Is learning an expense or an investment?

The capacity to learn is a gift;
The ability to learn is a skill;
The willingness to learn is a choice.

Brian Herbert

It is pretty safe to say that most learning involves some kind of cost, whether it be that you are slower as you learn or have to explicitly take time to learn something new. There is a time aspect, an effort aspect and sometimes even an overt outlay of cost for a training course a book or a subscription. But all are a cost to you or our employer. But the question is: Is that cost simply a necessary expense or is it a worthwhile investment for the future?
Is that cost simply a necessary expense or is it a worthwhile investment for the future?
This is a tough question and I am sure many employers and employees wrestle with on a regular basis.  For the employer there are concerns that time spent learning is time that is not productive (or not as productive)  the time could be better spent generating income.  In the case of formal training or qualifications there may be an opportunity cost of the time spent AND the cost of the training which can be significant, and perhaps more concerning the employee becomes more employable and more valuable as a result so there may be a consequential increase in turnover or a necessity to pay the employee more as a result.  In essence it is easy to become focused on the expenses and forget the benefits that come from a better trained and more fulfilled workforce.

As an individual/employee it often is expected that you do your learning on your own time, you are motivated for self-improvement and your employer may focus on the benefit the employee gains rather than the benefit to the employer. The difficulty with this is that learning time tends to be when you are least energetic, or at times when you are sacrificing other activities.

now-vs-later

Short vs Long-term thinking

In the simplest form the choice may often come down to the type of work and whether an investment in people will benefit the organisation. My initial thinking is that if you expect to have a high turnover of staff or the type of work you do is low skill, then investment in people may be perceived as an expense rather than an investment but even then I wonder if an investment in learning may reduce turnover and increase skill.  But in the field of software where the world changes almost daily, with new techniques and new approaches appearing regularly, then an investment in learning is not just beneficial it is almost essential just to keep up. To not invest in learning could be very detrimental to the long-term prospects of your organisation.

Choosing NOT to invest in learning could be very detrimental to the long-term prospects of your organisation.  

In ‘software fields’ good people are hard to find, and even harder to keep. Many organizations now operate flat structures with little or no hierarchy, promotion in the conventional sense is no longer the main form of advancement. Individuals grow through learning new skills and becoming experienced in new techniques, and not simply hands-on learning and experience.   We rely on intrinsic motivation – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, to keep employees engaged, happy and productive.

A key element to both Autonomy, Mastery and even Purpose is time for learning and reflection.  People that are not supported in this are likely to be less fulfilled, less happy and more likely to look for work elsewhere. Entropy sets in, and in software that can be fast and devastating for both individuals and organizations, individuals with outdated skills can find it difficult to find work and become demoralized and trapped, organizations can find that motivated individuals want to be working on new technologies and embracing new techniques.

What is our goal?

An organisation is generally interested in making money and growing either in size or in effectiveness, understanding this we can attempt to visualize how individual learning can support that goal.  Learning and personal development leads to a sense of Mastery, empowering the employees by giving freedom to use the time as they see fit provides autonomy, and sharing your company vision and how they can be a part of that provides the purpose.  Employees that feel these motivations will be happier and will be far less likely to leave, turnover is hugely costly to an organisation especially when it is the better employees that are more likely to leave.  The reduction in turnover alone may be enough to justify significant effort.  But improving employees will use those new skills in their work, they will encourage others and it is highly likely that productivity and creativity will improve.  In short providing opportunities for learning supports the goals of most organizations.

How much time should be assigned to learning?

At a previous company they set aside 2 hours a week for each employee to dedicate to personal development, this was in addition to any formal training. This is close to a 5% increase in overhead per employee, which is significant but set aside a reduction in turnover may be immediately beneficial.   In practice however it was not always observed, pressures from projects would often squeeze this time as it was seen as secondary to business objectives. The frequency in which it was observed undermined the policy.

In environments where time is billed to clients it becomes even harder for a company to see the value of learning, it becomes un-billed time which is even more costly but that doesn’t reduce the importance or value in the learning time.  I’d like to see organizations regularly set aside 1/2 a day each week for personal development, and provide the tools necessary to make this effective – pluralsight subscriptions, purchasing books for employees even if they are not directly relevant to their work – remember the goal is to motivate and create an environment for improvement.   At 10% of employee cost this is a significant ask, but I would hope that if introduced in the right way with enthusiasm and support, employees will embrace the way you are valuing them and their personal development and this investment will pay dividends.

Our danger is not too few, but too many options … to be puzzled by innumerable alternatives.

Richard Livingstone

Can you have too much autonomy and too much choice?

One final observation is that when presented with boundless autonomy we generally become lost and confused.  Most people will respond to this with confusion and more limited actions than when provided with a framework.  Imagine a restaurant with no menu, you could order anything you like. Most people would be conservative in their responses, they will not challenge themselves or their boundaries instead choosing something they already have confidence in and confidence that it is easy for you to provide – some will challenge but most are cautious. Also most people don’t like this, they want a restaurant to have a menu. They may grumble that something isn’t on the menu, and may ask to switch X for Y on their order or for the cooking to be modified, but the framework of a menu provide scaffolding and enables choice, the lack of the scaffolding stifles it.

It is the provision of boundaries that enables us the pleasure of pushing them, and having some guidance of what our options are for learning enables us and empowers us far more than a blank slate.  With some ideas of what is available we are able to ask for more or suggest alternatives.

Summary

  1. Make Time: In my opinion an organisation that is in the software field needs to make learning a pre-requisite, this is the most important task of the week.  Learning time is very important, so set aside time for it, and make the time such that it doesn’t conflict with the team or other business activities, Maybe set aside Tuesday morning as personal development time and challenge anyone not using it.  Teams where there are pressures or pairing may feel that this time impacts on their peers or their project this message needs to be challenged regularly.  This is for the long-term health of the business which outweighs any temporary short-term pain.
  2. Scaffolding: Create a framework where it will be used and is not just a hollow gesture, have a menu of options, and people who’s role is to support and guide, set development goals, provide subscriptions to online training, a budget for formal training, encourage in house peer training in this time. Encourage people to present their learning, acknowledge them for their efforts and especially for sharing it with colleagues.
  3. Broaden Scope: Don’t limit this to technical skills, or to skills your organisation currently uses, this is about personal development, so team building, soft skills, and even time to reflect on learning or their career/interests all help with that.
  4. Support: Some people will need more encouragement and support than others and so a group that is dedicated to professional and personal development could be invaluable to get the best out of this initiative.  All of us can benefit from someone to help us identify our goals and a plan, and to encourage us stick to it.
  5. Persist: Finally this will take time to become habit, starting the initiative is not enough, for a while it will require reminders and reinforcement to get the best from it, but if you are able to provide your team with the opportunity to grow as they want, I believe they will become far more engaged, enthusiastic and energetic.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s