Why do employees learn little at work?

It is a given that today we have to learn constantly, that today’s skills can quickly become obsolete tomorrow and that tomorrow’s skills were not taught yesterday.

In this context, training can no longer, or no longer only, consist of dedicated periods of time throughout the employee’s life, organized by the business. It is also up to the employee, proactively and on his or her own initiative, to keep up to date and to start developing new skills.

If everyone, businesses and employees, agrees on this point, many managers and HR deplore the fact that in reality this does not happen, or not enough. And very often the blame is easily put on the employees who “don’t understand the stake” or “don’t want to”.

An easy way, as is often the case, to blame the individual for a problem that is above all systemic.

Training at work or while working?

There are two ways to train at work: while you are working, doing things, and on non-productive time.

The first is the most obvious: it is by having to do new things that we learn to do them, sometimes willingly, sometimes because we can’t do otherwise. Learning a new activity, using a new tool or improving your mastery of the tool, happens to everyone throughout their career and not just once.

Sometimes it comes from an opportunity when you are given the chance to start in a new field and you have to break it out on your own. Sometimes it comes from necessity: because of an unforeseen event, the absence of a person or for some other reason you have to get out of your comfort zone and get your hands dirty.

This is almost the only case where, willingly or unwillingly, the employee learns at work because it is either by mutual agreement between the business and the employee, or it is the result of a necessity to which no one can object.

For the rest it is much more complicated.

Training in things that are not yet immediately useful, such as business watch, requires that it be done on time when the employee will not be productive.

Learning at work: the unspoken that hurts

If everyone agrees that it is necessary, there is a more or less implicit rule about the time spent training at work: it must be done outside of work time!

Sometimes it is said frankly by the manager, sometimes the message is more subtle, sometimes it is just made impossible by the context or the nature of the employee’s work, sometimes it is the employee who doesn’t dare (and let’s ask ourselves why…) but that’s how it is: self-learning at work happens on the lunch break, or at home. And since the business (or the manager) does not respect the rules of the game, the employee gives up.

Social learning is one of the best ways to learn even if it is not always easy to organize when you are on an informal and adhoc approach. A long time ago, with the advent of business social networks, many people believed that these new tools would improve things because they would allow to identify people we didn’t know, to get rid of the distance, to be in asynchronous mode and moreover to capitalize on knowledge by formalizing it.

And of course…it didn’t work. Because the real constraint was the meaning of the process and the time available, things that the technology did not address. The technology was a facilitator and a booster, but it didn’t address the fundamental problems inherent in this kind of practice. So it worked in businesses that already had a structured approach that worked before without technology, in those that wanted to structure it and, primarily, allocate time and measure what was worthwhile and it failed elsewhere.

There is no magic formula, but these attempts have allowed us to identify what works…or not.

How to anchor a self-learning approach?

Communicate: this may seem obvious, but if we don’t make everyone understand the importance of such an approach, nothing will happen. The message must be passed on to employees of course, but also, and above all, to managers so that they do not stand in the way. Learning, keeping up to date, is an investment for the business but also for everyone.

Sacralizing time: it doesn’t always work and it is sometimes even proof that the approach is not anchored, but it can help, at least at the beginning. It can also make things easier for managers who, although they are sometimes seen as obstacles, are faced with a paradoxical injunction: to allow time to learn and get the best out of their teams. Especially in departments where the rate of employee time utilization is one of the most monitored metrics.

Systematize the approach: when I say that what worked best online were things that went well offline… At the time, I remember the networks of reciprocal knowledge exchange at the French Post Office (which went very well without technology if I remember correctly), the communities of practice at Schlumberger, or the “markeplaces” at Danone where, during an event, those who had a problem and those who had the solution were put in contact with each other. This program was later one of the cornerstones of the Dan 2.0 social intranet program, which was able to capitalize on good practices in “real life” and scale them up.

In the same way, I know of a number of businesses that have systematized the sharing of feedback, based on the principle that the more information is available, the more willingly the learner learns. In a business I worked with a long time ago, sales people were obliged to debrief every sale they made or lost on the internal social network, and in another business, the same thing was done with a population of engineers or operators on how to solve technical problems.

This is of course only true for internal knowledge transfer, but it covers an interesting part of the spectrum.

Hire curious people: and this may be the place to start. There are those to whom explaining learning is important and who will back away from the first obstacle, there are two who are constantly seeking to learn and understand new things and who will do so at all costs. And this can be evaluated very quickly.

Set up a library of resources: It is always useful to leave as much of the employee’s work as possible. If they don’t have to search for information and content, they will be all the more inclined to acquire or perfect their knowledge on a subject. Today, it is quite easy to build a training content library with home-made or third-party content. The possibility to editorialize will allow employees to easily find things according to their interests, the possibility to create courses will allow to satisfy people with different maturity levels and/or expectations. And since it’s an “official” business service, they’ll feel less guilty about using it.

Be exemplary: when the employee’s direct manager, or even someone higher up, points out training content to his or her teams, it means “I expect you to look in this direction”. But it also means: “you see, I too take the time to continue learning things”.

Valuing the knowledgeable: knowledge is sometimes documented, but sometimes it is contained in the heads of certain people. There are many ways to give them a voice and to create online communities around them, and many of them are eager to share their knowledge and experience…as long as the process is valued and they are not blamed for wasting their time doing it.

Use existing mechanisms: in France, there is a mechanism called AFEST (Learning actions on work time) which allows you to finance training courses (by internal or external trainers). Without going into details, you can build systems where your internal experts can accompany other employees in an increase in skills…the time of both being partly financed. And guess what? When a training program requiring internal resources results in a net cash inflow for the business, everyone plays along…


In order to learn, one must want to learn, know how to learn and be able to learn. None of these dimensions should be neglected.

Image : Learning at work by Artur Szczybylo via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

Recent posts