Managers Are the Key to Learning and Development

By David Wentworth, Principal Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

For 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 workflow. 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, deliver prizes
  • Have activities where learners put a concept into practice and present results to their manager
  • Create a newsletter from managers with updates, 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 workflow.

David Wentworth, Principal Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.