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Next Practices L&D Leaders Apply to Turn Employees into Continuous Learners

In a recent article on our i4cp Productivity Blog—The Dangerous Gap in Succession Pipelines—I wrote that organizational learning’s shift to a continuous-stream construct (in response to the shorter shelf-life of employee skills) has implications for chief learning officers.  

Specifically, this challenges learning leaders to build their organizations’ workforces into self-directed continuous learners, people who want to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to stay relevant, in demand, and able to drive career growth in a dynamic work environment.

Some L&D leaders find this to be a challenging mandate to fulfill. But i4cp research uncovered a handful of next practices high-performance organizations apply to establish, expand, and sustain continuous, self-directed learning behaviors in their workforces. Those are critical capabilities—certainly for competitive success in a fluid business world, but also for any enterprise that aspires to achieve a vibrant learning culture.

An i4cp-designated next practice describes a strategy strongly correlated to better market performance and used to a very limited extent by organizations overall

In fact, more than two-thirds of talent leaders surveyed by i4cp say that continuous, or lifelong, learners are the employees who drive engagement, and by extension, better individual and organizational performance. 

How high-performance organizations build continuous learners 

Top companies start with the fundamentals. They make continuous learning (insert lifelong learning, agile learning, or other synonym here) a formal enterprise-level value.  

Think that sounds more like a “duh” strategy than a next practice?  

Maybe so, but our research (Lifelong Learning: The Path to Personal and Organizational Performance), conducted in partnership with ATD, found that only 15% of organizations have taken that step. Yet nearly twice that percentage of high-performance companies have done so (a number nearly 4x that of lower-performers).  

Top-Five Behaviors of Continuous Learners
  • Ask questions
  • Experiment/try new things
  • Conduct their own research
  • Regularly apply new knowledge
  • Share knowledge with others
Source i4cp

Just over a third of talent leaders who participated in the study reported that their organizations actively encouraged employees to become continuous learners. However, nearly six in 10 of those from high-performance companies said they did so. To achieve that end, they leverage another seemingly fundamental tactic that emerged as a next practice: training.

Again, simply teaching people how to go about becoming self-directed and continuous learners seems a no-brainer. Yet we found only one in five organizations providing training in self-direction, and just 16% teaching continuous learning behaviors. Those in high-performance companies were about twice as likely to report having that training in place. When compared with lower-performers, the difference was more than 4x. 

Aligned talent practices are important, too 

i4cp research consistently calls attention to the fact that business initiatives need many elements in place if they are to achieve optimal results and maximize returns on investments. Building leaders and employees into continuous, self-directed learners is no exception. To that end, high-performance organizations marshal the supportive powers of four talent programs: 

  • Performance management systems provide structure and strength when formal performance expectations and conversations include self-directed and continuous learning goals and behaviors. Only 18% of all organizations surveyed—but nearly three in 10 high-performers—reported this practice.  
  • Rewards and recognition programs are used to reinforce self-directed and continuous learning in a scant 12% of organizations overall. About one in five high-performance companies apply this strategy, 4x the rate seen in lower-performing firms.  
  • Linking internal mobility options to continuous learning is a little-exploited opportunity noted by only 9% of all companies represented in the research. However, nearly 20% of top performers were actively making the connection.  
  • Compensation programs are very infrequently tied to continuous learning, even among high-performance organizations that participated in the study. However, only 7% of companies overall, and none of the lower-performing organizations surveyed were linking comp to self-directed, continuous learning. 

As the skills workers need to drive competitive advantage and organizational performance change rapidly, high-performance organizations recognize the value inherent in teaching employees how to effectively take the initiative to pursue new knowledge and abilities.  

More than half of those top companies (55%) make it an enterprise priority to build workforces of continuous learners. Learning leaders who take action to implement high-performers’ next practices in self-directed and continuous learning will position their organizations to drive better performance and ongoing competitive capability. 

For more information, download the white paper based on the i4cp/ADT study: Lifelong Learning: The Path to Personal and Organizational Performance.  

Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.