Wherever business people are gathered together these days the talk inevitably seems to be dominated by complaints about the difficulty of finding the right staff, variously couched in those over-familiar terms of the “war for talent,” “skills shortages” and “labour shortages.” But, while this problem cannot be dismissed, it also disguises another issue — the challenges confronting corporate learning and development.
Companies spend heavily in this area — around $1,200 a year per employee, contributing to an industry with annual revenues of more than $100 billion in the U.S. alone and more than $360 billion worldwide — but there is growing evidence that not all this money is well spent. In particular, it is felt that the drive to put much training material online is leading to very low levels of adoption and engagement.
A recent report by Continu, which provides “learning management systems” for companies, identified this as one of the six biggest challenges facing corporate training teams. It said that, while employee engagement had always been one of the most prominent learning and development challenges many companies faced, the difference was that “now, the stakes are higher than ever. Companies desperately need well-trained employees to face challenges, adapt to new technologies and take advantage of opportunities. Individual employees are increasingly demanding access to the training they need to work effectively and provide them with professional development opportunities.”
Inevitably, Covid-19 has had an effect, with the changes to working life accelerating the trend away from in-person learning towards courses that are followed online. This sounds a good idea in theory because it enables employees to complete their training at a time that suits them, but the reality is that employees may find themselves neglecting to log on. Moreover, even if they do bother, the platforms can be complicated to use and can appear to be old-fashioned or “clunky” compared with the experience they have when taking part in online gaming, say. Nellie Wartoft, chief executive and founder of Tigerhall, which adopts a social media approach to offer learning in bite-sized chunks, says that using many corporate training systems is “like travelling back in time 20 years.” In a recent interview, she added that, for learning and development to connect with the modern workforce, it needed to be more interactive and more gamified.
Nor is she alone. The point is taken up in an article on learning trends published on the eLearning Industry website at the beginning of this year. The authors said: “In 2023, organizations will need to use interactive content and gamification to make training more engaging and effective, using techniques such as simulations, Virtual Reality, and games to deliver learning experiences that are fun and immersive.”
There is also general agreement around the need for training to pay more attention to the need for diversity — both in how it is targeted and how it is delivered. A young woman in Asia cannot be expected to relate to a training module fronted by a middle-aged white man, for instance. Content also needs to be localized.
However, the problems do not end here. Years ago, when employers did not expect their employees to arrive fully formed a lot of workplace training involved sitting next to somebody more experienced and learning “on the job.” That has remained the approach in many professions, where juniors share offices with more senior employees and so pick up the less technical aspects of the job, such as how to prepare documents or hold meetings. But the rapid increase in remote working has made this — and learning and development in general — more difficult.
More interactive, more manageable training modules can play a role, particularly if delivered in a timely fashion when an employee needs them. But, as Wartoft says, “what makes us human is interaction.” As a result, companies have got to find a way to bring their employees back together for at least some of the time. This does not mean sending them away for learning. Business and technology are changing too fast for that to be effective and, with many employees already under pressure in their jobs at least in part because of the difficulty in hiring and retaining employees, taking them away from their day-to-day activities is unlikely to improve engagement levels.
Instead, maybe companies should think in terms of the office being the place where collaboration and learning and development take place and use this as a reason to draw employees in. Redesigned offices could almost become away-day destinations. And might even help persuade some employees to stick around.
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