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February 26, 2021

What is Workplace Learning?

Mind Tools for Business

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Learning at work

Workplace learning helps people build the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs. That could be picking up something in the flow of work, or developing to advance their careers.

Short or long-term, learning motivates people – and provides organizations with the workforce needed to perform better and adapt to future challenges.

Why learning in the workplace is important

With the rise of technology such as artificial intelligence and automation, many organizations sense an urgent need to up- or re-skill their workforces. McKinsey reports that 87 percent of executives have existing or imminent skill gaps. [1]

But learning doesn’t just build skills, it motivates people too. The opportunity to learn and develop is the most important driver in employee happiness after the nature of their job. [2]

This is backed up by our 2020 learner intelligence research report which asked people what motivates them to learn at work – pre and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s the top five:

  1. To do my job faster and better
  2. General career progression
  3. To keep up with new technology/Improve my qualifications
  4. To be eligible for promotion
  5. To improve my earning power

It is worth hearing your learners out. Organizations with engaged learners are 12% more likely to increase on-the-job productivity and 28% more likely to respond faster to changing market conditions. [3]

Types of workplace learning

Traditionally, workplace learning falls broadly into two camps:

  • Formal or structured learning such as classroom teaching, e-learning or MOOCs which guide the learner.
  • Informal or unstructured learning that enables people to learn what they want, when they want to. Like online resources such as articles, videos and podcasts.

But the two types of learning often overlap. A formal course, for example, may include a video that learners can watch on their own time. Or employees can dip into an e-learning module when it suits them.

Today, many organizations favor a blend of formal and informal, synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (any time) learning.

And it works. Studies show employees with access to a blend of activities are more motivated to learn than those with access to one approach. What’s more, blended approaches prove more effective at putting learning into practice. [4]

Modern workplace learning

Before COVID-19 changed everything, workplace learning was already moving on. Organizations realized learners don't have to sit in classrooms. And employees were reaching for their smartphones to learn ‘in the flow of work.’

In fact, the use of digital learning tools has more than doubled in the last 10 years. And from 2018 to 2020, classroom and face-to-face learning decreased by 6% while online learning increased by 5%. [5]

Unsurprisingly, 2020 saw digital jump further with spikes in e-learning courses, live online learning such as webinars, and the use of online performance support tools. [6]

Despite this, 90% of organizations don’t reap the benefits of their digital investments. But they still plan to invest more – even though they don’t know why it’s not working! [7]

How to create a learning culture in your organization

So, how can you see success from your workplace learning activities? Our research reveals that top organizations*:

  • Make resources easy to find – and inspiring. 91% have banks of online learning content for ‘self-determined’ learners to access (compared to the 28% average).
  • Nudge learners. During the pandemic, employees are twice as likely to access work-related resources when alerted with emails and other updates.
  • Empower managers. Managers are most likely to inspire people to learn – almost twice as much colleagues who rank second. [8]

As these trends reveal, top-performing organizations set the stage for learning to happen, then step back. They give learners autonomy, encourage them to learn at a time that suits, and trust employees to follow their own development journey.

That journey can take formal or informal routes or a mix that works best for people. Get the balance right and employees will bring the skills needed for organizations to stay relevant – now and in the future. Discover more ways to create a learning culture in your organization.

*The top-performing 10% of organizations from our data sample.

[1] McKinsey and Company, ‘Beyond hiring: How companies are reskilling to address talent gaps’ (2020). Available here.
[2] Josh Bersin, ‘New Research Shows "Heavy Learners" More Confident, Successful, and Happy at Work’ (2018). Available here.
[3],[5],[7] Back to the Future: Why tomorrow's workforce needs a learning culture. Available to download here.
[4],[6],[8] Learner Intelligence Report (2020). Available to download here.

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