As organizations and institutions all take a long hard look in the mirror and decide how we need to move forward during these on-going crises (racial, social justice, economic, health, etc.) the focus should not be on training people how to stay in line. The focus should be on teaching people how to learn and think. Yes, we can (and should) create training on the importance of wearing masks and following policies that prohibit racism and discrimination, but that is not enough. The aspiration should not be a workforce that only makes the right decisions because of rules and policies. The goal should be a workforce that deeply understands the spirit and intent of those rules and policies—people who wear masks because they care about the well-being of others; people who, through their language and actions, promote inclusion; and people who actively fight against racism because they fundamentally understand that it is good and right to do so. As we yet again confront our long history of systemic racism, how our organizations and workforce learn will be crucial.

Ensuring that a workforce is continuously learning was already important prior to our current state of crises, and now it’s more important than ever. As we all adapt to our new challenges and environments, it is critical that organizations have people at every structural level who can analyze situations, think critically, and make sound judgements. The way to make that happen is through aggressive learning and development. As Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston put it, “The point isn’t to know; the point is to remember to keep learning like crazy as we are taking action.”

And as Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri pointed out recently in the Harvard Business Review, “Like all major crises, and perhaps more than most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to leave behind lasting changes in the way work and business take place. Learning will be the foundation of our survival, then, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up.” 

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do.

A learning organization does more than provide training for its workforce. Training, while essential, is not enough. A true learning organization establishes a culture and structure for learning. In learning organizations, leaders and HR professionals do more than just encourage learning; they expect it of everyone—at every level. In doing so, it enables the organization to be adaptable and consistently make innovative, strategic changes. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines a learning organization as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do. Learning and development is how to cultivate a culture of anti-racism, instill self-awareness, promote social justice, and help people understand the concept of a social contract. The power of learning and development is evidenced in improved recruitment and retention, innovation and productivity, and enriching health and wellness.

Recruitment and Retention

Organizations that ignore or underestimate the importance of the human need to grow do so at their own peril. Leaders and HR professionals must make it clear to their workforce that learning and development is expected and then nurture that development. Doing so will attract high potentials and retain high performers. Proactive learners with growth mindsets are the people we all need most right now—people who can quickly develop new skills, actively look for gnarly problems they can solve, and when crises hit, they stand on the frontline alert and equipped for the challenge. To have that frontline, learning and development must be a priority.

You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

The 2019 LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Report found that 94% of employees “would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development,” and Payscale’s 2019 Compensation Practices Report found that 59% of organizations provide learning and development opportunities as a retention tactic. Providing high quality learning opportunities for a workforce works. The right people—the people who can make a lasting and positive impact—gravitate to that kind of community and generally speaking they stay there. 

Most critically, “The right people” means people from diverse backgrounds. Recruiting with diversity in mind is one thing, but if organizations are not consistently and vigorously developing their workforce to be able to analyze and evaluate their surroundings through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, we will never move forward meaningfully. That is the only way any organization will be able to foster inclusion and therefore retain a diverse workforce. Diversity, social justice, empathy, or emotional intelligence are not classes to be ticked off in someone’s personnel file. Those subjects, along with many more, are an unending education.

Innovation and Productivity

The call for innovation and continuous improvement is ubiquitous. Well before our current set of harrowing crises, it seemed companies everywhere were putting great effort into strategic initiatives that promote those ideals. It is common in many cultures to push workers to embody ingenuity and creative problem solving. The reality is that it is unreasonable to ask anyone to be innovative if you do not have a culture and structure that supports learning. You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

Fundamental to creating any structure for success is teaching people how to learn. Exploration is critical here. Yes, acquiring knowledge is important, but it is at least equally important to discover what you don’t know. Implicit bias is a key contributor to structural and systemic racism. It is imperative that we encourage people to explore as they learn—question assumptions, learn from other disciplines, and listen to diverse perspectives. 

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow.

When a supervisor requires that a direct report justify how a learning opportunity is directly related to their job, an acceptable response might be, “I don’t know yet. That’s what I’m trying to find out.” One might argue that if the connection between a learning opportunity and someone’s current job is explicit before they participate, it’s simply training. Discovery, ingenuity, inspiration, that eureka moment—those things happen at a different level of learning. Let new ideas and perspectives into your organization. That’s how to make progress, do better, and move forward.

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow. A binary approach to learning that hopes to educate a workforce by explicating right from wrong will do nothing to build a workforce that can think critically about issues, nor does it have the health and well-being of that workforce in mind. 

Holistic Health and Wellness

For years, many organizations have been providing benefits packages that not only include good insurance, but robust preventative care as well. For savvy job seekers, counselors, mediators, and wellness professionals are table stakes. The next evolution in showcasing wellness is to include learning and development in the package.

…learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Continuous learning has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and dementia. Human beings need to learn. We crave it. When that desire is stymied, we begin to collapse mentally. People will quickly become disengaged and ambivalent about an environment that does not challenge them mentally. Any organization interested in retaining their best and brightest should be in a constant scramble to provide a continuous stream of learning opportunities for their workforce. HR departments who understand the importance of wellness, should also understand that learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Moving Forward

We are all currently responding to crises, but change does not only have to happen as a response or reaction. Change can also come about proactively. We do have it within our power to get ahead of problems—do the right thing before we are confronted with trauma, pain, and violence. We must be agile; not only adapting to change but initiating it. At every level of any workforce, people should be striving to be pioneers of change not victims of it. To do that you must have a workforce that consistently looks at everything around them critically, questioning why things are done the way they are, and discussing how they can do something better.

Ethics is nuanced and not something that can be conveyed through training. Any given situation has an infinite number of variables to navigate. Growing and doing better—progress—means constantly reassessing what those variables mean and how they apply to the world around us. That’s no simple task. That’s a heavy lift that calls for heavy-duty tools. Those cognitive tools are forged through learning and development.

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