Learning & Development: What Employers Need to Know, Q&A with Beth Davies

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Expert Beth Davies talks about the balance between teaching employees what you need them to know, and giving them opportunities to learn what they want.

training, learning and development expert Beth Davies

For over 20 years, Beth Davies has been developing cutting-edge learning and development solutions for companies including Tesla Motors, Microsoft, Apple, and The Gap. We got on a call to talk about what, exactly, learning and development is, why it helps with employee retention, and what employers can do to sew learning opportunities into the employee experience.

“It’s really hard to teach people things they don’t want to learn…”

Dumb questions: What is “training”? What is “learning”? What is “development”?

Training is very job-specific; if you’re in sales, you need to be able to sell, so I’m going to train you in these skills and how to use tools like Salesforce. You also need to know about our company’s product – and now we start to transition into learning. Training addresses skill set. Learning addresses knowledge and concepts that will help you solve problems to do your work better and smarter.

Development addresses growth. This might mean you’re developing qualifications for a promotion, or working to become multidisciplinary in your abilities. Development is more about your career path.

How do you know what the people in your organization should be taught?

There are two schools of thought:

One says that as an organization, you look and say, “here’s where we are today. We’re going to need these different skills and knowledge tomorrow. This is the development that needs to happen to get there. You, the employee, must learn this.” This is traditional, business-driven training and development.

The other school of thought says, “every person in our workplace is an adult. Who knows what they need to learn to do their jobs the best they can? They do. How can we give them more control over what they learn?”

The reason there is a menu in a restaurant is because what might satisfy my hunger might be different from what satisfies your hunger. The latter approach mirrors this approach. It’s really hard to teach people things they don’t want to learn – the motivation isn’t there. You’re not going to be able to teach me something I’m not interested in.

Is there a momentum towards one of those positions more than the other?

Yes. How we approach training, learning and development is going through significant change. The learning tools available now really do put control in the hands of the learner. Some of my peers in the field worry this reduces the organization’s ability to ensure the learner is learning the right thing. Others – including myself – believe that in this day and age, when anybody can Google anything, we no longer have control over what people learn.

Instead of trying to dictate what needs to be learned, let’s spend our time figuring out how we can better organize the wealth of information and learning tools out there – from enrolling in MOOCs to reading articles to watching TED Talks – so people can find what they need when they need it. Let’s also look at how we can, perhaps, expand people’s motivation to learn things that maybe aren’t on their radar yet. If right now, for example, you’re motivated to learn how manage your team better, maybe we can point you to related skills like emotional intelligence and tell you why they’d also be worth developing.

What does a L&D program look like? What are the pieces of components of it?

You can take a narrow view, and say it’s the classes you create, whether a live workshop, webinar, or e-learning course. These are all formal learning – they feel like a class, and they all have components you would expect a class to have: instruction, application of the lesson or practice, and quizzes, tests or practical exercises.

You can also take a wider view, and look at all the informal ways people learn and grow. So, let’s suppose I’ve got someone in a junior position and I want to help her become a manager. I could send her to an online or in-person class. But I could also give her a mentor or a coach. I could ask her to take on a project where she leads people, even though she’s technically not yet a manager. I could send her articles and videos about management. I could ask her to reflect on leaders she’s worked with, and what she could learn about management from those experiences. All of these are learning and development, too.

How does someone actually learn?

Learning often begins with having an experience. The learner experiences something, reflects on it, generalizes a lesson from the experience, and then applies it.

For example, a role-play on giving feedback is a learning experience. The learner needs to take time after that experience and ask herself: “What happened? What was the impact when my arms were crossed, versus when I uncrossed them? Was there a change in the conversation?” She generalizes that giving someone feedback with closed arms sends a negative message. Then, she makes a plan that next time she gives someone feedback, she’ll make a point of using relaxed body language. The cycle starts again when she has that next conversation.

This is the experiential learning cycle.

Can training help improve employee retention?

Absolutely, yes. People inherently have their self-interest in mind. They want to know “what’s in it for me?” Learning can be part of that, and can even be used purely for motivation and retention.

Pixar, for example, does this really well: they offer classes in cooking, improv – things that may have nothing to do with the actual work their people are doing. Other companies take a more traditional approach, and offer open-enrollment courses in presentation skills, communication skills. In either case, it’s purely about motivation: when people feel like they’re growing, their life is enriched, they’re happier, and they’re also better employees.

“What is orientation? It’s the process of curing disorientation.”

Are there any common mistakes employers make with employee orientation?

I had this epiphany one day that has always stuck with me: what is orientation? It’s the process of curing disorientation.

Disorientation is uncomfortable. When you walk into a new role, it’s inevitable that you’re disoriented. Where do you go to eat? Park your car? Find the bathrooms? What are you responsible for? Who do you go to ask questions? If you don’t have a well-designed orientation in place, then your new employee is going to turn to whoever is sitting next to them to ask their questions about how the company works, who the people are, etc. This could either work out really well, if the person they’re sitting next to is engaged, happy and well-informed. Or, it could turn out really poorly if the person they’re sitting next to is unhappy, an under-performer and happens to be planning to turn in their resignation next week. Either way, you’re letting orientation happen by chance. That’s a mistake.

What’s the first one or two things an employer should do to establish an effective employee orientation?

Orientation needs to start before your new employee even comes in the front door on their first day. After they accept the offer, where does their mind go? They want information that validates their choice to work for your company. So what communication do they receive? Do people reach out to them, congratulate them? Do they get instructions on where to park their car when they arrive for the first day? When they arrive on that first day, do they get a big warm welcome? Do they get the level of care they were expecting? Do they get to feel what they want to feel from the culture? You need to put yourself in the position of the new hire.

“When people feel like they’re growing, their life is enriched, they’re happier, and they’re also better employees…”

In companies where there might currently only be one person, or a stretched team, responsible for talent, what one or two must-do things should that person focus on when it comes to learning and development?

If your bandwidth is really limited, focus first on your company culture. What you do, and what you communicate in any training needs to be consistent with that culture. Then, focus on figuring out the world of resources that already exist. Producers like Lynda.com can help you accomplish a lot without needing to produce your own training content.

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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