By Stuart R. Levine

Published In, The Credit Union Times

The strength of an organization’s learning culture can be the single biggest driver of business impact. In a learning culture, people develop their abilities, their technical skills improve and career advancement occurs. Learning and development professionals are leading the charge to make sure their companies are “learning organizations” — a term Peter Senge coined nearly 30 years ago. In today’s ultra-competitive world, knowledge workers have the edge. They search out and apply state-of-the-art learning to advance company objectives, while seeking mastery for themselves. Companies keep pace with them by addressing their learning needs, understanding where they are in their learning process, and providing the tools they need in real time. Learning, like other tools and materials required for people to do their jobs, is integral to success. Executives know this as global L&D budgets are increasing, projected to grow by 11% to $31 billion in 2020.

Companies are making progress in developing and sustaining learning cultures, but even L&D professionals feel that their learning initiatives are not where they need to be. LinkedIn recently surveyed 500 L&D decision-makers in the U.S. and Canada of which 60% are actually c-suite executives. 90% believe there is a skills gap that L&D can and should address and 80% agree that developing employees is the top priority. However, only 25% of surveyed L&D professionals would recommend their organization’s programs to others, and their leadership is having trouble seeing quantifiable impact and return on investment for their learning programs.

What can L&D professionals do to provide real impact and show learning’s economic power and impact? The best L&D professionals are transforming their function into that of trusted advisor. They partner with work teams, master the art of listening, ask probing questions and foster clarity around the challenges their teams must address. They delve into the underlying organizational systems to ascertain where change is needed. They experiment and collect data to discover what’s working best and what should be discarded. They clearly identify and create learning solutions that best addresses the situation. The results are tracked, quantified, and advance organizational goals.

Learning is greatest when “molecules” of knowledge permeate the organizational atmosphere. People learn best when the acquired knowledge addresses an immediate challenge. A learning solution that solves a problem often creates an “aha moment”. It is rarely planned, and cannot be scheduled, and it is almost never the result of one-size-fits-all programs. The solution might come from a colleague’s tutorial, an article, or a YouTube video, in addition to more structured organizational learning. The effective L&D professional is open to, creates an environment for, and deploys all of them.

Learning organizations deliver up-to-date experiences to meet the needs of present-day learners. They are evolving faster than the programs available to them, making immediate online learning solutions increasingly important. Today, a full 67% of learners use mobile devices, yet 50% of organizational learning still occurs in a classroom, and usually does not address immediate problems. Traditional companies and institutions are catching on to this reality; 70% of the organizations surveyed are incorporating video-based and on-line training. Walmart, for example, has equipped employees with iPads as an L&D delivery tool.

Although leaders understand that talent drives growth and learning grows talent, like any investment, organizational leadership demands that learning programs prove and quantify their worth. Employee and manager surveys of qualitative impressions can provide insights, but are not enough to quantify results. L&D professionals must show direct causal relationships between a learning solution and the economic outcome and ROI. Measures can include assessable skill improvement, or promotions that occur after relevant training. Furthermore, improved employee engagement and reduction in employee turnover can provide hard data. Learning organizations boost engagement, and disengagement is expensive. Gallop estimates that 70% of American workers are disengaged, and that disengagement can waste 34% of compensation.

Learning opportunities create employee stickiness. They additionally can serve as a “retention weapon” and can lower turnover which has a dramatic impact on ROI. According to Society of Human Resource Management, direct cost for employee replacement is expensive. Entry-level employees can cost 50% of base salary to replace. For technical and leadership personnel, it’s a whopping 250%. This does not account for lost institutional knowledge. Moreover, talented employees often will change companies when what they are learning does not help them develop and advance their careers.

Learning is a benefit for the individual and the company. L&D professionals are a critical part of the workplace environment. Creating a culture where mastery is always on the agenda creates satisfaction and drives results.