Least important --- Most important
Where would you place learning on this spectrum for your company?
I’ve been talking to a lot of financial companies recently about the L&D market. Opinions are polarised. Some see an outdated, overblown, superfluous industry that will soon be discarded or replaced. Some see a massive and growing market, ripe for another wave of disruption. Who’s right? Neither, entirely. Here’s why.
In a constantly-evolving global economy, learning must be the main long-term business priority. Learning is a clear - and possibly unique - theme running through the megatrends of our time: artificial intelligence, digitization, extended careers, flexible working and individualism. These trends mean changes for businesses (eg digital transformation) which require a frequent reskilling of their workforces. Ray Stata, former CEO of Analog Devices, puts this well:
“The rate at which organizations and individuals learn may well become the only sustainable competitive advantage. Products can be copied. Services can be copied. Even processes can be copied. Things like Six Sigma are available on the open market. But if you’re learning more rapidly than the competition, you can get ahead and stay ahead.”
Learning is much more important than recruitment. Recruitment, the never-ending war for talent, is a zero-sum game. If company A gets the star, company B doesn’t. Learning is different; a rising tide that lifts all boats. Perhaps leaders should take a less tribal, more progressive and holistic view of human capability and how best to nurture it.
Many of the world’s most successful, long-termist leaders are emphatic about the importance of learning. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, emphasised this in an interview with Business Insider, “Going back to business: If that applies to boys and girls at school, I think it also applies to CEOs, like me, and entire organizations, like Microsoft. We want to be not a “know-it-all” but “learn-it-all” organization.” Jeff Bezos in his last annual letter to shareholders underlined the importance of high standards and teachable skills. Mark Zuckerberg started a book clubfollowed by millions of followers. In his final letter to shareholders, then CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, described the company as a ‘Global Learning Organization’ - the fourth page in particular is worth reading in full.
Learning is a large part of what makes us human. We are a rare breed of mammal which happens to be neotenic, ie we retain many juvenile (physical and cognitive) features. We therefore learn all the way through our lives and are blessed with a deep, nagging curiosity about a very wide range of matters.
Finally, learning is good for us. It’s linked to higher levels of happiness, income and social success.
L&D has a tarnished reputation. Corporate learning content is often considered to be copious, uninspiring, or low quality. As a result it is used little and therefore vulnerable to budget cuts. The predominant technology underpinning L&D - the Learning Management System - is built on antiquated technologies, light years from the addictive, consumer grade experiences we enjoy away from work today. Compliance hasn’t helped. That for a decade compliance drills have fallen at the feet of L&D is a shame for everyone. The work of training and learning teams has been stained by that association. And so it is that CLOs rarely have a seat at the boardroom and the voice of L&D is muffled.
How to unpick this paradox?
I think we can unpick it by separating L&D supply from demand. Demand is massive and growing:
An evolving knowledge economy of a quarter of a billion knowledge workers who are re-skilling at shorter and shorter intervals but over longer and longer careers practically guarantees the shape of this chart, perhaps permanently.
But the supply side has historically disappointed and in many cases, continues to do so. We’ve been slow on the take-up of new technologies and content is mostly pretty dry and sometimes obsolete. Couple this with the fact that the benefits of learning - though axiomatic - are enormously difficult to measure. We have the perfect storm for a paradox: learning is both the most and least important thing we do at work. Break it down to unpick the paradox: supply looks bad; demand looks good.
But notice that the apparent paradox is starting to unwind anyway as consumer-grade influences, AI and other digital breakthroughs finally start to touch on this thing of ours.
Is any of the above of any use to you?
Perhaps you can use some of it to get your CEO to play ball. Try to persuade her or him to issue a statement about the importance of investing in the workforce of the firm (and feel free to repurpose any of the arguments presented here). The case will be even stronger - as we have been overjoyed and slightly surprised to see with certain global clients - if your CEO commits to and shares some learning activities her/himself. This will make all your L&D battles easier, from getting sign off from budget holders, to getting learners, to learn to proving ROI. There are gains to be had by all stakeholders: employee engagement, external PR, financial return.
And in this way, you may shift the importance needle to the right.