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Further education feature - learning, staircase
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Life’s one long lesson

Rather than an end in itself, employee education is being viewed as a cog in the wheel of continuous learning, as employers vouch for its benefits. Jerene Ang analyses how organisations are developing their recipes for learning and putting together the ingredients to help them stay one step ahead of change.

In a world of continuous change, the constant upgrading of employees’ skills is crucial to helping a company and its employees stay relevant and on top of change.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 survey found that faced with skill gaps in a tight job market, companies were seeking to transform their learning programmes to build the skills and capabilities of existing employees to fill the gaps.

For this year, learning and development has been listed third as a talent challenge, with 85% of respondents rating it “important” or “very important”.

In the wake of a 211% increase in the learning and development capability gap in most companies, all research points to 2015 as a critical year for targeted investment in learning.

Companies that updated their learning and development programmes reported increased employee engagement and retention, given that employees are valuing career development higher in their list of priorities.

Manojit Sen, Shell’s Asia Pacific head of HR (lubes), says: “To stay on top of change, we need our leaders and staff to be continuously re-educated and reorientated in order to stay relevant and successful.”

To share an example, he states how the company’s trading business has to keep up to date on the new trade laws passed by each country through continuous training.

“Otherwise, they run the risk of inadvertently taking steps that compromise our standing on business ethics and compliance in the eyes of the law and put our licence to operate in jeopardy.”

Tan Kwang Cheak, director of the HR and talent development division at MOH Holdings, points out the utility of further education as a tool for learning and development teams.

“Further education should not be an end in itself. It should be viewed as the means to deepen employees’ knowledge, sharpen their expertise, and prepare them better for enhanced performance and contribution in their role within the organisation.”

In our kind of big global organisation, everyone is stretched. So, no one has time for doing formal studies or taking lessons on top of one’s full day job.
– Manojit Sen, Shell’s Asia Pacific head of HR (lubes)

The directions that learning can take

The importance of further education is in no doubt. However, the question is: how can companies structure their education policies to create optimal impact.

According to the Association for Talent Development’s 2014 report, organisations spend the bulk (63%) of their direct learning expenditure on internal services such as the learning department staff’s salaries, travel expenditure and administrative costs.

A further 27% of outlay goes to external services such as “consultants and services, content development and licences, and workshops and training programmes”, while only 10% is spent on tuition reimbursement, which is most closely linked to further the education agenda.

One of the reasons employees shy away from signing up for learning opportunities is citing a lack of time. However, Sen points out this is a problem easily overcome.

“In our kind of big global organisation, everyone is stretched. So, no one has time for doing formal studies or taking lessons on top of one’s full day job.”

As a result, he suggests that the bulk of learning takes place on the job, so employees do not have to take time out for it.

“We, therefore, use the concept of 70-20-10 where 70 stands for learning in-role, 20 stands for learning via coaching and mentoring, and 10 stands for coaching via courses.

“We help people recognise that most learning happens on the job and that one does not need to take time out to do this. So, the notion that learning requires a lot of extra time is something we want to correct.”

Additionally, he believes that for on-the-job learning to be effective, “a clear learning objective before engaging on a piece of work, and a structured reflection time after the piece of work has been completed”, are both important.

With LinkedIn being in the internet industry, we survive on disruptive innovation. We cannot have employees with a ‘frog-in-the-well’ syndrome of myopic views.
– YeeFong Ng, LinkedIn’s head of learning and development for APAC

Siemens follows a learning philosophy similar to the 70-20-10 model by incorporating the principles of “adult learning”.

Michael Haberzettl, the ASEAN head of human resources at Siemens, says: “We adopt sound adult learning principles, which blend learning from formal classroom activities, learning from peers and colleagues, and application to the real-world situation of the workplace.”

One of the ways the company achieves this is by enabling employees to use their daily tasks to learn and by reflecting on how they work with their manager and a mentor or coach within the workplace.

“Coaching and mentoring is very important for us in Siemens. This can be as simple as having someone available within the organisation to talk to about how to approach a certain task or project, or how to prepare for the next professional challenge.

“This active reflection of daily work is very important,” he points out, echoing Sen’s views.

On the flip side, LinkedIn is a believer in encouraging employees to enrol for a university education, and has recently introduced education reimbursement as a benefit, in addition to all of its other learning initiatives.

YeeFong Ng, the company’s head of learning and development for APAC, says this allows employees the opportunity to go out and explore different views to bring back to the company.

“Learning is a good thing and as employees continue to learn, they develop new perspectives and bring their ideas to work,” she says.

“With LinkedIn being in the internet industry, we survive on disruptive innovation. We cannot have employees with a ‘frog-in-the-well’ syndrome of myopic views.”

In such an industry, mentoring alone cannot work, she highlights.

“Some companies depend on internal mentoring, but this starts to create inward-looking perspectives in our view. Because after a while, they will feel like they are moving in the same circle of views.

“That’s why for us, external education is great. It’s a good time for employees to reflect on things they have done, the experiences they have got, and think about what to do next, so as not to give in to the day-to-day running like a hamster on a wheel.”

Be it external or internal forms of learning, Tan believes both leadership emphasis and organisational investments are crucial to making such programmes successful.

“Top leadership emphasis and organisational investments in such learning and development programmes, whether it is through structured courses, scholarships and sponsorships or in-house training and coaching, are absolutely critical to strengthen the capacity and capabilities of the organisation and to be more future-ready.”

We want to avoid managers who stubbornly implement targets on a short-term basis, ending up frustrating the employees in the long run. We’d rather aim to engage and motivate.
– Michael Haberzettl, the ASEAN head of human resources at Siemens

Identifying employee requirements

In making the decision of sourcing learning opportunities for their employees, another aspect that bosses keep in mind is the process of identifying employee requirements, and the kind of skill gaps that throws up.

Siemens, for example, has a leadership development faculty, whereby HR is an integral part of the nomination and development process, which takes into consideration employees’ potential, experience, mobility, and so on.

Nomination is, in fact, integrated with the company’s performance management process (PMP).

Haberzettl says: “Our PMP helps managers to facilitate the strategic development direction they want their employees to take.”

PMP starts with target setting at the beginning of the year, and through the year, managers stay close to the development of their teams through regular review sessions with their employees, hereby monitoring their target achievements.

At the end of the year, the company reviews the total employee group through round tables for managers across departments, who come together to objectively assess employees’ performance and potential – what has been achieved and how.

“We emphasise the ‘how’, which is the behavioural aspect of each manager’s performance, especially as they progress in the leadership hierarchy.

“We want to avoid managers who stubbornly implement targets on a short-term basis, ending up frustrating the employees in the long run. We’d rather aim to engage and motivate.”

An essential part of this process is a discussion around the next steps for employees, which can include aspects such as what their next role is, when they aim to achieve it, and who or what can help them realise that.

In LinkedIn’s education reimbursement programme, employees are given free reign with regards to their choice of institutions and courses with only two conditions – course relevance and credibility of the institution.

“It starts with having a talk with one’s manager, about whether the course the employee has in mind will apply to their job. It either has to be relevant to their current job or what they think their ‘next play’ in the organisation is going to be,” Ng says.

“Employees can go outside to study at the university of their choice, but our requirement is that it must be accredited.”

There is an increase in interest and participation level by our more mature employees in such learning and development programmes within organisations.
– Tan Kwang Cheak, director of the HR and talent development division at MOH Holdings

Age is no barrier

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? JobsCentral’s Learning Survey Report 2014 found a 2.5 fold increase in interest towards pursuing a diploma in 2014 among Singaporeans aged 60 and above – that is a 247% increase over 2013.

The most common reasons cited for pursuing further education were career-related, with the top one being career advancement (21%), followed by employability improvement (17%) and the prospect of switching industries (8%).

Agreeing with the findings, Tan says: “There is an increase in interest and participation level by our more mature employees in such learning and development programmes within organisations.”

However, he is of the view that learning opportunities should be provided equitably, rather than on the basis of employee age.

“Such programmes should be extended equally and on a transparent basis to identified employees, notwithstanding whether they are more mature or younger.”

Sen agrees and says that at Shell, “reflection and learning is part of the way we work”.

“Our senior leaders have gone on record to say that they do not mind people making mistakes, but they do mind people not learning from these mistakes and repeating them.”

Similarly, Haberzettl from Siemens, says: “We view all employees as having potential for development and further progression through the experiences of learning in the workplace.”

The future of further education

With a view to the future, the interviewees agree that continuous learning is the path for organisations to sustain as well as grow in the times to come.

“Continuous learning is the only path to continuous improvement. And continuous improvement is the only predictable path to staying relevant and successful,” Sen says.

“To remain one of the world’s largest and most successful companies for the next 200 years, we have to re-invent ourselves constantly.”

This, he says, can be done by quickly harnessing the power of disruptive technology to reconstruct its business models.

In addition, for Shell, this will call for an understanding of the evolving energy needs of society, and the roles and expectations of different stakeholders.

This will allow it to work on collaborative ways of contributing value such that the varied and often conflicting needs of different parties are best managed.

Continuous learning is the only path to continuous improvement. And continuous improvement is the only predictable path to staying relevant and successful.
– Manojit Sen, Shell’s Asia Pacific head of HR (lubes)

LinkedIn’s Ng, however, does not believe that learning can happen if it’s made mandatory.

“To use an analogy, we cannot force the horse to drink the water, but we can make the horse thirsty. So our role is to make the employees thirsty for learning,” she says.

“A lot of organisations force the horse to drink, either through rewards or fear. I think this is not sustainable.”

Additionally, she credits learning platforms such as Coursera and Khan Academy, where people are able to choose exactly what modules they want to study. In light of this option, education in the future will look very different from today.

“I’m hoping there will come a time where education will not be expensive and that everyone will have access to it,” she says.

“We’re moving towards the idea that further education doesn’t have to be a chore. Many people feel like they have to drop their lives, if they haven’t already done so when they were younger, to go to school and finish their degree or get another degree.”

She is also of the view that the future holds short modules where people can pick and choose what they want, rather than a typical university curriculum where one has to compulsorily study all modules in the area they opt for.

“It’s not that you have to stop learning, but learning looks different – it does not have to be by the book. Once that becomes mainstream, it will become accepted by most industries. The future of education will be almost buffet style.”

Finally, she observes that as the field of cognitive psychology progresses, there will be opportunities to use that knowledge in developing and delivering training programmes.

“Using more cognitive psychology will mean we will be able to see which part of the brain gets stimulated and because of that, which type of learning can be done in certain ways.”

Image: Shutterstock



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