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Back to School Time, All the Time! How Great Companies Are Creating Cultures of Applied Learning

Jason Diamond Arnold

August 23, 2022

As the sun sets on another summer season, we shift our attention to the next season in life. For many of us, it’s time to move on from the joys and pleasures we experience during this fun and active season in life. But when one season ends, a new one begins. We now transition into one of the great annual rites of passage — back to school. Social media sites are flooding with the cheesy grins of uncertain students transitioning into a new grade on the first day of school. It’s both a time of sorrow and excitement.

As we struggle with the transition from the freedoms of summer and into the more rigorous routine of autumn, we can see the “back to school” moment as an opportunity to assess our commitment to a life of learning. As professionals, we should always be striving to develop our careers, hone our skills, and improve the organizations we work for.

Learning is innately motivating because human beings crave a mastery of our daily activities. We thrive when we are learning new concepts and building new skills. That’s because one of our core psychological needs as humans, according to Self Determination Theory and Motivation Science, is to increase our competence toward things we care about in our life journey — professionally and personally.

But our natural appetite for learning should not only be fed at the beginning of a school year or during a traditional academic semester. Professionally, employees have a growing need for continual learning and the development of new knowledge and skills. In fact, one of the key reasons why employees leave an organization is due to the lack of opportunities to grow, develop, and master new skills.

But we’re not just talking about your standard learning and development training opportunities. Just as the workforce is evolving with hybrid and virtual work experiences, so is the training and development of employees. Today’s successful companies are ensuring their people are always learning new skills and strategies in order to maintain a competitive advantage in a 21st century marketplace.

Great companies don’t just stop at traditional learning and development opportunities. Instead, they are evolving their L&D strategies into learning experiences that don’t just result in knowledge acquisition; they are enabling them to mature into knowledge application — real and viable skills. Over time, these new skill sets help employees grow in their roles. Successful L&D programs are rapidly adopting on-demand learning experiences that are directly applied to real work, in real time, and lead to real business results.

What Is Applied Learning and Development?

"For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." — Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)

For years, learning and development professionals have struggled with closing the gap between learning and doing. While many thought the move from a physical classroom to a virtual one would magically close that gap, organizations simply exchanged one type of knowledge acquisition for another — moving from learning in a classroom to learning online. One thing that remains missing in training and development initiatives is not only knowledge retention (often cited as less than 10% of what is learned in a classroom), but the application of the knowledge learners gained in a traditional or virtual classroom.

Organizations that are serious about learning and development strategy are moving beyond knowledge acquisition and into applied learning models. Applied learning is simply the idea that knowledge can be applied to real work, in real time, and is a means to develop real skills. The key concept of applied learning is that you put into practice what you are learning.

Performance management platforms like Inspire Software seamlessly integrate learning platforms directly into the pursuit of real work objectives, in real time. 

For example, when an employee needs to learn how to effectively set and pursue critical performance goals, based on best practices in performance management research, users have access to on-demand learning models that are directly applied through tools in that software that help users practice the skills they are learning in real time. Rather than learning how to set a SMART Goal, users learn the SMART Goal criteria through expert authors' videos, then immediately have access to the SMART Goal application in order to build and set more effective performance goals. When individuals set more effective goals, they are more likely to achieve them — developing their careers while helping the company execute on critical strategy.

Creating a Culture of Learning and Development

One of the most powerful outcomes of having an applied learning and development strategy in your organization is that it naturally creates a culture of learning. Applied learning and development is also characterized by real-time learning concepts based on the different needs and roles of individuals throughout the organization. Great corporations create learning and development opportunities throughout the organization — from executive leaders to individual contributors — that help them improve within their current roles or explore new roles that could help the organization succeed. 

For example, most organizations only train leaders at the executive or managerial level of an organization. Astonishingly, only 5% of organizations have implemented leadership development at all levels. This is particularly surprising because 55% of CEOs surveyed by DDI said developing the next generation of leaders is their top concern — yet most organizations don’t heavily invest in developing leadership at an individual level.

Inspire Software has created a unique approach to developing leaders at every level of the organization through the performance management process. Users learn about the natural phases of performance that individuals, teams, and organizations go through when pursuing an objective or goal. Through the Inspire Academy, individuals, team leaders, managers, and executives have the ability to watch on-demand leadership courses, hosted by leadership experts, based on their current or future leadership roles. Learners are then able to directly apply those concepts to organizational, team, and individual objectives that are linked to key business results. Users who are in the learning process have the ability to immediately assess performance across the organization, and then choose leadership practices within the software that guide users to align to the situational needs of the organization, team, or individual. 

This approach of developing leaders is revolutionary in two ways: 

  1. Instead of buying access to different online learning courses for different types of leaders, at different levels of the organization, at different costs — executives learning one curriculum, team leaders learning another curriculum, and individuals learning a separate self-leadership model — Inspire’s approach to Leadership Development offers a common leadership language for leaders throughout the organization as part of one single subscription. Inspire Software has created the world’s first Leadership-as-a-Subscription-Service (LaaSS).

  2. Leaders learn and practice award-winning, research-based leadership theory in the flow of managing performance. By assessing performance needs, individuals are able to create meaningful work-related conversations about psychological needs and skill development, while team leaders and managers are able to respond to those needs with built-in best practices in leadership. Those best practices are aligned directly with the on-demand leadership courses. It’s real leadership, through real learning, in real time!

While it can be valuable for leaders to go through traditional learning experiences, such as earning an MBA or Ph.D., earning a leadership certificate online, or attending a traditional leadership workshop, applied leadership development can be much more powerful. Applied leadership development through on-demand learning and immediate application doesn’t silo the learning by creating separate learning experiences. Rather, Inspire’s approach to leadership development creates one unified learning experience across the organization that is both effective and practical to the needs of the business.

Why Applied Learning Through Technology Works

Most leadership development programs fail to yield results because they fail to bridge the gap between knowing what great leadership is and how great leadership is actually put into practice. One study found that about 75% of senior managers feel their leadership development program fails to impact business outcomes.

Because there's little quantitative data on the success of leadership programs, many executives are wary of investing in leadership development programs without solid proof of a return on investment (ROI). Indeed, less than 10% of CEOs believe their company’s leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact. 

One of the core reasons leadership development programs fail to close the gap between learning and practicing great leadership is that the “training” is often decoupled from real work. But with the right technology solution, leadership development practices are built into the software you use every day. When individuals and leaders have access to software applications that guide them through best practices in the flow of performance, users build critical leadership practices that not only develop leadership skills, but are also tied to the critical business outcomes they are pursuing. With an effective performance management software that has leadership practices built into it, companies can develop leaders, at every level of the organization, in the flow of work.

Back to the New School of Learning

Back-to-school time offers a great opportunity to promote continual learning in your organization. This time of year, education is on people’s minds, and you can capitalize on this season to encourage your people to advance their careers through applied learning journeys. With applied leadership development, your organization can make growing knowledge and skills an integral part of their daily work, making your organization stronger, more productive, and ultimately more profitable with an effective applied learning process.