Managers are the key to learning and development

learning and developmentFor as much time as we spend talking about learning management, companies do not seem to spend a lot of time thinking about learning and managers. This creates huge blind spots within organizations because managers play critical roles in every aspect of learning and development — from strategy to design to delivery to measurement.

As organizations continue to seek ways to develop a more continuous learning model, the challenge becomes how to make learning happen on an everyday basis. There are numerous tools and technologies to accomplish this, but without managers and supervisors it all grinds to a halt. Let’s look at some of the key aspects of an effective learning environment and how managers help make them a reality:

  • Relevance: Managers understand the needs/goals of their learners best.
  • Context: Managers know how learning relates to the job at hand.
  • Space: Managers control the workflow and know when to deploy performance support.
  • Reflection: It is up to managers to create time for learners to reflect on what they’ve learned.
  • Practice: Managers know what their employees must do and how their skills/knowledge should be applied.

Modern learning is all about personalization and contextualization. One of the biggest areas for context is among teams. Managers and supervisors who lead these groups understand the context and scope of the work they do and what is expected, and they must be included in the conversations around goals, outcomes and feasibility. Managers can also add a layer of content curation that refines what learning is presented to their teams.

Probably the most critical role for managers today is ensuring that learning fits within the work flow. More so than instructional designers and trainers, managers know the day-to-day life of learners and how/when learning experiences will fit and have the most impact. Managers are responsible for overseeing workflow expectations to ensure there is time for continuous development.

Managers are also key agents of change for creating and sustaining a culture of learning. A motivated manager invariably leads to an engaged employee. On the flip side, studies show that when people quit a job, they are typically quitting a manager. Although there are many ways that to encourage employee engagement that translates to motivation for your employees, managers can help the learning team understand how to create and deliver role-based learning that is grounded in relevant skill development to provide immediate value to the team and the organization.

When it comes to measuring learning, managers again play a pivotal role. No one is closer to the action when it comes to behavior and performance changes than managers; yet only 54% of companies use managerial observations as a metric for learning.

When managers have access to actionable learning data, it provides visibility into which areas require more engagement, motivation and alignment; so managers can help their employees engage in a path of learning that is continuous, relevant and contextual.

Here are some simple ways to get managers into the learning loop:

  • Put short, point-based games among their reports. Managers keep score and deliver prizes.
  • Have activities where learners put a concept into practice and present results to their manager.
  • Create a newsletter from managers with updates and refresher points.
  • Make videos featuring managers recommending or demonstrating behaviors from the learning.

And then there is the development of the managers themselves. Common themes found within almost every organization are the stories of people who were made managers simply because there was nowhere else for them to go in their career path. Just because someone is one of the greatest engineers who has ever been doesn’t mean they can manage a team of engineers. Companies far too often create managers rather than develop them.

Leadership development is a huge focus for organizations, but these programs are typically geared toward developing executives. Companies aren’t necessarily making sure frontline managers can handle the unique challenges their role presents. In fact, Brandon Hall Group’s 2019 Learning & Development Benchmarking Survey found that more than two-thirds of companies spend $1,000 or more annually per person for leadership development, but fewer than half spend that much on managers. And only one-quarter spend that on supervisors.

Managers have even less time for development than their busy employees, and a good chunk of what they need is best delivered via experiential channels (project leadership, shadowing, etc.).

Organizations need to examine their managers’ unique roles in delivering and receiving learning. Give managers the time and tools they need to be a conduit for continuous learning while providing learning experiences that meet the needs of today’s managers and fit into their unique work flow.