Organizational Learning

Organizational Learning for Innovation – It’s Mobile, Agile, and Visual

Overview: This is the second article in a six-part series on HR for innovation and, specifically, organizational learning. Here we discuss why employee learning is so critical and introduce the latest strategies and tools that are being implemented by leading organizations.

Place the learner’s experience and the solution’s usability at the top of the priority list for any new learning project.
— Jeff Freyermuth and Helen Poiteven, Gartner Analysts

Corporations today can learn a thing or two from YouTube. Step-by-step instructions can be had for practically any task by simply watching a brief video from any mobile device, anytime, anywhere. Should the need arise, check out the highly viewed, “getting your cat to swallow a pill.” You name it, you can learn it.

In my article “How Intelligent HRM Leadership Can Give Employees the Freedom to Innovate,” I discussed the concept of design thinking, which is a mindset from which to reorient the structure of HR with the focus on employee experience. Why? Because worker transience is forcing employers to focus on retention, and the employee learning experience has a large role to play in retention rates.

Today’s employee has transitioned from a worker or internal service provider to an in-house consumer. The YouTube learning model, with its obvious success as a teaching instrument, illustrates how learning is transforming in the digital age to better serve the consumer. Similar models are required in the corporate setting.

The Theory – From Design Thinking to Bespoke Learning

To accommodate learning in the digital environment, traditional learning management systems are rapidly being replaced by versatile learning modes – Coursera, Lynda, G Suite, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are all good examples – where employees can absorb information in smaller doses, visually, and at a convenient time and place.

Learning, with the help of digital platforms, is now more personalized. It fits well into the design thinking paradigm by focusing on the individual and delivers a bespoke learning experience. But there are other practicalities to discuss before organizational learning can be truly reflective of the digital age.

Why should companies reorient and cater to the whims of workers? Shouldn’t innovation for the external market be the focus?

The goal here is to build an innovative workforce, which requires investing in and retaining workers over the long term. The Wynford Group, back in 2007, drew a strong correlation between human capital ROI and overall organizational ROI, as did digital HR-solutions provider GrowthForce.

To reiterate the theory behind design thinking within this context, for workers to be creative and innovative, they must be engaged and motivated, which requires providing employees with access to learning opportunities for career growth.

Any investment that improves workforce skills is an investment in the firm itself. A failure to invest in human capital will prove costly later when workers quit because their needs are not being met or because they lack skills that should have been developed. The most innovative companies invest heavily in their employees, because these companies know that this is the best way to retain employees, prevent brain drain, and capitalize on existing skills through training.

Google’s learning culture engages its experts; the company hosts the celebrated TechTalks series that attracts prominent thinkers to share leading-edge concepts with the community. Deloitte Consulting LLP holds an annual data science conference where data scientists can learn from each other.

Granted, an immediate concern for the small- and mid-size business leader is the cost of implementing training or development programs. After all, not everyone can set up R&D learning and innovation powerhouses in Silicon Valley like GE, AT&T, Walmart, and Amazon can, among others. However, there are cost-effective ways to satisfy employees’ need to learn, and digital technologies can play a major role.

Here’s what organization learning for innovation should look like and how digital transformation feeds into a development strategy.

The Benefits of Digital Learning

Mastery and autonomy are popular themes of corporate learning. Author and thought leader Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive,” lists three elements of the motivation formula. These are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

Deloitte employees gain recognition as masters of their domain at an annual data science conference, which provides both an opportunity for those masters to bestow their wisdom and a powerful motivation to learn, grow, and build new products. But individuals have different learning preferences, and not everyone is interested in displaying their mastery of the latest advancements in machine learning algorithms. Some want to learn at their own speed and in their own time.

Organizational learning, therefore, should cater to the learning preferences of a multi-generational and diverse workforce. Doing so intensifies the learning effect as individuals can maximize their learning potential. For more on this, read “Could This Be the Greatest Era for Innovation? HR Strategies for Collaboration in the New Organization.”

The new digital learning environment is versatile and agile, responding to employee needs for both mastery and autonomy.

Digital learning can provide real-time training. Web- or cloud-based learning packages can instruct the uninitiated on how to use new software or how to navigate an accounting solution. All can be accessible 24/7 on a corporate website. The cost and time savings of this type of learning channel are immeasurable compared to traditional classroom-style training.

As far back as 2002, e-learning was reducing training costs for many companies. A paper by Judith B. Strother found that Ernst and Young reduced its costs by a reported 35 percent and training time was cut by over 50 percent. IBM saved $200 million and benefited from five times the learning at one-third the cost of their former methods.

Disruption in the learning arena is benefiting all stakeholders. Digital learning and e-learning mean that employees can undergo training at a time that suits them and their employer. Employees are given the tools to learn and are accountable for their own advancement, which encourages accountability and autonomy.

Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs)

The global academic space has benefited from MOOCs for many years now, and similar learning gains can be accomplished by implementing internal MOOCs and integrating them into continuous professional development strategies.

The Harvard Business Review found that employer-funded training decreased from 21 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2009 and, as a result, many individuals are turning to MOOCs to compensate for the lack of training and development they receive from employers. Organizations could benefit by supporting employee enrollment in MOOCs, which are offered free or at cost on platforms such as Coursera and EdX. The subjects offered range from Java programming and machine learning to leadership.

HBR reports that companies such as AT&T, GE, L’Oréal, and Marks & Spencer are leveraging MOOCs, and McKinsey and Microsoft produce in-house educational content. But, according to HRB: only 5 percent of employees who were engaged in MOOCs received financial help from their employers; only 8 percent were given time to study; and only 4 percent had their coursework recognized in their performance evaluations.

Why are companies so slow on the MOOC uptake? Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are unaware of MOOCs and unaware that their employees are taking courses on their own initiative. HRB finds that young, highly skilled employees with management potential saw training as one of the largest discrepancies between what they wanted and what they received from their employer.

Also, some companies don’t consider MOOCs legitimate training, and they might have a point. Because MOOCs are so massive and so open, it’s easy for students to drop out halfway through a course. There is little support or framework to keep them committed.

According to Stanford’s Dan Stober, MOOCs are still in the early stages of growth and, as they mature, their capability to engage learners will improve, perhaps by combining courses with other learning methods such as online and classroom learning.

Inter-generational Mentoring

People have different learning styles and preferred ways of collaborating. Personality inventories rooted in psychology, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the DiSC profile, are useful in determining preferred learning styles, which can help employees and HR professionals select the best type of learning mode for an individual.

5% of the world’s best leaders still lead from an egocentric level of mind – the developmental equivalent of a toddler.
—  Forbes Coaches Cousil on “Mastering Leadership”

These types of tests can also be the first step in a leadership development program. Certain characteristics or personality types are predisposed to a leadership role and identifying those individuals early on gives more time to perfecting people management skills.

Individual preferences for learning can also be addressed through mentoring programs. Colleagues learn more from a peer than they do from formal training, and mentoring relationships develop more naturally when the ages are mixed. Younger workers can be paired with seasoned executives, and both will have something to teach the other.

Developing Potential Leaders

Identifying and molding leaders ensures that your ship has a captain at the helm as it sails precariously into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and beyond. Identifying candidates for future leadership roles, as well as pivotal knowledge roles, should begin at recruitment.

Digital technologies can identify character traits at the search and interview stage and match applicants or internal candidates to specific roles based on interview data or responses to gamification strategies. Digital technologies such as workforce planning can predict future human capital needs and lay out development programs based on learning preferences.

The book “Mastering Leadership” uses data collected over the last 13 years by The Leadership Circle Organization, from thousands of C-Suite executives and leaders belonging to over 10,000 organizations worldwide. One of the major findings: 75 percent of some of the world’s best leaders have a “reactive mind.” Their decisions are based on a mind that is critical, distant, controlling, arrogant, and autocratic. Many are also severely egocentric.

According to the Center for Organizational Design, this type of leadership causes those under the leader’s charge to feel frustrated, demoralized, and insignificant. Workers focus on staying out of trouble rather than enjoying what they do and taking initiative. Those leaders who have matured enough to develop a “creative” mind, however, demonstrate connection with others along with integrity, courageous authenticity, and community concern.

Simon Sinek is the author of, “Leaders Eat Last.” He describes the decision by Costco to raise the hourly wage for their workers by $1.50 during the Great Recession. The reasoning of the then-CEO James Sinegal was that in difficult economic times “we should be figuring out how to give [workers] more, not less.”

This empathetic leadership style has seemed to work well for Costco. In 2017, the company was paying its employees an average of $21 an hour compared to Walmart’s $13 an hour, and Costco’s turnover was less than 10 percent for hourly employees. According to WorldatWork, the average hourly retail position had a turnover rate of 65 percent in 2016.

New technologies can help leaders identify and track a leadership development program. Better HR data management can eliminate the risk that the wrong type of personality is allocated to the wrong development track while at the same time leveraging and nurturing organizational talent and leadership.

The Practicalities of Digital Learning

First, learning solutions should support mobile learning. Learning without geographic boundaries and limitations is not novel – it’s expected, and it adds autonomy to the user experience. Examples are videos that are easily digestible micro-learning experiences, mobile apps, and adaptive learning platforms.

Second, it is crucial to track the effectiveness of investment in organizational learning. Without monitoring the results of a learning initiative, there is no way to improve or perfect that initiative. Advanced digital learning or workforce planning software makes it easy to augment successful learning programs and nix the ineffective ones.

According to Unleash, tracking organization learning should focus on measuring change in strategic business success, business unit performance, and development in personal capabilities. This requires benchmarking where you are today and then assessing where people are after they have participated in learning opportunities. Metrics to measure learning effectiveness include the following: analysis of performance ratings; 180° and 360° feedback from peers, managers, and customers; and business performance using KPIs. Digital technology is set up to facilitate this type of analysis.

Lastly, before opting for a learning solution, prioritize the learner’s experience and the solution's usability. There’s no point instituting learning software that is difficult to navigate. This may require some research, but the information is easily found on today’s information-prolific social media and discussion platforms. If in doubt, think “YouTube.”


Up next in human resources, Could This Be the Greatest Era for Innovation? HR Strategies for Collaboration in the New Organization.