This morning I had the opportunity to read an interesting working group summary on learning and development posted on the CAHRS website. The working group took place on April 25th in Chicago, and was attended by HR professionals at companies including ADM, Chevron, GE, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase, and McDonalds. There is a lot of really good stuff here, and I might re-visit this summary again later for another post. With that said, today I’d like to focus on an employee utilization challenge that many organizations are facing as they attempt to implement various social learning tools. From the summary:

Companies noted that they use a variety of tools and approaches to facilitate social learning, including developing technology applications (e.g. video sites), creating cohorts during online courses, having senior leaders contribute to blogs, and offering networking groups and lunch-and-learn sessions. This portfolio of different deliveries is important for enabling people to learn how and when they want. The challenge, however, is getting employees to take advantage of these opportunities, One strategy that can be used to encourage utilization is to tie the tools to other applications people are already using.

…You can read more of the discussion about the utilization and application challenges companies are facing (and more) in the full summary here, but I shared the above segment because it touches on a larger issue around learning that exist in every facet of society: People (theoretically) want to learn things that will make them better, but often either:

A. Feel too pressed for time to make a significant commitment and/or

B. Struggle to engage with the available material on their subject of interest

…Attendees at the working group summary had some great ideas around how to solve the latter challenge (e.g. creating practice environments for practical application of learning and structuring knowledge in formats people are used to interacting with). And an organization that runs a little heavy on the talent front and/or successfully automates administrative tasks can often free up enough of their employee’s time to combat the former hurdle.

…But I think both of these solutions miss out on one other really important component required to drive utilization of social learning tools:

Creating a culture where self-driven, self-directed learning is a habit.

Developing such a culture is not easy. It requires the creation of an environment that forces people to break out of deeply formed habits. One where employees with a break in the day don’t instinctively turn to their cell phones or gossip pages or cat videos. And I don’t think restricting access or trying to police people’s behaviors is the answer, either. People aren’t engaging in these activities because they’re obsessed with any one specific thing most of the time. Instead, they’re distractions to fill time. And so taking them away will just cause people to find new distractions.

Instead, I think companies need to figure out how to embed reward mechanisms into learning skills that can have a discernible impact on the business. The promise of a potential promotion down the line is too abstract to pull most people away from what are often deeply formed habits of seeking quick, mindless entertainment when the moment presents itself.

Essentially, companies have to tap into why their employees want to learn and create those incentives to promote the learning outcomes they want.

…This is my working theory, anyway. But it’s also just a thought stream. Maybe I have this wrong?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.