How to create a sustainable continuous learning culture
The importance of creating a continuous learning culture has been talked about for some time, particularly in the context of moving to an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled world, which is expected to require a mass reskilling.
But progress so far seems to have been limited. For example, learning and development (L&D) provider Hemsley Fraser’s L&D Impact Survey, conducted among practitioners in early 2021, revealed that 85% deemed a continuous, or agile, learning culture to be important, with over half viewing it as extremely so.
Nonetheless, a significant 43% said they were still only defining the scope of their programme, while a mere 5% had completed their roadmap. Around 22% had not even started the process and had no plans to do so in the near future.
A separate study by Gartner revealed that the UK is lagging behind other parts of the world in this area. Graham Waller, a distinguished vice-president in the market research and advisory firm’s digital business leadership research team, indicated that while 27% of enterprises around the globe have already introduced agile learning, the figure is as little as 16% in the UK.
At least part of the problem is that many employers cut their training investment during the last recession in 2008 and it has never recovered, a situation not helped by the economic uncertainty and time pressures faced by many teams due to the pandemic.
“Because UK companies are allocating less budget to learning and development than other countries, they’re also less able to adapt to changing needs, which leads to worse business outcomes,” says Waller. “As a result, they’re less confident in investing in training and so it becomes a vicious circle.”
Upsides of focusing on learning and development, beyond boosting productivity and closing skills gaps to better execute on commercial strategy, include a general increase in employee engagement levels. In fact, offering staff training makes people 6% more likely to stay with their employer, says Waller, which is an important statistic at a time of widespread skills crises and the great resignation as many staff rethink their priorities.
“It’s important for senior leaders to understand the connection between investment in learning and the benefits it provides – which are often linked into a digital transformation strategy or delivering new digital products and services,” he says. “It’s about understanding how investing in learning will help drive those goals and articulating it in terms of what’s in it for both employers and their employees.”
Creating a learning impact
Lynsey Whitmarsh, Hemsley Fraser UK’s managing director, agrees. “Take a goal-oriented view and then work backwards, considering the return on expectation,” she says. “Think about the goals that need to be achieved, the measures that can be used to track progress and success, and the communication needed throughout to achieve engagement and prove value to stakeholders.”
Another consideration is ensuring that learning is “curated so it’s specific to the organisation” and is put in a clear context, she says. The idea here is that a “smaller and more relevant selection of content is much more valuable than a wide choice, which can be overwhelming”.
Even more important is enabling employees to access learning “within the flow of their work”, and ensuring sessions are “bitesize” enough to enable them to slot easily into people’s busy lives, she says.
Waller takes a similar view. He points to research indicating that if learning is a continuous activity embedded into the flow of work, its impact is multiplied 9.9 times. People being given time to learn has a multiplier effect of 7.2, enabling social and community-based learning comes in at 4.3, and technology being used to optimise learning outcomes at 3.3.
As Whitmarsh succinctly points out, tech is an “enabler and a crucial part of the mix, particularly in a remote or hybrid environment, but it’s not the be all and end all”. While she acknowledges that learning systems must be intuitive, engaging and easy-to-use to be effective, she also believes that online training should only be one option in a wider blended offline learning offering.
Where technology comes into its own, however, is in its ability to personalise learning based on an individual’s performance, enabling it to take place “at pace and scale, with more kinds of content than ever before”, according to Olivia Lory Kay, head of partnerships at Capita Learning.
“A continuous learning culture is the basis, or underpinning, for all the things we need to know for tomorrow,” she says. “So those that are both culturally and tech-enabled will reap the benefits of a virtuous circle in which the impact of investment is visible. This is important, because if businesses don’t adapt, they won’t survive, and talent is key to making this happen.”
Two companies that are currently embarking on creating a sustainable continuous learning culture are Vodafone and Deutsche Bank.
Vodafone is currently in the process of creating an AI-based “full learning experience platform” to support its strategy of becoming a technology communications company.
The platform, which will handle staff resourcing, skills assessment, and learning and development activities, will be based on SAP SuccessFactors Human Experience Management (HXM) Suite. The suite, which was fully rolled out in March 2020 to more than 96,000 employees in 43 countries, replaced Vodafone’s disparate and heavily customised local HR systems, streamlining processes and aggregating data in the process.
Marc Starfield, Vodafone
SAP’s Work Zone digital workplace experience software also forms part of the platform and the aim is to integrate both systems with Eightfold.AI’s talent acquisition and management applications.
Marc Starfield, Vodafone’s group head of HR, explains the rationale: “Our strategy as an organisation is to become a technology communications company, which means we’re looking to hire about 7,000 software engineers to support our aims. But in wanting to attract the biggest and brightest minds, we’re competing with SAP and everyone else, so we need to offer them a rich digital experience and also have an effective means of upgrading our talent in the future.”
Eightfold.AI’s talent attraction and skills assessment module, which is used during the recruitment process, will be introduced in January 2022. In March, it will be integrated with SuccessFactors HXM Suite to create the first iteration of a “full learning experience platform” that enables seamless interaction with other HR processes, such as career and succession planning. A second version is expected by July, with a third within 12 months.
“At its core, the system’s about making learning personal and purposeful, so knowing what skills you have, where you want to go, what you’ll need in three years’ time and making recommendations on the learning required to get there,” says Starfield. “It allows us to bring together content from Vodafone and others, like LinkedIn, in one place, and use skills targeting to connect cohorts of people who want to develop in a certain direction, all as a single experience.”
The upshot, he believes, is that within three years, cost-to-hire savings should be “significant”. This includes a reduction in the amount of external recruitment expenditure required as such activity will increasingly be conducted by a global business shared services centre.
Process efficiency as a result of automation is also expected to rise by 25%. The total cost of ownership of the company’s HR technology stack is anticipated to drop by 10%, while expenditure on learning content is likewise estimated to fall as it becomes “more focused and purposeful”.
To achieve such aims, Starfield believes it is vital is to focus on the people rather than the technology side of the equation. This involves being clear about what is valuable to different job roles and how they will use the system, creating profiles and using design thinking on that basis.
It also includes understanding how content and nudges can best be employed to support learning in a personal and purposeful way by listening to employees and measuring the candidate experience to become more data-driven. As he succinctly puts it, it is ultimately about “spending less time on technology decisions and more on outcomes”.
Deutsche Bank’s decision to promote a continuous learning culture within its technology organisation was sparked by a digital transformation initiative that made it imperative to grow its internal cloud expertise.
The global investment bank signed a 10-year deal with Google Cloud in July 2020 to modernise and transform its operations to make them more agile and boost innovation in the fast-moving age of digital banking.
Andrey Tapekha, chief technology officer of Deutsche Bank’s North America Technology Center, explains: “The idea is that if people’s skills are up to date, they can be more productive and build solutions more quickly. This has huge benefits, because if we can deliver with speed and agility, it duly translates into business outcomes.”
Andrey Tapekha, Deutsche Bank
Another important goal was to support employee attraction and retention. “The move to cloud will help us remain a top destination for talent and our learning programme will play a central role in creating a positive culture and supporting our overarching objectives,” says Tapekha. “It’s about retaining high levels of competitiveness in an environment where there’s high demand for talent.”
To this end, the bank introduced a global graduate training programme based on Pluralsight’s online education platform. The program is split into a range of topics divided into 12-week sprints based around curated content, and deals with everything from cloud basics to database specifics, with certification exams at the end.
To make it engaging, the system includes gamification elements, such as leader boards, and provides insights into the weekly progress users are making against their learning objectives. Broader learner support is also provided by a faculty of internal technology and software engineering team members, who deliver sessions and are always available to answer questions.
Participants are likewise encouraged to share knowledge and insights with the wider learning community, both online and via specific “engineering days”, and to involve themselves in activities, such as hackathons.
“Communal working is more effective than leaving people to work on their own as it reinforces their commitment and carries the momentum along. Having a bit of accountability and peer support makes all the difference,” says Tapekha.
Initially available to its application and infrastructure teams, the scheme is now open to anyone with an interest in learning cloud-related skills and includes non-technical participants, such as project managers.
But to truly create a continual learning culture, Tapekha believes it “can’t be optional”. The concept needs “commitment” at the senior level, but also from learners and their managers to ensure it is “integrated into the fabric of their day-to-day work and daily stand-ups – and that’s about a mindset shift”, he says.
“It’s one thing to create a learning space, but another to encourage teams to invest in it themselves. However, driving learning isn’t that difficult when you have a shared objective and everyone can see the benefits, as it helps align the organisation at all levels,” he concludes.