4 steps to better reskilling, upskilling, and learning at work

Becky Wood
Team Humu

A March 2021 PWC survey found that HR executives’ #1 concern is upskilling their employees. And for good reason: companies whose employees can quickly develop new skills are more innovative and better able to grow their bottom line. Learning at work is also linked to higher levels of job satisfaction, team performance, and engagement.

What most learning programs miss is that if people go a week without applying new knowledge, they forget 75% of what they just learned. In other words, organizational success depends on giving people opportunities to practice and develop new abilities on-the-job, every single day.

In a recent fireside chat, Humu CEO Laszlo Bock and People Scientist Tom Skiba shared some of the science behind effective learning at work — and how leaders can supercharge their learning and development (L&D) efforts for maximum results.

What do we mean by “learning at work”? 

Tom Skiba (TS): Studies estimate that 70 to 90% of learning at work is informal or on-the-job learning. That means experimenting with new ways of doing things in the flow of your work, getting feedback, and picking up skills from the people around you. 

Laszlo Bock (LB): In Humu’s data, we see that when you take a manager out of context and send them to training, they're actually perceived to be worse six months later than they were before the training. That’s because they forget most of what they learned, so they don’t improve, but everyone around them expects to demonstrate noticeable, lasting improvements.

The best way to learn is through continual opportunities to practice and build new skills in the flow of work: to take small steps towards improvement rather than a big dramatic change all at once.

In our team’s 25 decades of combined People Science experience and our work with the Fortune 500, we've identified four universal principles that make learning at work more effective:

  • Context: The best learning happens in the flow of work. 
  • Connectivity: Learning shouldn’t be lonely. 
  • Cadence: You actually learn best when you learn less. 
  • Continuous improvement: Keep only what works. 

These 4 “Cs”  combine to create a culture of learning in which people get better and better over time, without having to attend trainings or add more to their already long to-do lists.

Why is informal learning so much more effective than traditional training?

TS: Researchers differentiate between what they call “near learning” and “far learning." Near learning is knowledge that's shared in a similar context, like learning how to use Google Slides while making a slide deck for a meeting. Far learning is knowledge passed between dissimilar contexts, like reading a Wikipedia article about Google Slides while you're on the treadmill.

In the workplace, manager training in particular tends to be far learning in the form of out-of-context, staged presentations — which is very different from talking to your reports during a one-on-one or leading a team meeting. The nearer that learning is to the actual context of a person's work, the more likely the new skills are to stick.

Here’s the thing: People in the wild are busy. It's a lot to ask of a person to go back to their old environment with all their old habits and stressors, but now, do everything differently. We know from research that nudges help people follow through on their good intentions.

What does continuous improvement look like?

LB: Globally, large companies spend almost $400 billion a year on learning and development. In the U.S., it's an average of $1,000 per person per year. 

The problem is most of those programs are either not measured at all, or only measured based on whether people liked the program. A survey found that only 13% of companies actually calculate quantifiable returns for their L&D initiatives.

One Humu client, a large tech company, was spending a million dollars a year on manager training with no clear impact. There was an incremental improvement during the six-month training, but after that, their performance and ratings dropped right back to baseline. That’s because people need regular reinforcement.

In contrast, nudges drive continuous learning. Not only do we see 60% of managers meaningfully improve over six months, but we see them sustain that growth over time because they keep integrating knowledge into their day-to-day work.

Can you give us an example of a nudge for managers? 

TS: If you're reporting exceptional work that your team just did to your superiors, cc your team members and mention them by name in the email. Everyone is starved for recognition, and that tiny extra effort—you’re sending the email anyway— gives them a lot more visibility internally, which boosts morale.

Every nudge is made to be easy to act on, which is why they work. In a recent study, 97% of the managers receiving nudges self-reported that they were regularly taking action to improve. And when we asked their direct reports, 90% of them agreed.

Individual contributors want to see their leaders willing to try new things: it’s a sign the company is moving forward. Nudges help leaders create continuous momentum over time, stacking small action on top of small action until you get huge results. 

Ready to get more bang for your L&D buck? Download the Science of Learning Ebook →