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The importance of continuous learning

It is more important now, than ever before, for our employees to embrace continuous learning. The average job today will look completely different in a few years.

The importance of continuous learning
January 18, 2021
The importance of continuous learning

Original publication of this article is available in the HR Trends whitepaper 2021. Download it for free for inspiring visions and interviews from Joris Peumans (geneHRations), Carmina Coenen (Salesforce), Günther Ghijsels (Randstad Belgium), Omar Mohout (Sirris) and so many others.

Download the whitepaper on the geneHRatations website (in Dutch).

It is more important now, than ever before, for our employees to embrace continuous learning. The average job today will look completely different in a few years. However, simply investing in training is not enough. You also need to be sure that the learning method is effective.

“Companies worldwide pay billions of dollars for training, but do they know whether their employees can actually apply the acquired knowledge in the workplace?”, asks Raf Seymus, founder of Stellar Labs, a start-up that provides evidence-based company trainings. Raf was frustrated in his previous company with not being able to measure observable results from their training courses. “Research shows employees remember barely 20% of the material covered in standard classroom training. The results are even more disheartening for e-learning.”

Raf explored research from neuroscience, psychology and educational sciences and, he decided to take the bull by the horns with Stellar Labs. “We didn’t need to re-invent the wheel. A lot of research had already been conducted on the way our brains convert knowledge into skills, especially in the last fifty years. We know that learning requires a specific approach, with a lot of repetition. Despite this being common knowledge, we just don’t apply it in a business context.”

Nevertheless, companies have a lot to gain, as the digital divide among employees is only increasing. “On the one hand, we don’t have enough specialists, because of a lack of graduates in STEM disciplines. On the other hand, people must develop new digital skills to be able to work in technology companies. The jobs of tomorrow do not exist yet, so there are no training courses preparing for them either.”

Is all training bad?

“Some courses are certainly useful, but they can become much more effective by applying a different methodology. You can make a big investment in a good-looking learning platform, but it is not an effective one if your employees don’t make use of it. It’s also important that people understand what they have to gain from a training for themselves. If they don’t see the point of it, they won’t learn very much. So, make sure the ‘why’ of a training is always clear.”

“A different mindset is also needed, among the people who provide training. They must guide participants and stimulate interaction, but more in the role of a coach or facilitator, rather than as an expert. It comes down to people having to get to work themselves.”

In the last few months, companies had little to no choice: almost all training is organised virtually.

“I think a lot of companies were panicking, for example by purchasing subscriptions on a variety of learning platforms. But unfortunately, that won’t be enough. You can achieve quite a bit with online sessions, but it requires a specific approach. If you don’t involve people sufficiently and don’t actively engage them, they will fall asleep after ten minutes. Captivating videos can certainly be useful, but you can’t really expect anyone to be staring at a screen for hours. Just because you watch various videos by Jeroen Meus, doesn’t mean that you immediately know how to cook. You have to practice the knowledge learned.”

“That is often the issue with online platforms. People don’t actively work on them. Messing up and making mistakes is a big part of the learning process. If you learn something but do not repeat or apply it for over a week, the connection in your brain will be gone and you’ll have to start all over. On top of that, we are social creatures, which is why it’s helpful to hear the experiences of others. That’s why we want to get the most out of the time people spend learning with our methodology. Don’t look at what’s efficient for the company, but at what employees need to apply their knowledge in the workplace. Organizations currently focus far too little on the results of training, turning them into wasted money.”

Can you give an example of a technique you apply?

“The concept of thorough repetition has been researched extensively. We know how to repeat learning material at certain intervals, to embed concepts from your short-term into your long-term memory. You can build this strategy into an algorithm in a tool for asking questions. If the participant answers correctly, the question will return later in a different format. Everything we build is modular, so people can learn, practice and eventually master the material step by step. That’s how we build a gradually increasing complexity, right up to the desired level.”

How important are certificates to provide acknowledgement to people in this kind of learning process?

“I am a big supporter of certificates, but they have to be credible. Getting a badge is fun for two seconds, but after that you forget about it. Gamification has its limits. A proper certificate, that is earned by hard work and isn’t easily achieved by just about everyone, is much more valuable.”

But doesn’t this type of certificate need to be accepted by an entire sector to have credibility?

“Not necessarily. It is certainly a benefit if the sector acknowledges the certificate, but it all depends on how seriously you approach it as a company. That is why we also involve the trainers and the managers in the process. To be able to validate skills, an organization must test people correctly. It is not enough to reply to a couple of questions. Employees must prove in practice what they can do before they receive a certificate. If you handle this properly as an organisation, the market will acknowledge after some time that the certificates are very valuable.”

Which competences are crucial for employees in the coming years?

“There are three competences that companies should concentrate on. Over the past year we have seen how important  it is to be resilient. People suddenly had to work from home and sometimes it has been quite difficult to embrace such a big change. You want employees to take action and to continue to feel confident with any changes that occur. Fortunately, resilience can be trained.”

“A second competency is all about learning agility. How can you learn flexibly and take control of your own learning process, to deal with the changes coming towards you more effectively? We all think that we can learn because we’ve done it successfully in university. But we never learned how to learn effectively, which is more than just memorizing a course by heart. We will constantly need to learn and upskill, so it’s a huge benefit to your career if you have mastered this competence.”

“Finally, there is creativity, which can also be trained within a certain context. Anyone who can think out of the box, will manage to apply lessons learnt from one domain in another.”

Do you notice a difference in the way start-ups and large companies organise training?

“Start-ups have the advantage of being able to make decisions more rapidly and are often more hands-on. On the other hand, they usually are not profitable yet, causing the focus to be on survival. I know the pressure of having to constantly show results. There is not always the same amount of attention to training. But small businesses that are already profitable, can attract and retain employees by investing in training programs. Employees who continue to learn are also more productive, happier and more committed.”

Employee demand for training is increasing – do you think companies make enough time for training?

“Training courses should originate from a collaboration between the employer and employee. Younger generations in particular consider training opportunities a very important factor in their negotiations with a potential employer. Nobody today wants to start working for a company to do the exact same thing for ten years in a row. I think tremendous progress has already been made, but often there hasn’t been a big enough investment in training.”

“The lack of measurable results is one of the main reasons why companies may have been cautious and held back. We are at a tipping point today however, due to COVID-19 causing a rapid change in mentality. Training costs a lot of money, but employers are starting to realize that training can be much more beneficial for both the company and the employees when using the right approach.”

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