How Companies Are Relearning How to Learn

So here is the paradox: At the very time that learning is seen as a crucial part of the business strategy of many companies, those tasked with delivering on a learning agenda describe significant uphill battles.

Still, I’m seeing experiments by managers who are rising to the occasion by trying out new ways of learning and new ways of delivering learning that can be models for others in similar situations. Here’s how they’re addressing the three essential concerns.

1. They’re using personalization to maximize the value of learning time.

One way of making sure every hour devoted to learning counts is by closely aligning learning with the specific needs of the learner. This kind of personalization is typically hard to deliver at scale. But experimentation with virtual and online instruction has opened up routes toward personalizing learning.

One approach is to develop learning plans, or pathways. At the Dublin-based law firm Matheson, the learning team offers 12 learning pathways (that change annually) from which employees can choose, such as the client experience or environmental, social, and corporate governance issues. Each pathway is a blend of participation in core projects and tutorials delivered by employees who are subject matter experts. One important innovation is that the pathways are available to both lawyers and business service employees. A member of the learning team told me that the approach is designed to break down the traditional siloes between those communities and embed learning into the natural flow of work.

Experimentation with virtual and online instruction has opened up routes toward personalizing learning.

Other organizations have approached the task of personalized learning by using AI-driven career diagnostics. Accenture developed an AI tool called Job Buddy to help employees build individual learning plans based on data about themselves, their group, and the external labor market. The tool was designed to use machine learning algorithms to suggest career paths and upskilling opportunities based on an individual’s current job, skills, and experience. Following this individual diagnostic, a learning platform provided resources such as online courses, workshops, and mentoring programs.

2. They’re leaning into the hybrid experience.

The pandemic increased the prevalence of hybrid working and set the scene for learning to be as flexible as work is.

At global online marketplace Etsy, peer-to-peer learning has always been a priority. Zofia Ciechowska, Etsy’s vice president of strategy and operations, told me that learning is viewed as an opportunity for employees and even vendors to share their knowledge, skills, or craft with the community. Employees have run courses on a vast range of topics as diverse as how to navigate the Tokyo subway system and how to make a candle. The sheer variety of courses is a reflection of Etsy’s culture and mission of keeping commerce “human” by enabling people to showcase their talents and educate one another.

The pandemic increased the prevalence of hybrid working and set the scene for learning to be as flexible as work is.

Crucially, in the spirit of hybrid work, Etsy’s workshops are delivered both face to face and online. Employees, whatever their work schedules, are able to participate fully. This rich community-based learning program has successfully driven informal connections, piqued curiosity, and resulted in robust employee engagement scores.

The learning team said it has been fascinating to see the benefits of learning flow in both directions — for the person being taught as well as those delivering the courses. Employees get a chance to show off their passions and engage with their peers by sharing knowledge they are proud of.

3. They’re reducing skill shortages by focusing on transferable skills.

In the face of tightening labor markets and skill shortages, the most obvious learning strategy is to focus on reskilling current employees rather than recruiting new ones. The challenge, as many executives shared, is that this is fiendishly hard, particularly at scale.

As an international bank, HSBC is changing constantly, and reskilling is essential to delivering on its strategic plan. The bank is working to ensure that all employees are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to grow in their careers so they can be successful now and in the future.

The bank recently rolled out a skills-based development program for internal candidates who want to pursue a career in wealth services. By spending 20% of their working time over a period of three to nine months, participants were able to identify, assess, and develop the transferable skills they needed to move into relationship manager roles in the bank’s wealth and private banking services businesses.