Other parts of this series:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many organisations have had to redeploy, upskill or reskill staff quickly. Yet, even before the pandemic, organisations were facing an increasingly complex and unpredictable future, driven by wider technological, societal, and economic trends.
Thriving in this environment requires new skills. Learning can unlock new labour opportunities, prepare workers to thrive with new capabilities, and empower companies to succeed in a new reality. Organisations need to design new ways to learn and foster a mindset of lifelong learning—at an organisational, team, and individual level.
That means organisations need to invest in, and remove barriers to, effective learning. During times of crisis, learning and development budgets are among the first to be cut. But companies do this to their own detriment.
Potential cost of the skills crisis
Accenture analysis shows that if we don’t build new skills, the UK could lose up to US$185 billion in cumulative GDP growth in the next decade. That’s the equivalent to losing half a percentage point from the average annual growth rate, every year for a decade. Staying still is clearly not an option.
To better understand learning and skills at work, Accenture partnered with the CIPD to look at workplace learning in the UK. The results shed light on how employers are approaching learning, where they need to improve, and actions that can help future-proof learning today.
Attitudes are in the right place…
First, the good news. Organisations are focusing on addressing skills gaps, increasing self-directed learning, and linking learning and development with performance management. And the vast majority report that:
- Their learning strategy is aligned to organisation need (83 percent).
- They understand the skills they need today and the skills of tomorrow (78 percent).
- They can respond agilely to changing skills needs (67 percent).
In addition, the majority of organisations think that they have the vision, strategy and resources in place to support organisational learning. For example:
- Their learning strategy is aligned with organisational goals (78 percent agree or strongly agree).
- Their leaders value learning and development (75 percent).
- Employees can easily access the information and learning resources that they need (71 percent).
- There is a clear vision and strategy for learning and development (63 percent).
- They adapt processes and behaviours based on organisational learning (63 percent).
- They have systems in place for knowledge transfer and management (59 percent).
Finally, 83 percent of larger organisations (more than 250 employees) have a learning budget, compared to just 33 percent of smaller organisations. That budget is mostly spent on improving individuals’ performance in existing roles (29 percent), leadership and management development (20 percent), and meeting compliance and regulations (17 percent). Generally, budgets are evenly distributed across the workforce.
…But there are gaps between intent and action
However, there’s a gap between the apparent importance of developing, training, and supporting people to develop new skills and where organisations are investing.
For example, only 4 percent of respondents identified the need to reskill employees affected by automation, and just 8 percent are focused on developing soft skills. In addition, the vast majority (86 percent) identified at least one barrier to delivering learning. The biggest barriers are lack of learning time (41 percent), limited budgets (40 percent), and lack of management time or support (29 percent).
Notably, SMEs (under 250 employees) are less likely to report barriers to learning delivery; rather, they are limited by the size of their learning team (39 percent, compared with 19 percent of larger employers). Larger companies are more likely to report barriers to delivery, such as learning capability (18 percent), lack of senior buy-in (26 percent) and lack of time or support from management (32 percent).
Technology use is up
I’ll start with the good news. The popularity of online learning and development has increased to 57 percent, up from 29 percent in 2015, when the survey was last conducted. The most commonly used methods are webinars, learning management systems, and open education resources.
But at the time the survey was conducted, face-to-face delivery was the majority of learning delivered in 44 percent of organisations. And digital (augmented and virtual reality) and mobile device-based learning are used by just 18 percent and 14 percent of organisations, respectively. In other words, there’s work to be done before on-demand, ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning is commonplace.
In addition, the survey suggests that larger employers are behind on learning transformation. Compared to smaller employers, they are more likely to use technologies like augmented and virtual reality (23 percent, versus 11 percent of SMEs) and mobile device-based delivery (20 percent, versus 5 percent of SMEs). This isn’t surprising given that digital tools are well-suited for larger workforces. However, it is concerning that only a minority of large employers are using them.
Learning and development teams need to evolve
The research shows that learning and development functions are getting closer to the business. In 41 percent of organisations, learning is completely separate from the HR function: in a separate function and different reporting line (11 percent), within the business function (10 percent) or with operations and line managers (18 percent). The latter is much more common in smaller organisations (less than 250 employees), with 36 percent saying learning sits with operations and line managers.
That’s good news, as people closer to the work can better diagnose performance needs; it also means that managers themselves are more engaged in the design and delivery of learning programmes.
What leaders are doing
Throughout this blog series, I’ll touch on different elements of the report and what leaders are doing to close the gap between intention and action.
- Leaders use learning as a driver of business value and revenue. To high performers, learning is an investment, not a cost. Organisations that reported higher-than-average productivity were also three times more likely to say they were able to tackle skills gaps than those with below-average productivity.
- Leaders are investing in strategic learning to drive the skills needed in future work and using learning as an enabler of agility. Organisations that reported increasing learning and development budgets were also much more likely to report growth in headcount, increased investment in learning technologies, and increased use of internal subject-matter experts.
- Leaders are using learning as a motivator. Many companies are now competing for talent with tech-savvy innovators like Google or Facebook, and effective workplace learning can be an important tool to retain and attract people. By emphasizing learning, organisations can unlock the potential within their people.
In action: Aligning learning with business goals
With a shifting retail environment and 1.4 million employees in the US (and nearly another million around the world), Walmart may have one of the United States’ greatest skilling challenges. The in-store Walmart Training Academies offer two to six weeks of hands-on learning with classroom and sales floor experience to keep learners connected to customers and real work experiences.
By investing in associates’ development, Walmart boosts employee engagement and retention rates. The company also has a complete suite of learning options that range from high-school completion programs to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees costing just US$1 a day. These additional options enable employees to earn college credits while they gain new skills.
Learning is a critical capability for the future
It’s encouraging to see that organisations see learning as valuable. But the reality is that investment, time, prioritization, technology and learning practice significantly lags intent. The technologies and techniques at our disposal have moved forward far faster than learning capabilities.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The study shows that some organisations are getting this right. They’re creating accessible, modular, engaging, and curated content in the flow of work. They’re leveraging artificial intelligence, AR, and VR to create immersive learning experiences that stick. And they will benefit the most.
Without taking a hard look at their learning capabilities, organisations don’t just risk falling behind their peers. Collectively, the UK risks US$185 billion over the next decade in lost GDP. It’s time to close the gap between intent and action—starting now.
To learn more:
- View the infographic for the study’s key findings—and what they mean for your organisation.
- Read the full report, including nine recommendations to help learning professionals close the gap.
- Read the case studies for examples of different approaches to transform learning.
- Get in touch with me here, or @andyyoungACN on Twitter.
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