Adults learn differently than teenagers or young children. No big surprise there, but in the world of enterprise learning and development, there are more things to consider than relevancy, engagement and buy-in when creating learning activities that ensure employees will retain and apply knowledge on the job. In order to maximize the impact of learning and development initiatives, companies might consider conducting in depth assessments to determine what the employee’s needs are as well as those of the organization. Focus groups are one avenue with which to gauge these needs. Afterward, it’s important to gather the data and put together a plan that is beneficial to all parties.
“That may seem obvious, but when we work with companies we often find that they tend to say ‘Well, we’ve got this business objective, so all the learning activities that we’re engaging in have got to meet this business objective,’ which is fine, but it’s like a vin diagram of the business’s needs and the individual’s needs,” said Pamela Tate, president and CEO of CAEL, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. “If you can expand the arena within those two circles that intersect you can have a more motivated workforce about the learning initiative that you’re engaging in.
“For example, we recommend that people get a chance to say what areas of training and learning would be most beneficial for them not only in their current job but for the kinds of jobs they’d like to take next in the organization. If they had a chance to move, what would they like to move to? Learning opportunities should be expanded beyond job-specific training or function or task specific to a broader approach that will allow people to learn for the future,” Tate said.
This predelivery learning assessment might include interviewing senior management to find out what skills and learning gaps they believe will be important for the business. Interview the employees for their point of view on the most important areas to learn, then provide advice and counseling on how individuals can maximize their own careers as well as learn the things that the company needs them to learn to perform their best. “When we can make it a win-win like that, and there can be a better intersection between the two, it really makes a huge difference for their motivation, engagement and their retention because then adult learners believe that it’s not just the business. The company’s concerned about them as people, who can make future as well as immediate contributions,” Tate said.
To engage adult learners fully, Tate also cautions against a top-down approach for learning and development initiatives. Learning programs should not just be for the top executives because there is no guarantee that the business messages delivered there will cascade down to the front line. Instead, address all levels of the organization and offer programs in accessible ways. “For example, instead of these self-directed desktop e-learning things that a lot of companies have instituted, they might think of letting their employees enroll in instructor-led programs and courses that could get the same objectives met but be led by an online instructor that keeps their people engaged and enables them to complete the course or the program.”
The e-learning portion of an enterprise learning and development program should not simply be a series of self-directed pieces. These, said Tate, are not easy to retain on the part of the workforce. Instead, engage adult learners in group learning online as well as on the ground. “I would definitely advise rethinking the e-learning strategy because we’re seeing that as a major problem in many companies right now. Everybody went headlong into e-learning courses, learning management systems, and somehow everyone’s going to use them, but of course the reality is that it isn’t that easy,” Tate explained. “People drop out, they’re not interested, they can’t get access, there’s a million problems. This is an area that there’s a lot of learning around, and people could do a better job with it.”
To enhance the adult learning experience, augment traditional development programs with counseling and coaching. Given the demands of today’s fast-paced, often global business environment, it might be necessary for employees to take advantage of some opportunities on their own time. “It could be a combination of online as well as e-mail, telephone, face-to-face, there’s a variety of ways that it can be done, but ways (are needed) for employees to truly pull together their own interests, needs and skills with the company’s opportunities and the learning that’s being put out there by the chief learning officer’s organization so they can access where they are, what they need to know and how to move forward. I see a lot of organizations with heavy learning management systems and lots of training and no ability to help their employees navigate the system. People are not directed in the learning and training that they engage in.”
It might help to cement the importance of learning and development in the adult learners’ mind if tuition assistance programs were linked to the learning organization rather than to HR, where such assistance is viewed in the same category as health and other benefits and not as a strategic investment. “Adults need to learn for their own advancement, knowledge and skill building as well as something directly related to what they have to do in an immediate performance sense,” Tate said. “What’s unfortunate is that the training and learning enterprise is often in one part of the company, but the HR benefits management is some place else so the adult learners don’t have a chance to see them as a whole. ‘What I’m learning over here in my project management training, how might that relate to an MBA that I want to get?’ I think if the company would look at their learning enterprise including what they spend on external education providers as one investment, and they marketed it to their adult learners and their workforce that way, they could get a lot further than the way they’re managed today. For some reason tuition assistance got stuck over there with health benefits, and it isn’t that. It’s completely different. It’s how this person is going to be prepared in my company for the future.”
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