Corporate executives regularly assess whether their finances, technology and organisational structures provide a strong foundation for growth. Do they also regularly ask the same question about their human capital? I am afraid not.
A major business move — for example, developing a new product or entering a new market — might make financial sense on paper, but if the workforce isn’t prepared to handle the details, the results won’t materialise on the ground. To seize opportunities and change the course effectively in today’s fast-changing market, learning and development has to be made a central part of every company’s long-term strategy. But, building and integrating a strategic learning and development function is easier said than done.
Where do we begin?
Start with specific skills and skills gaps. Strategic learning and development isn’t about providing broad, open-ended programmes or content; it’s about creating a programme that targets the specific skills an organisation needs to be successful. To do that, there has to be a clear understanding of where the current skill gaps are.
The skills present in an organisation have to be mapped out; skills required in the short and long term have to grow the business and pursue a range of new strategic directions, should be mapped out as well. Then, resources — time, money, and content — that are required to reskill and upskill the workforce to fill the gaps, have to be taken stock of. It’s dangerous to assume that all the gaps could be filled by hiring. If a company makes strategic adjustments quickly and frequently, hiring a new team every time is impractical. Hiring is also a poor way to build a leadership team — leaders who have a deep history with the company and who understand its mission and culture are extremely valuable.
Learn and grow
Make learning an indisputable priority. Almost all of today’s executives say they value a “culture of learning,” but only a few have a clear strategy to actually create one. Learning resources alone aren’t enough. Culture is about practices, and about the structural, financial and social support that the organisation provides.
Employees will care about learning when the organisation shows them how much it cares about it.
Employees have to be supported in concrete ways, such as setting aside meaningful blocks of learning time in the work week, offering tuition and materials reimbursement, and publicly celebrating learning milestones like course completions. The development of in-demand skills — full-stack web development, cloud and mobile, financial modeling, or digital marketing — has to be recognised during performance evaluation, promotions and compensation.
The importance of learning in an organisation can be elevated by giving learning and development leaders a full seat at the strategic table. If a company has a Chief Learning Officer or an equivalent, he/she has to be brought into high-level conversations early and often. This can help anticipate issues relating to workforce-preparedness issues and address them pro-actively.
Connect business progress to learning progress. If learning is placed front and centre, a company will make great strides in attracting and retaining top talent, improving productivity and financial performance, successfully launching new products and improving customer satisfaction. When these successes are shared with the employees, the management has to tell them loud and clear that their skill development makes a large part of what is moving the company forward.
This admission will create a virtuous cycle of employee investment in learning, leading to improved employee performance, leading to better corporate performance leading to broader awareness of the critical role that learning plays in corporate growth and development.
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