Strategies organizations can implement to build a more equitable culture of continuous learning.
By Nancy Hammervik
Reskilling and upskilling employees drives business success, but these investments won’t reach their full potential until they are accessible to all workers. An individual’s success is influenced by their ability to participate in the full spectrum of learning opportunities an employer provides.
This means that progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives will depend on the thoughtful design of workplace learning programs. Put another way, merely being open to all isn’t sufficient; to truly include every employee, workplace learning programs must confront and reduce structural barriers to access and success.
CompTIA’s recent report, Workforce and Learning Trends 2021: Accelerating Through the Curve, found that businesses are getting more proactive about intentional and accountable DEI efforts. The report showed that over half of HR professionals said they expect their organizations will pursue new DEI initiatives in the year ahead, including 66% of large firms, 47% of medium firms, and 35% of small firms.
Another of the five major themes identified in the study is that personalized learning is being supplanted by the more fluid and adaptable concept of continuous learning— always on, anywhere, anytime, in any modality.
What is potentially very exciting is how these themes are mutually reinforcing. Continuous learning supports equity and inclusion by reducing barriers to access for all workers.
What is Continuous Learning?
The goal of continuous learning is to allow employees to upgrade skills, competencies, or credentials when and where they are most motivated and it is most convenient. It allows them to move seamlessly throughout their career from a discrete need-it-now skill to a comprehensive degree program. And it allows them to learn throughout the day as they move from the shop floor to a classroom, laptop computer, or smartphone screen.
L&D too often defaults to event-based learning instead of meeting employees at moments of high motivation and convenience. Too much learning is accessed only in the cubicle or conference room at a time defined by the employer’s sense of urgency. Continuous learning is designed to leverage workers’ own sense of what skills they need to succeed, whether on the job today or in their careers over the long term.
In the literature scan that informed the Workforce and Learning Trends 2021, CompTIA identified numerous examples of emerging technology that can support continuous learning, including:
- adaptive technology that lets people work at their own pace by skipping ahead, pausing, or stopping when they need to;
- learning record software that can track and credit a variety of learning experiences;
- learning experience platforms that provide anytime, anywhere “streaming channel”-style access to content; and
- social learning platforms that allow employees to connect and collaborate in personal ways.
Making Workplace Learning Inclusive
A recent report from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, Race and the Work of the Future: Advancing Workforce Equity in the United States, describes how the “social determinants of work”—access to technology, transportation, healthcare, childcare, eldercare, and safe living conditions—influence an individual’s ability to find and keep good jobs.
Those social factors also affect access to one of the key benefits of good jobs—opportunities to grow and advance in a career. L&D that doesn’t account for the complexities of how people access learning will leave less advantaged workers behind.
Likewise, DEI initiatives that don’t account for access to learning are unlikely to reach their full potential. A message that all are welcome at a company is undermined by fixed assumptions in a training program about what skills an individual will need or want to develop. A policy of flexible scheduling for working parents is undermined by a message that the path to the next career step runs through a week-long professional conference.
Event-based learning inevitably excludes somebody, and it will disproportionately exclude people of color, women, and low-income workers. To be effective for all employees, as many workplace L&D activities as possible must be designed with a continuous learning mindset— available to all, anytime, anywhere, in any learning modality.
Of course, conferences and seminars still have important benefits and shouldn’t be eliminated entirely. But they can be de-prioritized and supplemented with remote and hybrid options. To build a culture of continuous learning, an employer can:
- provide multiple access points, including asynchronous courseware designed to work on mobile devices;
- remove barriers to access, like tuition reimbursement policies or device-use policies that disadvantage workers with fewer resources;
- consider prior learning assessment and competency-based programs, document informal learning, and otherwise commit to a message that all learning counts;
- develop apprenticeship programs that create more career on-ramps;
- provide learning communities that open up career paths within the workplace;
- recognize and celebrate a variety of certifications; and
- invest in professional learning design.
Employers can also create more inclusive workplaces by reducing the expectation for the four year degree and by hiring for potential, something that 57% of senior leaders in CompTIA’s survey expect to continue as a trend.
Organizational Benefits of Continuous Learning
HR leaders know that learning is a driver of business success. The challenge is operationalizing learning so it is embedded in the workplace culture. Continuous learning aligns with making learning a strategic initiative instead of a check-the-box operation.
Not incidentally, continuous learning can also support DEI initiatives by accommodating the diverse ways individuals access career development. It’s a means to identify and directly confront the barriers that marginalized and underrepresented workers experience. And it creates inclusive practices that respect the whole worker— their family situation, their personal work-life balance calculations, their readiness and motivation, and the social limitations put in their path.
Everyone has their fingers crossed that a post-pandemic “return to normal” is coming soon. But the pandemic created opportunities to improve on normal. Businesses must make sure that DEI efforts are sophisticated, intentional, and accountable, and that workplace learning is embedded in business strategy. Neither DEI nor learning should be an afterthought, and neither should be developed in isolation. DEI and L&D can mutually reinforce one another when workplace learning is designed to directly confront and overcome barriers to access.
Nancy Hammervik is CEO of CompTIA Tech Careers Academy and executive vice president of industry relations at CompTIA.