Our learning community has tremendous potential to create value for individuals, organizations and our nation. Sadly, we are not fulfilling that potential.
From President Obama speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to Michael Porter at Harvard, to the CEO guest hosts on CNBC, the message is the same: For our companies to be successful, and for our nation to be competitive in global markets, we have to do a much better job of educating our workforce. We need new skills and know-how. We need more talent. We need more effective and productive education systems. We need more degree holders. We need … we need … we need.
We have clearly identified the problem — rehashing worn-out solutions isn’t working. This is not about tools; it’s about strategy and good execution. What we really need most are innovative solutions, and public dialogue has been revealing.
In a February broadcast from the Harvard Business School, the hosts of CNBC’s “Squawk Box” focused a conversation on the same old tired issues: Federal Reserve policy was criticized; the overregulatory environment was scrutinized; and the winner-loser scorecard of Washington politics was paraded back onstage.
In the meantime, the only discussion about the education challenge we currently face in this country was who should pay. This is yet another iteration of the exhausted winner and loser chatter in the political arena. While entertaining, finger-pointing is not serving any of us because if we don’t develop more innovative solutions to our education challenges, there will be no winners — at least not in our country.
The current education debate largely focuses around two areas:
1. The most visible issue is the failure of our K-12 public education system to fully prepare a large proportion of our young people. In a world where lifelong learning is critical to success, educating our kids is only part of the challenge. Even at their very best, public school system graduates need continuous learning after they graduate because they have to be equipped to compete in the global economy.
2. The second issue is implied and more subtle. It involves corporate leaders’ implicit assumption that the most critical learning takes place before a new hire joins the firm. This is one of the reasons there is so much attention on K-12. The implication is that taxpayer-paid public education is failing to deliver on its responsibilities. What corporate leaders are reacting most intensely to is the need to remediate education that should have already occurred. Here I am going to suggest a radical departure from the past — a key element of innovation.
Instead of focusing on what public educators are not doing, I suggest we focus on what corporate leaders must do. It requires a radical shift in the implicit assumption of our corporate training and learning strategy. Knowledge is changing at an accelerating rate. Therefore, no matter what our workforce learns before joining a firm, the information will rapidly become obsolete. No matter how successful or unsuccessful formal education has been for a new employee, a successful organization must continue to invest in the skills and knowledge of its most important asset — its people.
If we accept the notion that learning and development for employees inside an enterprise is required no matter how successful external education is, the focus becomes: How do we make more productive human capital investments in our own people? Here is where our current efforts fall far short of fulfilling workforce potential. Three key questions are:
1. Who should receive learning and development resources? Currently, there is a significant bias to disproportionately invest in education to support succession planning. In many organizations, succession planning involves development of the leadership pipeline at the most senior levels. Largely neglected is an equally important succession from individual contributor to that first management position.
2. What should the level of investment be? Currently, learning and development expenditures are managed as costs, not investments. This automatically sets the decision criteria for level of expenditure: Less is better.
3. What are the strategic and financial impacts of learning inside the firm? This question can only be answered for populations receiving interventions measured over time.
As executive leaders we have a long way to go to fully contribute to our education challenges. We need learning innovations inside our firms — not magic solutions outside of them.
Michael E. Echols is the vice president of strategic initiatives at Bellevue University. He is the author of ROI on Human Capital Investment. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.