How can learning be supported, accelerated and directed towards an organisation's strategic needs? This has become a key business question for modern organisations, but the answer is not simple.
The researchers argue that the capacity to adapt is the greatest gift of learning. It allows the learner and the organisation to remain agile in the face of uncertain future conditions, whereas other outcomes of learning, like new knowledge and skills, tend to have specific applications and a shorter shelf life. The challenge for HRD professionals, therefore, is to move from a strategy based upon the delivery of training to one based upon support for learning.
Shifting from training to learning
Training is characterised as an instructor-led, content-based intervention, leading to desired changes in behaviour; and learning as a self-directed, work-based process, leading to increased adaptive capacity
Creating the right conditions
Many factors are influential in making this shift, ranging from broad features like the vision and values of the organisation, to specific features like the degree of support for learning provided by managers. A complementary two-pronged approach is proposed in the research:
1. Creating a positive climate for learning in the organisation, for managers to be predominantly responsible in generating commitment among employees.
2. Building up the learning capabilities of employees, groups and the organisation as a whole, for both managers and HR to take responsibility to translate the commitment into productive value for the organisation.
Creating the climate for learning
Learning can be cultivated by management practices that raise commitment among employees, creating what is described as an organisational 'growth medium'. The logic of the growth medium is simple: in the right climate, employees will commit their energies to the vision of the organisation, speeding up the process of improvement and innovation. The research identified three conditions that organisations need to meet in order to build an effective growth medium:
1. creating a sense of purpose in the workplace
2. giving employees the opportunity to act on their commitment
3. providing employees with a supportive learning environment.
But commitment alone doesn't guarantee that learning will be timely, productive or systematic. Neither can it guarantee that individuals will share their learning effectively in groups or apply it to the wider challenge of organisational change.
Many factors intervene between the commitment to learn and the impact of learning in practice. Organisations differ widely in their culture, objectives and operating reality. There is no quick fix or 'tips and tricks' that can be read across from elsewhere; it's a job for the competent HRD manager to work through in his or her own organisation. A proactive approach needs to be taken to create, implement and monitor a learning strategy.
Building learning capabilities or 'learning how to learn'
The conditions in which effective learning takes place at individual, group and organisational levels - ie the conditions in which employees find themselves working on a routine basis, not just when they attend training courses - are critical. The research suggests that learning capabilities bring insight and discipline to the process of learning, helping employees (and the groups in which they operate) to draw on their experience, work effectively with others and increase their strategic contribution. The presence of generic learning skills helps an organisation remain flexible in the face of unpredictable future conditions. But their importance is rarely recognised at present in organisations, even by HRD professionals. The HRD professional needs now to enable learning among employees, rather than just deliver or direct it.
In developing such a strategy the modern human resource development professional must consider a wide range of issues:
1. ensuring that learning is aligned with appropriate corporate objectives
2. developing awareness of the value of relevant learning to the organisation
3. promoting learner confidence and ability
4. creating processes so that the learner has the time and freedom to learn.
Dominance of the classroom-based training course in workplace learning is no longer appropriate for a global economy where change happens so quickly and with such regularity that classroom-based, fact-dominated learning soon becomes out of date.
Successful organisations are those that can persuade and encourage their people to learn to learn - actively to seek to acquire the skills necessary to enable constant learning and the accompanying desire to make use of these skills.
The challenge for the HR profession is to ensure the modern workforce has the skills and adaptive capacity to deal with the fast-moving global economy. What can and should be done must depend on the situation, culture and background of the organisation.