Engage for success

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Written by Richard Moorer on 1 April 2013 in Features
Features

Richard Moorer explains how L&D practitioners can integrate learning and performance to create an engaged workforce

More and more businesses are coming to recognise the direct link between an engaged workforce and productivity. An engaged organisation is built on the philosophy that the people who work for it are the most effective resource in delivering long-term competitive advantage. This belief manifests itself in employees who are highly motivated, invested in the success of their workplace and therefore willing to make an extra, discretionary effort in their daily work.

Over the past 15 years, a significant amount of research and studies have been conducted on the subject of employee engagement. An International Survey Report survey, of 664,000 employees, ascertained that companies with a highly engaged workforce improved their operating income by 19 per cent, while companies with a low engaged workforce declined by 33 per cent1. Leading HR researchers including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development2, Gallup3, and Towers Watson4 also affirm the positive financial and competitive impact of applying engagement techniques and practices in HR management. Given the mounting evidence, it should come as no surprise that businesses are taking notice of the major benefits of an engaged workforce.

But how can L&D practitioners begin to motivate the workforce? Learning is the foundation of any successful engagement strategy. Learning management can start with providing new employees with on-boarding learning plans, or helping existing employees further their careers by expanding their current learning plans.

Performance-driven learning puts the employee in the driving seat of his career. By keeping the focus on career elevation and providing visibility of what is expected in order to progress, engagement levels soar. Furthermore, when performance is tied into the learning process, organisations can more easily identify workforce trends, target organisational capability gaps and improve alignment between employee training and career goals and the wider business objectives.

However, many organisations struggle to integrate performance management with learning systems as, traditionally, they have functioned in silos. Businesses lose out when learning isn't converged with performance: a lack of training coupled with a murky career path breeds restless employees, tempted to look outside their organisation for a more engaging role.

The employee, the individual: creating effective development plans

Drilling down into individual employees' needs is key to generating engagement and creating an effective learning plan. Part of this focus includes giving the employee a central role in the production of his learning plan, which reinforces the sense that he has a level of control over the future of his career.

Identifying a person's strengths and competencies in relation to the job description should form the starting point of developing a learning plan. It's also important to determine any additional skills from previous work experience as these can be taken into consideration for future planning. It may be that an employee possesses skills that, although not relevant for his current role, are pertinent for a prospective position.

This information needs to come from the employee, rather than a vague estimation based on his interview, CV and performance to date. This is another opportunity to engage an employee in his future progression at an organisation.

A common pain point associated with learning management is employee commitment. It is often a struggle to ensure employees log into their personal profile, and provide information such as their experience and skills, and complete the relevant learning programmes. However, if mandatory processes are tied directly to career development and salary increases, employees are much more willing to spend time developing career plans.

Critical to maintaining engagement is ensuring that target dates are assigned to employees' goals. Clearly communicating when performance will be reviewed motivates employees to achieve their goals. L&D practitioners can enhance the effectiveness of development plans by providing regular updates, such as email notifications, to track progress and show how this performance affects the business - all great incentives for employees to put their development plans into action.

Optimising workforce analytics to target learning and identify the next leaders

Having secured information pertaining to the capabilities of the workforce, the next step is to use it intelligently to target learning to fulfil the business strategy.

Effective workforce analysis requires an integrated HR infrastructure that allows the HR department to extract data from all areas of the business into a single contextual database. The integration of data enables L&D practitioners to go beyond understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each employee: it provides the opportunity to measure and direct the human 'health' of the business.

The concept of workforce analytics covers the current state of employees, including their satisfaction levels as well as training and performance. It also encompasses the value of the HR-related activities being implemented or contemplated in the business in terms of what they generate for growth and profitability on the bottom line.

The value of workforce analytics lies in the visibility they give. They shed light on the skills and competence gaps. More critically, they present the potential threats arising from those gaps and the risks if employees are moved from one role to another. Additionally, analytics help to better steer succession planning by highlighting an employee's potential for future leadership roles. Better planning in this area means that the top performers are more prepared for promotion.

The ability to understand their employees' current thinking allows businesses to manage their workforce in a far more efficient, intelligent and profitable way. In turn, companies can better plan for the future and ensure that their most valuable resource will continue to support and advance the business strategy.

As a result, learning plans are significantly more sophisticated: not only do they support the growth of the individual employee, they also align staff development with the overall strategic direction of the business.

Workforce intelligence cannot be achieved in the traditional 'silo' system of data management. Typically, this is where data is pulled from multiple systems and analysed, only to find that it is not relevant. Managers then need to go back and carry out the same process until the correct data is sourced. This is time-consuming and cumbersome and introduces errors. With a more integrated approach and the ability to create an 'analytics' culture in HR, executives are able to create the most efficient teams to achieve success.

Aligning goals to fight budget cuts

During a recession, budgets allocated for L&D are among the first to be cut. Consequently, it becomes even more important for L&D practitioners to prove the ROI of performance-driven learning to the board. This can be done by demonstrating how organisational goals can be incorporated into employees' learning plans.

Prior to modifying the learning plans, it's critical to understand the organisation's goals, drivers and business issues. It's important to work with the executive team during this process, not only to ensure the goals have been fully grasped by the L&D team but also to secure management's support at an early stage.

By comparing employees' goals with the company's business goals, analytics tools provide a view of how closely the workforce is aligned with the business strategy: as an employee's own goals are monitored and measured, so will his correlation with the business' s goals. Employee and company goals that are the most out of sync should be addressed first as these are most likely to be holding the business back. If done correctly, aligning the most critical areas will demonstrate rapid and rewarding results.

Learning plans that are tied to career development as well as the success of the business help to create a highly stimulated, high-achieving working environment. When employees see that their performance is helping to directly achieve the company's strategy, they will feel more motivated and connected to their organisation. Clearly, this level of engagement has a direct impact on talent retention. As economic recovery takes hold and the job market improves, top performers will be lining up at the door for their next opportunity. Top performers need to be continually challenged to drive focus, engagement and progression. Various studies indicate that, in the aftermath of a recession, 45 to 50 per cent of all top performers are actively looking for new jobs - a percentage that is significantly higher than for low or middle performers5. Another consideration is the high cost of staff churn and the time to productivity.

Completing the 'engagement loop' with the latest learning trends

Performance-driven learning that encompasses the individual as well as the business strategy is key to motivating the workforce. But beyond the learning plan, the learning content itself must be relevant and appealing. Consideration and effort must be balanced between building an effective learning plan and creating the learning programmes, otherwise engagement levels will drop just after take-off.

Training via e-learning is proving to be highly advantageous to employees and employers alike as it provides a highly efficient, customised and cost-effective way of delivering training. E-learning is distinctly different from traditional classroom based learning as it supports performance by offering flexible information tailored to address the individual's skill gaps and competencies. Traditional learning, on the other hand, provides comprehensive, foundational knowledge designed for a group environment.

The rapid advancements in technology are shaking up the learning landscape. For example, as Bring Your Own Device and social media become more prevalent, employees now expect these trends to be brought into their learning programmes and everyday working environments. In particular, mobile and social learning are two of the hottest learning trends currently gaining traction in the enterprise.

For mobile learning to be effective and appeal to its target audience, the training content must be appropriate. Placing a half-day 'classroom' training course onto a microsite or into a mobile format is the wrong approach. Four hours of training on a mobile device is simply too long: users lose concentration and are therefore less likely to retain information. Interaction and stimulation should be the focus when developing learning content for mobile as this will lead to better engagement and better performance.

Social learning is concerned with collaboration rather than customisation. Creating an engaging social learning portal is about encouraging multiple inputs and helping the most valuable information rise to the top. This form of learning spurs an informal, competitive climate by giving employees the opportunity to share knowledge on any given topic. For many organisations, some of the most valuable information and experience is locked in the heads of their employees; social learning provides a platform for sharing this knowledge with colleagues to benefit the whole organisation.

Just because e-learning isn't administered in a conventional setting, it should still be converged with performance. Some employees, particularly the technologically savvy ones, will prefer to learn informally in this manner. Again, as with all elements of the learning programme, it must be linked to career development to drive engagement.

Harmonising the organisation

The integration of learning and performance management creates an opportunity to develop the main assets of the organisation. By understanding the individual skills and competencies of their employees, businesses can build more structured, effective and rewarding learning programmes.

Engagement levels rise because employees are given a clear path to help fulfil their potential and they feel nurtured by their organisation. When employee management processes are integrated, organisations can measure their own goals in comparison with their employees'. This is a vital tool in creating an efficient and engaged workforce to deliver on the overall business objectives.

To achieve long-term engagement, learning and performance must be managed and measured holistically. By energising and engaging the workforce through detailed learning plans tied to performance, employers not only retain their talent but also create a highly attuned organisation, adept at leveraging competitive advantage.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Richard Moorer is a solution architect at SumTotal Systems. He can be contacted via www.sumtotalsystems.com

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