Stay Curious: How continuous skills development will motivate your staff

Creating a culture of learning, through skills development programmes, will increase innovation, productivity and staff retention in your business.

Create a culture of learning in your company and your employees will not only be enthusiastic knowledge seekers, but also bring enthusiasm and expertise to your day to day business.

Creating a learning culture through continuous skills development offers mutual benefits to staff and business owners. By committing to a culture of learning and skills development, you’ll increase innovation, productivity and staff retention in your business. 

"Learning cannot be an afterthought - it must be a core focus of any strong organization. (...)  A commitment to training is seen by employees as an investment in their worth  and a powerful incentive to stay at the company." - Kevin Griffin, Chief Information Officer at GE Capital International, in an interview with CIO magazine.

Retaining talented, long-standing staff on your team can reduce the need for you to hire additional resources, and in the long term, this will save you time and money.

There are, however, a few common questions and objections around the topic of learning in the workplace. Here are four frequently asked questions about creating a culture of learning in your organisation, and some insight into how to approach them:

1. How do I create a culture of learning in my company?

According to Sharon Florentine, a senior writer for CIO magazine, creating a culture of learning means “embracing new information and innovations and leveraging those into a pipeline of talent” to gain a competitive advantage. To effectively create a culture of learning, Sharon explains that businesses must fully commit to skills development programmes, promoting “continuous improvement, not just maintaining the status quo”.

Spitfire Inbound’s MD, Darren Leishman has long been an advocate of this - he signs off all his mails with “Stay Curious”.  As a business, Spitfire Inbound includes both soft and hard skills development in its performance measures for individuals, teams and the business. Learning goals are set as key performance indicators (KPI) in each quarter, and at the end of the each quarter, progress towards these KPIs is reviewed with new learning goals being set.

Forbes magazine writes, “organisations are only as good as the people who work there, the people who make the brand what it is”. In order to remain ahead of your competition, you need to focus on building a culture of learning in your company. “To stay relevant in today’s business world,” according to Forbes, “requires a fierce desire to learn, to improve and to adapt”.

Jeff Boss, a Forbes contributor, identified the following  

  • Assign mentors to new members of the team: Mentors are responsible for showing newbies the ropes - what’s right, what’s wrong and what to avoid doing at all costs. Team members that are new to the workforce sometimes lack life experience and need a little help learning how to make effective decisions in a business context.
  • Allow staff room to make mistakes: Failure is an opportunity to learn, leaders must embrace failure and use it to teach junior staff members how to get it right next time.
  • Review tasks as a team: Spend a few minutes analysing a project and looking at the expected outcomes vs the actual outcomes. Doing this as a team allows everyone to voice their opinions and brainstorm how to improve their work in the future.
  • Don’t allow error to fester: If an error is made, address the issue immediately, using constructive criticism. There’s no need to make a big scene, just make it known that this was not the correct way to complete the task. It can be a costly mistake to allow staff to continually make the same error over and over.
  • War-game everything: Strategise as a team. It’s a good idea to include various team members who can add different perspectives. You need a group who’ll ask questions and poke holes, until you’re certain that you’ve covered all your bases.
  • Avoid character flaws and ego: Skills can be taught, character can’t. The only way to ensure a healthy, productive and effective team, is to make sure you hire the right kind of people. Trust, authenticity and co-operation are crucial elements to every business. Social skills are not only important for customer service. The main value of social skills is seen in relationships between your staff members. If everyone has a co-operative nature, tasks will be divided up quickly and effectively without any office politics. Happy staff are productive staff.

2. How can I identify someone’s ability to learn?

The Economist magazine published a special report on Learning and Earning, in their January 2017 edition (also available online). This report covers various aspects of skills development in the workplace, such as why lifelong learning has become an economic imperative, how employers can encourage low-skilled and older workers to retrain and what effect technology will have on our jobs, as we enter the age of automation.

Learning and Earning identified two frequently asked questions about hiring for a culture of learning:

  • How can I identify curiosity in staff or candidates?
    With the movement towards continued learning as a corporate priority, employers are wanting to know how they can screen applicants for curiosity. At present, there’s no definitive way to test, but data-driven tests are in their trial phases, such as the app Knack which is a “gamified psychological test” to determine a person's strengths and weaknesses.

    A rough indicator of a growth mindset, and ability to learn, is whether or not a candidate has completed university. This is why many businesses add a degree as a requirement on all of their job descriptions, even those which might not actually require one.
  • Is it possible to train people to learn?
    At present, it’s unknown whether or not curiosity is a trait that can be taught. However, there are ways to teach people how to be more effective learners. This involves making them aware of their own thought patterns while they’re learning, so that they’re more likely to continue acquiring new skills.

    When it comes to older employees, learning new skills in a familiar field shouldn’t pose a problem. In fact, Timothy Salthouse, director of the Cognitive aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, says that “if learning can be assimilated into an existing knowledge base, advantage tilts to the old”. As we get older, we accumulate knowledge (crystalised intelligence) which compensates for our declining cognitive speed (fluid intelligence).

 I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.jpg

3. What if my staff leave after I’ve invested in them?

One of the most common objections to skills development programmes, is that staff might leave after a costly training programme, taking their newly acquired skills to the competition.

Whilst you have no real guarantee that this isn’t going to happen, Gail Jackson, vice president of human resources at United Technologies (UTC), reassures employers in The Economist, that it’s “better to train and have them leave, than not to train and have them stay”. Gail says UTC wants “people who are intellectually curious”, this curiosity indicates an aptitude for continuous learning.

This attitude is common amongst large corporations. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, has amended the company’s performance review criteria to include learning outcomes, pushing the company’s culture towards a culture of learning. 

4. How do I measure the ROI of a skills development programme?

Another reason why businesses may be reluctant to initiate skills development programmes is that there’s not an obvious, immediate payback. Whilst ROI might be hard to measure, it’s not impossible.

PayScale, an online salary, compensation and benefits information provider, reports that there are a few metrics that businesses can track, to measure the effectiveness of their skills programmes.

These metrics are: 

  • Outcome measurement: The impact the training is expected to have on the company’s most important goals - so, for example, sales training could be intended to contribute 20% to the company’s goal of increasing sales by 10%.
  • Effectiveness measurement: Indicates how well skills development programmes contribute to the overall organisational outcomes. This is a quality measurement.
  • Efficiency measurement: Indicates the level of a company’s activity and investment in skills development - for example, the number of learners in the programmes and what percentage they represent of the total staff, the costs of training (including time) and how this training is applied following the completion of the programme.

Tracking these metric will give you an accurate gauge of the ROI of your skills development programme.

A culture of learning is about more than just the skills your team will develop; it encourages curiosity and engenders loyalty in your staff too.

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