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Training: The Not-so-secret Weapon of the Modern Enterprise

Even in 2019, a time of non-stop technological change, training is still sometimes treated as an expense of debatable value. We all know the standard arguments to push back against that thinking. We can easily speak at length about how training leads to improvements in productivity, performance, innovation, turnover rates and so on. But perhaps the time has come for us to structure our message differently.

When we make our case for training, we usually put the tangible, observable benefits at the beginning of the argument. After all, problems with productivity and quality tend to show up pretty quickly on a corporate spreadsheet. Increasingly, though, it’s clear that we need to say more about training’s effect on employee engagement. In fact, it might be time to start leading with that idea. In the continuing battle to attract and retain talent, training has become the not-so-secret weapon for earning the loyalty of the people we bring on board. To put it bluntly, competing effectively in the digital age requires an enterprise to think at least as much about its people as it does about its products.

This point was central to LinkedIn’s 2019 Workforce Learning Report, in which an astonishing 94% of respondents said they would stay longer with a company if it invested in their learning and development. New research from The Harris Poll and Instructure provides some deeper insights into the issue: In short, while employers believe they are providing generously for staff development, employees disagree — sometimes bitterly.

According to the study, 70% of workers in the U.S. are “at least somewhat likely” to leave their employer for one with the reputation of investing in training their employees. Employers are aware of the hunger for training, but they appear to be missing the mark when it comes to addressing it. Ninety-eight percent “of employers say they offer career development tools,” but just 26% of employees say their employers’ tools do “very well” at delivering training. Even more evidence of employee frustration, 77% of employees say they feel alone and unsupported in their development.

The LinkedIn research suggests that improvements in employee engagement are directly proportional to the employer’s commitment to workplace learning. Among respondents who spend at least five hours learning each week, 74% reported feeling confident about their career path, 47% said they feel less stressed at work and 48% said they feel a sense of purpose in their work.

An employee’s sense of purpose and direction is difficult to measure, and most employers don’t spend much time worrying about it. But when the emotional engagement of the employee is ignored or dismissed, the effects can be catastrophic to the enterprise. In 2018, Gartner’s “Global Talent Monitor” found that only 15% of employees reported a high level of discretionary effort (“a willingness to go above and beyond at work”). The bad news continued: “Only 8% of the global labor force reports high discretionary effort and a high intent to stay — suggesting the vast majority of employees are ‘quitting in their seats.’”

In the pre-digital era, organizations could replace their mediocre performers. Today, it’s less of an option. Additional research from Gartner states that “global talent shortage is now the top emerging risk facing organizations.” This shortage is hampering businesses’ ability to address other risk factors, such as cloud adoption, data privacy and security.

Since hiring for in-demand skills is difficult (not to mention expensive), the solution is obvious. Gartner concludes, “Companies need to shift from external hiring strategies towards training their current workforces and applying risk mitigation strategies for critical talent shortages.”

All of this research leads to some common-sense conclusions: Training does more than upgrade necessary skills. It helps attract and retain good employees. It increases the potential of your top performers. It even introduces the possibility of unlocking motivation and passion in weak performers, possibly for the first time in their careers.

In the world of precarious employment, paychecks no longer buy engagement or loyalty. Today’s professionals are looking for evidence that their employer cares enough to invest in their future. By investing in ongoing training, today’s enterprise is really investing in itself.

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