To survive a digital future, guide employees to own their learning


In elementary school, students are told what they need to learn. In high school, they receive some choices with electives. In college, students take full ownership of their learning and choose the path to their career. In today’s continuously changing work landscape, employees need to retake ownership of learning to advance (or even retain) their careers — and employers have to enable them.

The market will leave behind those who think continuous learning is an option rather than a necessity. For businesses that don’t stress the need for upskilling, and employees who don’t heed that warning, current projections show that almost every type of job could be replaced by the digital revolution. Getting employees to take ownership of their own learning and growth is critical to future-proof them and their employers.

The growing gap
A recent survey by Udemy, the 2018 Skills Gap Report, outlines the problem. Of over 1,000 workers, 84% said they believe there is a skills gap and 39% report to feeling its effects. In turn, workers are beginning to make demands; 51% said they would quit a job that didn’t provide needed training. Udemy’s head of L&D, Shelley Osborne told HR Dive that the challenge for business is not just giving workers a reason not to leave — they have to give them a reason to stay.

“People are more motivated to upskill on their own when there are learning opportunities that fit in their own time and at their own pace,” Osborne said in an email. Today’s learning tech supports can help provide a flexible, low pressure environment. She recommended organizations integrate online courses into their L&D to create these opportunities for staff.

“When employees, particularly the millennial and Gen Z cohorts, better understand potential career pathways and the necessary steps for advancement, they can take more ownership for their learning,” Mike Knapp, CEO and co-founder of SkillSmart, told HR Dive in an email. He said he believes employers should take a more skills-based approach to talent development, with transparency that allows employers to better clarify the skills for each job type, as well as make opportunities for learning and development more accessible. Clarifying what is needed keeps employers and staff from wasting time and resources that won’t provide the skills needed to advance.

Employees want a return on their investment; when training makes their job easier, or puts advancement closer in reach, they’re motivated to own their continuous learning. Learning that isn’t demonstrably relevant can discourage and demotivate, wasting time and stifling growth.

Prioritizing learning
Businesses that stress the need for upskilling will need to walk the walk and the talk the talk. Companies must not only determine what skills are needed but also provide time and space. Osborne said she believes businesses should regard learning as part of their employees’ regular workload, the same way they expect people to be able to balance meetings, off-sites, and other team activities with individual responsibilities and deliverables.

“No one knows better than employees themselves what skills they need to learn right now in order to do their jobs better,” she said, “and they should be given free rein to pursue those topics.”

By allowing workers to learn on company time, an employer underscores that people are valued for their talents and that it is willing to sacrifice some productivity today for their value in the future.

Who’s responsible for responsibility?
The culture of the organization sets the tone for ownership in learning. Managers and L&D should stress the value of learning, certainly, but assure “it’s not viewed as a departure from or interruption of ‘real’ work,” Osborne said. “It’s simply an expected part of how people go about their work days.”

At Udemy’s monthly Drop Everything and Learn (DEAL) hour, everyone in the company takes time to pursue an online learning activity or attend regular learning fairs, she said. These initiatives are fun, interactive and employee-driven, which leads to greater engagement and satisfaction.

“In order to spark interest in learning, employers can start by personalizing the experience,” Osborne said. “When learners find relevance in the subject matter and can tie it to their personal goals, it’s much easier for them to feel motivated and engaged.”

Mapping career pathways can help employees connect the dots between coursework and advancement, but the ball for growth is in their court. Staffers can earn invaluable skills through special assignments, volunteerism, and other life experiences, Knapp suggested.

The carrot or the stick
Maria Ho, associate director at ATD Research, said employees can become self-directed, lifelong learners when businesses include lifelong learning expectations in performance management and make learning a formal organizational value. ATD research shows almost 45% of talent development leaders agree building workforces of lifelong learners is a priority.

“Organizations can structure rewards and recognition around lifelong and self-directed learning, tie internal mobility opportunities to learning, and link compensation programs to learning,” Ho said in an email. Tethering learning to the formal performance management process creates accountability for development.

HR plays a key role by making sure there are organizational practices to support learning, Ho said, and managers play a role by coaching employees and making sure they’re accountable for learning.

You can lead a horse to water…
Employers can create a culture that values learning, offers relevant materials for today’s work and outlines a pathway to growth with resources to get there. They can stress the need for continuous learning and provide access and time to acquire it. But ultimately, ownership of their careers belongs to employees.

Perhaps the most final way to get employees to take responsibility for learning is to emphasize what neglecting growth will net. “In today’s digital age,” Knapp said, “an employee who doesn’t upskill to meet the ever-evolving demands of their industry will likely find themselves in one of two situations — frustrated by the daily requirements of their job or replaced by new talent with the right skills.”


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