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Aligning Employee Learning Opportunities with Business Strategy

What an organization values (and rewards) is what it becomes. Benefits, rewards programs, and other prerequisites are often used to attract and retain competent and high performing employees. But are the perks you offer strategically aligned with your company's business goals and human capital challenges? And are employee "perks" designed to also contribute to your broader business objectives? Supporting your employees' continued learning to a credential can help you meet your current needs and help circumvent future human capital challenges while advancing your business strategy. Your workforce becomes your competitive advantage!

A tuition reimbursement program is a great example of a recruiting tool that is usually created to attract a certain type of employee. However, these programs are often underutilized and not advertised in companies that don't connect them to their strategic plans. Organizations that revamp tuition assistance programs as tools to reach strategic planning goals see a better return on their investment.

Does your organization value employee learning as a "strategic differentiator"? Is it an investment your company makes in terms of tuition assistance, development opportunities, and tying learning into employee plans and annual reviews? Or does your company see employee learning as just another cost?

Since you have a role in articulating your organization's workforce goals, you also have a pivotal role in implementing a human capital development and retention strategy. The key to this is encouraging investments in employee learning and supporting education and development. But how do you get started?

Encourage or convene a stakeholder meeting. Holding a cross-functional meeting bringing together those across the organization who have a stake in employee learning can accomplish two things: 1) it can provide insight into what's important to the organization, and 2) it can allow you to understand how those important indicators are tracked. If you haven't already articulated your workforce challenges this could provide the opportunity to do so. Once the group agrees on its workforce challenges, the meeting can be a helpful starting point to plan a review and evaluation of your current education strategy and how it aligns with your business mission and impacts your outcomes. The initial stakeholder meeting should prompt action for your organization to:

  • Assess the educational programs and support you currently provide to employees. What do you offer employees? How well are these offerings utilized? How well do these offerings fit into your strategic plan? How are our employees made aware of these opportunities?
  • Evaluate the impacts of those programs on business outcomes. Is your education strategy contributing to your business outcomes? What are you measuring and who holds the data?

The starting point in assessing the educational and learning programs or the type of learning culture your organization offers is to take a simple inventory. At first, this may seem like a straightforward exercise, but consider the following questions when deciding what to include in your "learning portfolio":

  • Do you provide financial assistance to employees wishing to take college or university courses? If so, is the financial assistance limited to certain degree fields?
  • Does your organization have clearly defined career paths? If so, do employees know what educational requirements are necessary to move up within the company? Does your company provide guidance on where employees can receive the necessary education?
  • Does your organization allow flexible scheduling to accommodate employees taking courses? Does your company allow the use of company computers and other resources for employees’ educational endeavors?
  • Does your organization publicly value and recognize the educational accomplishments of your workforce?
  • Does your organization encourage the formation of peer “mentor” groups of those who are working toward a credential (a degree, certificate, or diploma)?
  • Do you allow a portion of paid work time to be used for taking online classes or doing coursework?
  • Does your organization have any partnerships with local colleges to provide education and training to your employees?

Next, compare your learning programs to your workforce needs and your strategic plan. How do they line up? For example, let’s assume employee retention is a challenge for your organization. We know that career paths positively influence employee loyalty, which impacts employee performance and ultimately productivity [Western Association of Food Chains Case Study]. Your organization can combat high turnover and boost productivity by creating career paths with clearly defined educational expectations along with supporting internal career mobility and access to educational support and resources. When comparing your education/learning strategy to your workforce needs and strategic business plan, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • What performance indicators contribute to your business outcomes? What factors are you trying to improve? How does your education strategy address those performance indicators?
  • Are your employees aware of the learning programs and support offered? How well are those programs utilized? Which employees are accessing learning programs and education support – managers, line-workers, entry-level employees, etc.?

Measuring the impact of your learning programs and educational support is important because it allows for improvement over time and the examination of potentially false assumptions about the value (or lack of value) of these programs. While many organizations are not equipped to perform an in-depth analysis to connect learning to business outcomes, there are some things that all organizations can do:

  • Identify what you want to measure (quality, turnover, productivity, etc.)
  • Find out whether (or how) those factors are currently being measured by your organization.
  • Identify who holds the keys to the data.

Generally speaking, the goal is to understand whether providing educational opportunities and resources contributes to an “improvement” (though “improvement” may be defined differently by each organization). In order to do that, you must identify who took part in the educational intervention, discover who was impacted the most by the improvement and why it had a positive impact. Depending on the level of data available to you and skill sets of those taking on this task, this may require data mining, surveying employees, or interviewing stakeholders. Demographic information on affected employees may reveal variations in impact as well.

A particular training program, for example, could show a neutral impact on productivity across all employee groups. A closer look, however, may reveal that baby boomers’ productivity doubled while millennial productivity actually dropped. Could the difference in impact on these employees be due to the delivery method, the subject matter, or something else entirely? Measurement and evaluation can help you answer questions like these.