Learning on the job

Knowledge workers need continuous learning to maximize their productivity

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Unleashing Digital Value issue of Workflow Quarterly.

More than five decades ago, management guru Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe people who work primarily with their minds instead of their muscles. He argued that the information revolution would help knowledge workers drive productivity for organizations.

Drucker revisited this idea at the turn of the century, writing: “The most valuable asset of the 21st-century institution will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” A key part of boosting that productivity, he noted, would be encouraging knowledge workers to learn continuously throughout their careers.

Most companies want to build organizational cultures that foster innovation, but that’s easier said than done, according to a recent ServiceNow/ThoughtLab survey of 1,000 executives worldwide. The study found innovation is as much about people as it is about technology, and that cultivating innovation requires organizations to foster new skills and new ways of thinking in the workforce.

There’s work to be done in this regard. More than one-third of respondents said their organizations struggle to provide sufficient training for workers. LinkedIn’s annual Workplace Learning Report found similar concerns: Almost half of executives polled said their employees don’t have the right skills to execute their business strategy, a figure that jumped nine points from 2021.

Everything must lend itself to creating a learning culture where individuals are given the opportunity to upskill and reskill.

The good news: Companies that weave continual learning into every aspect of their organizational culture are inherently more adaptable and innovative. These companies adapt well to change because they tend to see change as an opportunity, and can navigate crises because the tools needed to evolve are already stitched into the organizational fabric.

Learning boosts business success

Companies with strong learning cultures consistently produce strong business results, outperforming in revenue growth, profitability, market share, and customer satisfaction, according to a 2016 study by the Association for Talent Development and the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

The study defined a culture of learning as one where “employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills” and where learning “permeates all aspects of organizational life.” While the research found that top-performing organizations are five times more likely to have a culture of continuous learning, only 31% of the 832 companies surveyed met the definition. The challenge for companies is to embed such continuous learning in their cultures.

“Everything must lend itself to creating a learning culture where more and more individuals are given the opportunity to upskill and reskill,” says Cat Lang, senior vice president for global education at ServiceNow. “But what’s really interesting is what we call ‘and-skilling.’ It’s not ‘you used to do this and now you do that.’ Instead, you’re learning new skills, growing your career, and immediately becoming much more valuable.”

Lang cites a ServiceNow customer that sought to staff a new center of excellence to support deployment of the Now Platform across their organization. Rather than hiring new workers, the company focused on “and-skilling” to bring in existing employees who already understood the company and had proved themselves in their current roles. Learning the Now Platform augmented their existing skills and benefited their careers while helping the company deploy the technology faster.

Beyond the classroom

Enterprise software provider Deltek encourages an environment that embraces continuous learning, says Jodi Atkinson, the company’s senior director of global learning. “We live and breathe a culture of learning,” she says, “[whether we’re] walking down the hall with a colleague or in a team meeting or intentionally during a learning circle focused on a particular area of expertise.”

Since 2018, when Deltek made learning and development a core value, its more than 3,400 employees have been asked to dedicate at least 40 hours of work time annually to learning in its myriad forms. The company has deployed a digital learning management system where employees can work with their managers to pursue personal development plans that advance both organizational objectives and personal aspirations. If an employee wants to learn a programming language, for example, they can study it independently and report their efforts. Or if they want to perfect their presentation skills, they can participate in Toastmasters as part of their annual 40-hour minimum.

Anyone at Deltek can lead a learning circle session on a subject they want to share with colleagues. Some divisions mandate weekly or monthly learning sessions facilitated by experts who teach and invite conversation on a broad range of topics.

Other companies don’t mandate a set number of learning hours, but rather encourage and support learning in whatever way their employees find most useful. Leaders at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, for example, are encouraged to set aside specific days or times for learning throughout the 10,000-person company. One division has declared a monthly “no-meetings” day to free up employees to pursue professional development either independently or in groups at work.

“You don’t have to seek permission or wait to be told to learn something,” says Shibani Gopal, vice president of talent development at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. “We are a culture that is based on inquisitiveness and curiosity. We try to develop offerings that will enhance that.”

If an employee wants to learn how to create Excel pivot tables, for example, they can seek out in-house experts or take a course on the company’s digital learning platform. Additionally, the company hosts conferences that surface customer insights, create networking opportunities, and encourage teams to share information.

A new digital mentoring platform has not only contributed to the company’s culture of learning, but also created previously unimagined connections. Using automated recommendations, mentees can set up formal six-month relationships with mentors from a different division or the opposite side of the globe—or both.

Make learning a benefit

In a job market where many companies struggle to find the right talent, a continuous learning culture can also be an attractive employee benefit. In Gallup’s 2021 American Upskilling Study of more than 15,000 U.S. workers, 57% said they wanted to update their skills, and 48% would switch jobs to do it.

In the Gallup study, 71% of workers said job training and development increased their job satisfaction. Another 61% said upskilling opportunities were an important reason to remain with their current employer. A separate Gallup/Amazon poll found that two-thirds of workers aged 18 to 24 ranked learning new skills as the third most important perk when considering a new job, behind only health insurance and disability benefits.

Deltek’s learning culture has made it “a destination employer because people want to work in an organization that invests so much in their development,” Atkinson says. She adds that it’s critical to allow employees flexibility in what and how they learn. “Let them articulate what they’re interested in and align those aspirations with where the company needs to grow so that they can see how they are part of the solution.”

71%

Percentage of workers whose job satisfaction increased with training and development

That alignment occurs most effectively when companies assess each worker’s unique set of skills rather than focusing only on specific roles. Such efforts are most effective for organizations that maintain a skills database with a profile for every employee, according to a 2021 Accelerating Total Workforce Readiness study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity. According to this research, only 10% of organizations have developed such a tool.

Continuous learning cultures also tend to have more pathways for internal mobility, an important factor in retaining talent. According to the LinkedIn report, companies that excel at internal mobility retain employees twice as long as those that don’t. Part of the reason: Employees who believe their skills are not being put to good use are 10 times more likely to look for a new job.

When Drucker wrote that knowledge workers should be treated as an asset, many organizations still believed their employees were a cost that didn’t require investment. Drucker warned that the new generation of knowledge workers would have to update their skills in order to stay relevant and productive.

While many leading companies see the value in providing training, fewer understand the need for continuous learning and talent transformation. “Our human capital is our greatest asset,” Deltek’s Atkinson says. “We’ve got to invest in learning and development to optimize people.”