Many people mistakenly assume that their days of learning are over when they finish school and enter the job market, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a person’s ability to learn and incorporate new knowledge is one of their most vital assets at any given point in their careers, no matter what they do for a living. You'll hear many people talk about the importance of having a plan for your development, but no one really tells you how to create one. Until now. By the end of this article you will have learned not only how to structure an employee learning plan but also how to encourage engagement in your team.
Employees that are hungry to learn new skills and information often become some of the most valuable assets in their workplaces and can go on to achieve incredible success. From an employer’s perspective, such employees are often responsible for doing work that exceeds expectations and breaks boundaries—making them a critical part of any good manager’s success.
If you’re an employer or a supervisor, you’ll benefit directly from having employees who are eager and able to learn continually. Employees that want to learn work-related skills are often more motivated and passionate about what they do. Furthermore, employees with the resources to act on their interests often become some of the most productive and dependable in any given department.
You probably already understand the importance of surrounding yourself with capable people, but you may not realize what a significant role employee learning plays in producing such individuals.
Natural Ability vs. Learned Ability: Measuring the Myth Against the Truth
It’s a common myth in the business world that “some people have it and some people don’t.” Reality television, media personalities and other pop-culture sources are keen to push the idea of natural winners and losers on us, but it’s important to remember that successful people who peddle that myth don’t want more competition. It’s not in their best interests to motivate you; it’s actually in their best interests to make you feel like a victim of your circumstances.
The truth is that there are no natural winners or losers—especially not in business. There are only people who use their resources effectively, and those who don’t. Knowledge and strategy are always going to be worth more than charm at the end of the day because businesses don’t run on charm. They run on quality products, efficient services, and organized groups of people who deliver them.
Knowledge and strategy aren’t inherent in certain people, either—its carefully cultivated and fostered. What does this mean for you and your employees? Simple: help your employees learn, and you’ll empower them to be more successful. Since their success is your success too, this is an investment every competent manager should make.
The best way to help your employees learn is by setting up an employee learning plan. Learning programs contribute to establishing specific, measurable goals for your company. They also provide your employees with strategies for developing the skills or knowledge necessary to meet these aims within a specified time frame.
Instead of simply stating your corporate values and vaguely promoting certain attitudes at work, you can ensure the precise and useful development of your human capital by putting together a comprehensive employee learning plan at your office. The most important thing is to work out the details ahead of time so that your plan isn’t thrown off by unexpected developments or factors you haven’t considered.
The Three Basic Ingredients of Any Effective Learning Plan
Before you can work out the specifics of a learning plan, you’ll have to know what the essential structure of such a plan should be. There are many factors involved in creating a successful plan, but they boil down to three simple requirements: learning goals, learning experiences, and the support required to see them through.
Your learning goals can be one of two different things. They can either be specified competencies that you would like your employees to develop, or they can be explicit work objectives that you hope to achieve. The best learning goals typically involve both. For instance, let’s say that you want to boost team building skills in your office by having your employees complete a series of exercises in conflict resolution. Since teamwork is an essential competency and you’ve set a measurable objective to achieve, this is an excellent example of a learning goal.
Learning experience refers to the specific things your employees will have to do to develop the abilities you want them to learn. If we stick to the example above, the learning experience will refer to the content of the course in question and how individual modules or lessons support the desired acquisition of team building skills.
Lastly, it’s important to consider the support that your employees will need to develop the skills in question and use them at work. This could involve having people to talk to when they have questions or concerns about elements of their learning experience. Your HR department is likely to play a considerable role in supporting the employees who participate in your learning plan, so make sure they are acutely aware of what you’re doing and the effect you hope it will have.
Beyond the Basics
The three points above should only be the start of putting your learning plan together. Choosing a goal might seem like an easy task, but it requires careful consideration. You want your learning plan to provide value for your employees. As such, it is important to prioritize your learning goals carefully. You may also find that the learning goals you consider worthwhile are not necessarily those your staff would choose. In such cases, it’s important to learn why your employees might prefer a different goal so that you can assess the value of each option.
It can be painful to hear, but managers don’t always know what will make their employees most effective. Sometimes a manager has specific ideas about what they want to see in the workplace and a general idea of learning goals that would support it, but employees closer to the action see other opportunities.
The best managers are the ones who consider feedback from their employees and look at the advantages of each learning goal before creating their plan. It’s often advisable to bring up a result you’d want, and let your employees tell you how individual learning goals could help them achieve those objectives.
Let’s look at our example from earlier. Maybe you think that a course in conflict resolution would be the best way to increase teamwork in your office, but one of your employees suggests otherwise. He or she feels that a formal course might not be as effective as attending a seminar, and suggests that option instead. This is where your leadership skills come into play. As any HR professional will tell you, you have to know the comfort levels and learning styles of your employees, so that you can choose an effective learning goal around which to structure your plan.
Achieving SMART Learning Plans
One system that many managers and team leaders use to create workable learning plans is the SMART system. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based.
A specific learning plan is one with goals that focus on a single objective or competency. It’s one thing if completing the objective demonstrates the skill sought, but it’s quite another if you choose various competencies and objectives that have nothing to do with each other. For example, a plan with the goals of increasing customer service skills and lowering the number of sick days taken by employees is going to be harder than necessary, since these have nothing to do with each other and will probably confuse employees.
Measurable plans are those that ensure their goals can be quantified. You’ll know when your employees have completed their learning experiences because you’ll have achieved certain results. In cases where the plan involves formal training, the participating employees may finish with a certificate of completion. If your goals are performance-based, you’ll know they’ve been achieved by looking at actual data (number of sick days, rates of conversion, etc.).
Achievability is simple, but it’s also one of the most important criteria. Specifically, achievability asks: can you achieve your goals without spending too many resources for it to be cost-effective? You’ll want to consider numerous resources when assessing the achievability of your plan. The money required to implement the plan is one such criterion, but you’ll also have to contend with time (more on that in a moment).
Relevance might seem self-explanatory, but many people don’t give it enough consideration when putting their employee learning plans together. Remember that it’s called an employee learning plan, not a company learning plan. Yes, it should be relevant to your interests and those of the business, but it should also be pertinent to the experiences of the employees themselves. Remember that helping your employees develop new skills and knowledge is only helpful if they want to keep working for you. As such, it’s vital that you take their aspirations and inspirations into account when crafting your plan and choosing your goals.
Time-based plans ensure that their learning goals can be satisfied within a particular period. A good benchmark for most plans is to predict whether they can be achieved before the end of the fiscal year. Unless your plan is unusually large- or small-scale, this makes a good benchmark. Even if the end of the financial year is coming up quickly, it’s smart to use this as the standard for a successful time-based plan because this is typically when the people you answer to will measure your team’s performance.
Alternatives to Formal Training Courses
As stated above, many team leaders simply choose to have their employees complete a course of some kind. Many people see formal courses as the lowest-maintenance form of the learning plan. They often reason that because a course already contains a structure of its own it will save them substantial amounts of time and energy that would otherwise be needed for planning. While this is correct to an extent, it is also not always the best choice.
It’s true that certification courses are usually structured to bring participants towards a particular goal, but note that this is the aim of the course—not necessarily the learning goal you’ve set for your team. If that seems hard to understand, think of it this way: imagine that you run a commercial kitchen, and you want to raise the culinary skills of your chefs. You put them in a general cooking class, and they all complete it with flying colors. However, you find out later that 90% of the dishes they practiced making were dishes you don’t serve in your restaurant. The point of this story is that you can’t trust a class to do your work for you.
Be creative about the learning experiences you plan for your team, and you’ll often help them achieve their goals more efficiently. For example, you might help an employee learn valuable leadership skills by occasionally letting them run or chair a meeting. You might help an otherwise strong employee shore up some of their weaknesses by having them shadow someone else on your team who demonstrates those qualities in an exemplary way.
The way that you assign work to your employees is another excellent opportunity to create learning experiences. When you give employees work they excel at, they might achieve terrific results, but they won’t necessarily be pushed to diversify their skill set. Plan a certain number of assignments that put your employees out of their comfort zones, and encourage them to develop the skills that will satisfy your goals.
A learning plan has three primary areas: goals, experiences, and support. However, each of these areas requires strong leadership and careful planning. Use the SMART system to ensure that your goals are clear and backed by the right experiences, then make sure your management style and HR assets are providing the support your team will need along the way.
Follow these steps, and you should be able to put a comprehensive learning plan in place that satisfies your employees while helping them do their best work for you in the future.