Most organizations hire employees based on their credentials, but how do they know whether they really have the “know how” the organization needs to succeed or have the skills required to perform their jobs well? In today’s economy, it takes more than hiring talented employees and providing them with professional development opportunities for an organization to thrive. Beyond developing employees, many organizations could do a better job of and, frankly, gain a lot of benefit from learning from their customers and from their own successes and failures. Thus, the most successful organizations create a culture of “continuous learning.”
Continuous learning is especially important for digital businesses which must constantly adapt to rapidly changing market conditions and emerging technology. In this article, we will discuss how continuous learning applies to all levels of the organization along with how continuous learning can help make your organization more resilient, collaborative, and a lot more fun as a place to work.
What is Continuous Learning?
Continuous learning, sometimes called “constant learning,” is a process of learning new skills and knowledge and reflecting on individual and group experiences on an ongoing basis. To be clear, sometimes the terms continuous learning and “lifelong learning” are used interchangeably, though in this context they are not the same. The latter refers most commonly to an individual who actively takes classes and participates in skill-building activities for their entire lives; the focus is on the individual.
In the context of this article, continuous learning applies at the individual, team, and organizational level. The focus is on making sure that individuals have relevant skills to support their teams and workgroups; that teams routinely reflect on shared experiences and lessons learned through “retrospectives”, etc.; and that the organization as a whole learns from both internal experiences and external sources such as customers, market trends and demand, and even competitors.
Although the levels of formality associated with continuous learning programs vary from organization to organization, a common thread is that intentionality is placed on ensuring that the learning at all levels directly supports organizational agility. It is more than “on the job training” or “training by fire.” Organizations that practice continuous learning recognize that it is necessary to support continual renewal and improvement.
The Role of Continuous Learning in Digital Business
Digital business is driven by innovation. The word “innovation” itself is used almost as broadly as the phrase “digital transformation.” Innovation perpetuates both destruction and renewal.
Innovation is about the organization constantly tearing down what is familiar and comfortable and building up something new (and hopefully better) in its place.
Innovation perpetuates both destruction and renewal.
The perpetual destructive and creative processes of innovation are critical for digital businesses which are highly sensitive to demand and customer preferences, reliant on the latest tools and technology, and constantly under pressure from competitors. Although defining exactly what a digital business is can be tricky, it is fair to say that the hallmarks of digital business are speed, flexibility, and the ability to quickly respond to change.
But innovation does not happen by magic. It requires new skills and new combinations of skills, new ways of working, and a new mindset. While digital businesses start by hiring employees with required skills, continuous learning ensures that as the business landscape changes, the organization will continue to be prepared by having employees with up-to-date skills and teams that are aware of consumer demand, competitive forces, and the overall state of the market.
Continuous Learning Starts with Leadership
Leadership at all levels of the organization sets the intention for continuous learning. At the highest levels, leaders need to determine where the organization is lacking in knowledge and how to bridge the gap. For example, leaders in one organization may realize that senior leadership is not up to date on digital technology trends and decides to establish a technical advisory board, in partnership with IT, to apprise decision-makers of the threats and opportunities offered by emerging technologies. In another organization, leaders may realize that they are finding out about competitor tactics and external threats too late to effectively counter them and so decide to establish a competitive intelligence practice. One organization I worked with did precisely this and hired two employees to focus on the activities of competitors. Each day, the competitive intelligence team provided daily fifteen-minute long recorded briefs on daily competitive moves and market trends. Although solving customer needs remained paramount for the organization (and normally solving customer problems should come before countering competitive forces), knowledge of market and competitors created a more balanced view of the overall ecosystem.
Leadership also has a role to play in determining the critical skills the organization needs to accomplish its mission. For example, an aspiring digital business interested in creating a multi-channel experience for consumers finds that it lacks skills in building an online business model. This requires assembling teams with specific skills in customer experience management, channel marketing, and web development. Senior leadership then works with Human Resources and a variety of teams to understand what skillsets currently exist in the organization, which can be developed internally through training, and which need to be hired.
Technology Advisory Boards and Centers of Excellence
In an era where digital technology changes with alarming rapidity, Technology Advisory Boards and Centers of Excellence can help brief key leadership on technological advances that can threaten or support the digital business. Although technology advisory boards tend to focus on training leadership, smaller scale versions of this often exist as Centers of Excellence for individuals wanting to learn more about and share lessons on a particular topic or “lunch and learn” sessions open to a wide variety of employees.
Learning organizations start by hiring curious people who have the skills that are needed and who have the willingness to expand their skillsets over time. To this extent, Human Resources Leadership, at a high-level, has the potential to do much more than manage benefits and hiring policies. It has the possibility of being a hub of Human Capital Management (or as ITIL calls it, Workforce and Talent Management). What is clear, though, is that while hiring curious and skilled workers is necessary, continuous learning starts well before the hiring process by envisioning what learning means to the organization. It also continues well beyond onboarding by having a semi-structured path for employee skill development, and an understanding of how both teams and individuals can contribute concretely to fulfilling the organizational learning vision.
Human Resources has the potential to do much more than manage benefits and hiring policies. It has the possibility of being a hub of Human Capital Management.
It goes without saying that team-level learning goals should be aligned with leadership’s overall vision and organizational priorities. Of course, in reality, executive vision does not always trickle-down to other levels of the organization, and teams often play a key role in informing senior leadership about learning gaps. This notwithstanding, continuous learning at the team level focuses on ensuring that teams are learning how to continually improve their collective performance and that team members have appropriate and even complementary skills. Some examples of how teams can learn, pulled from ITIL/IT Service Management and Agile/Scrum, include:
- Skills Assessments – Sometimes a team knows the area in which it wants to improve but does not have a good grasp on the skills that are needed or whether employees possess these skills. It can be helpful to engage an independent third party to conduct a skills assessment. The involves interviewing team members, reviewing job descriptions and resumes, and assessing the skills the organization requires. When we perform skills assessments for clients, results include team-based and individualized training plans and in some cases staffing plans (to ensure that staff capacity is optimized).
- Team Training – Team training can focus on a variety of subjects and be delivered in a variety of formats. Many people are familiar with the team retreat, which can be a good way to conduct team relationship-building exercises. In can also be a good way for employees to learn together as a team. For example, we conduct a team-based simulation that involves twenty or more members of the same team. Team members work together in a gamified environment to learn IT Service Management concepts in a simulated “real world” setting. In terms of more specific skills, team training can help teams build a common foundation of knowledge. For example, we provide ITIL Foundation or awareness training for many of our clients by training their entire department to help develop a common language for IT service management.
- Post Implementation Review (PIR) – Often referred to as a post-mortem (though less somber), the PIR is conducted after implementing technical changes to discuss what went wrong and how to improve in the future. Although most organizations only conduct PIRs following failed changes, it can also be valuable to hold PIRs after large successful changes to capture lessons learned, improve how work is done going forward, and celebrate success.
- Major Problem Review – Similar to the PIR, the Major Problem Review is conducted after responding to a major problem. Once again, the goal is to capture lessons learned and find ways to improve.
- Scrum/Agile Retrospectives – Though started by software development teams, many teams across the organization will benefit from connecting daily for up to fifteen minutes as part of daily scrums to discuss the work that each team member 1) has accomplished the prior day, 2) will do that day, and 3) any obstacles that are in the way. They also meet for “sprint retrospectives” at the end of each 1-4 weeks to discuss how things went and where to improve going forward. Although these tools are most commonly associated with Agile teams and organizations, they are beneficial for more traditional teams.
- Job Shadowing – Sometimes referred to as “cross-training lite,” job shadowing helps introduce employees to other organizational roles. Although job shadowing in itself rarely results in employees being able to perform each other’s roles, it can help employees understand where their work comes from and where it goes.
For more ideas on ways to encourage “continuous learning” and knowledge sharing within and across teams, read this article on, “An Overview of the Knowledge Management Practice, Tools, and Techniques in ITIL 4”
To the extent that teams and workgroups are often best positioned to understand how work actually gets done (and in some cases work directly with customers), the execution of continuous learning activities is largely the responsibility of teams.
Continuous Learning for the Individual
Without any doubt, individual employees need to possess or acquire the skills needed to perform their jobs and contribute to their teams. For each of us, it is important to remember that the skills possessed when starting with an organization need to be refreshed, and as our roles change, new skills need to be developed. As a friend once shared with me, we should think about solidifying and updating our current skillsets while incrementally branching-out and learning new or complementary skills. For example, a budgeting specialist needs to stay current with the latest budgeting techniques and with organizational financial policies but may also need to learn some project management and reporting skills. Thus, as we acquire more skills, our value to our organization increases. Try developing deep competence within one-to-three areas of subject matter expertise (what is termed a “comb-shaped” person) and complementary secondary skills.
Web and application development
Digital business analysis
Project Management (both traditional and agile)
Data science and analytics
Continuous learning is about intentionality. It is not uncommon for curious employees to pursue skills that are of little direct value to the organization. To this end, an employee’s manager plays an important role in evaluating individual learning goals and how these align with the team and the organization at large. It is good practice is to give individuals freedom to pursue some learning goals and develop skills that are not directly aligned with team needs as long as directly relevant skills are being developed. For example, in one small organization, the leadership team instructed every team member to take a class or learn something that had no direct relationship to their job as long as they reported back what they learned to the entire team. Although this approach is unique and may not work with every organization, some version of this approach can serve as a great way to keep employees engaged in learning.
One of the most difficult aspects of continuous learning is finding ways for employees to share knowledge and to ensure that the organization benefits from individual employee knowledge. Though broad in nature, the ITIL 4 practice of Knowledge Management addresses the issue of knowledge appropriability (making knowledge useful to the organization) and the transference of knowledge from the head and onto paper.
How to Put Knowledge to Work: Creating a Culture of Continuous Learning
In theory, continuous learning sounds like a winning proposition. In reality, creating a culture of continuous learning can take a long time and involves a multi-pronged approach. Now that you know the key aspects of continuous learning, how do you put the knowledge to work? Here are some great ideas we have seen work well:
- Leadership Commitment – Leaders at all levels of the organization need to voice and demonstrate commitment to continuous learning. This means engaging in continuous training and learning opportunities themselves (not just sending their teams to training but going themselves). It also means funding training programs, clearly voicing what sorts of skills the organization needs, and giving managers flexibility in how to execute continuous learning.
- Work with your Executives – Executives often understand the value of learning from a 50,000-foot view, but they do not always know the specific areas where the organization is lacking or where it can benefit. When vision is not coming from the executive level (and even when it is), leaders throughout the organization can guide executives in terms of what is needed “on the ground”.
- Work with Human Resources – Human Resources leaders often get bogged down in policies and paperwork. They do not always know what skills are needed to make the organization successful. Become a partner with Human Resources. Help transform HR into Human Capital and Talent Management by collaborating on needed skills and advocating for career paths in new domains.
- Evangelize Digital Technology Opportunities – In the current economy, digital technology poses both threats and opportunities for organizations. Yet, not all organizations understand the digital technologies that are changing their industries. It is especially important for IT (and digital information) leaders to keep leaders apprised of emerging technologies and ensure that employees have skills to take advantage of the opportunities they present.
- Provide great tools – A wide range of tools exist to support continuous learning. At one end of the spectrum this includes learning management systems and technologies that delivery both asynchronous and synchronous skill-based training. But it also includes IT service management software, knowledge management systems and knowledge repositories, known error databases, Kanban boards, “war rooms,” and training delivered by third party vendors.
- Build learning into performance reviews – Not surprisingly, employees tend to focus on aspects of performance that are measured in evaluations. Skill-building, training, and adaptability should be included as part of employee and team performance reviews. Continuous learning goals should ideally be a combination of those defined by employees themselves, their teams, and those identified by managers.
- Give employees time to train, learn, and job shadow – Some organizations claim to value employee learning and training but provide no time for employees to pursue learning opportunities. Not surprisingly, when time is not set aside, most employees find themselves too busy with daily duties to focus on more structured (or unstructured) learning. After purchasing a learning management system, one client gave each Service Desk agent enough time to attend at least one hour of online training every week as long as it was somewhat relevant to the organization. The result? 30% of the Service Desk agents acquired skills that allowed them to successfully move to other areas of IT, and 100% of staff learned something that helped improve how they did their job. In addition to formal training, informal job shadowing and cross-training can serve as other important ways for employees to learn. Give people not only the tools, but the time to make it happen.
- Encourage Teams to incorporate learning every day – Team learning can take the form of group training and retreats. But it can also take the form of morning meetings, daily scrums, team retrospectives, post implementation reviews, and weekly debriefs. It is our job as leaders to create an environment in which knowledge, learning, and experimentation can be tried, shared, and used to help our people, teams, and organization get better over time.
- Establish a Customer Learning Practice – Understanding the customer experience is one of the cornerstones of successful digital businesses. For many organizations, learning from customers is the most important aspect of continuous learning. The Customer Learning Practice can include a multitude of domains and employees from various specializations from Channel Marketing to Product Design to Sales.
- Establish a Market Intelligence Practice – Make sure your team understands where customer preferences, the market, and competitors are moving. Though it shouldn’t be our only focus, competitors can be successful in areas where we have failed and there is much to be learned. Erase a competitor’s “first mover” advantage by learning from their failures and imitating them or creating an alternative product or service.
Hire for Tomorrow’s Skills
When hiring, many organizations place too much emphasis on finding candidates who have skills to do today’s job. To be sure, doing today’s job is important. But it is important to also consider hiring employees that show a dedication to lifelong learning, to adaptability, and who have or can easily learn the skills needed for tomorrow. For example, one of our clients, a major hotel and hospitality company, routinely needs to hire employees with “bread and butter” IT skills (programming, server maintenance, networking, etc.). However, given the importance of customer data to their industry, several years ago they began to hire employees with business intelligence and data analytics skills to slowly build their data analytics practice.
AWS Certified Solutions Architect
Certified Ethical Hacker
Certified Information Security Systems Professional (CISSP)
CISCO Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
CISCO Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC)
MSCE Core Infrastructure
The Future of Continuous Learning and Training
It comes as no surprise that the future of many formal training classes will be online, real-time, and interactive. The trend towards distance education existed prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic, but current circumstances will likely accelerate this trend.
Not all online learning is the same, though, and it is important to choose a provider that has years of experience delivering captivating and interactive real-time education both in-person and online. Beyond20 offers a variety of training and consulting services (both in-person and remotely) that provide details on and practice using several of the continuous learning tools and techniques mentioned in this article. You can see the full list of courses here. I also recommend checking out our article on, “4 Reasons to Consider Taking a Virtual Training Class this Month (and 4 Questions to Ask Virtual Training Providers)”