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Many companies slashed corporate learning budgets when the economy crashed. But can employee development initiatives truly be tossed aside without consequence?
At the Human Capital Institute (HCI) Learning and Leadership Development Conference, held last week in Boston, HR leaders and experts correlated learning and employee development initiatives with higher employee engagement, retention, customer satisfaction and revenue. Viewed in this light, it seems the C-suite should pay more attention to employee development.
Although budgets have been restored somewhat since the economic downturn, dollars and resources are still limited and need to be allocated wisely. So what employee development trends should HR managers bear in mind when planning learning strategies? Three themes emerged during the conference: increased focus on the development of Generation Y workers, the importance of company culture and the rise of peer-to-peer and continuous learning models.
Millennials crave meaning and flexibility in work
It's still important to develop executives and employees in the pipeline to assume executive roles, but many companies are also concentrating on the newest wave of workers: Generation Y.
While Mike Welsh, onboarding programs manager at Facebook, identified three generations in the company's workforce; he said the social media service provider is mainly focused on driving Generation Y employee development since founder Mark Zuckerberg is himself a millennial. Welsh also falls into this category.
When considering millennial employee development, it's important to understand how the generation thinks about work, according to Welsh. While work-life balance is not a new concept, Millennials view work flexibility differently, as the distinction between work and personal life disappears.
"[For] Generation Y, butt-to-chair ratio doesn't matter. Where the work occurs doesn't matter," he said. Using himself as an example, Welsh said he occasionally works on weeknights and comes in a few hours late on traditional workdays. He encouraged his peers to be open to anywhere, anytime work policies.
Welsh also pointed out that having meaningful work is especially crucial to Generation Y workers. "Identity is very important ... and career is part of the expression. When I work on a project, it is an expression of myself, [and] I get a sense of personal fulfillment," he said. Welsh cited Capstrat survey data that found 72% of millennials are willing to sacrifice compensation for a more personally fulfilling career.
With this in mind, Facebook actively fosters meaning at work in a number of ways. For instance, performance reviews are designed to amplify strengths instead of identify weaknesses. "There are two questions that are asked: How did [you] have impact, and how can you have more impact? [So], it's what did you do well, and how can you magnify that?" While formal compensation reviews occur twice a year, Welsh said employees have one-on-one performance discussions with managers on a weekly basis.
Another way Facebook tries to create meaningful work is through promoting ownership and autonomy. The phrase "this is now your company" is painted on the wall of the onboarding room, Welsh said.
Culture is critical in employee development
"Carefully cultivated culture is no longer optional," said Andrew Benett, global president of Havas Worldwide, and it seems business leaders agree. According to Havas research, 97% of senior executives think strong culture can be a company's most valuable asset.
Similar to Welsh's point about Generation Y workers craving meaningful work, Benett said meaning is a key component of culture, regardless of generation.
"While this is very much a millennial mindset, people want to work for a purpose-driven company," he said. "[And] those aren't just companies that save the world. They want to feel what they're doing will have some impact."
But while many organizations equate culture with corporate values, Benett stressed that simply defining and paying lip service to core principles is not enough. "The notion of people development has to be pervasive throughout the company [and] something the CEO lives and breathes," he said. "If it's not, it will never become [an] agenda item."
Culture is also created by physical and virtual work environments, according to Suzanne Martin, Google Americas' head of sales people development. "At Google, we think that the space matters," Martin said.
To facilitate delivery on Google's core principles of "10x thinking" and "moonshots" -- dreaming big and taking risks -- the company built "The Garage," a workspace where everything is on wheels, and power outlets hang down from the ceiling so people charging electronics aren't forced to huddle near walls. "Make it collaborative, make it fun and make it flexible," Martin said.
Online spaces can foster meaning as well. "Build communities of people, because those experiences really help people feel they're part of something bigger than themselves," Martin said. "We use Google Plus, which allows us to have hangouts and video chats with each other."
Peer-to-peer and continuous learning models on the rise
On the final day of the conference, David Forman, HCI's chief learning officer, predicted that peer-to-peer learning will increase in importance in coming years. In his view, user-generated learning content could act as a "Wikipedia for the organization."
At Google, the peer-to-peer learning model is already firmly entrenched.
"Ideas come from everywhere -- not just Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin]," Martin said. So employees are "given a clear message that they are responsible for their development and also responsible for the development of others.
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"Eighty percent of the training we do is internally led -- Googler to Googler," she added.
Similarly, Welsh encouraged his peers to "connect people with something to learn to those with something to teach." Facebook groups provide a gathering spot for such employee communities at his organization.
The idea of continuous learning is also starting to gain ground. Instead of looking at training as a singular event, speakers stressed that companies should provide employees learning opportunities on a regular basis.
"Everything we do should be to enhance the employability of the individuals that work for us," said Lesley Hoare, vice president of human capital management transformation and thought leadership at Oracle. "And forget about thinking, 'Why should I build somebody's resume, because they're just going to leave?' How do we keep them connected?"
This argument is precisely why many business leaders are hesitant to invest too much in employee training. But according to Benett, it's a moot point in today's market. "It's no longer getting people to stay -- that's pushing water uphill," he said. "The trend is that people will collect work experiences."
However, this isn't a reason to slash employee development budgets -- in fact, Benett argued the opposite. Bearing in mind that employees are keen to build skills, the extent to which an employer can provide learning opportunities will increase engagement and job satisfaction. And this will not only have a positive effect on an employer's perception, it will also make employees better at their jobs during their tenure at the company, he said.