"Whatever type of learning we put in front of people, it has to be 'sticky' and it has to be second nature, or it won't be effective," Marsen says.
How can organizations make learning stick? By letting their people put the skills they learn into practice, experts say. For instance, when leaders at Allies for Health + Wellbeing make strategic or departmental decisions, they evaluate how the decisions reflect the core leadership values they learned about in previous sessions.
Think of it like learning a new language. The best way to learn it is to use it.
"If people go through all the time and energy to build new skills, they need to be able to apply that in their jobs as soon as possible," Minudri says.
Not enough employees get that opportunity, however. While 97 percent of employees say they would learn a new skill if given the opportunity, only 39 percent believe their organization helps them understand how needed skills apply to their own context, Gartner experts report. Employees in the TalentLMS and SHRM survey say the No. 1 way that training could be more effective is by aligning it with job responsibilities.
Learning-by-doing should happen first in risk-free spaces where employees can try new skills and get immediate feedback. "Create experiences that mirror the real world as closely as possible and allow learners to practice and fail in a safe space," Klosson says.
To put training into practice, companies must carefully time the training, according to Marla Capozzi, a partner and leader in McKinsey Academy, a unit of McKinsey that builds leadership and front-line capabilities. Trainings should be scheduled so they're followed by work that allows people to use their new skills. "That helps with a tighter integration between work and learning," Capozzi says.
"It's not about two- or three-day events," she adds. "It's about what can be accomplished over the next three to nine months of learning and applying it at the same time."
Well-timed training also helps companies pivot at moments of organizational change. "Leaders can use learning and development to say, 'We'll equip you with the skills to lead the organization into the future,' " Capozzi says.
Learning is an investment not only in people, but also in the business—especially when labor is tight and turnover is high.
Learning should develop professionals, not just deliver skills. And companies with the best learning programs develop people beyond their current roles. By preparing their people for both present and future work, companies create a learning culture that offers an enticing value proposition to their employees, Capozzi finds.
More than 80 percent of employee moves involve someone switching from one employer to another, according to McKinsey. Amid record attrition rates, employers can retain workers by helping them expand their skills—within the organization.
"For many people, development usually means advancement. But it's not just about how I become more promotable but how I increase my value to the company," says Bill Thomas, managing principal of the HR consulting firm Centric Performance in Pittsburgh. The best way to increase employee value, he adds, is not by elevating responsibilities but by broadening skill sets.
IBM opens up its learning offerings to all employees so they can explore new careers within the company—so, for example, someone in HR can learn about artificial intelligence. IBM employees who have the most learning hours are 20 percent more likely to move into new roles and 44 percent more likely to get promoted, Minudri says.