The Digital, Always-On Learning Opportunity

29th March, 2018

One of the eight key areas within Cornwall Council’s Business Plan to help deliver a sustainable Cornwall for 2017/18 is ‘Driving the Economy’, with the target to increase the average (median) employee weekly earnings from 77% of the England average to 78%. It follows that every plan thereafter puts strategies for investment in people and skills first and foremost to address the root of the simple mathematics, that only by creating higher than average paid jobs in growth businesses in an expanding local economy, will the indicator move upwards.

Vision 2030 is the LEP-led economic plan for Cornwall and Isles of Scilly. It states the vision that “By 2030 Cornwall and Isles of Scilly will be the place where business thrives and people enjoy an outstanding quality of life.” The plan outlines its three objectives:

Business: achieve thriving businesses which excel at what they do
People: achieve inclusive growth and improve the skills of our workforce
Place: improve infrastructure and economic distinctiveness

The first two go hand-in-hand – for businesses to thrive and excel at what they do depends on having a resilient workforce that continuously upskills.

Investment in Cornwall’s high speed internet infrastructure over the last few years through the Actnow and Superfast Cornwall programmes has made Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly some of the best digitally-connected rural areas in Europe. A new £17.6 million deal was recently announced to take ultrafast broadband to thousands more homes and businesses in some of Cornwall’s most remote places.

The opportunities for connected businesses are more than just transferring large data files more quickly and, for those at home, it’s not just entertainment benefits that come with superfast broadband speeds. Being online gives access to e-learning and other key services which are all going online as local public services are transformed using technology and digital services.

Online learning is becoming more and more important for all, whether they’re young people at school or university students accessing resources and submitting work through a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), or workers keeping up to date with statutory qualifications, continuing professional development or upskilling. From their desks at work or the comfort of the sofa, a wealth of learning online is now possible.

Evidence for learning

Acknowledged in the LEP’s own business plan, in 2016/17 skills and learning was the number one issue cited by the business community as a barrier to productivity-led growth. The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Skills Hub funded by European Social Fund, Cornwall Council and LEP funds has now been launched and sits alongside the Growth Hub.

If further evidence was needed, 59% of respondents to PFA Research’s survey for the Cornwall Chamber Business Plan for Cornwall 2017/18 said they had employment opportunities for the right people but 77% of these were finding it difficult to find those skills locally. 40% said that the skills they were looking for were not being met by the mainstream education providers or the businesses sector.

Over half of respondents to the Chamber’s survey have a mixed-age workforce, rising to 80% in larger concerns (50-plus employees). Whatever the make-up of the workforce, developing skills and training over the following 12 months was planned for 89% of businesses. Most commonly, for 46%, this would be bespoke/tailored training. In addition to the 43% planning to implement regulatory/programmed training, 43% also would be looking for short courses in business skills.

This all points to a need for more flexible, ad hoc, bite-sized learning formats for businesses to build resilience into their workforce and to overcome the barriers to productivity-led growth.

Sands of learning are shifting

The 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report says organisations face a radically shifting context for the workforce, the workplace, and the world of work. With the accelerating rate of change in business, the economy, and society, it challenges both business and HR (human resource functions) to adopt new rules for leading, organising, motivating, managing, and engaging the 21st-century workforce.

Those entering the world of work today may look forward to 60-year long careers, yet the average tenure in a job is 4.5 years and the half-life of skills is rapidly falling – currently about 5 years (according to Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s 2011 book, ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’) – meaning that much of what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned 5 years ago is irrelevant.

Deloitte surveyed more than 10,000 business and HR leaders from 140 countries in its fifth annual deep dive into human capital trends. The issue of improving employee careers and transforming corporate learning rose emerged as the second most important trend, with 83 percent of executives globally (and 84% in the UK alone) identifying these issues as important or very important. In the past, employees learned to gain skills for a career; now, the career itself is a journey of learning. Companies must rethink the way they manage careers and deliver always-on learning and development opportunities.

Companies can increasingly expect employees to themselves push for continuous skill development and dynamic careers, according to the research report. Research from Glassdoor shows that for Millennials in particular, the ‘ability to learn and progress’ is now the principal driver of a company’s employment brand, yet only a third of Millennials believe their organisations are using their skills well, and 42% say they are likely to leave because they’re not learning fast enough.

Further analysis by Glassdoor showed that workers who stay longer in the same job without a title change are significantly more likely to leave for another company for the next step in their career. Stagnating in a role for an additional 10 months raises the odds that employees will leave the company for their next role by about one percentage point, a statistically significant effect.

Docebo, the eLearning platform, writes on its blog looking at the impact of learning technology on corporate training, that companies are not able to keep up ever-changing needs of learners to meet its business goals. This is important; according to a Bersin by Deloitte Consulting Group 2016 study, companies with dynamic career models were shown to outperform their peers by providing continuous learning opportunities and a deeply embedded culture of development.

With leading companies moving to overhaul their career models and their learning and development infrastructure in the digital age – although the research acknowledges that most organisations are still in the early stages of this transformation – HR and business leaders must notice the call to action.

These findings are supported by Henley Business School’s Corporate Learning Survey last year which interviewed 446 executives responsible for learning and development. Its findings included an analysis of training formats, revealing that 82% of organisations were planning to operate internally-run learning programmes, while 59% would use customised externally-run programmes. Participants further cited that ‘speed of change’ (to internal goals and external factors) as the biggest organisational challenge, followed by the need to achieve cultural change.

Respondents were asked which learning and development formats were most preferable for different staff groups. Whilst ‘coaching’ was selected in 2017 as the most preferred format for senior management, ‘blended learning’ (a mixture of face-to-face and online learning) had overtaken purely classroom-based learning for this group. Further, the report notes a jump of 10 percentage points year-on-year for this type of learning for executive and senior management. The picture was similar for ‘high potential’ employees (the non-managerial rising stars), with blended learning increasing from 37% in 2015 to 46% in 2017, and pure online formats rising from 6% to 19% over the same period.

Half of the organisations in the Henley report agreed that their organisation is comfortable to increase the ratio of online learning compared to face-to-face, but nearly two-thirds felt it would be impossible to replicate some aspects of classroom learning in an online environment. Deloitte reflects the attitudes of these senior managers, from its own research stating that a number of converging issues are driving the need to “rewrite the rules”; where technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, individuals are relatively quick to adapt to ongoing innovations, but organisations move at a slower pace.

Time for Always-on Learning

In the meantime, on the supply side, universities and other higher education institutions are investing heavily in the roll out of Massive Open-Access On-line Courses (MOOCs) which facilitate distance learning on a global scale.

Cornish businesses might reasonably take advantage of these types of learning environments which need higher speed broadband to work effectively. In particular, for an economy made up almost entirely of smaller businesses whose primary focus is often on sales, delivering product and cash, rather than learning, MOOCs can offer a cost-effective, flexible and easy-access alternative to employee learning and development pathways.

In a world where skills are at risk of obsolescence within a decade, and with the rapid pace of technological changes, businesses need to step up to the need and meet their employees’ expectations of constant learning. Cornish businesses and their employees have the new world of learning at their fingertips.

This article was produced for and published in the March 2018 edition of Business Cornwall magazine.

Feature image by Helloquence on Unsplash