The “Inside-Out” Approach: Winning in the Workplace Starts with Accessible Learning
BY Jackie McAndrews and Kristin Reagle
June 23, 2021
June 23, 2021

A wise man once said, “to win the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace”—that wise man being Doug Conant, renowned American industrialist and former CEO of the Campbell’s Soup Company. Although Doug has faithfully stuck by this philosophy and we’d venture to guess most employers would agree with him, data suggest that companies are having a difficult time putting their people first.  

According to a study done a few years back by Middlesex University, 74% of professionals believe that a lack of development opportunities in the workplace inhibits their performance. A secondary study on the state of the global workplace found that an even greater number of employees (a whopping 85%!) are either “not engaged or actively disengaged” in their day to day, and estimates that this indifference is costing US businesses over $500 billion in losses each year. 

It’s safe to assume that the rise of remote work has only widened the gap between employees and their employers. HR practitioners were preoccupied—to say the least—busy mastering the art of “flying by the seat of their pants” and turning chaos into continuity. Eradicating the widespread feeling of stagnancy took a backseat to a slew of scarier and hairier problems. 

But as the world begins to reemerge from the pandemic, the rose-colored glasses through which employers examined their talent lifecycle have come off. Unemployment is trending downward and the workforce is more diverse, more educated, and holding their employers to higher standards. On the flip side, remote work was an accelerant poured on an existing skills gap fire. As we adopted new technology to mitigate potential productivity losses, the population of digital refugees—individuals whose livelihood has been disrupted by the technology boom—grew exponentially. 

The result? Job insecurity on both sides of the coin. The growing fear of losing good talent has imposed a mandate for HR to elevate and rise to the occasion and dictate where we go next, while digital refugees frantically seek opportunities to upskill. We’ve officially entered a Darwinian talent marketplace where the businesses who invest in the long-term career fulfillment and democratize learning opportunities for their employees are best-positioned to survive and thrive. 

To solve this puzzle, consider what drives—and conversely, what stifles—employee satisfaction. For many, the potential for upward mobility is a major motivator.  Opening up internal opportunities not only engages people and helps them grow, but it also helps companies identify skills they possess internally without needing to constantly search for external talent. 

Here’s the roadmap for finding your way out of the talent gauntlet and building a more sustainable operating model. 

One L&D nation, for the people by the people 

Many corporations are an amalgamation of lots of different business units, acquisitions, and at the most granular level, learning types. Trying to figure out how the disparate parts get glued together under a universal governance structure is an inevitable growing pain for most companies as they mature. Employees in decentralized learning organizations often face inequitable access to quality learning resources and information. The solution: Standardize, digitize, and scale. 

A standardized learning approach helps to drive continuous improvements for learning programs and ensures consistent evaluation and metrics for benchmarking effectiveness. It takes the burden off individual business units to reinvent the wheel every time they want to roll out a new course or learning program and allows your associates to learn and grow in a consistent way while ensuring that learning efforts are linked to the business’ overall goals.

Think of your workforce and their ways of working. Do your warehouse operations managers have the same access to education as the leadership teams who work back at headquarters? If the answer is no, it’s time to broaden the definition of learning beyond classroom training.  Explore non-traditional delivery channels that aren’t only engaging, but also a lifestyle fit for those who don’t have access to a laptop—something like podcasts or audiobooks may be a fit. Other avenues include experiential and team-based learning, which will facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing across business units and silos. 

Multi-channel delivery platforms represent a more inclusive alternative to traditional instruction that better serves your auditory, kinesthetic, and on-the-go learners. When coupled with a stable backbone that offers equitable access to shared resources and learning tools, you can ensure employees across the organization have access to learning when and where they need it—true “learning in the flow of work,” as Josh Bersin has coined it.  

Empower employees to get comfortable in the driver seat 

Employees today have broadened their aperture on what they consider training and support as information has become more globally accessible—understanding how to use a complex formula in Excel can quickly be learned through a simple Google search or by watching a five-minute YouTube video. Today’s workforce expects their company’s L&D mirror that level of accessibility. Start by understanding what workers need to get the work done to better anticipate their needs. Learning organizations that lead with empathy are better equipped to design and curate learning experiences that are relevant, personalized, and readily available to employees when they need it. 

With more accessible and improved learning experiences in place, the next step is to help employees recognize their opportunity to take advantage of these offerings. Making subtle shifts in your messaging and leadership behaviors will set the tone that continuous development and growth is celebrated and empower employees to create their own self-directed development journeys. Urge employees to take time to focus on their development and publicly recognize and reward this behavior when it happens. Leaders can help reinforce this message by demonstrating behaviors that signal their own commitment to their personal development, i.e., reflecting on their recent learning activity in meetings and in 1:1 conversations with their team.

Organizations that empower employees to take ownership over their own career development are rewarded with increased engagement and productivity. When leaders communicate and reiterate this message, they help to enable a supportive learning culture where employees are proactively developing their skills and sharing their expertise with others in the organization. 

Weigh elective against compulsory 

Of course, there’s the question of ROI. And we’re here to tell you—measuring the success of an initiative of this magnitude isn’t easy, albeit not impossible. You just need to get crafty. 

What’s the clearest indication that employees are more engaged after implementing a new L&D strategy? They’re opting into learning modules and consuming content beyond the compulsory courses. Voluntary learning signals a mindset shift and tells us that experience is user-friendly and relevant enough to keep coming back for more. 

Think back to that startling 74% of employees who feel stifled in their current role, whose employer fails to satisfy their desire to upskill. Imagine being among the fraction of organizations nationwide who offer them opportunities to grow into the best version of their professional selves—this is when true transformation happens. Perks and benefits lure talent in, but an institutional commitment to learning is what makes people stay. Learning snuffs the skills gap fire and lays the groundwork for value retention—and in turn, long-term fulfillment. No matter how strong or logical your operating framework is, it cannot succeed without a happy, consummate staff that not only understands, but willfully champions its day-to-day application. As Doug Conant alluded to, the most successful organizations are built inside-out—and when the legs of the HR stool are sturdy, so are the people, processes, products (and operating model) that sit on top.