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Kevin Johnson

OnTrack International


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Is it HR’s duty to resolve the ‘productivity puzzle?’


HR teams have a national duty to improve economic productivity by encouraging and enabling individuals to take responsibility for their own learning. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s productivity, as measured by output per hour, is respectively 27, 30 and 35 percentage points lower than in France, the US and Germany.

Known as the ‘productivity puzzle’, economists can’t agree on the reasons for this but the uncertainties of the Brexit process could further compound the broad-based slowdown that has already affected most sectors of the UK economy.

Jump-starting growth is likely to require additional public investment in infrastructure, education and skills. But the problem won’t be resolved by policy changes alone.

To achieve a sustained recovery, each of us needs to be ‘better’. Whether we’re leaders, managers or individual contributors, we each have to look in the mirror. If we can all improve our personal productivity then every business will benefit and ultimately the economy will reap the reward. This is where HR can help.

For over 20 years, L&D teams have insisted that individuals should take responsibility for their own learning. But the reality is that most organisations, at their own admission, have not done enough to facilitate that outcome. Fundamentally, there are six reasons for this:

  1. Business as usual pressures. People are simply too busy to take time out for training.
  2. Budgetary issues. Providing training, particularly face-to-face programmes, is expensive.
  3. The right, relevant learning resources are not available. Organisations do run bespoke courses that meet specific needs but individuals often have to wait until a sufficient number of learners have come forward. That’s no help if someone has a need now. When people can’t get the learning support they need, through the organisational channels, they tend to ‘go rogue’ and book their own training outside the system.
  4. The available learning options are outdated or boring. You can’t expect employees to go from the on-demand TV options they have at home to a ‘click and read’ e-learning course. Learners are consumers, so what you offer them at work has to be equally as enticing as what they consume at home.
  5. Lack of choice. Some employees have little choice in their learning: they’re ‘told’ to attend a course. It’s much more motivating if we choose our own learning because the topic excites us and is aligned to our needs.
  6. Line managers do not provide adequate support. It’s difficult to improve your performance and embed new skills if your line manager is too busy to coach you to put what you’ve learned into practice.

Blueprint for success

In L&D, the great challenge is to provide tools and resources that will help employees to perform better in their role. Recent years have seen a drive by well-meaning organisations to create an online library of instantly accessible, self-directed resources that people can access just-in-time. On the face of it, this solves many of the above problems. But, in reality, it doesn’t go far enough.

Some organisations adopt a philosophy of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’, as they try to persuade their staff that quantity is more important than quality. Employers (and suppliers) brag about the size of their digital library but there’s little point in having 20,000 digital resources at your fingertips if only 10 of them are actually useful. Every item of content should be fit for purpose and it should motivate people to come back for more. To achieve this, your content has to be:

  • Relevant. It should address the specific challenges and issues your people are facing – and not just in terms of their leadership and soft skills needs but also their need for career planning and wellbeing support.
  • Rated. Introducing a rating system helps employees to quickly assess the value of each resource. If your content helps them, they’ll recommend it and they’ll come back for more. But you can’t fool people: if it doesn’t, they won’t.
  • Refreshed. Be brave and ruthless in updating your content. Anything that only gets two-star ratings should be removed and replaced with something more valuable.

In terms of the budget, for what you’d spend on a bespoke course for a handful of participants, you could create a range of good quality digital learning resources on key topics that will meet the ongoing needs of individual learners. You don’t need to spend a fortune on high-production videos. However if you want to showcase how employees in your organisation should operate and behave, it’s worth avoiding home-made ‘selfie’ movies.

Somewhere in between these extremes is a professionally-acceptable level of quality that is cost effective to produce.

When you have on-demand, just-in-time content that is accessible and downloadable, you need to be able to track what resources are being used and by whom, so line managers can help individuals to develop their skills. Good managers will explain concepts, demonstrate behaviour, observe individuals in action and provide feedback and coaching to improve their staff.

But even the best managers don’t have all the time they need to support each individual. The right learning resources can reduce a manager’s workload by delivering the ‘explain’ and ‘demonstrate’ elements. This frees up time for managers to observe behaviour in action and provide focused feedback and coaching.

Having an updated database of the available skills in the organisation – with accurate learning records and details of continuous professional development – will also help you to more easily plan and assemble project teams.

All of this requires a shift of emphasis in your digital learning strategy.

It’s not about creating a platform that will benefit the organisation. The goal should be to create content that will motivate and encourage individuals to truly take responsibility for their own learning. Your content must be ‘owned’ by individual employees if it is to add value to the organisation, not the other way around.

The incremental improvements that this can yield can have a significant impact. For example, managers can have better conversations with their teams and performance, engagement and retention levels can all rise.

Also, if your digital resources enable and empower your employees to improve their own ‘output’ by 2% without an increase in their hours, you could legitimately give them a corresponding pay rise.

If every business did this, it would benefit the economy and increase living standards. However, if the UK’s productivity fails to rise, the unappealing options for the nation are either substantial reductions in public spending, health and social care or increases in VAT, national insurance and income tax.

HR has a chance to tip the balance here. But the reality is that individuals won’t take responsibility for their own learning unless you make it easy for them by providing exciting and motivating resources. By introducing relevant and effective digital learning content, you can help everyone in your organisation to be better tomorrow than they were today. 

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