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A Vibrant Learning Culture Means Success for Small to Mid-Sized Companies


October 10th, 2018

- Updated on

October 10, 2018 - 2:28pm
Developing a vibrant culture of continuous learning is one of the most important elements of business success. That is the conclusion of two recent reports focusing on talent development in small to mid-sized firms (up to 2,500 employees). I recently reviewed the U.S. Learning and Development Benchmarking Survey: 2018  researched and published by FindCourses.com, comparing its findings to those found in our AJO's own study from last year: The State of Leadership Development in Small and Mid-sized Businesses 2017
Each report outlined specific ways that a learning culture or lack thereof impacts the corporate bottom line. With the economic fire sparking to life in the U.S. and competition for top talent and global customers critical, continuous learning can be a vital factor that helps your small to mid-sized business thrive.
Learning and development in small and mid-size businesses
Here are five important conclusions from your small to mid-sized peers who participated in these studies. Highlights from both studies show that:
  1. Talent Identification and Development/Leadership and Management Development are the highest ranking priorities in small to medium-sized businesses surveyed.
  2. Senior Management engagement with learning initiatives is the most critical factor in their success.
  3. Executive buy-in and championing of a learning culture is more likely in firms actively tracking the impact and ROI of learning initiatives.
  4. Leadership coaching as a learning and talent development strategy positively correlates with revenue growth.
  5. Employees in companies with a strong learning culture express higher degrees of engagement, leading to lower turnover, and measurable impact on the bottom line.
Your peers shed light on the “Why” for these outcomes. Let’s dig deeper into the two reports to glean implications for your own business.

Talent and Leadership Development are Crucial to Achieving Future Corporate Goals

State of Leadership Development Report CoverIn AJO's study respondents rated current leadership capabilities as stronger than those in the leadership pipeline. That would give pause to any manager with a long-term view.

Rather than formalized leadership development programs, small and mid-sized businesses indicated that they “primarily rely on manager recommendations and performance appraisals to identify future high potential employees for future leadership roles. Some do not formally identify leadership potential at all.”

Two thirds also rated their organization’s talent development strategies as unsophisticated. Respondents cite a lack of budget and financial resources, limited HR and time resources as reasons for a more fragmented approach to talent development, yet they do report that there are overall efforts to increase sophistication in planned leadership development activities in the works.
FindCourses.com's study provides additional detail to this challenging landscape.
L&D Benchmarking Study 2018 by FindCourses.comWhen asked about their biggest obstacles faced by Learning and Development functions, respondents cite the following:
  • 24% limited budgets for learning and development
  • 21% Small size of Learning and Development Team
  • 20% Difficulty showing ROI on talent development initiatives
  • 12% getting employees involved in Learning and Development
  • 8% Getting top executives to support Learning and Development.
How can a talent development team counter these trends?

The Success Imperative - What Works? SMB leadership development study success factors

Respondents to our study identified seven elements that play a role in successful learning and development.
However, as shown in the graphic, the most important factor was CEO/ Senior Leadership sponsorship, selected by 78% of respondents.
Having clearly defined strategic, measurable goals was also deemed to be an important success factor (56%).
The two research reports offer further details for those firms who take up the challenge.

Prove the Business Impact of Learning

The FindCourses.com report highlights ways to prove the business case and  improve the learning landscape in your firm, as summarized in the U.S. L&D Benchmarking Survey 2018
  • Track and report ROI of training. 100% of companies who grew last year said that they specifically track the ROI of training. “Those who tracked ROI of training were more likely to have increased learning resources, higher satisfaction with department performance, and increased executive buy-in on training initiatives.”
  • Highlight lost opportunity costs of the status quo. “Companies with staff not engaged in learning are twice as likely to lose employees before the third year mark.” Conversely, one can assume that employee engagement in robust learning improves retention, thus saving recruiting replacement and onboarding costs.
  • Measure and report employee engagement pre and post-training. 42% of respondents indicated that employees who were highly engaged in learning were also highly engaged in the organization overall.
  • Use technology as a multiplier. “A staff highly engaged in workplace learning is correlated with use of learning technologies.”
  • Incorporate coaching into your learning suite. “External and internal coaching…is a common practice at companies which reported increased revenue in the last financial year.”
  • Leverage senior staff and Informal influencers to champion engagement in learning. “90% of companies with strong learning cultures said senior executives were actively engaged in learning and development initiatives.”
Our report, The State of Leadership Development in Small and Mid-size Businesses in 2017, parallels these findings while taking recommendations steps deeper. The report highlights three ways to fully integrate learning activities with the company bottom line, enabling a strong business case for endorsing a vibrant learning culture across all levels of the organization.

Best Practices in Developing Leaders

Based on AJO's work in organizations of all sizes, we have distilled the following best practices for SMBs:
  1. Align leadership development programs with strategic workforce planning to include:    
    - Strategic clarity and alignment
    - Mapping the leadership, talent, and culture to the business strategy
    - Assessing future talent needs and developing a strategically aligned succession plan
    - Assessing current talent gaps and developing and implementing a strategy to close them
  2. Integrate leadership development with real work designed to solve current and future business challenges. Incorporate projects and assignments that solve complex business problems; explore new service or product opportunities; recommend new revenue streams; evaluate enterprise survey results, etc.
  3. Provide hands-on professional leadership development support by designing and delivering an integrated process that includes a strategically focused workshop series over a 12 to 18 month time period, supplemented by individual leadership and team coaching.

Take up the Challenge

If your small to mid-size business seeks ways to stay competitive, in the race for talent, the global push for marketplace edge, and the ever-expanding drive toward innovation, then a focus on building a vibrant learning culture may be just the push needed to take your firm to the top. Put these plans into action, then measure the results. 2019 may just be your best year ever.

AJO Blogger Kathy Flora HeadshotKathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.