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Increased productivity supported by learning

How can we who work with learning contribute more to the development of the business? How to contribute to things that management is talking about; productivity, continuous improvement and innovation?

To do this, we need to look beyond training and instead concentrate on the ability of employees to contribute to the business. We participate in the design of processes, systems and organization. We engage in leadership, culture and employee experience.

Let me start with a background. I have previously described the growing gap in profitability between high-performing companies and others. In May, a new study showed further widening gaps. In 2010, the top fifth earned 40% more than average companies. Today, the difference is 270%.

The development has been going on throughout the 21st century with a downward trend in average and an increasingly accelerated development for the peak that you can see in the picture. This polarization of profitability (and also market capitalization) over the past 5 years is, of course, something that every management thinks about.

As I have highlighted in previous articles, the differences are largely about learning. By that I do not mean courses, but learning that takes place all the time, built into the work, depending on how we design work, organization, culture and leadership. That which is value creating and that clearly affects productivity and innovation.

For me, it is a natural development that those of us who work with learning also take ownership of these issues and start addressing them today.

In two articles I describe how we who work with learning can actively contribute to increased productivity, continuous improvement and innovation. In this first article, I focus on productivity.

How learning contributes to increased productivity

Productivity is defined as the value we create per hour worked. It increases as we automate the work. In industry for example, productivity has increased by almost 350% since the 1980s. Today, however, 2/3 of our GDP is based on services, which is very much tied to people. That productivity has only increased by 75%.

One reason is the difficulty of embracing new technologies. Although most people got a PC on the table in the late 1980s, it took until the early 2000s before we could see a stronger productivity trend. It’s the same now. We are introducing a lot of new technologies but are seeing weak productivity growth. We do not really manage to use and exploit the new technology.

Many of us have for example, Microsoft 365 with lots of features to reduce the time we spend on meetings, streamline mail management, support focus on work, quickly find what we’re looking for, and automate routine work. Nevertheless, we are currently spending a lot of time on meetings, emails and searching for information. Less and less time is spent on productive work.

The fact that we cannot really use the technology becomes even more interesting in light of the exponential speed of digitalisation. For example, the pandemic has multiplied the speed. Together with digitalisation, we have great opportunities to increase productivity and thus value creation in our organizations. The key to increased productivity will be the speed at which we learn and start using the new opportunities.

When I say learn, I don’t just mean taking courses. We know that the impact of courses is limited, perhaps only a few percent impact on our performance. There are more factors influencing our performance.

One research discipline that describes just that is “HPI – Human Performance Improvement”. Organizations that contribute models about HPI include ” Association of Talent Delvelopment (ATD),” “International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI)” and “Institute for Corporate Performance”. These are heavy organizations with many well-known companies as members.

The list of factors that affect our performance is long:

  • Purpose and motivation for the job.
  • Clarity of goals, follow-ups and rewards.
  • Culture and values.
  • Leaders who coach and give feedback.
  • Design of work environment, policies, health and other structures.
  • Design of processes, systems and tools.
  • Access to information and performance support.
  • Design of organisation, roles and mandate to take decisions.
  • Opportunities for cooperation and help from others at work.
  • Our general characteristics and experiences that can be applied.
  • Actual knowledge and skills of the task.

Maybe the things i list are self-evident. In any case, it is clear that a course contributes to a very small part of performance and thus productivity. However, I see many things in the list that have to do with learning, learning culture and learning organization.

Some of the questions are further from what we who work with learning normally do, but many are highly topical today. Let me describe:

Information and performance support

Information and performance support are today established alternatives to education. Already 10 years ago Ericsson created a large number of learning portals to support employees to quickly build capabilities in new product areas such as IP and 4G. It has since spread to all major product and service areas as well as features such as Sales, Marketing, R&D, IT, Sourcing etc. Another company is Scania, which is rapidly building new capabilities in electrification and self-driving vehicles with learning portals.

The learning portals offer just-in-time support to succeed in the roles that work with the products. Support varies from reports, short videos, guides, questions & answers, short educations, etc. A key function is to select (curate) the aid most relevant to each professional role and for the actual situations where the support is needed to achieve the operational objectives.

10 years ago, the selection was only done manually with the help of experts. Today, platforms such as Anders Pink, Feedly, Degreed, Axonify or Fuse are used to help curate relevant information with data and AI.

A new generation of very powerful tools uses AI to identify, curate and make knowledge available exactly when and where the employee needs it. Microsoft Viva Topics is an example.

Performance support goes one step further. It delivers interactive instructions, processed knowledge in the form of e.g. videos or contact with experts via chat wherever needed. With data on where employees most often need help and where you have had problems before, you get the support exactly where you need it. Examples of performance support platforms are WhatFix or WalkMe.

This is a journey we’re just getting started. Increasingly, we are supported by AI to make decisions or perform simple tasks. An example is in Github, where a bot follows us, provides advice, and can also generate code. We can use Microsoft PowerAutomate ourselves to streamline our own repetitive tasks.

In physical work, Hololens offers an opportunity to get the same support through a pair of glasses. In a short time, it has been widely used in industrial applications, e.g . as knowledge support for service technicians.

These technologies enable us to perform in unknown situations in a way that we have not been able to do before. This places the need for training in, for example system on end. We are used to having to attend an education first, which we are no longer the case. The technologies are simply a substitute for courses in systems, processes and operations.

The shorter the lifespan of technology around us, the more the benefits of education decrease and the focus instead ends up on information and performance support.

Already today, my view is that you should spend more time on this type of support than on creating training courses. It applies to all “how-to-do” knowledge.

Experience Design - designing the work

Employee Experience Design is about creating an irresistible experience for the employee. That includes everything I write about here and much more. What I was going to highlight here is the design of the tasks themselves, the direct situation in which the performance is carried out. It is about processes, systems, tools, work environment, etc.

Designing an employee experience starts with Design Thinking. To understand in depth the conditions for different groups’ experience, commitment and performance in the work. Creating the conditions for individualisation, e.g by using personas and data in development. Just as we develop customer journeys, also develop employee journeys, i.e. mapping of how the work is carried out, what steps, what obstacles, frustrations and what opportunities for improvement there are. Finally, it’s about moving forward step by step and testing-learning- adapting.

One part of the problem is that the employee needs to use a lot of systems to do their work. The average company uses 122 different systems. Platforms like ServiceNow and Microsoft Viva address this issue. Here we can build different employee journeys where information is integrated and presented user-friendly “consumer grade”.

I leave the other parts of Employee Experience Design and instead recommend Bersin’s report “E mployee Experience – The Definitive Guide“.

How does this affect those of us who work with learning? I see great interest from organizations that use Microsoft 365 to create integrated learning environments in Teams and Viva Learning. This provides great opportunities to design learning journeys where formal learning is mixed with information, collaborations and experiences. We simply need to learn how to work with Teams and Viva’s different parts; Connections, Topics, Insight and Learning to create value in different work situations (and equivalent if you are in the “IBM-SalesForce-Slack world”).

The second is to get good at Design Thinking. It is now a prerequisite for working modernly with solutions for learning. If we also see our role as contributing to employee performance, we are also a resource for the business to design processes, systems and working conditions.

Culture and leadership

I can’t talk about productivity without involving culture and leadership. It is the factors that determine my motivation, my commitment and the way I do my work. It affects my entire employee experience.

Initiatives around culture and leadership are often driven from HR, although they are usually not run directly by those of us who work with learning. I will mention a few areas in point form where we often actively contribute to implementation.

  • To support employees and teams to clarify their goals and to help employees find roles that match the organization’s and their own purpose.
  • To help leaders and employees work more closely and concretely with goals. The most successful organizations work with OKR – Objectives and Key Results.
  • A prerequisite for improving performance is to know the current situation. Only through dense feedback can we reflect on and improve our productivity. A culture of feedback is something the manager above all drives.
  • Also linked to the above is recognition, appreciation, reward and career. We actively contribute to the behaviors that are appreciated and lead to development.
  • The manager understands our driving forces, the needs of the business and helps us get to roles where we perform and grow best. The manager is also the one who supports and coaches us in developing and performing better.
According to Gallup’s latest survey, employee engagement with the work is down to a record low of 11%. Much depends on Covid, but it is also interesting that managers account for 70% of the impact on employee engagement. Today, clarity of purpose and goals, opportunities for development and the manager as a coach also mean the most to create committed employees. According to Gallup, it has a strong impact on productivity and performance (about 20%).

I think it has a big impact on those of us who work with learning. The opportunity to develop in the organization is directly our responsibility. Work with goals, purpose, follow-up, feedback, coaching, etc. are general behaviors both among leaders and employees that we can support with systems, training, support, etc.

It also highlights the importance of collaborating more with other HR processes. Making opportunities available in the organization, career planning, development talks (Performance Management) both require solutions for learning and development and drive motivation for learning.

Organization design

How we organize the work strongly affects the result. According to a recent research from McKinsey, productivity increases by 30% in agile organizations. Studies of the most successful companies also show that they are organized into independent cross-functional teams. You are quick to make decisions and each team and employee has a great mandate to make decisions.

One example is Spotify’s model of independent teams, Squads, where members independently make the necessary decisions. In the teams there is a great learning from collaboration and different perspectives to solve the tasks. Spotify’s model also includes other organizational elements that contribute to increased collaboration and learning, such as. Chapters and Guilds, which increase collaboration and learning in between specialists in a given field, such as JavaScript developer.

In addition to the collaboration in the team, there is also a view of the individual employee’s mandate. In order to be able to experiment, take risks and try new things, the individual must have a large mandate to influence their work. As Daniel Pink describes, the degree of independence (which should be seen as freedom to design work) is also one of the most important factors behind motivation and thus productivity at work.

According to Bersin’s research on Employee Experience, “creating a culture where employees help each other” is the factor that most contributes to the organization’s performance. This is done both with agile organizations, support for collaborations e.g. Communities and values such as trust, transparency and openness. The more easily accessible help, the better the performance.

Working with organization is therefore also about diversity and inclusion. To ensure that we cooperate with many different perspectives and conditions.

What will be our role in learning?

Many organizations include both “Organisational Development (OD)” and “Learning & Development (L&D)” within HR. L&D focuses more on individual development while OD focuses on the development of the entire organization with a holistic approach to development. In the border area we find initiatives for culture, change, coaching and transformation.

OD is an important component for creating a learning organization, as it is about culture, about the distribution of responsibility for learning, the design of organization and work, etc. Peter Senge’s already described 5 factors for successful learning organizations in the 1990s. Here you will find both the individual perspective (Personal Mastery) and the organizational perspective (System Thinking, Shared Vision).

I suggest that all of us who work with learning take a more holistic approach. It is difficult for an individual employee who has taken a course to change behavior unless the organization and culture support.

Work habits

You can’t avoid taking up work habits when I’m talking about productivity. I have previously summarized several different studies that show how we use our working hours (before the pandemic):

  • 27% in meetings.
  • 20% are looking for information.
  • 22% handle email.
  • 21% watch social media.

In March, Microsoft reported a 148% increase in appointments in a year, a 45% increase in chat time, and 4 billion more emails were sent Feb 21 compared to Feb 20. This inhibits productivity. Too much time is spent on meetings and exchanging information with others. Rob Cross, whoresearches collaborative overload,has concluded that we spend 85% of our time on meetings, emails, telephones, etc.

According to Bersin’s study “Meet the modern learner”, 2/3 of all employees complain that they do not have time to do their job.

Of course, it depends on how we organize work, culture, leadership, etc., but also on the awareness and ability of the employee to manage their time and access to tools that support increased productivity. We do not have to attend all meetings, reply to all emails, etc. Good work habits mean being able to prioritize your day, what you participate in, being able to use the technology to remove notifications and other disturbances, to be able to focus, to use modern tools to filter information or automate routine work. etc.

Just as we at L&D have a responsibility to build the organization’s capabilities around learning or digitalization so we can educate and support around good work habits.

Some conclusions on productivity

Perhaps you feel like me, that what I have written is an overwhelming task for those of us who work with learning. Perhaps you also see that we need to work with many others in order to be able to contribute fully.

Learning runs like a common thread through all the disciplines I described above. Learning and development is really an engine for increased productivity. There are many studies from, among others, IMB, Gallup, ATD, and many more showing that more mature learning organisations have between 10 and 20% higher productivity compared to the average enterprise.

However, focusing on learning is not the same as focusing on education. Learning can be a team that learns from each other or to use performance support and learn just as the task is being performed.

My message is to lift the ambition from focus on training to supporting employee productivity. The question is, where should we put our limited resources? On courses that we know have a low impact on productivity or also on other types of initiatives such as information support, job design, experience design, motivation, culture, leadership, work habits, etc.

At least we need to start talking about productivity and performance as the goal and integrate with other initiatives that address this. Some areas, such as information and performance support I think we should directly acquire and use in solutions.

Next step

The initiatives above are about creating the environment and structures to make the employee perform as well as possible. Creating the structures is often something that others do, rather than the employees. It is “specialists” who design these FOR the employee. The work is also based on a static view of process, system and requirements. To get the employee to be able to use or to meet the requirements.

It is of course important, especially with fast digitalisation and new tasks that employees should master.

However, in a rapidly changing world, we compete by constantly improving offers, working methods, processes, systems, etc. Focusing on productivity is not enough.

In the next section, therefore, we will discuss how learning contributes to continuous improvement and innovation.

Webinar September 28

Do you find the above interesting? Then you can discuss these issues with many others. On September 28, I will conduct a webinar between 10 and 12 that focuses on how learning can become the engine of the organization’s development.

Read more or sign up directly below:

Jag heter Johan Skoglöf. På min blogg analyserar och beskriver jag nyheter och företeelser runt lärande organisationer.


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