Brad Zomick

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How Learning & Development Creates Today’s High Performance Organizations


High performing organizations don’t stop at average learning and development programs. They understand the hunger that high performing employees have for more learning, and they create flexible programs that provide personalized experiences and capture the passion of those employees.

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

— Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

In the pre-Internet era, companies thrived by scaling up operations. Profits grew when manufacturers boosted production to meet market demand and brought on more workers to produce goods. Product improvements didn’t generally require dramatically different skills, so once people were prepared for work through apprenticeships or management trainee programs, the employer had the in-house skills it needed.

A once-and-done training strategy doesn’t work anymore. Product innovation cycles are faster, and they incorporate new technologies, demanding new competencies that workers must master if a company wants to grow. Success depends not just on scalability, but also on agility, which extends to how new skills and knowledge are acquired.

As Matthew Hora, assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it in an interview about his employment studies, “Manufacturers aren’t just making the same diesel pump every week for years on end.” Employers need employees who are learners if they want to survive.

Edward Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, uses the term “High Performance Learning Organization” (HPLO) for companies that have three key components: the right people, environment and processes that enable and promote learning. An HPLO derives its strength from its people, Hess writes. And, as he explains in an interview about his research, “Learning is the unifying theme that can allow an organization to be both operationally excellent and innovative.”

That echoes the original research of Bersin by Deloitte on the ROI of employee learning and the advantages that accrue to what Josh Bersin calls the “high impact learning organization” (HILO) or the “self-developing organization.” These are companies where learning is continuous and ever-changing to meet organizational goals.

“Think about the challenges we have in businesses today,” Bersin writes. “Technical skills evolving rapidly, an endless supply of well-developed learning materials (MOOCs, online learning, internally-developed content) and people who want and expect to learn whenever they need it. Rather than think about your learning and HR strategy as one of ‘delivering training,’ think about it as ‘creating a self-developing organization.’”

Learning behaviors of today’s high performance employee

Building a high performance organization begins at the ground level by developing high performance employees willing to learn new skills and take on new tasks.

Fortunately, many employees now recognize the need to learn new skills in today’s fast-changing workplace. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey shows that 87 percent of the working population knows that continuous training is important or essential for career success.

Similarly, ADP Research Institute surveyed workers across the globe and found that 65 percent of knowledge workers say they need to learn new skills as they constantly shift roles. In the U.S., 85 percent of workers say they are excited about “using technology to learn anything, anytime, anywhere.” This attitude toward knowledge and learning is one of the major trends that characterize the changing global workforce, as ADP explains:

“People want access to the resources, tools and information needed to get their work done. And they want the time to learn new skills while still accomplishing their work . . . . Technological advances and global resources allow employees to tap into these resources quickly to learn new things, solve problems and keep their work moving. This on-demand learning helps employees develop new skills rapidly so they can meet their employer’s need for a multi-skilled workforce.”

Organizations can meet this demand by constructing a learning program customizable to each employee’s needs. Off-the-shelf, overly structured and lengthy elearning programs
are designed for the average employee. You can’t get a high performance organization from an average learning program.

Instead, learning tools should fluidly accommodate a wide variety of content and be adaptable to many learning styles, particularly to high performance employees. You can spot high performance employees by their unique approaches to learning:

1. High performance employees never give up

When faced with an obstacle, a high performance employee looks for a path through, around or over it. They view challenges as learning opportunities and are highly adaptable in a changing workplace. They never give up in their pursuit to find a solution, which is often through extra instruction they pursue on their own.

An average employee, meanwhile, is less likely to initiate new learning activities to tackle a challenging problem. Curated and personalized learning paths can be effective at meeting individual learners where they are so they can contribute to ongoing improvement of organizational performance.

2. High performance employees direct their learning

These individuals don’t wait for direction from above. Instead, they grab ownership of projects and find ways to improve their skills. They’re more likely to request learning opportunities from outside the workplace or outside established learning paths.

An average employee may aspire to do better, but might only use the resources that they have been made aware of. They require an environment that consistently and regularly prompts them with new learning opportunities.

3. High performance employees are greedy about learning

High performing individuals never refuse an opportunity to learn. A high performing software developer, for example, proactively learns new programming languages and technologies. They never stop at one course, article or video. They consider learning on the job as an opportunity to advance their careers.

An average employee may feel their career prospects depend on doing what is asked. A high performing organization needs to ensure these employees understand that continuous learning is an expectation.

4. High performance employees learn fast

High performance employees rapidly absorb new information and sift through material to find what’s most relevant to their needs. They will rarely sit through a lengthy off-the-shelf training package. Instead, they fast-forward to land on the pertinent content, or they exit to Google to discover resources for themselves.

Average employees, on the other hand, may require guided pathways in order to continue developing their skills.

High performing companies plan for agile learning

A report from Bersin by Deloitte, Predictions for 2017: Everything is Becoming Digital, argues that companies relying on being big and efficient will lose market share to nimble disruptors. “Today, the key to organizational success is not ‘scalable efficiency,’ but ‘scalable learning,’” John Hagel, director of Deloitte LLP’s Center for the Edge in Deloitte, says in the report.

In an environment like this, change happens too rapidly for organizations to plan for long-term needs. Instead, high performing organizations create a culture where continuous learning is encouraged and facilitated through an accessible, adaptable and employee-centric learning program.

High performing organizations embrace the challenge of rapid marketplace changes by being flexible to meet those changes. Having a learning program that is agile and accessible enables them to upskill their workforce almost in real time.

As change and uncertainty increase, the key competency for organizations will be how quickly and competently they can pivot and adapt to new realities. Therefore, learning is the essential, ascendant competency of the high performing 21st-century organization.

Documenting the correlation between learning and performance

A number of surveys and studies indicate that high performing organizations invest more in learning.

The IBM Smarter Workforce Study compared the learning activities among organizations and found that 84 percent of employees in the best performing organizations received the training they need, versus 16 percent in the worst performing organizations. They also documented a correlation between training and measures of project success.

Bersin by Deloitte’s research on HILOs documented a correlation between a learning culture and business outcomes such as:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee productivity
  • Time to market
  • Market share

Ultimately, Josh Bersin says in a follow-up blog post, HILOs booked profit growth three times above competitors. “If you can keep your employees current and skilled,” he writes, “you can evolve and perform better than your competitors.”

One rich resource of ROI data is the Lumina Foundation, which has been looking specifically at how major employers invest in tuition assistance programs. For example, looking at Cigna’s spending between 2012 and 2014, Lumina calculated that for every dollar invested, Cigna recouped the dollar and saved an additional $1.29 — an ROI of 129 percent — mostly due to reduced recruitment costs.

Similarly, Lumina found that Discover Financial Services earns a 144 percent ROI on its tuition assistance spending, primarily from improved measures of internal promotion, transfers and retention.

Other evidence for the correlation between learning and performance can be found in Fortune Magazine’s annual analysis of the best companies to work for. In the top companies on the list, employees average at least 40 hours of training per year, and in some like Baird and Boston Consulting Group, employees average more than 120 hours of training per year.

Still, there is room for more research on the ROI of employee learning. For example, a 2015 global survey of executives by McKinsey and Company found that, while organizational learning is a high strategic objective, only 13 percent of their organizations measure the ROI.

And LinkedIn’s 2017 Workplace Learning Report found that business impact is the number one measure of learning and development desired by CEOs, but only 8 percent say they have that measure. Instead, they are primarily seeing measures of activity and outputs — amount of training produced and learner satisfaction surveys.
Part of the reason may be that it is difficult to connect learning with business results, but insight on how to do that are starting to emerge. At the core, says leadership consultant Britt Andrea in a presentation for, measuring ROI requires knowing what business problem you expect to impact with training and then finding indicators of that impact.

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