The Interconnection Between Learning and Retention
If the past few years have taught us anything it’s that corporate learning and development (L&D) needs to focus on far more than merely how employees use a particular device or talk to customers about a specific product. The key consideration is how to ensure that people are able and motivated to learn fast enough to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Across the learning landscape what matters most is people’s ability to learn. Meta-learning—insight into and reflection on your own learning and the ability to learn—is increasingly an imperative for all organisations as algorithms, machine learning, and other advanced technologies make inroads into automating jobs and tasks across industries and sectors at an unprecedented pace.
While this scenario has often triggered fears of technology and computers replacing humans, the reality is that people can still be the differentiating factor. It all comes down to how (and if) they continuously learn and develop skills—such as critical thinking, creativity, curiosity and imagination, collaboration, and agility and adaptability—that can make humans valuable in the future. The need for these kinds of skills is not new. They are all among the skills that author and education expert Tony Wagner refers to in his book The Global Achievement Gap as ‘survival skills.’
In the future, organisations will have an even greater need to attract and retain people who can continuously upskill and reskill. This not only puts the onus on employers to make corporate L&D a strategic priority, but it also highlights the interconnection between learning and retention.
The Retention Question
As compelling an argument as this is, there can be a sticking point for many corporate leaders. Given the rapid turnover in company ranks, there are some who question the value of investing in learning. The complaint I hear most often from executives is: “Why would I invest in people who are probably going to change jobs soon and could go to our competitors tomorrow?”
What they miss, however, is a far greater and longer-lasting concern: To paraphrase Henry Ford, what if the company doesn’t educate its employees—and they stay?
That’s why the best companies take a long-term view of developing talent, often with a performance-based approach (also known as mastery-based). Gone are the days of ‘check-the-box’ training that only tracks the number of employees who attend a workshop and the hours they spend in a classroom or clicking through static e-learning. Rather, L&D should be about providing experiences and challenges that create motivated learners who become even more valuable to the company. Meaningful learning then becomes an appealing benefit, helping to both attract and retain employees.
The war for talent that is so often discussed could very well be won on the L&D battlefield—with learning as the not-so-secret weapon for retaining high-potential, high-performing employees.
No Quick Fixes
The good news is a confluence of factors has put more attention on the value of corporate learning. Among them are the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which technology is making more no/low-skilled jobs obsolete, as well as the Covid pandemic, economic uncertainty, and recession fears. Having been through so much upheaval, employees are questioning whether they are in the right jobs. At the same time, companies are wondering how to attract and keep the people who can innovate more quickly to meet and anticipate customer needs.
The bad news, however, is these same factors are creating impatience among employers and employees alike. Both sides expect ‘quick fixes’ to open doors to new opportunities and launch people rapidly on completely different career paths. The truth, however, is there are no such instant solutions.
Instead, the best-managed organisations focus on developing learning cultures in which people experience incremental improvement every year. It’s not about doubling capacity overnight; rather, the objective is for people to develop continually and steadily such that, over time, they dramatically increase their capabilities.
This can only be achieved, however, when companies are willing to invest in effective corporate education. Unfortunately, the amount of money dedicated to learning is often very low. For example, companies may think nothing of spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars per person per year for computer systems and software. However, they resist spending even $20 or $30 per user—let alone $100—on a learning system.
There is a clear discrepancy between the nature of the talent retention problem and the potential impact a learning solution could have. The future of L&D is spending wisely to impart the necessary knowledge and skills (and to do so cost-effectively and efficiently), while also ensuring that people know how to apply their knowledge and skills. This is the essence of performance-based or mastery-based learning.
The blueprint for this type of learning can be found in high-stakes training in which there are life-or-death consequences for people mastering crucial skills. Examples include aviation and the training of pilots, nuclear power plant operators, the military and Special Forces — all of which require a high degree of competence to safeguard lives. Medicine and health care have over the past three decades adopted competency- and mastery-based approaches inspired by these high performance, high-reliability professions. This is where corporate learning needs to move, not necessarily to prevent fatalities, but to maintain a competitive edge that could mean life or death for an organisation.
To attract and retain talent, companies must invest the necessary time and resources in meaningful L&D. This is what will change the paradigm—away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ training of the past to a future of precision learning that meets each individual where they are. With greater focus on learning that matters, companies can improve retention, productivity, and performance—for the benefit of the organisation and its people.
Ulrik Juul Christensen
Executive Chairman at Area9 Lyceum