I do sometimes (often, actually) wish the HR profession wasn’t so jargon-filled. It makes us easy targets for ridicule and derision, which in its turn means that our value is often overlooked. But we have always been a profession in which immense significance can turn upon the choice of one word over another: something we share with politicians and lawyers. As a result, we do tend to get bogged down in semantics that are of immense importance to us but which look like hair-splitting to most outside observers.
So I hope you’ll forgive me when I admit that the words “learning organization” give me the shivers. It’s classic jargon because experts in the L&D field know exactly what’s meant by it, but everyone else will look at you blankly or, worse, will assume they know what it means whilst missing most of the important stuff.
So let’s start by putting the whole idea of the “learning organization” firmly to one side.
What I want to talk about is how to tailor the type, quality and level of training an organization delivers to its workforce. Most SMEs recruit for skills initially but, as the market changes and the organization matures, they find that they have a skills gap in their organization and it’s no longer cost-effective to continue recruiting for skills. At that point, you have to work out how to generate those skills internally. This will usually mean spending money, but spending money intelligently, when you’re under market pressures to respond quickly, is hard. So here’re some thoughts from my own experience on how to structure your thinking and approach to grow new skills.
For some reason, this is often the hardest part. The demand on HR is often to tell the budget-controllers how much they need to pay, when in fact the question should be “how much are you prepared to spend?” The solutions are almost infinitely flexible to meet whatever budget they will put up. Generally, the more you spend, the better and the quicker the results will be. If you really need a working figure, start with £50 per person, per year as a useful minimum, and don’t be fooled by offers of “free” training. All training requires time and time must be paid for, so all training has a cost that needs to be budgeted for.
- Build a solid foundation.
Law, industry standards and good sense all dictate that some things need to be taught consistently and regularly to everyone. Health & Safety, Equality & Diversity, Safeguarding, Data Protection, Manual Handling, Lone Working… The exact details change, but the broad principles remain. If you’re spending money on getting your top talent and MBA, but you aren’t making sure your receptionist knows not to give out customers’ personal details then your horse is definitely in front of the cart. It’s not just about covering the basics, either. It’s about an investment in your workforce that makes learning and the idea of learning part of the daily experience of work.
- Define your minimum standards.
This is one step up from the foundation knowledge training. Most industries have some sort of entry-level qualification that may be a professional certificate or an NVQ or even a degree, but you need to know exactly what they are. Of course, if a person should have a minimum qualification even to start working, they should already have it and you should have the evidence (for heaven’s sake, check!). But if your field isn’t so tightly regulated, you need to decide who should have what level of formal qualification. The purpose here isn’t to push people out of jobs or to put up barrier to entry, but to foster a culture of professionalism. It’s one thing to be a day care assistant. It’s quite another to be a day care assistant with a qualification in Health and Social Care.
- Identify your needs. Not theirs.
If, having got all the above in place, you still have money left in that budget you set at the beginning, now you’re in a position to start actually investing and you’ve taken the vital steps towards creating a culture in which learning and training are part of work. But is paying for that MBA going benefit the organization? Or are you just paying to boost someone’s CV?
This is the real opportunity for an SME to link spending to its strategic objectives and the resources it needs to achieve them. So your investment should be in those areas that can show the most direct connection to strategic success, and your spending should be in direct proportion to the return you expect on that investment.
When we look at this subject as HR practitioners, there is often a desire to distinguish between “training” (old fashioned and didactic) and “learning” (collaborative and dynamic!). But the time to make that distinction is when you already have your budget, your foundation, your standards and your needs clearly defined and in hand. Don’t let yourself fall down that rabbit hole any earlier and, until then, training is learning and learning is training. If you can get the ducks lined up (without having them kidnapped by the rabbits) then learning will begin to step apart from the training naturally. And guess what? Without trying, or gadgets, or fancy strategies, you’ll be a learning organization. And perhaps, then, you can tell me what a learning organization is.