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How to build a university-like learning culture within your organisation


Ashwini Bakshi, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa MD of Project Management Institute, discusses how employers can build a university-like learning culture within their organisation. 

24th May 2022
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As the UK talent pool shrinks – and with the average cost of hiring a new employee set to rise to approximately £50,000 over the first year – the agenda on talent has pivoted towards upskilling.

While the economic benefits of this approach are clear, more businesses are now seeing the positive influence upskilling can have on employee satisfaction, with over a third of UK workers confirming that they would feel more engaged at work if they had the chance to learn new skills.

However, building an effective learning culture – turning a business into a university, per se, for its people – requires time, resources, and often, elements of organisational transformation.

While this sounds daunting on paper, there are effective measures that can be taken to facilitate the transition and deliver long-term value.

Cultivating an upskilling environment

The first step an organisation must take to improve as a learning hub is to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Be it via HR or a chief learning officer, it is critical to conduct an audit of the current learning environment to evaluate how employees currently feel about upskilling.

It is essential that any evaluation looks further than simply the learning opportunities on offer to employees; they are of no use if people don’t feel empowered to use them.

A recent report found that c-suite executives were significantly more satisfied (83.5%) with their upskilling programmes, than employees (61%) – highlighting a disconnect between training offerings and their effectiveness. 

A recent report found that c-suite executives were significantly more satisfied (83.5%) with their upskilling programmes, than employees (61%).

An effective audit must evaluate upskilling opportunities through the lens of the employee: how comfortable people are to ask questions, how much time they are given to step away from their day-to-day role to upskill, and the accessibility to existing knowledge within the organisation.

These are all critical components that foster a healthy, productive learning environment that helps to develop new skillsets.

An encouraging learning environment is particularly important for young professionals entering an organisation for the first time.Ultimately, these are future leaders and the skills they learn now are those that will dictate the future direction of the business.

By investing the time and resource to upskill them now, organisations can quickly develop changemakers – agile professionals with the acumen and skillset to turn ideas into action – throughout the bedrock of their workforce.

Agile learning to address complex change

Developing organisational agility has become an increasing priority for corporations looking to learn from the experience of navigating a global pandemic.

The overnight online pivot brought with it a surge in demand for digital skills needed to execute accelerating transformation plans. This has had an impact on the job market that is still being felt now.

The pace at which technology is moving must be matched by that at which employees upskill themselves.

Ultimately, we can no longer lean exclusively on the hard skills learning from 20 years ago to address today’s complex challenges.

The pace at which technology is moving must be matched by that at which employees upskill themselves, otherwise skillsets will quickly become out-dated and organisations will be left behind.

A recent survey found that two thirds of digital leaders in the UK can’t keep pace with change because of the lack of talent they need.

To address this, organisations must adopt a more agile approach to learning that focuses on the challenges it faces.

By first passing systematically through its mid-to-long term problem set, and identifying the stages at which skills gaps appear, organisations can develop upskilling programmes that train its people to focus on achieving the desired outcomes – and selecting the tailored approach to do so – rather than following the traditional processes that they are accustomed to.

Businesses can also benefit from reconfiguring how they value certain qualities.

Those that were once considered ‘soft skills' – such as adaptability, collaborative leadership and possessing an innovative mindset – should now be regarded as ‘power skills' due to their suitability to tackle modern challenges.

Our research shows that agile businesses are more likely to prioritise the development of power skills than their traditional counterparts (54% vs 42%), emphasising the value they can have on building a more effective, flexible professional environment.

Empower passion points with formal skills

Few scenarios epitomise complex change more than the net zero agenda. With UK businesses immersed in the challenge of producing detailed climate plans before the government’s 2023 deadline, a national green skills shortage is emerging as a strategically significant issue.

In contrast to many corporate challenges, sustainability is one that employees relate to. In October, a government study found that 75% of people are concerned about climate change and 81% had made lifestyle changes to tackle it.

This creates an invaluable learning opportunity. Just as we select a university degree that we have an interest in, employees are more likely to engage in skills programmes that relate to an issue they’re passionate about, such as sustainability or diversity and inclusion.

75% of people are concerned about climate change and 81% had made lifestyle changes to tackle it.

We are now starting to see this concept come to life through significant corporate investment into green skills initiatives. Last month, global consultancy EY announced that it was offering all 312,000 of its staff the opportunity to complete an MA degree in sustainability, free of charge.

This was a direct response to an EY employee survey that found 74% of people wanted to participate in work activities that had a positive impact on communities and the environment.

This is an archetype of how businesses can run learning initiatives that both tap into their people’s passion points and upskill them in areas beneficial to their day-to-day work.

Of course, there is significant investment required to turn concept into action – EY spends £380 million each year on learning – but today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, and the learning infrastructure built now will set the precedent for a more proactive future for upskilling in the UK. 

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