HR Director Jo McGowan talks to Training Zone about how, in the face of constant change, continuous learning is the key to businesses success.
So much of business discourse – be it in the media, the boardroom, or around the office watercooler – is dominated by discussion around how established companies will survive and thrive in light of sweeping technological and societal changes.
Younger companies have less to worry about. Such changes are the foundation of their business models – and disruption is part of their DNA, meaning they can adapt in spite of the rapid pace of change.
More traditional players, however, are facing the challenges of modernising while being restrained by legacy systems and entrenched habits.
This is a particular issue for many firms within my industry, insurance. We have one of the largest gender pay gaps due to the lack of representation at a C-suite level - and struggle with the impact of structural issues such as cultural division between technically focused people and those in customer service.
Meanwhile, innovative start-ups are winning the hearts and minds of the traditionally under-insured millennial audience.
As an HR professional, I recognise the vital importance of upskilling employees in helping an organisation address business challenges.
I continue to be surprised that only a handful of the world’s most innovative companies are widely adopting the most effective method to empower employees to evolve their organisation in line with macro changes, which is (in my view) continuous learning.
Here are my thoughts on why continuous learning is such a powerful tool to tackle change – and the ways in which my team and I use it to tackle some of the biggest obstacles facing our industry.
Keeping pace with technological transformation
Simply put, technology is fundamentally transforming business. In the insurance sector, for example, innovation is revolutionising fraud detection, the calculation of price and risk and customer service through chatbots.
In healthcare, the NHS is aiming for all clinicians to be able to access patient records remotely and for every patient to have the right to online consultations, by 2024.
In the automotive sector, blockchain is set to become increasingly important, and will be used to share data on vehicles and their owners in a secure way, as well as linking information held by different businesses across the industry, such as manufacturers, dealers and finance providers.
Of course, innovation isn’t limited to these technologies or applications – it is evolving continuously, and employees must understand that innovation isn’t something that’s just going to stop.
As such, continuous learning is the best, and arguably only truly effective, way of enhancing this type of employee understanding.
L&D professionals should provide a catalogue of development programmes that appeal to a diverse range of people with different ways of learning in order to upgrade skills or staff behaviours.
This can involve anything from informal networking drop-in sessions attended by both technical expert employees and those looking to upgrade their digital skills, to structured ‘classroom’ sessions that encourage reflective learning.
Regardless of industry, providing personalised customer experience is key, but this can be difficult when decision makers cannot identify or relate to an increasingly broad and diverse range of customer demographics and lifestyles.
The insurance C-suite in particular is a victim of this, as only one in five of the top jobs are held by women.
The technology sector suffers from similar challenges. Uber’s diversity report, released in July, revealed that while 55% of the company’s support staff are from ethnic minority groups, the leadership team is just 3.5% black.
The company has acknowledged that diversity needs to be a priority and that investing in the development of employees at every level of the business is vital to improving the diversity of the board, which is promising to see.
Leadership development programmes are most successful when they look to identify and develop employees across the business who show both willing and potential to lead.
This continuous learning-led approach means future leaders are a diverse bunch – not just fast-tracked graduate trainees from top-tier universities.
This method has driven tangible results for many organisations, including our own. Of those who participated in our Aspiring Leaders module, part of our leadership development programme, 10% have been promoted.
Breaking down structural barriers
Technical complexities are rife around both products and business models, particularly within the financial services and technology sectors.
Having said that, cultural barriers between technically focused and customer-facing divisions can be damaging and prevent businesses from delivering a unified offering.
Within insurance, while some technically focused employees have a strong understanding of the technologies at play and how they feed into the business, employees in customer service-focused roles aren’t always equipped with the knowledge they need to fully understand the activities of the business.
As a result, silos can develop. At best, these can hinder operational efficiency. At worst, they can lead to inaccurate data reporting and unreliable financial statements, which could put entire organisations at risk.
Breaking down these barriers is key to empowering employees to fully comprehend the activities and ambitions of different divisions and implement strategic change across all departments.
Continuous learning can help achieve this by encouraging workers from different areas to participate in shared educational experiences.
Methods such as cross-departmental project teams, mentoring programmes and Leadership Lounges (where leaders within the business share stories, experiences and technical knowledge) can all help.
Technology is fundamental to all of this and therefore a key area of focus should be on collaboration tools and a progressive learning management system.
Lessons from our Californian cousins
At Google – a massive 80% of all tracked trainings are run through an employee-to-employee network called g2g (Googler-to-Googler), allowing the opportunity for people to grow through on-the-job-training and ultimately promoting a workforce which is primed to, and capable of, learning continuously.
Meanwhile, Facebook is using continuous learning to tackle one of biggest issues facing not just its business but the tech industry more broadly – its Managing Unconscious Bias programme raises awareness of the existence of biases and their implications among employees.
Arguably, Google and Facebook are using continuous learning methods not just because they are among the world’s most innovative firms, but also because they are among the world’s most complex firms – at the coalface of the very societal and technological change that we’ve been discussing.
I would encourage all HR professionals to take a lesson from our Californian cousins and consider how continuous learning can be deployed to help tackle the unique challenges faced by their businesses.