It’s the Company’s Job to Help Employees Learn


stefan-stefancik-257625When Frederick Taylor published his pioneering principles of scientific management in 1912, the repetitive and mundane nature of most jobs required employees to think as little as possible. Breaking down each task into basic components and standardizing workers’ behaviors to eliminate choice and flexibility could help managers turn employees into productive machines, albeit with alienated spirits.

Fast forward to the present and we see that most jobs today demand the exact opposite from employees: the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job. As academic reviews have pointed out, people’s employability – their ability to gain and maintain a desired job – no longer depends on what they already know, but on what they are likely to learn.

In other words, higher career security is a function of employability, and that in turn depends on learnability. Thus Eric Schmidt notes that a major pillar in Google’s recruitment strategy is to hire “learning animals,” while EY recruiters observe that “to be a standout, candidates need to demonstrate technical knowledge in their discipline, but also a passion for asking the kind of insightful questions that have the power to unlock deeper insights and innovation for our clients.”

Sadly, most organizations have yet to wake up to this reality, so they continue to pay too much attention to academic qualifications and hard skills, as if what entry-level employees had learned during university actually equipped them for today’s job market. Although learnability does boost academic performance, just because someone is job-ready when they obtain their educational credentials does not mean that they are also learning-ready.

For starters, workplace learnability is far less structured and formulaic than college learnability, and employees must juggle the tension between the demand for the short-term efficiencies of productivity with the long-term quest for intellectual growth. For all the talk of lifelong learning – as well as billions of dollars spent on training every year – scientific studies suggest that most organizational training programs have no long-term effects on people’s job performance.

So how can managers do a better job of fostering learnability in the workplace? We suggest starting with three things:
Select for it. Don’t waste training budgets on employees who haven’t demonstrated learnability, even if those employees are otherwise skilled, collaborative, and productive. To maximize the benefit of limited training investments, focus on employees with higher learnability: curious and inquisitive individuals who are genuinely interested in acquiring new knowledge. Just like some people are more likely to benefit from coaching than others – because they are humbler, more open to feedback, and ambitious – certain individuals are more trainable than others because of their hungry mind.

Nurture it. Managers who want their employees to learn new things will encourage that behavior by doing it themselves. We are all time-deprived, but high learnability people make the time to learn new things. What is the last book you read that opened your mind? (Simply reading the articles your Facebook friends share doesn’t count.) When did you last devote time to study another industry? When was the last time you spoke to someone about stuff outside your area of expertise? How hard do you try to break up your default routine at work? How often do you ask “why”?

Paradoxically, instant access to information may suppress our natural curiosity and appetite for knowledge. It is to our learnability what fast food is to our diet: a ubiquitous vice with no nutritional value and the potential to make healthy food tasteless. High learnability enables people to dive deeper to translate information into actual expertise. It is the key intellectual differentiator between those who can go online and those who become smarter in the process.

Reward it. If you want to change people’s behavior, you should show them that you mean it. It is not enough to hire curious people and hope they display as much learnability as you do. You should also reward them for doing so.

One of the best ways to reward high learnability is to provide new and challenging opportunities for those individuals where they can continue to be stimulated to exercise their learnability and be rewarded by broadening their expertise and increasing their value to the company and themselves. Another suggestion is to promote people only if they have acquired sufficient expertise in other jobs in the organization, not just their own.

Or you could give awards for individuals who organize events or activities to promote learnability in the company: e.g., running internal conferences, bringing external speakers, and circulating information that is intellectually stimulating and has the potential to nurture people’s curiosity. Even simpler habits, such as writing a blog, sharing articles on social media, or recommending books and movies, can be rewarded.

Though people differ in their natural curiosity and learning potential, the context will also determine how much learnability people display. Executives and senior leaders should be tasked with enhancing employees’ learnability throughout the organization. Since leaders play a major role in shaping the climate of teams and culture of organizations, they will act as either catalysts or blockers of employees’ learnability.

This article was originally published in the Harvard Business Review on July 18, 2016 by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan.