5 Myths About Employee Learning

The vice dean of Wharton’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education discusses common misperceptions about corporate education—and how to get beyond them.

By Monica McGrath May 1, 2015
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May Cover Twenty-five years ago, Peter Senge, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, was the first scholar to talk about the concept of a “learning organization” and the critical importance of learning for businesses. “It is through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it,” he said. “Through learning, we extend our capacity to create.” Senge’s point was that organizations that don’t realign themselves to the opportunities that learning provides are not going to keep up. That’s as true today as it was 25 years ago.

Often, breakthrough learning occurs when an organization goes through dramatic change, prompting leaders to take the time to uncover what is not working when their company is struggling, or even failing. Yet many organizations are finding that dealing with the challenges posed by an increasingly complex global economy and advances in technology requires most of their time and energy, stifling opportunities to build a learning culture. Building such an environment, however, could not be more critical than it is right now because of those very complexities.

HR practitioners can be vital partners in developing effective corporate learning programs within their organizations. Your role is to define the value of the learning experience.

Below are five myths about learning and insights that debunk them. Do these statements ring true for your organization?

Our employees don’t have time to engage in learning programs, especially if it takes them away from work.

Leaders with vast responsibilities will tell you that they learn the most when they have time to think about their work, their challenges and their values. Getting away from the day-to-day demands and experimenting with ideas has a value that may be hard to quantify. At work, employees find themselves bombarded with continuous e-mails, tweets, meetings and information overload that distract them from learning. Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco have even found that this constant stimuli hurts short- and long-term memory.

The most powerful learning experiences require all aspects of the learner to be engaged, so effective learning needs to be designed for “the heart, the mind and the feet.” In other words, organizations must create programs that stimulate learners emotionally, intellectually and behaviorally.

Examine the learning experiences you offer to your workforce and help employees see why time spent learning will add to their value and to the value of the organization.

myth2.jpg If we offer our high-potential employees learning experiences, they will take that learning and leave.

This is a common fear—but what is really happening when you lose a high-potential employee? People leave when they don’t have the opportunity to practice, to innovate, to experiment with new learning and new ideas. The real question is, “Do we have an environment, a climate, where learning is valued?”

Silicon Valley is the perfect example of the kind of place where organizations are on the edge of learning all the time. Businesses are focused on innovation and competition, and the corporate cultures support and value learning—it is a competitive advantage.

People who learn and leave hurt the organization not because they are taking intellectual property or competitive information but rather because they are taking a mindset, and knowledge drives results.

To be effective, learning needs to be experiential, not theoretical.

Effective learning is both. Organizations must embrace the experiential part of learning and give learners opportunities to apply theories based on evidence. Employees want learning that is applicable to their day-to-day challenges. HR professionals must grapple with this duality. If theories are too simplistic or overly pedantic, learners lose interest and check out. Being a leader in today’s business world is daunting, and being in an environment that helps deepen our understanding of business realities, and what to do about them, is both exciting and stimulating.

Take decision-making theory, for example. As we start to look at the number of decisions leaders make every day and examine how they came to each decision, we begin to deepen our understanding of the role personal bias plays in virtually every decision we make. That’s when the classroom comes alive. When people walk through the evidence and reflect on their own decision-making, it’s surprising. Everyone has a practical takeaway. The next decision he or she makes will be much more informed.

Employees learn best online because they don’t have to worry about looking stupid in front of their peers.

Creating learning experiences in the classroom and on the job gives learners a chance to let down their guard and actively engage in learning. Among executives, there is a subtle, often unspoken sentiment that they have a lot more to lose if they show that they still have things to learn. At Wharton’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education, when we get a group of senior executives in a classroom of peers, their image and self-importance often accompanies them into the room. I often wonder if the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is driven partly by the reluctance of many adults to reveal just how much they don’t know.

But there are a lot of questions about the effectiveness of MOOCs. A recent study by MIT and Harvard found that only 5 percent of the more than 841,600 people who registered for online courses earned a certificate of completion in two years. While it might be convenient to learn away from peers—and reduce initial awkwardness—MOOCs do not capitalize on the richness of learning from others and of reflecting on one’s unique approach to leading. A well-designed online program includes interaction between teams, small groups and faculty.

To be a learning organization, we need an initiative around it.

At many organizations, a large number of new initiatives are rolled out in conjunction with the latest trend in training. Learning is not something you can package into a program; it’s part of an organization’s culture. It is something you must do every day. To think that someone can operate in a leadership role without learning from his or her mistakes and embracing new ideas is shortsighted. Leaders learn from their experiences, as researchers Michael Lombardo, Morgan McCall and Ann Morrison detail in their book,The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job (Free Press, 1988). They found that one of the key reasons executives were derailed on the job was that they quit learning.

Case Study: Google Marketing Academy

To build on Google’s innovative learning culture, Wharton’s executive education program teamed up with the search engine giant to create the Google Marketing Academy. The goal of the academy is to “get out of our own selves and really understand the world outside our own company,” says Suzanne Martin, head of global people development, brand and marketing at Google.

In the past six years, the academy has hosted nearly 1,000 “Googlers”—the company’s name for its employees—for a six-month program that includes two live sessions and an on-the-job practicum. “At Google, we believe learning is a process, it’s not an event. It involves feedback, reflection and practice and happens over time,” Martin says.

Google leaders also take the approach that learning is social. “We learn from others and through teaching others and find support in community. Everyone who comes to Google comes with a learning hat and a teacher hat—they have to teach as much as they learn,” Martin says, referring to the company’s g2g, or “Googler to Googler,” program that puts employees in teaching roles.

Maybe the final myth is this: HR professionals are experts in learning, so they don’t need to know anything more about it. As talent management experts, HR must be role models for learning. In fact, no matter how successful and innovative you are, it is critical to think about and reflect on your own approach to learning and to determine if your organization demonstrates a culture that rewards and values people who learn.

Monica McGrath is vice dean for the Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She is also an adjunct associate professor of management. McGrath has taught and coached senior executives for more than 20 years.

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