The Importance of learning in today’s business climate – business critical, not just a ‘nice to have’
Dr David Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Change and Head of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour Group at Bradford University School of Management, one of Europe’s leading full service business schools.
A recent piece from HR Magazine highlighted that financial investment in learning and development is falling in the UK. This is yet another worrying if inevitable outcome of the pressures firms find themselves under today (for a view on another outcome of these pressures read my last blog).
It has always been a feature of difficult business environments that businesses make cuts in areas that are seen as having low operational impact and high costs. It is unfortunate that many still persist in the fallacy that learning and development is one such activity. That is not to say that in times of challenge firms have to make difficult choices and learning and development has to shoulder its share of this burden of cost cutting, but these are not just costs, they are investments in the future and when we cut support for learning and development we cut support for the very things that might just help us out of the challenges we face.
Nonetheless, organisations seemingly still persist in seeing these activities as ‘nice to have’ luxuries, rather than business critical activities. This is despite the long standing and increasingly compelling evidence that those firms that take learning seriously (what are sometimes called learning organisations, an often misused and over-used phrase) are indeed those that do show higher levels of success. A recently completed study with a colleague here at Bradford University School of Management (Craig Johnson) shows evidence for the uptake of and interest in learning organisation principles in the UK’s largest firms, and my work with other colleagues published in Long Range Planning makes a case for a link between the learning approach and performance of smaller firms. Similarly, in our work at Bradford with Yorkshire’s Leading Employers, as part of the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards, we have seen consistent evidence of organisations who see investment in training and development as integral to their success.
So what should you do if you find yourself in an organisation that has cut or stopped investing in learning and development? A key implication is that if your organisation is so short-sighted it has stopped investing in its and your future, then that surely is the time that you invest in yourself. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that in recession we do tend to see demand for programmes such as the Bradford MBA being maintained and even rising amongst individuals in work who are investing in themselves. They are recognising that there is real advantage to be gained in developing their understanding, skills and capabilities to ensure that they are capable of responding to the changing environment in which we find ourselves. It is recognising this that we’ve been so clear in ensuring that a focus on professional development should be a part of the MBA programme here.
But even when cuts are made in learning and development budgets that should not mean that all learning stops. It makes it more challenging for individuals and organisations to maintain and support learning, but there are some simple things we can do to encourage learning in challenging times:
1. As individuals we need to get the right mindset. Challenges and difficulties are more easily addressed and more beneficial in the long-run if they are viewed as learning opportunities. In easy times we actually have little impetus to learn the demand for this ought to be much clearer today
2. Individuals also need to pay attention to their networking, both internally and externally. The communities of peers and colleagues we engage in and interact with are an unparalleled source of learning opportunities, just by questioning and discussing with these groups we can do much to enhance our understanding. We have to recognise as well though that such engagement is reciprocal we should be seeking to put as much into such networks as we choose to take out.
3. As organisations we should still invest where we can. High impact, low cost activities are the order of the day. Things like supporting peer mentoring and providing time and space for knowledge and expertise exchange are as potentially powerful as much more timely and costly training activities, but they do need some investment if they are to work.
4. Organizations also need appropriate leadership support for learning activities. Investment (where possible) is significant, but all managers valuing and supporting learning activities is as important. Learning has to be publically seen as a valuable and valued activity if staff are to keep their focus on this we dealing with the other pressures placed upon them.
As always it not an exhaustive list and I’d be delighted to hear other suggestions of what we can do to maximise our own and our organisation’s learning in times of challenge.