Why Small Businesses Need to Prioritize Continuous Learning
To compete in an ever-challenging talent market, small businesses have to offer employees opportunities to learn.
Today's workers want to learn new skills. In fact, data from a 2021 Boston Consulting Group report shows that 68 percent of employees surveyed are willing to train for entirely new roles.
And luckily, companies will need new skills: One IBM study predicts that by 2022, more than 120 million workers in the globe's 12 largest economies will need reskilling or retraining as new technologies widen existing skills gaps in many industries. LinkedIn's 2021 Workplace Learning Report also shows 76 percent of Generation Z and 61 percent of millennials agree "learning is the key to success" in their careers. Employees — especially young ones — see the value in professional growth opportunities.
In particular, small businesses must recognize this and prioritize continuous learning opportunities. Why? Small and large businesses are competing for the same talent. Many large businesses already have the resources to offer development opportunities. Small businesses, on the other hand, will fall behind if employees flock to the larger organizations that offer them more growth.
The bottom line is that if small businesses want to stay competitive and bring in the same level of talent as larger companies, they must commit to employee development with continuous education. And when they do, they'll bring in stellar employees who are eager to learn and perform at the top of their potential.
The challenges of continuous education for small businesses
Many small businesses have historically held back from offering development opportunities due to a lack of resources and information. Continuous professional education can be expensive. Plus, it's a cost that doesn't go away. To a small business owner, that fact alone can make reskilling employees seem too daunting. In time, however, the return in productivity, engagement and profitability tends to justify the cost.
Some smaller companies also struggle to determine what skills they actually need now and what they will need in the future. They might lack insights into the macro market and trends outside their specific sectors. Consider digital marketing as one example: Many small businesses might not realize they've fallen behind with their marketing strategies. That's because they haven't seen how other companies or industries generate and track leads and referrals through social media or drive traffic with SEO. By enrolling their marketers in digital marketing courses, however, they could catch up to current methods and strategies.
The future of learning is more accessible than ever
The good news for small businesses is that continuous professional education has never been more accessible than it is today. Over the past few years, the ways in which we can access learning have changed drastically. Historically, people have relied primarily on in-person lectures and classrooms. Today, the options are more numerous, with self-paced online courses, live streamed lectures and more.
The way teachers deliver education has changed as well. Digital learning environments bring options far beyond the traditional reading and lecture format. With options such as polling features, videos, vignettes and more, courses have become interactive and engaging. It's much less flat and static than it used to be, and it can adapt based on the audience. In many situations, learners can choose where, when and how they learn.
How to take advantage of continuous professional education
If you want your business to remain competitive and attract top talent, it's time to prioritize continuous education opportunities with these steps:
1. Learn what industry skills and knowledge your company needs
You could throw dozens of courses at your employees and never move the talent needle an inch if you upskill on the wrong topics. First, pinpoint your education needs by researching trends in your industry.
A great starting point is the 2021 Boston Consulting Group report mentioned above. It gives an in-depth analysis of emerging skills that are important from a business perspective and desirable from an employee perspective. Understanding this data can help you become more predictive and proactive when it comes to providing beneficial continuous learning pathways and opportunities. The key here is continuous — training should not be a one-and-done activity. Consistent investment and sustained effort are critical. What's more, remember not to overlook developing soft skills in your education efforts, because they can be just as valuable as hard ones.
Beyond that, consider tapping into the wisdom of your own networks. Connect with your peers and find out which skills they're focusing on for continuous learning and professional development. The LinkedIn 2021 Workplace Learning Report, also mentioned above, shows that 64 percent of learning and development professionals are prioritizing growth opportunities today. With this, there should be no shortage of experience to tap into.
2. Ask employees what they want to learn
As you discover what skills you need to drive your business forward, consider how these can align with the skills your employees want to develop. One great way to find out what employees want to learn is through surveys in regular communications such as newsletters or emails. The most important part of gathering this feedback is to follow up and present opportunities that will match your employees' desires for new skills.
Amazon, for example, offers its Career Choice program to employees who have worked with the company for three months. They can choose to receive funding for a variety of upskilling opportunities such as earning their GED, attending college or taking on other skills training. As a small business leader, you might not be able to offer that much funding, but you can look to local associations with expertise in the areas your employees are looking to develop. You could ask an expert to speak or host educational lessons, for instance. Whatever upskilling opportunities you find, be sure they can happen continuously rather than being just one-time events. Consider monthly meetings, panels or Zoom sessions, for example.
3. Show your commitment to development by seeking growth opportunities for yourself
Open communication will be key in encouraging a culture of continuous learning. To keep things transparent, I like to tell my team what I'm working on in terms of professional development and ask for their input. Do they have resources to share that can help or ideas on how I can improve?
For example, I just moved to Missouri, where my team is located, and I wanted to learn more about the area to have a bigger impact on the culture and community — particularly when it comes to the topic of women in leadership. I've been pursuing opportunities to get involved and asking my team if they have any suggestions or connections relative to the cause. Continuous education starts from the top down, so show your team you're dedicated to learning and growing alongside them.
Continuous professional learning is key to staying competitive today. Companies need new skills, and employees want to learn them. With the digital transformation of education and its delivery in recent years, you have more options than ever before when it comes to offering your employees accessible, valuable upskilling opportunities. Start by finding out what skills you need, asking your employees what they want and demonstrating your own dedication to growth and forward momentum.
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