7 Put Learning into the Flow of Work – The Upskilling Imperative: 5 Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work


Put Learning into the Flow of Work

You simply cannot maintain a healthy learning culture if you’re not baking it into every facet of your operations. You might be marketing the heck out of your programs, but as any salesperson knows, you still need to seal the deal.

The best way to get people using your product (or learning program) is to make it easy to access and fit seamlessly into the rest of their activities.

Here are some norms you can establish and reinforce to get people comfortable with the idea that, yes, learning is part of their job—maybe even the part they like the most:

Employees own their learning experiences. No one in L&D or HR can possibly stay close enough to each 124employee to know everything that person should be learning, let alone how and when. Managers, who supervise daily work and track projects in the pipeline, are better positioned to guide their direct reports, but even then, they need to tread lightly. Employees should have a long leash to balance the must-learn skills for today with competencies they want to build for their futures. This shifts our roles to helping deliver learning at scale, helping managers become coaches, and helping individuals navigate their options.

Learning isn’t an interruption when employees are empowered to pursue it on their own terms. When people are motivated to learn—either by necessity or by curiosity—the best way to maximize that impulse is to give them ready access to the tools and resources they’ll need, regardless of subject matter, location, schedule, or learning preferences. A software as a service (SaaS) platform like Udemy for Business fits the bill because it doesn’t require employees to get preapproval from their managers but allows them to log in to gain skills in their moment of need.

Learning cultures enable continuous learning through a variety of modalities. That means people have choices in how they access new information. Online courses are simply one option. Companies should also encourage knowledgeable employees to share their expertise through peer-to-peer learning, and social learning is a great way for teams to learn together and support each other when it’s time to apply new 125skills on the job. Every company has its own resident “explainers,” the people who are often called on to teach and simplify what they’ve already mastered. Explainers tend to be lifelong learners and empathizers. They understand what it’s like to struggle with learning something new, and they derive real joy from interacting with students, watching them gain mastery over new skills, and seeing what they’re able to do on their own. You would be wise to identify the explainers in your midst and harness their potential for fueling the culture of continuous learning and boosting employee engagement.

Continuous learning isn’t a one-way push, where L&D or others in management are gatekeepers who grant employees access to knowledge. But neither is it a black hole where “anything goes” and no one has accountability for results. Most learning management systems and other digital learning platforms include some level of activity tracking so that, at a minimum, managers can see how people are spending their learning time. Udemy’s corporate solution, Udemy for Business, tracks usage and behavior patterns among learners, uses machine learning to spot patterns and trends, and extracts value by leveraging that data to make course recommendations to other users. For example, if we know successful data science students tend to take certain courses in sequence, we can help beginners follow the same learning path to build their own knowledge.

More robust solutions will have activity dashboards with more sophisticated analyses and insights, so you can track entire learning journeys, measure their impact, and use collective data to guide other employees to the best learning resources. For example, a direct report struggling with SQL could be paired with a colleague who’s already completed relevant coursework and who can serve as a mentor, sharing his or her own discoveries to make the experience more effective and efficient. The more experienced employee can help the newbie overcome hurdles, show him or her how to apply lessons learned, and recommend other trainings to take next.

Learning isn’t something that happens only in workshops or other formal settings; indeed, people retain knowledge better and longer when learning is closely linked to doing.

Focus on Learning in Performance Conversations

The goal isn’t just to ensure all employees are weaving learning into their daily routines. It’s also about incorporating learning as a subject into ongoing conversations among managers, teams, and individuals. It’s motivating to hear about your colleagues’ learning accomplishments as well as their stumbles. From a leadership perspective, it informs managers about what skills are represented on their teams, where they need to scale up, and what opportunities are within reach, based on the team’s capabilities.

At Udemy, we cover a bunch of valuable soft skills in the programs we’ve developed around the employee life cycle, in addition to hosting online courses, so that people can focus squarely on one skill at a time. The challenge comes in when managers leave the training room and get back into real-world situations. I like to provide online courses as a reference resources to help managers build skills and refresh what they’ve learned. One great example of this type of online resource is a course called The Essential Guide for Effective Managers,1 led by instructor Marie Deveaux, an executive leadership coach who facilitates workshops all over the world.

The employee life cycle topics are available as both self-paced courses and larger workshops. We also recommend people first go through programs like Career Navigator and Goal Crushing to ensure they’ve asked themselves the important questions and see how learning connects to their long-term goals. These workshops are available throughout the year, but we definitely see an uptick in enrollments when it’s time for formal feedback collection.

Here are a few soft-skills-oriented workshops that employees at Udemy have embraced:

Change Agent. To successfully grow as a company, a team, or an individual, we must be able to adapt to change—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This workshop has teams work through escape-room-inspired puzzles as a way of learning five change-focused mindsets (e.g., situational awareness, reframing, projection), so participants walk away confident in their ability to be effective agents of change.

Manager Labs. These workshops are social learning experiences/experiments in which teams come together to share management insights and expertise. We kick these off by encouraging participants to throw their assumptions and biases out the window. Sessions are self-led, and topics are self-selected, which really moves the conversation in unexpected directions and gives voice to ideas that may not have previously found the right forum. Rather than follow a rigid format, Manager Labs are more free-form and expansive to accommodate all manner of input.

Bomb Squad. This is a really fun way for people to understand their teammates and themselves better. First, we run our True Colors workshop, wherein all team members answer a series of questions to reveal how their personal preferences and work styles translate into four different types, each assigned a color (green: analytical, gold: organized, orange: spontaneous, blue: empathetic). Then, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses each color type brings to the table and how to work best with coworkers who identify more with different colors. We call the workshop Bomb Squad because it culminates with the team playing a virtual-reality game in which they have to use what they’ve learned about each other to collaborate effectively and defuse a virtual bomb.

The Udemy Coach. One global leadership consulting firm found that 49 percent of workers surveyed want more coaching from their managers, and even more—57 percent—want more external coaching.2 The Udemy Coach was designed to arm people with skills and techniques so they can serve as coaches to others. It covers topics such as effective questioning approaches and how to develop active listening skills, so that both coach and employee get what they need from the process. We follow the GROW model to guide coaching conversations:

G—What are your goals?

R—What is your reality in relation to your goals?

OWhat options do you have, given your reality?

W—What specific actions will you commit to?

Setting Employees Loose to Find Their Own Learning

You can’t expect every relevant, appealing learning resource and opportunity to be found inside your own ecosystem of content. Sought-after skills are changing too fast. And you can’t create everything you wish were there. It’s too time-consuming and expensive, and you’ll never keep up. That’s why I strongly endorse offering employees a discretionary budget to pay for other approved learning activities, such as attending a conference or external bootcamp or even buying a bunch of online courses, books, or software. This investment is a real and tangible demonstration of your commitment to employee development and employee freedom to choose.

Employees don’t always know how to use their learning budgets, but they know they don’t want to lose it. At Udemy, when someone doesn’t have an obvious career objective or project need, I encourage that person to use his or her ULearn stipend toward a big stretch goal or to try something really out of the box, even something intimidating. If employees play it safe with their learning budgets, they’re missing the point. To be clear, I’m not suggesting companies hand out thousands of dollars to everyone (unless they want to), but the budget needs to be a meaningful enough amount that employees can access a worthwhile learning experience they wouldn’t otherwise get to do.

Moving from Programmatic and Episodic to Anticipatory

The resources I’ve mentioned earlier (Career Navigator, Goal Crushing, and others) are available as on-demand online courses and are supplemented by in-person workshops or blended courses and discussions. They straddle the line between programmatic—activities we host on a set schedule for rotating groups of employees—and anticipatory—always available online resources employees can enroll in whenever they feel the need.

This is the direction L&D needs to be moving: helping people get in front of their learning needs instead of reacting in a rush to acquire a new skill right now. You don’t need to invest in a crystal ball or hire a psychic, but you do need to strategize and structure your team’s offerings to be adaptable and tightly woven into the fabric of daily work as well as the stages of the employee life cycle. There’s quite a lot that L&D teams can do to build flexibility into their offerings and encourage forward-looking learning that does more than simply equip employees with skills relevant to the current moment.

Give Them Room to Breathe—So They Can Learn

Perhaps the most critical conditions to have in place to ensure continuous learning are ample time and space to do it. We all have calendars packed with meetings, in-boxes full of unread mail, and incessant text and chat communications coming at us from all sides. Without a formalized, organization-wide commitment to learning, it’s almost always going to fall to the bottom of the to-do list after your coworkers’ “urgent” requests and work that is deemed “more important” by someone, somewhere. In addition, people can’t give learning the attention and focus needed to make it stick if they’re preoccupied and stressed out about all the other things they think they should be doing.

This will take a fundamental shift in how people approach their jobs, and it is definitely going to require more than lip service from the top of the leadership chain. Without that commitment, your L&D efforts won’t reach their full potential. And, as an L&D leader, you’ll be right back to defending your right to exist. We’ll explain in Chapter 9 how to make the business case for a learning culture to your senior leaders, but for now, understand what it means to give people time and space to learn. And how much it matters: according to Udemy’s report What Motivates Employees to Learn, 54 percent of employees said that having more time would help them learn more effectively.3

Help Employees Find Their Learning Happy Place

Programs like DEAL are only one small gesture toward prioritizing learning time. Often, we need to start by helping people “learn to learn” and by offering mindfulness training so they know how to focus and retain information. But first, we need to step back and look at the learning environment itself. I shared some of my learning science lessons about this in Chapter 2, but let’s take a closer look at how we can get the details right.

For self-directed learning, it’s important that employees can find a space that’s reliably free of interruptions and distractions. The American Psychological Association’s research found that 61 percent of workers feel their employers provide opportunities for skills development (good news), but only 52 percent say they have enough time to take advantage of those career development activities (bad news).4

Setting email and chat to “do not disturb” is a good start. Establishing a dedicated learning space is better, especially when so many of us are in open floor plans where visual interruptions plague us as much as auditory ones. Your company’s learning space should be like the quiet car on a commuter train: everyone implicitly understands they need to refrain from talking, silence their phones, and maintain the overall peace and calm of this shared space (e.g., no, you can’t bring your stinky lunch or noisy chips to eat in there).

As a facilitator, you also have to pay close attention to your attendees’ bodily needs. I’ve been at this a long time, and I’ve developed a knack for picking up on cues when people are ready for a restroom/hydration break or a different kind of activity—or that it’s time for me to shut up. Yes, I offer snacks and beverages, but they’re not just bribes to get people in the door. Science has shown how hunger interferes with school children’s ability to learn,5 but even if we’re not dealing with a population that’s chronically undernourished, we can still see what happens to learners’ attention spans and participation when their stomachs are rumbling. I suggest healthy snacks, like nuts or fruit, instead of simple carbs and sugary treats that lead to a crash later on. You probably didn’t expect dietary advice in this book, but this stuff really matters to the effectiveness of your programs.

Finally, it’s important to be sensitive to the emotional needs of learners. Obviously, you’re not going to do a deep dive into everyone’s personal baggage, nor can you expect to know about and accommodate every sensitivity. But you can keep in mind who’s in the room and how their working relationships 134might affect the group dynamic, such as whether they should be paired with others for breakout sessions or, conversely, whether they represent an example of knowledge sharing that others can emulate.

I also remind L&D people and anyone leading a training to remember that not everyone has positive associations with learning. Some of your top workplace performers may have been the most enthusiastic students. For every eager learner with a perfect attendance record, there are others who remember school as a time of anxiety, insecurity, failure, or boredom. People may bring all sorts of feelings, fears, and hang-ups into your training experiences.

Audit the State of Learning

Now that you have an idea of how to integrate learning into the flow of work, we’re going to dive deeper into how organizations can audit their learning and ensure it is at the core. I really like the ACADEMIES framework created by McKinsey & Company as a starting point for assessment (Figure 7.1).

FIGURE 7.1 The ACADEMIES Framework from McKinsey & Company

This framework works well for me because it shows learning systems as central to everything and illustrates how every component needs to be integrated into the whole to qualify as a robust learning culture.

Many companies run an annual, biannual, or regularly cadenced employee survey to gather feedback on what’s working and what’s not within the organization. Explore the following questions as you continue to audit the state of learning in your organization and work toward establishing a true learning culture—whether you’re a one-person L&D team, part of HR, or an executive who sees the need to level up your workforce’s skills:

What opportunities for learning and development exist in the company strategy? Is the company doing something new? Looking to get better at what it is doing? Is it growing or downsizing?

What trends or data emerged from your employee survey?

What information has emerged in conversations with employees or leaders?

What does the executive team or CEO want or need from the organization?

What goals were missed in the past year? Why?

What data have you gathered in exit surveys or attrition conversations?

Answering these questions will take you around the company to seek out a diverse set of stakeholders and employees and give them a safe, comfortable format for sharing their honest opinions. Then, when you have a clearer picture of the current learning landscape, you can start formalizing a strategy . . . but with one caveat. This data captures only one point in time, and although it’s essential to look closely at what has come before, anticipating and preparing for what’s next is even more important. Hidden in the answers to these questions will be indicators of where L&D’s next steps should lead.