Learning as a Strategic Instrument for Organizations
An exploration of the state of affairs of continuing education across companies reveals that some enterprises seem to be stuck in the past century: their training measures are not aligned with the organization’s goals and strategy but simply follow the wishes and preferences of individuals. This is a serious waste of potential.
Employees prefer companies that help them develop and that provide training opportunities at the workplace. Organizations, in turn, will be well advised to channel the continuing learning wishes of their staff members in a way that benefits the company. As a result, they will be able to keep their employees happy while increasing the organization’s overall skill level. If continuing education offers are in line with a company’s strategic orientation, they will help teams, departments, and entire divisions reach their goals.
In this situation, also staff members benefit: continuing education paths that reflect the company’s needs open up new development and career prospects. In the best case, they will increase motivation and improve performance among staff – both individually and collectively. This can boost the team spirit and employee experience, making companies better equipped for today’s oft-quoted “war for talents.”
If, in contrast, training measures disregard the organization’s needs, there is a definite risk that the courses focus on skills the organization does not need instead of driving forward its strategy and goals.
The worst-case scenario would be employees stumbling upon a new professional orientation and bidding the company farewell, taking their newly acquired skills with them.
If a company aims for training measures that will positively impact all of its operations, it needs to first identify which competences it requires now and will require in the future, and only then design an effective training strategy based on this knowledge. The following five steps should be taken:
Carry out a skills audit, e.g. through surveys or by talking to your staff members one-on-one, to gain a clear picture of the competence landscape in your company. To this end, you could ask employees to carry out a self-assessment with regard to specific skills, topics, or tools used in the company. For this, it’s important to create an appreciative environment so that respondents will feel secure enough to also talk about hidden deficits. Don’t forget to ask about your staff members’ interests and further education goals as well.
Analyze strategic goals, market trends, and technologies on the rise to understand which competences will be required in 1, 3, or 5 year(s). This process should involve all business units and department managers as well as everybody working on strategy and innovation.
If, for example, your strategy is to transform your business model to be better equipped for the digital world, you will require a different skill set than if you were geared towards expansion and internationalization. Do not lose track of the challenges related to a company’s sustainability strategy or the goal of making it more resilient.
If you find it hard to define future needs, set up cross-functional teams to work on future-related topics and potential developments in your industry (unless you have already implemented such a team in the process of fine-tuning your strategy). When in doubt, rely on consultants who specialize in these exact questions: this investment will surely pay off.
But as you are training your eyes on the future, don’t forget about the basics. Sometimes it makes sense to just focus on levelling up staff members’ skills in self-management, project management, and process knowledge, or to help them use everyday tools such as CRM, Excel, and PowerPoint more effectively to increase productivity.
Finally, look at where you are in contrast with where you want to be to get a map for your organization’s continuing education journey and use it to plan individual development paths.
Next, define specific, measurable, achievable, and time-bound further education goals for entire areas or agree on individual development goals with staff members. These goals should be aligned with the company’s present and future needs, which you identified in the previous step and which are also shaped by the general business strategy. These measures should also serve to close the detected qualification gaps.
Such goals could be, e.g., ensuring that all division heads develop a sound grasp of the digital transformation within a year, or streamlining the approach to customer journeys and the use of CRM tools within the sales team.
Draft a training curriculum that matches individual needs and comprises a mix of classroom instructions, learning on the job, and materials for independent study using different learning formats and technologies. In selecting training contents, keep in mind that the faster they can be applied to practice, the better. A variety of formats and technologies ensures that your offer caters to people with a wide variety of different learning styles. What is more, students will encounter contents several times via different channels, helping them retain the material.
Foster a culture of lifelong learning by involving staff in planning their further education process. Sit down to discuss potential development paths within the organization with them, emphasizing how every single staff member plays a part in the overall success of the organization. Explain why professional development is so essential and how it creates a win-win situation for both employees and the organization.
If staff members realize that the organization is intent on supporting them in their personal development paths, it will boost both their intrinsic motivation and their identification with the company.
Assess the success of your further education initiatives based on key performance and other indicators on a regular basis. Adapt the offer based on feedback from staff and other stakeholders to ensure trainings are both relevant and effective.
Let’s look at an example: You carry out a base survey with answers on a scale from 1 to 6. If the social media competences of your marketing team are rated at 4 on average and some individual staff members fare more poorly at 2 or 3, you will know that you are on the right track if after a year – and targeted measures –, your team has reached an average score of 5. Naturally, this will only make sense if social media competences are among the strategic training goals of your company.
Checking the progress and state of things is, however, never a one-off task; keep an eye on things also during the year and particularly when daily business is challenging. It’s when things are at their busiest that we forget about continuing education, as our attention is held captive by operative topics. As a manager, it’s your role to find a solution to be able to stick to the further education plan also when there is a lot going on. At the same time, extreme situations caused by, e.g., a chronically understaffed team, can be a reason to put a temporary halt to training measures or change the goals or deadlines for achieving them.
Depending on where you are starting from or your strategic orientation, continuing education goals can differ greatly: from developing entirely new skills and preparing for related tasks to improving overall efficiency in the company. Training measures can thus focus on one of the following:
Upskilling is the process of improving or acquiring skills in a given specialized field. The goal is to deepen the expertise in one’s field, qualifying for more advanced tasks in the same area. An upskilling campaign can, for instance, be about training the entire staff to gain a (deeper) understanding of topics such as the digital transformation, process management, or sustainability.
Side-skilling is about developing skills in a field other than one’s current area of expertise. This can mean training in an entirely different field or taking on a role in a different department within the same organization that will require a different skill set.
Also multi-skilling is about acquiring new competences – in this case, a whole series of new skills in different fields or skills required to fulfill various roles within an organization. This can involve activities outside of one’s primary area of expertise or competences in several disciplines within the department one is currently assigned to. As opposed to side-skilling, multi-skilling focuses on gaining a more general understanding of several relevant topics; it is not so much about acquiring new competences.
Cross-skilling is meant to convey expertise that is relevant across departments and fields. To this end, staff members are trained in various departments or areas of the company to give them a comprehensive view of the organization’s operations. This can help them work effectively with various teams and departments and quickly take on new responsibilities on demand.
Reskilling is a special form of re-training that involves developing new skills or changing to an altogether different field. Such changes can become necessary due to shifts on the labor market or in the industry or job cuts due to automation and other factors.
Outskilling means offering training measures and resources to staff members who are leaving the company because of staff reductions or a restructuring process. It includes offers such as career consulting, support in the job search, or training to acquire new skills that are geared towards helping employees transfer to a new role or industry more easily.
Companies can and should offer continuing education measures that further the organization’s strategic goals while simultaneously focusing on their employees’ individual strengths and interests. As a side effect, getting together to discuss focus areas for training – in other words: aligning the company’s needs with employees’ wishes – may peak some staff members’ curiosity for new topics they were not aware of before. All in all, this creates a win-win situation because the skill levels of both employees and the entire organization grow in unison. Assuming that better employee performance will improve a company’s results, it’s easy to see how this can create a strategic competitive edge.
Also from a leadership perspective, supporting sustainable and strategically thought-out training measures makes sense because it fosters a growth mindset in which both personal and organizational development are appreciated and supported. If this is the prevailing mood within an organization, it will attract a certain kind of people, namely those who like to keep learning, are open for new things, and drive the implementation of projects.
Be it upskilling, side-skilling, reskilling, or multi-skilling – a strategic approach to the topic of further education is a crucial success factor for companies. Outcomes such as a more content staff, a collective growth mindset, and better performance throughout the company leave no doubt about that.
With our compact programs and especially with our customized programs, the WU Executive Academy is your partner at eye level for the further education needs of your employees and your company. Contact us and we will train your company to meet the challenges of the present and the future.
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