Is Learning Celebrated Yet Neglected at Your Company?

The value of learning and training usually is hyped, and sometimes even used as a marketing point, but many organizations may just be talking the talk. Learning is much touted, but often lacks teeth. A post on the Harvard Business Review site by Gianpiero Petriglieri brought this contradiction to mind.

The author, who teaches leadership to corporate managers, notes that while managers agree with him on the importance of learning, they have little patience for the required work and investment. “I am a professor. Learning is, broadly speaking, my job. And yet no matter how enthusiastically we agree that good teachers and good leaders are perpetual learners, and that being offered a difficult question is empowering, it does not take long before I am reminded that I am not supposed to keep questioning and learning—not so publicly at least—on the company’s dime,” Petriglieri writes.

Given that many of you probably can relate to Petriglieri’s thoughts, maybe it would be good to think of ways to encourage companies to take learning goals seriously. How do you set learning goals for your organization? Are those goals revisited at the end of every year with executives to see if you were able to achieve what they asked of you, and whether you received the funds you were promised? I always wondered whether many trainers found themselves in the position of quietly going along with executives’ lackadaisical attitude toward learning goals in order to keep their jobs. What is a good strategy when, at the end of your fiscal year, you’re sitting in a meeting with corporate leaders and the topic of learning and training investment comes up, and both you and they know that the previously agreed-on goals were not met? Is there a way to gently not let it go, so that what wasn’t achieved can be tried again from a different angle that gets around the need for the funding they ended up not being able to deliver?

At a managerial level, a simple way to take learning more seriously is to look at the process for annual reviews. Some companies, like mine, are disciplined and organized about asking for everyone to complete and send to Human Resources a self-evaluation form; however, they are much less adamant about managers completing and sending to HR a review of their employees. I’m working for a company that’s not what you’d call a mom-and-pop shop—we have at least hundreds of employees, if not 1,000 employees, and are owned by an investment group—yet I haven’t had a performance review in three years! This is despite carefully completing my self-evaluations. Do you think this same problem occurs at your company? My suspicion is the company doesn’t hold managers accountable for reviewing employees because executives don’t want to have to explain to those with successful reviews that no salary increases are possible.

When investment in employees is so limited, as it probably is at many companies, how do you continue to emphasize the importance of setting learning goals and then seeing them through? One idea is to reward successful employees by allowing them to take on projects of interest to them—to pursue an idea related to their jobs that they’re passionate about. Google seems to do this by encouraging its employees to take on pet projects that may seem unrealistic, but which they have a keen interest in. In fact, I believe some of the company’s most innovative offerings resulted from these employee pet passion projects. Offering the incentive of using a portion of the employee’s time to focus on something that really matters to him or her accomplishes three things:

  1. It generates new ideas and products for your company.
  2. It keeps employees happy.
  3. It delivers learning in the process.

The employee and his or her manager can’t avoid learning a lesson or two while trying to bring a new idea to fruition.

At its best, learning is tied to pre-existing goals—as in the above example, generating new ideas to meet the needs of an emerging group of customers. That way, learning and development isn’t seen as an inconvenience or a task requiring extra time, but as a steppingstone to doing what your executives said they wanted to do anyway.

How do you encourage corporate leaders to take learning initiatives seriously, rather than just paying lip service to how great learning and training is?