How to become a learning organisation

Things I have learnt so far this week: How to upload photographs to a new content management system, some interesting facts about how social media is affecting recruitment, that switching off my email alerts makes me 100% more productive… and it’s only Wednesday.

This isn’t just about me showing off my new-found knowledge. There’s a serious point: in a world of work that’s constantly changing, we all need to be continuously updating our skills. There’s new technology to get to grips with, new ways of working to get our heads around, constant demands on us to work faster and more collaboratively than ever before.

There’s been an interesting debate in the HR press recently over whose responsibility it is to ensure this kind of ‘just-in-time’ learning takes place. Tesco Bank Chief Executive Benny Higgins, quoted in HR Grapevine, suggests that contrary to popular opinion, the buck doesn’t stop with HR. “It’s wrong to assume that it’s the job of HR to develop people, it’s not, it’s the job of HR to support the business in developing people,” he says.

Higgins goes on to argue that those at the helm of the business should lead the way, making it clear they value learning and development and actively encouraging their employees to ‘blossom’. He almost certainly has an eye on the bottom line in taking this approach. If talented staff can see the business is genuinely interested in helping them grow they will be more motivated and engaged – and more likely to stay.

Innovation will flourish and the business will become more flexible and adaptable as a result. So, what can HR do to encourage and support environments where learning is valued and becomes an integral part of the day job?

Start at the top:

Work with the leadership team to articulate the learning vision. What does learning mean to the business? Why is it important? What key skills will the organisation need going forward? Are those skills already well represented within the workforce or will they need to be developed? Does the culture support learning or is there a ‘blame’ culture where mistakes are seen as disasters rather than learning opportunities. Make sure those at the top understand that if they truly want to create a learning environment, they will need to walk the talk and invest in developing their own skills too.

Turn managers into coaches:

A coaching approach is key to helping people develop the skills they need at the time they need them. Helping people explore and discover the right way to do things – rather than just telling them what to do – also creates a ‘problem-solving’ mindset and encourages employees to become less dependent on others for answers. It’s important to recognise, however, that this isn’t an approach that comes naturally to all managers and many will need training and support to develop coaching skills.

Break down barriers:

Put tools in place that will help to break down silos and encourage communication and collaboration. The internal social portals (or HR workspaces) that come as an integral part of some HR software systems are a great way to help people find the information and contacts they need to improve their knowledge and productivity. Mentoring programmes are also a cost-effective way to share learning and expertise across the business. This doesn’t always have to be just top down. Reverse mentoring (where junior colleagues help managers get to grip with social media, for example) can work really well too.

Encourage performance conversations:

Managers often push the annual performance review to the bottom of their list of priorities. But it is this very dialogue between managers and their teams that will uncover gaps in skills or knowledge, reveal people’s aspirations and motivations and stimulate learning. Performance management software is no replacement for the conversation, but it can help to ensure that appraisals are consistent and happen when they are supposed to – as well providing a central place where information about what’s been discussed and agreed can be recorded. Making sure managers are equipped with the skills to hold conversations with both poor and star performers is also key.

Make use of the data:

If you have an HR system in place, it will provide the information you need to back up a case for more investment in training. Data from exit interviews, for example, may reveal that key talent is leaving because of a lack of training and development opportunities. An analysis of appraisal information may show a demand from employees for more training in a specific area. An audit of available skills may show that the business is vulnerable in a key area of expertise and needs to quickly shore up its training. The more information you can extract from the system, the better you will be able to show how learning can support the business with its plans going forward.

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