop and vet a list of outside learning resources that employees can request from company management. These include technical courses, computer software, management training and many other areas where further education can benefit the company. With management approval, this can include tuition reimbursement for programs that provide skills and knowledge relevant to current or future job qualifications. Many companies also reimburse tuition for courses related to attainment of a certificate or college degree. If your worried on your ROI for such education, full reimbursement can be tied to an employee commitment to stay with the employer for a stated period of time.
Rule number one for such lifelong learning programs is that you have to get started at some point. I encourage you to start by doing something now. At least formulate a basic plan. Give your plan the time needed to achieve expected results. Your plan will evolve as you determine what things work best in your company and the benefits become more and more apparent. We encourage you to explore educational opportunities at Learning Without Scars for high quality industry- and position-specific education for inclusion in your lifelong learning plans.