Learning at big companies (Part 2)

By Marc Zao-Sanders

2 minute read

An article I wrote last week - Learning at big companies - became my most popular. It was a discussion of five characteristics of learning at big companies: too much content, poor data, platform fatigue, compliance, and lofty aspirations.

Many of the (public and private) comments on the piece were about what the root cause of these issues is: just why has learning become such a pain at big companies?

Nick Shackleton-Jones suggested that at least for the issues of content proliferation and platform fatigue, it’s because the solutions have been formulated by and for the company, rather than being focussed on the employee. That explanation makes sense. Libraries of content are often purchased to provide coverage rather than make impact. Compliance is mostly carried out to meet the perceived demands of the regulators and avoid fines, rather than to educate staff on the ethics of business, etc.

Others talked about the role of culture in exacerbating these issues - that learning is not at the heart of most company cultures. This must be right as well. If the culture at more companies included prioritising the skills development of workforces, the issues highlighted would be less pronounced. Culture is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down but this 25-year old HBR article does a good job by describing five activities rife in learning organisations:

“systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from their own experience and past history, learning from the experiences and best practices of others, and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization”.  

And culture comes from the top. Does your CEO talk about learning and skills? Does he or she describe what they do to develop their own skills? If not, you probably don’t have much of a learning culture. Lead by example. More and more high-profile CEOs at very big companies are saying learning is indispensable. Find a way to get yourself one of them. (Nick S-J wrote a more recent article about whether and how L&D positively encourages, merely tolerates or actually discourages learning cultures.)

Another factor at play may be the short-term nature of modern business. Boards at many big companies are judged on quarterly earnings reports and real-time share prices. Changes that benefit companies in the long-term are therefore systemically deprioritised. Learning and development is the quintessential essential-long-term-intangible benefit.

I think these three overlapping issues are pretty decent explanations of why big corporate learning got to where it is.

But whatever the causes, the problems will not persist for much longer! Multiple micro and macro trends point to positive change. Take your pick from this eclectic set: ubiquitous consumer-grade software; awareness of and attention to employee well-being, including mental health, and employee engagement; self-determination and individualism; data privacy, ownership and consent; the gig economy; learning becoming a top priority for today’s job seekers, lengthening careers, the API economy. In other words, the demand from and supply to the global knowledge workforce is taking us into a learning boom. We are all catalysts of that change, which is some honour and some distinction.

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