Your Co-Workers Can Provide an Education

Social learning through strategic employee pairings can help foster continuous workforce education

Your Co-Workers Can Provide an Education

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If you prefer learning out on the job site through interaction with colleagues over time in a classroom, you’re not alone.

You’re also well on your way to understanding the value of so-called learning relationships and how they promote continuous learning in the workplace. That, in turn, leads to more engaged and productive employees.

“As humans, we’re innately wired to learn continually throughout our lives and careers,” says Lauren Bidwell, Ph.D., a psychologist who works as a research scientist at SAP SuccessFactors. “The problem, however, is the typical disconnect between how we as people want to learn and how organizations tend to teach us.

“Humans are social learners. The most natural and effective way we learn is through other people — simply watching them and mimicking. Children are a really perfect example of this. Social learning is always happening, whether it’s intentional or not.”

A natural process

Social learning, also called agile learning, is not only more desirable, it’s also more cost-effective for organizations. Yet it’s often difficult to achieve. As utilities or companies get larger, social learning can pose logistical challenges, Bidwell says.

As a result, organizations instead developed formal training programs to disseminate knowledge and information relatively quickly to broad groups of people. “But this isn’t consistent with how we learn best — how we prefer to learn — and it’s costly to implement,” she says.

Social learning is better because it happens all the time, with no formal start or end time. It’s also employee-driven. Overall, it’s more engaging and effective than static learning, which tends to be top-down instruction that’s mandated, comes from external sources (not fellow employees) and only occurs during a specific time period — say, during a daylong seminar, for example.

“Static learning relies on external resources rather than leveraging the knowledge that already exists in the workforce,” Bidwell says. “Agile is a dynamic type of learning that’s employee-driven. It’s multidirectional, not just one person talking to you.”

Moreover, static learning is reactive, while agile learning is more proactive.

Establish learning relationships

To integrate development into employees’ jobs — instead of in addition to their jobs — utilities need to learn how to leverage the power of learning relationships, Bidwell says.

Learning relationships generally occur between two employees and support the learning and growth of one or both people. They’re more informal in nature and involve sharing skills as well as perspectives. They’re also ongoing and adaptive/customizable.

A mentor and mentee represent one example of a learning relationship, but the definition is much broader than just an older, seasoned employee showing a young employee the ropes.

Instead, a learning relationship can serve a variety of purposes. Such a relationship might pair a new employee with a more established peer for onboarding purposes or for helping an employee adjust to a new role after a promotion, she says.

In other instances, the relationship might be aimed at specific skill development (think a younger employee teaching an older employee about social media). “You can pair someone with a desired skill with someone who desires it.”

A partnership can also connect employees who otherwise might not be as likely to connect. One example is intergenerational partnerships, which promote sharing different viewpoints and creating better cross-generational communication and understanding. That’s an important factor these days as utilities contend with multigenerational workforces.

Organizations can match employees from different backgrounds to improve diversity and inclusion efforts, or pair up people with similar diversity backgrounds to promote support networks. Or they can bring together employees with similar health and well-being goals, such as quitting smoking, running a marathon or losing weight. “They can partner together to achieve those goals … and help hold each other accountable,” Bidwell says.

Tangible results

These learning relationships are effective when executed well. Bidwell says SAP data shows that mentees in the partnership — the people learning a new skill — are promoted five times more often than nonmentee employees. They also report an 18% higher level of job satisfaction, not to mention less work stress and increased self-confidence. “That (increased self-confidence) is especially good for employees who are learning a new role,” she says.

Better yet, the relationships are mutually beneficial. For example, mentors are promoted six times more often than nonmentors. And in organizations that foster these mentoringlike relationships, employee turnover is lower — 38% less for mentees and 20% less for mentors. Moreover, employment engagement is 66% higher.

Organizations that invest in partnerships aimed at diversity and inclusion also enjoy better retention of employees and enhanced employee diversity at management levels. “These (learning relationships) tend to outweigh other initiatives, such as diversity training, cross-training or targeted recruiting,” Bidwell says.

For many organizations, developing effective learning relationship programs can be a challenge. For instance, only 31% of surveyed SAP SuccessFactors customers rated their mentoring programs as effective, she says.

But technology can help mitigate those factors. For example, software programs can help identify good partner matches for learning relationships and make it easier to track and monitor results, she says.

In the end, agile learning through strategic learning relationships looks like a viable answer to the problems of poor employee engagement, productivity and retention.


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