Sustaining Organizational Learning: The Stock Market May Be Up, but Learning Departments Are Not out of the Woods Yet

Article excerpt

It's a painful fact that today's economic distress puts pressure on continuing organizational learning. Cutting learning expenses is easy, produces almost instant savings, and has few short-term negative effects. Learning budgets are almost always among the first targets of corporate cost-cutters.

A core question for learning professionals is: Do we believe that most organizational learning investments are justified and should be sustained? If we do, then we need an arsenal of reasons why organizations should continue to fund learning, even in the face of great economic distress. Now more than ever, we are fighting for a share of the influence (and budget) within our organizations.

MAKING A SOLID CASE

How can we reinforce the case for investing in learning during times of economic distress, despite a period of cost cutting? There are numerous arguments.

Maintaining competitiveness. Learning investments are necessary to develop future capabilities for the organization. Without such investment, the organization might shrink and become less competitive. Some organizations are even planning to use the current distress to increase their competitive advantage and grow. This strategy will require both capabilities beyond those that the organization has now, plus more learning.

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Sustaining performance momentum. A pause in learning results in a lack of developed employees in the future--a major competitive disadvantage. Too many companies have learned the hard way that suspending employee development for even a short period (say three years) results in a lack of qualified leaders and contributors in the future.

Driving employee engagement and commitment in tough times. Learning is a proven factor in engaging and retaining your best employees. Employees who do not see that they are being invested in lose commitment, discretionary effort, and are more easily poachable. Companies rated among the "top companies to work for" invariably offer continuous learning to their employees.

seizing the slowdown as a time to build capability. As the pace of business slows in the downturn, there may be greater opportunity to provide employees with time for learning, without sacrificing productivity.

Building the new skills and capabilities needed for success in challenging times. Unusual economic challenges may require specific training in how to meet them (for example learning to cut costs without sacrificing effectiveness).

Maintaining knowledge, skills, and capabilities in the face of extraordinary turnover caused by downsizing.

Employee turnover without training new employees can result in loss of basic organizational capabilities that risk becoming extinct over time.

sustaining organizational culture.

Certain training, for example onboarding, is essential to acculturate employees. Not doing these types of training can result in undesirable changes in the organization's culture.

Sustaining organizational values.

Corporate values are often transmitted through organizational learning. Not transmitting values in this way can cause organizations to depart from their desired core values.

Providing essential messages through the downturn. Without learning, the organization has fewer vehicles for transmitting vital information and communicating desired culture.

Reinforcing one of the most powerful change resources. Organizational learning is often used to adapt the organization to changes in its business environment. By cutting learning, we greatly reduce the organization's ability to quickly respond to its changing environment.

Ensuring continued employer attractiveness (employee value proposition).

A recognized learning organization more easily attracts desired job applicants. Expenses of recruiting are reduced as candidates nominate themselves to join an organization known for providing continuing learning to its employees. …