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Enhancing the educational experience

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Learning never stops, but it certainly takes a whole new dimension in the workplace. What can HR leaders do in their capacity to ensure employees leverage equally on both their academic qualifications and corporate experiences? Akankasha Dewan finds out.

It’s a debate perhaps as old as higher education itself, and never more relevant than in a tight job market. Do degrees hold more or less importance than experience in the workplace today?

If the current popular catchphrases of HR leaders and recruiters are anything to go by, the most desired candidates possess the skills of “critical thinking”, “creativity”, and “leadership” above others – skills not necessarily taught in university.

In fact, a 2013 survey by the Association of American Colleges & Universities found 93% of employers believed “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major”.

On a general level, the value of degrees in the workplace, be them graduate or post-graduate, is changing – and mostly being viewed with a cloud of scepticism.

“There are mainly four values of learning – courage, curiosity, capability and collaboration,” says Carolyn Moore, regional HR director at JWT.

“I think universities and educational institutions used to be good at covering all of those. But now I think they’re good at only covering capability. They don’t deal with broader issues of culture, of what it means to be human. A lot of that sort of stuff is seen as political fluff, but it is actually really important.

“And so, when it comes to teaching people courage – that is, the courage to question, the courage to put forward your belief, your position, your point of view – you get it on the job.”

But that doesn’t mean the importance of academic qualifications and learning should, in anyway, be dismissed, says Patrick Lew, leader, leadership and talent development for Asia Pacific and Japan at NetApp.

“As an employer, you need to know the potential calibre of the employee you are hiring,” he says.

“The education which he or she has gone through gives you a relatively good picture on the level of skills and intelligence required for the role. If you require an electronics or electrical engineer, it is highly unlikely you would hire a graduate who does not have a degree in engineering.”

Dr Nitin More, head of learning and development for APAC at Facebook, agrees with Lew, and stresses it’s impossible to ignore the value of degrees altogether.

“I don’t think the value of education or academic knowledge has decreased, especially for roles that are micro-specialised,” he says.

“For example, if you want to be a data analyst, you need to have certain qualifications and you need to know things that are probably taught at school and for which you need proper training.”

Neither experiences nor education on their own can make a perfect person – there is no such thing as a perfect person.
– Carolyn Moore, regional HR director, JWT

Developing the skill of learning

Clearly, both academic knowledge and corporate experiences play significant roles in the development of any professional.

In fact, the survey from the Association of American Colleges & Universities also identified that across all industries, employers encouraged a blended model of liberal and applied learning.

“Employers also strongly endorse practices that require students to demonstrate both acquisition of knowledge and its application,” it stated.

The debate between degrees and experience seems to have been resolved in this aspect – albeit in a diplomatic fashion. What has now become critical among learning and development functions today, the three HR leaders suggest, is to ensure the qualities learnt during both academic education and on-the-job learning complement each other to enable a holistic development of a professional’s capabilities.

“Neither experiences nor education on their own can make a perfect person – there is no such thing as a perfect person,” Moore says. “And neither do you want a perfect person. You want someone with diversity of thinking, you want people who are comfortable with making mistakes and learning from them.”

And it is precisely the skill of learning which organisations should work on, Moore stresses, if they wish to enhance the knowledge acquired by professionals through academic and/or corporate means.

“Developing the capability or skill of learning is the most fundamental thing that higher education universities and companies can do.”

She identifies that developing the ability to learn is crucial for employees who have recently transitioned from an academic environment to a corporate one – mainly because the style of learning varies significantly between the two.

“In JWT, this is what we’re actively doing – developing and continuing to fertilise our learning culture,” she says.

“This is because we recognise that candidates who come straight out of university and into a working environment are used to learning in a particular, very linear way. You go to a lecture, you listen to what’s said, you regurgitate that knowledge in an exam, and you get graded for it. And this type of learning isn’t translated in the workplace.

“Part of workplace learning is going to be some structured training, but what we’re consciously trying to break down is that this isn’t the only pathway to learning. Rather, learning is linked to working on creative projects that expand your horizons.”

Providing the right learning environment

Moore’s observation strikes a possibility of a new debate with regards to the importance of academic qualification versus that of corporate experience today.

The issue is no longer which is more important, but rather, if companies want to enhance the development of their staff, they need to provide the right learning environment. Such environments aim to develop what employees have already learnt in an academic setting by providing them with an opportunity to practise what they’ve learnt in a corporate setting.

This includes current employees who have been involved in pursuing part-time academic degrees such as MBAs, and juggling between different types of learning environments on their campus and at work.

This is precisely why the importance of cultivating effective learning environments cannot be underestimated, Dr More says, because if done correctly, companies themselves have the capacity to equip employees with skills acquired both from universities and from corporate experiences.

“APAC is a region which values further education as something which adds credibility to your resume,” he says.

“However, companies like Facebook have a very different value proposition for youth. There have been articles published in the media which state that working for three to five years in companies such as Facebook is equivalent to getting an MBA.

“The question to ask is this: do you acquire core business skills if you work at a company like Facebook? You do. And does that, in any way, compensate for you not having degrees such as an MBA? It does.

“I have increasingly seen non-MBA managers in companies with rapid growth rates.”

There are mainly four values of learning – courage, curiosity, capability and collaboration. I think universities and educational institutions used to be good at covering all of those. But now I think they’re good at only covering capability. They don’t deal with broader issues of culture, of what it means to be human.
– Carolyn Moore, regional HR director, JWT.

He elaborates it is precisely the opportunity to get practical experience by working on specific projects with different strata of talent that allows employees to learn skills which overlap with what they may have acquired at university campuses.

“There are a couple of reasons why this occurs,” he explains. “One, you have a lot of hands-on experience here [Facebook], so people will let you experiment and fail. You get to get your hands dirty, and you learn a lot from that. The second thing is, you really work with world-class talent. And that challenges you and pushes you and makes you work every day.

“When we hire, we hire for diversity. And as diverse talent comes on board, they teach each other a lot of things they otherwise may not have been exposed to. MBA campuses also interview for diverse candidates who might teach other different ways of working. That may be another reason why companies and universities are also on a similar path.”

But just the ability to provide similar skill sets doesn’t necessarily translate to employees actively recognising and acknowledging what they have learnt in companies. And this, Moore identifies, needs to be overcome especially if learning is to be encouraged in companies as a valuable skill in itself.

“A lot of learning does come from on-the-job, and by working on projects, but often, that is not seen as learning still for a lot of employees,” she says. “So you really have to have that culture where on-the-job learning is seen as a critical part of learning.”

Establishing such a culture is in line with what Moore believes to be the main attributes of learning in itself, which is the ability to appreciate and respect different perspectives.

“In terms of HR, and in terms of our business, what we are doing is saying, ‘it’s not just about the results on the page’. Because over this period, what a lot of universities have brought in is the concept of a test. You must learn what is in the test, you must memorise the answers as those which are right and those which are wrong. Whereas in a creative agency, particularly like we are, there’s not a lot of right and wrong.”

She adds that instead of being seen as a rigid phenomenon, learning needs to become a passion, emphasising that people need to know how to learn, and it needs to be inherent in their nature.

“And if you teach through tests and encourage the presence of just one answer, the result is a lack of creativity, a lack of critical thinking. Most importantly, it takes away learning as a skill in itself. Learning becomes a rote mechanism – a means to an end. As opposed to learning being a lifelong skill of enquiry and curiosity. And that is what a lot of organisations are getting into.”

Taking responsibility for learning

Moore’s emphasis on viewing learning as a passion in organisations seems relevant, considering it is precisely such passion which translates into an active recognition of how much the individual has learnt and grown in terms of their development.

Such passion, Lew adds, involves employees taking charge and driving their own development with guidance from managers and support from organisations.

“In illustration to Formula One racing, the driver is the employee, the team lead providing feedback to the driver during the race is the manager, and the organisation provides infrastructure support to enable the driver to race.

“The bulk of responsibility lies with the employees – 70% would be employees, 20% managers and 10% the organisation. If the individual doesn’t feel compelled to develop himself or herself – it would be quite impossible to get them to learn and change their behaviour.”

He adds, however, that if the employee is aware of their development gaps and is motivated to overcome them, then HR functions need to support such employees to bridge that gap as much as they can and provide them with the platform to do so. This includes allowing employees to go for professional courses, within and outside the organisation.

“At NetApp, the learning environment is self-fulfilling. We have a platform to provide an array of learning interventions to fulfil career development needs. However, if the individual feels it’s not sufficient, there are other avenues for them to go to.

“For instance, we have an educational assistance programme to provide support for employees who wish to undertake a course of study to develop their skills to the benefit of the company and themselves.”

The bulk of responsibility lies with the employees – 70% would be employees, 20% managers and 10% the organisation. If the individual doesn’t feel compelled to develop himself or herself – it would be quite impossible to get them to learn and change their behaviour.
– Patrick Lew, leader, leadership and talent development, NetApp, Asia Pacific and Japan.

Dr More agrees, and adds that HR leaders and employers can also implement policies to ensure employees who are studying further are able to handle their professional and academic responsibilities well.

“When we invest in talent, it is about how we can grow the talent and, therefore, how we can create a greater impact for the business,” he says.

“From that perspective, it is HR’s responsibility to figure out a way to support employees to add to and fine-tune their knowledge, skills and experience, because ultimately that will impact their job.

“They can practise policies such as allowing employees to attend classes two to three times a week, or providing them with additional leave for a couple of weeks to study. They can also encourage the formation of employee clubs so these employees can learn from each others’ experiences.”

Lew emphasises, however, the need for organisations to be vigilant when deciding on which candidate to invest in, in terms of sponsoring their professional education.

This includes tracking employees, who have gone for such courses or degrees, to see if they are providing better results or are doing their work in more efficient ways.

“The important thing is to be balanced – don’t restrict programmes to certain courses or even for a certain employee demographic, i.e only engineering courses for engineers,” he says.

“But don’t be too flexible either. It’s important to maintain a rigidity in the system and the criteria which you have set. You need to prioritise your resources, and make sure only deserving candidates get the resources they need.”

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