Learning on the Job Ain’t What It Used to Be

Gaining new knowledge and skills in the workplace happens in the flow of work.

Gone are the days of traveling to a distant city, staying in a hotel, and participating in a one- or two-day accredited course to learn new knowledge and skills to add to your professional repertoire.

And with the current pandemic situation, you can forget attending multiple breakout sessions and plenary presentations at professional conferences. Hopefully, many of the associations you belong to have moved to virtual conferences so you can at least still take advantage of learning sessions.

Then there was the onsite learning course put on by your Training department where they licensed multi-week, one- or two-hour-long session programs for various certified subjects. But those types of programs are less frequently used today.

Available budgets for learning also have been drastically cut year-over-year as economic constraints have impacted various industries. At the same time, employers have not necessarily assessed the expertise they need for the future and how to invest in the talent that will make businesses flourish.

A Pew Research Center survey found more than half (54 percent) of adults in the labor force say it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. And 35 percent of workers, including approximately 3 in 10 adults with at least a Bachelor’s degree, say they don’t have the education and training they need to get ahead at work.

Global industry analyst Josh Bersin did a study back in 2018 and found the opportunity to learn and grow was second only to the nature of the work itself as the No. 1 source of inspiration in making employees happy and wanting to work harder.

In a Manpower survey, 93 percent of Millennials said they were willing to spend their own money on further training. Meanwhile, employers increasingly are emphasizing learning as a skill in its own right. Even The Economist declared that lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative.


A more experienced coworker or an expert with certain knowledge or skills can coach his or her peers or employees by providing guidance and monitoring how employees put what they learn into practice. Coaching also provides the ability to demonstrate, model, give feedback, and explain the “tricks of the trade” with workplace procedures.

Experts on the job can give direct guidance that is focused on developing knowledge in a collaborative manner that allows joint problem solving on the job.

Learning on the job today must become a part of everyday thinking and application in your work. Learning and Development (L&D) professionals must become vocational learning instructors, so guidance and instruction happens in the workplace rather than through an educational framework.


However, learning simply by doing on the job doesn’t cut it. Workplace learning requires structured experiences that help develop workers’ capacity to perform at their highest potential.

Employees are expected to do more with less in their work, making learning in and on the job a difficult task. Yet, according to the Bersin study, there were a few (7 percent) employees referred to as “heavy learners,” who managed to spend 5 hours a week in some form of learning. This learning could be reading, taking classes, watching courses, or doing other things relevant to advancing their skills and careers. However, medium learners (47 percent) spent 1 to 5 hours in learning, and the light learners spent 1 hour or less.

The MIT Sloan Management Review & Deloitte Digital 2018 Global Study found the most successful, fast-growing, and digitally enabled companies are differentiated by one thing—namely, they transformed the way individuals and organizations learn. The study showed 73 percent of employees in these companies were updating their skills every six months. And 44 percent reported continuously updating their skills. This required companies to provide opportunities for employees to learn fast, learn well, and learn continuously.


Companies are pushing decision-making down into the organization as they digitally mature. Employees must learn new skills in new ways. The top reported ways for learning were on-the-job learning (27 percent), training programs (26 percent), and supportive work environments (16 percent).

Creating an environment for learning is not easy in fast-paced and growing organizations. Organizations must create a supportive environment allowing experimentation through feedback and iteration. Working and learning in new ways requires openness and transparency from leaders to permit learning from failed experiments, as well.

Organizations can succeed when they develop employees through acquiring new knowledge and skills through practice and experimentation. Together, employees and leaders must leverage what they learn from both successes and failures.

Employees also need to take control of opportunities for learning in the flow of work. Suggestions made by Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders in a Harvard Business Review article on “Making Learning a Part of Everyday Work” include:

  1. Be fully aware and alert to learning opportunities as you observe ideal skills from others around you while you work.
  2. Create a list of things you want to learn and bookmark Websites and articles to read and review later on.
  3. Use the technical resources available to you and obtain learning insights through tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack.
  4. Plan for dedicated learning time on your calendar to grow and develop, and block out the time so others know what you are doing.
  5. Actively contribute new and interesting insights, articles, and courses to the knowledge on your SharePoint, Slack, or Teams page.

Learning on the job may not be what it used to be, but there are far more opportunities to learn every day.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: http://AuthenticRecognition.com. For more information, e-mail him at RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit www.Rideau.com.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: http://AuthenticRecognition.com. For more information, e-mail him at: RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit: www.Rideau.com