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Building a culture of learning: Tips, strategies for creating training-focused workplaces

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May 10, 2023
By Todd Humber

Nurturing a culture of learning. Photo: Adobe Stock

Most professionals know the myriad benefits that come with building a culture of learning in their workplace. But how to actually get there is what Devan Corrigan calls the $64,000 question.

“Like anything else, it really starts at the top. Changing their current culture to reflect more a culture of learning — that’s a significant ask,” said Corrigan, the principal of Corrigan HR Consulting. “It will require time and, let’s be honest, money.”

Corrigan made the remarks during Talent Canada’s HR Boot Camp series panel discussion that focused in on training and development, which was put on in partnership with the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre (IRC). The conversation was moderated by Alison Darling, director of professional programs at Queen’s IRC.

The second part of the equation is how senior management marries up with the human resources department to actually make the change happen, he said.

“A real practical step to take here is to meet with employees individually,” he said. “To talk about their own training and development plan. How is it that they’re going to continue to grow within the organization?”

Simple steps, like having those conversations, can start the ball rolling on creating the desired culture, he said.

Dave Mignault, director of human resources for the Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science, said recruitment and the onboarding process can also play a big role in moving the needle.

“When recruiting new staff, try to remember that we’re looking for individuals that have that passion for learning,” he said. As the new hires moves through the first few months on the job, emphasizing training opportunities can show both the importance and the organization’s commitment.

Watch the video: Episode 2 of Talent Canada’s HR Boot Camp

Challenges and opportunities: ‘Future-proofing’ your organization

Coming out of the pandemic, there are some opportunities for organizations to upskill and reskill their workforces, said Wylie Burke, lead facilitator for the Talent Management and Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program at Queen’s IRC.

“One of the things that most organizations will agree with is that learning has often sat in a corner of an organization and focused primarily on mandatory training or leadership training,” she said. “We’re not at that grassroots level inside the organization to really understand, ‘What are the skills that we need to be developing?’”

And not just the skills for today, but the ones required to “future proof” organizations, she said. For example, how is technology going to change the shape of your organization or industry by 2030?

“What are those skills gaps that will unleash the talent inside our organization?” asked Burke.

AI and automation forcing change

Corrigan said the world is in a state of change now, adding there will be an estimated 375 million jobs globally lost to automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

“What does that mean for employees? It means that they’re going to have to reskill and upskill to survive,” he said.

Amazon has committed $700 million to train and reskill 100,000 employees by 2025, he said. PwC is digging even deeper, investing $3 billion to train 300,000 of its workers. And AT&T is investing $1 billion in online courses and have created a “career centre” that is focused on upskilling, said Corrigan.

“It’s a significant issue that has to be tackled, and it looks like some organizations are doing it,” he said.

Mignault said that, while few organizations have pockets as deep as Amazon or AT&T, it does illustrate how important training and development is to these organizations.

“Reskilling is a strategic enabler, and training and development is really an investment,” he said. “It’s not just a sunk cost.”

Through the pandemic, workers were buffeted by burnout, anxiety and stress. That means skills like emotional intelligence, and principles like empathy, esteem, understanding and adaptability have been critical.

In the “new normal” of remote and hybrid work, employers need to invest and upskill to ensure their teams have the expertise needed, said Mignault.

Aligning training to business goals

Mignault noted that Queen’s University is a nearly two-century old institution with a “bold dreams and ambitions committed to creating a better world.”

“One of our strategic pillars is organizational culture, and it is supporting our people,” he said. “All staff must feel respected, safe, valued and empowered to thrive going forward. And that really means we need to have training and development-centred programs aligned to those values.”

Take the example of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“If we value (it) as a principle, we need to ensure we recognize and provide programs and training on things like anti-racism and anti-oppression,” said Mignault. “If we value well-being and mental health, we need to have programs and resources that champion these things to ensure staff are healthy and thriving going forward.”

Corrigan noted that, to tie training to strategy, workers need to understand their goals — and they need to be clearly defined. Too often, organizations don’t explain why the training is needed.

“That is a major miss,” he said. “Employees are kind of left out of the loop, so to speak, from a communication perspective.”

It’s also important to ensure training programs are designed and chosen properly to directly tackle skill gaps instead of “just having training for the sake of training,” said Corrigan.

Measuring ROI of training

Senior leadership expects to see improved skills and competencies in exchange for the spend on learning, said Mignault. But other factors that can be gauged include productivity, retention rates and employee engagement scores.

“What gets measured does get completed,” he said. “So it’s important to try and measure it.”

Burke is a fan of building internal talent marketplaces — “almost like an internal LinkedIn,” she said.

It provides a spot for employees to post updates on skills they’re building and the various learning programs they’ve participated in, she said.

“So when we’re talking about secondments and mentorships, this is really the sort of tool that you can use to… unleash the talent in your organization,” said Burke. “We need to help managers and leaders understand how to unleash that talent.”

Look at internal mobility rates, she said, to ensure managers aren’t engaged in the practice of “talent hoarding,” she said.

Darling pointed to a quote from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, who said: “If there are never strong internal candidates, we’ve failed at leadership.”

“It’s so true. We are looking to continue the upward mobility of our employees, so that we’re not hoarding that talent or ignoring that talent altogether,” she said.

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