Companies are fighting for talent at all levels. It’s not just about hiring the right people, it’s also about retaining them. With the Great resignation current and employees looking for more rewarding employment opportunities, companies must reflect on their skills development programs. Upgrading and retraining programs will be imperative for future success.

Corporate training programs, as they have traditionally been constructed, are no longer effective in today’s environment. Consider what businesses and employees really got for their time and money? In 2020, American companies spent 165 billion dollars on learning and development. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports:

  • 64% spent internally versus 36% for external providers and course providers
  • 75% of 1,500 managers surveyed of 50 companies were “dissatisfied” with training programs
  • 70% of employees say they are not taught the skills to do their jobs
  • Correct 12% of employees apply what they have learned in training to their work

Like with any new challenge, we need to look at what isn’t working in order to create something that is more valuable. We need to create programs that will inspire workers to stay in their respective organizations and acquire the skills that can advance their careers or enable them to transition into more fulfilling roles. It will invigorate the workforce, close talent gaps, and solve organizations’ most important talent needs.

Every management team knows that talent is the number one factor in improving performance.

The original Company Academy: 1.0

The corporate academy is a 20th century American institution, starting with that of GE Crotonville followed by corporate giants from Accenture to Zenith. The objective was to create a pool of managerial talents to allow companies to continue to move forward.

Academy 1.0 was designed for a different age and pace. Physical campuses, like Crotonville, were necessary for global businesses before the ease of global communication. They reproduced the hundred-year-old university models. Investments in faculty, housing, a campus, etc., made these academies rigid, costly, and resource-heavy. Only the wealthiest companies could afford this type of investment. With high capital intensity, companies could recoup costs and reap long-term benefits because employees stick around, often spending their entire careers in one company. As such, it made sense to train them.

The experience, on the whole, mirrored that of a good university, and employees often saw such an opportunity as a real benefit, to breathe, learn and re-engage.

Academy 2.0: The Rise (and Gaps) of Online Learning

As the 21st century dawns, with computing power and the Internet in the hands of nearly every employee, on-demand online learning has garnered a great deal of enthusiasm. With the potential to scale to more employees at a lower cost, the e-learning revolution has begun. We saw the creation of e-learning platforms, first developed in-house and then more generally third-party, which companies could access for a fraction of the cost of a physical academy.

Teachers didn’t have to teach live, they could pre-record the content, which could then be reused, with cheaper animators involved. The content could even be written by employees. And access can be done on any device, anywhere, via an LMS.

As is often the case between great technological leaps, it takes time to imagine again. These online courses were often little better than recording a teacher or PowerPoint slides with voiceover. The experience tended to be linear and not particularly popular.

Now, instead of spending time on a beautiful campus, surrounded by other people also dedicated to learning, it was necessary for you to work on learning in your regular week, often in addition to your usual responsibilities.

Outside of mandatory training, Corporate Academy 2.0 resulted in poor completion and engagement. “Online learning was boring, tedious and difficult to achieve, and it lacked practice, hands-on experience and coaching,” said Josh Bersin, human resources analyst. “In 2015, we did a study of L&D net-promoter score, and it was negative.”

Academy 2.0 was a transitional phase. When television programming had just emerged, competing with and supplanting radio programming, most early television “shows” were just the same filmed radio narrators speaking into their microphones. Academy 2.0 in many ways was simply bringing the same 1950s-style corporate academic content online.

Rethinking the Academy: 3.0

As the pace of technological change has accelerated and decreases the retention period of our skills, this has produced a “skill.”emergency“at the global level. The World Economic Forum awaits 87 million jobs will be lost due to automation and 97 new jobs created that require skills that do not yet exist, by 2025. Technology is advancing so rapidly that shelf life, or period of time during which skills are needed, is reduced to as little as two years.

The focus on skills is already happening in leading companies. According to SHRM, companies like Unilever “unbundle positions into skills and small tasks” that can be done by a new hire, borrowed from another part of the organization, or outsourced to a subcontractor. If skills are the key to building organizational capacity and competitiveness, while unlocking individual potential, then we need to rethink our current approach to building skills at the workforce level.

To overcome the pitfalls of Academy 2.0 and build learning environments suited to our new reality, we must address the underlying causes of failure of employee development programs. Here’s what HBR says limits a program’s effectiveness:

  • Learning for the wrong reason: Programs reward completion, not business improvement.
  • Learn at the wrong time: Timelines are driven by L&D or HR, not business units. This is problematic because we forget about 75% of what we learn after just six days if it is not immediately applied.
  • Learn the wrong content: Classes teach general business skills, not job specific skills.
  • Learn for the wrong people: Learning and development programs are often self-directed or not strategically led by managers or business units.

It’s time to rethink the academy. There are a number of elements that any new vision for corporate learning must include, but at a minimum it must maintain an emphasis on the rapid transfer of out-of-the-box skills that are strategically aligned. To achieve this, Academy 3.0 should enable companies to deploy skill building academies tailored to each team or business unit, with on-demand skill building programs specific to departments and roles. In this way, the right skills can be learned quickly and immediately put into practice.

Additionally, Academy 3.0 must be flexible enough to meet the skill building needs of ad hoc employees as well as those of specific cohorts. Employees should have access at all times to a marketplace of certificate-based programs and study programs that allow them to continue learning without waiting for the start of the next “scheduled” academy. Providing flexibility and personal learning paths will increase employee engagement.

Employees should not be required to pay for these programs out of pocket or to take course modules outside of office hours. If organizations ask this of their employees, they will be sure to lose talent as workers place new importance on their personal lives and financial priorities. With the technologies available to us today, businesses should be able to absorb the time and costs associated with rapid skill-based learning. After all, they will see a significant return on investment from a base of highly skilled and well-trained employees committed to continuous professional development. This will allow businesses to be better equipped to meet future challenges as markets evolve.

Building Academy 3.0 is a daunting task, but it is essential that we do it right. The vitality of our workforce depends on it.


David blake is co-founder and CEO of Learn in, a talent creation startup that connects employees to training opportunities. He is also the founder of the upskilling platform, Diploma.



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