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Continual Learning Racing Just to Keep Up

April 1, 1999
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Behavioral Training, Featured Article
Choose your survey.Select your research. No matter where you look, vast numbers of workerscurrently don’t have the skills for today’s jobs - and it’s only going toget worse.

   Moreover, employees today must have access to continual training of all typesjust to keep up. Sometimes it feels like a sporting event - trying to run up adownward escalator. If you don’t actively stride against the momentum ofskills deficiency, you lose ground. If your workers stand still, your firm willlose the competency race.

   “Continual learning” is no longer a buzzword - today it’s a businessrequirement of critical importance. According to a Workforce survey in May 1998,100 percent of the respondents said that workers will need more problem-solvingskills in the future; 95 percent said they expect the HR department to helpemployees develop these skills in conjunction with employees developing them ontheir own. A whopping 98 percent believe that employees will need moreinterpersonal communication skills than they currently have.

    Addto these figures the fact that huge numbers of entry-level workers are cominginto the workplace ill-equipped to handle everyday jobs, and it becomesglaringly apparent that learning and continual education must be a top priorityfor all organizations striving to achieve a competitive edge.

    Butdon’t think that HR has to go it alone. Today, employees and employers sharemutually in the benefits and expenditures associated with learning initiatives.Progressive, front-running companies view learning as a joint activity withequal commitment from both sides. For example, companies such as Johnson &Johnson, IBM and EDS create corporate cultures that support and enhancelearning. They take a strategic approach to continuous learning, and they deviseways to partner with employees in their learning endeavors.

   “As you look at today’s competitive environment, one of the critical needsis for the organization to continue to learn. First you have to constantly helpemployees build the skills they need to be proficient at their current job.Then, if you want to be an employer of choice, you have to create a workenvironment in which people can continue to grow,” says Michael Carey, vicepresident Organization Planning and Development at New Brunswick, NewJersey-based Johnson & Johnson.

   Indeed, HR pros are examining how to learn in entirely new ways. “Work ismoving faster and faster, and people can’t keep up,” says Nancy Forbes,market research manager at the Atlanta office for New York-based IBMCorporation. “But I think it’s a shared responsibility - it’s theindividual’s obligation to pursue and make the most of the continuous learningthat’s available, and managers have to support them with the tools and timeoff [for learning and training activities].”


Learning is part of the corporate culture
    For decades, technologygiant IBM has created a continuous learning culture. The company offers at least40 hours a year of training per employee (compared to an average number of fourdays of training, according to the 1997 ASTD Benchmarking Forum by the AmericanSociety for Training and Development).

    In today’s businessenvironment, where you must change and adapt so quickly, transformation has tobe the focus of learning. People can learn all of the skills they need in a newenvironment, but that learning could be wasted if they don’t see the value inskill development. They have to believe that learning is important and sharinginformation with colleagues is beneficial.

    Building a corporateenvironment in which people share information is essential. Like a relay event,it creates a chain of education between individual contributors, and enhanceseach individual’s contribution. “If you want to develop a culture thatsupports learning, you first start by rewarding and promoting team players whoare learning continually, and sharing their knowledge with each other,” saysJackie Fenn, vice president and research director of Advanced Technologies atBurlington, Massachusetts-based Gardner Group. “It’s important to show thatcontinuous learning and sharing learned experiences between contributors isobserved and rewarded by management.”

    When you create anenvironment that encourages continuous learning, where people recognize thelong-term benefits and want to participate in the experience, the specifictechniques used for education and training are secondary - it’s attitudethat’s important. That has to come from the top.

Companies take a strategic approach to learning
    If learning is part ofthe company’s mission, it must be integrated at a strategic level. IBMillustrates how to accomplish that. First, the company determines whatcompetencies are needed most in the marketplace. This multi-step processincludes researching the current market by working with salespeople, customerservice people and technicians, and talking with customers every day tounderstand their needs.

    Another important stepis to research future trends and identify short and long-term competencyrequirements. For example, IBM sees e-commerce (conducting transactions over theInternet) as becoming more critical in the daily lives of individuals.Therefore, the organization is taking steps to eliminate potential workforceperformance gaps in order to ensure employees have the skills they need toenhance that part of the business. They then determine what performance andskills the business needs to maximize opportunities in this growing area. 

    That process, in and ofitself, is a huge endeavor for HR, but well worth the investment of time andresources. When you conduct a gap analysis, you can then accurately determine astaffing and development plan to address deficient areas. However, putting theplan in action can be the biggest challenge. “In my experience, you can talkabout theories and you can write wonderful strategies, but the execution - theimplementation - is really the difficult part,” says Robert Weintraub, managerof Learning Strategy for IBM Global Services in Selmers, New York.

    Indeed, implementationis the major hurdle in this feat. HR managers at IBM now decide how to helpdevelop people - to give them the skills, tools and appropriate infrastructure -to maintain a competitive edge and differentiate IBM. Obviously, all of this iswithin the context of business demands. For instance, the company used toemphasize traditional training, but that can’t be the exclusive trainingapproach any longer.

    “We can’t afford totake people away from their jobs and they can’t afford to leave them,” saysWeintraub. “They have to be onsite with customers or in laboratories orwherever they may be assigned.” So although IBM still brings 10,000 to 15,000people to their learning campuses annually, they’ve also developed technologyto enable different ways to learn. Employees use interactive television andcomputer-based training. But, that’s still taking the person away from thejob, even if it is modularized and they can do it in sections. So the companyhas developed what they call Learning Space, where courses and professors exist,but the system is asynchronous. This means that the instructor sets up deadlinesand content, and students manage the scheduling based on personal convenience.

    Another initiative inits infancy at IBM is retraining its trainers to be learning facilitators.Educators in the classroom are put on project teams (sometimes on teams withcustomers) to help facilitate learning. These educators understand the learningrequirements, and determine how many formal sessions and other informal learningactivities are needed to support learning objectives. Mentors also work withindividuals face to face, over the phone and through technology in anapprentice-type situation.


Create ways topartner with employees to increase their competencies
    “We make afundamental assumption that improving our capacity to learn, grow and adapt willbring us competitive advantage in our marketplace,” says Betty Black, managerof the Account Leadership Program for Plano, Texas-based EDS. “Partnering withour employees will result in a satisfied customer and an increase in profits.Any given technology becomes obsolete very quickly, so really it’s ourcapacity to change and learn that is a competitive differentiation for us.”

    EDS enhances continuouslearning through a two-pronged approach, which begins with a partnership betweenthe company and its employees. Part of the approach relates to mindset orculture. How do you create a corporate culture that establishes continuouslearning as a core business value? One key element is senior leadershipcommitment. Another is building awareness through ongoing communication. “Thechairman of our company, Les Alberthal, said, ‘EDS is nothing more than whatits people do and say on any given day.’ So it’s important that our skillsare honed to meet our customers’ business needs,” reiterates Black.

    EDS began creating thiscontinual learning partnership when they implemented several transformationalprograms. These focused on mindset and organizational issues emanating fromPeter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the LearningOrganization (Doubleday/Currency, 1990). After that, the company began lookingat alternative ways to learn in addition to traditional lectures. Central tothis mindset was to understand different learning styles and to incorporatethose styles into the culture.

    “We’ve reallyemphasized the mutual responsibility between manager and employee,” saysJennifer Dominguez, director of Training and Education of EDS. Managers aretheir coach and guide, but the employee takes charge of the learning and thecareer development.

    While the organizationspends time and energy to create a mindset that values constant learning, EDSalso has standardized systems in place to make continuous learning a reality.One of the key tools is the Career Resource System, which has four components.

    First, employees areprovided with a job family matrix, which defines the skills needed for each typeof job, and skills required to progress to the next level. Theperformance-review tool is the second piece, and gives employees feedback frompeers, managers and teammates.

    The third piece is thecareer planner, which helps employees stay on track with their future goals andinterests. Lastly, employees can access an automated career library throughCD-ROM or the Internet.

    Johnson & Johnsonalso supports a strong learning partnership with employees. In addition to beingrecognized as a front-runner in terms of development, the New Brunswick, NewJersey-based company is also known to be quite generous in the way it approachespartnership. “We say J&J people have shared responsibility in theirdevelopment. The company will provide the environment, the tools and theresources, but employees have to show the energy, the interest and the drive togo forward,” says Carey.

    One unique approachJ&J uses to enhance learning resources is their involvement in asophisticated interactive Web site, called TalentAlliance. The Web site allows participants from many different companies toexamine long and short-term career planning, skill building and personaldevelopment. There’s also a section devoted to assessment where individualsmay choose to ask for feedback from colleagues and be reviewed by peers andsupervisors on a confidential basis.

    There are multipleadvantages to using this type of technology. The self-directed skill-competencysections allow individuals to benchmark against others who are inside andoutside their corporation. It’s also completely self-initiated and paced atthe individual’s speed. It encourages individuals to develop their skills andcontinuously learn. It spurs motivated workers to pursue a panoply ofeducational possibilities that will continue to make them employable in the longrun.

    “If you’re nothelping your people improve, they’re losing ground,” says Carey. And keepingpace in this breakneck gallop with constant change and learning is a tandem raceindeed.

Workforce,April 1999, Vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 66-68  SubscribeNow!

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