Sep 21, 2020

Why your startup needs a learning strategy + how to go about it

As someone that advocates for a data-led approach to decision making within the People space, I’ve laid down some juicy facts to kick off this piece on developing a learning strategy within a startup.

CultureAmp’s latest insights tell us that:

  1. The response to the statement “This is a great company for me to make a contribution to my development” is the second highest driver of engagement for companies that they categorise as “New Tech — United Kingdom”
  2. Employees within this “New Tech” category report much less favorable scores for many Learning + Development questions than the average employee in the UK.

Put at its most simplest: people who work in fast-growth tech environments care deeply about their development, and on the whole their company needs to do a much better job at providing it for them.

Luckily for you, Unleashed have drawn upon two amazing learning companies that are friends of the business so that we can take a look at 2 different — but equally valuable — approaches to building a learning strategy within a rapidly scaling business.

Looking through the lens of the Attract-Grow-Retain talent strategy, we hear from Rajeeb Dey, Founder + CEO of Learnerbly, sharing his wisdom on personal learning budgets and how their solution really makes these work; and then from Charlie Stainforth, Co-Founder + CEO of Circl, to learn about the value of investing in emotional learning experiences for your team to share together.

As always, we hope you find this inspiring or useful in some way, and will gladly chat through approaches to learning strategies in more detail for anybody who wants to find out more.


What are they?

Quite simply, you allocate a fixed sum of money each year to every person who works in the company. Each person is then given the autonomy to spend that budget on their own development as they wish. Raj says that annual budgets per head range from £150 at the lower end, to one Learnerbly client who has decided to offer unlimited budget to their people.

What’s broken about the traditional approach to PLBs?

Despite PLBs becoming the go-to option for startups and scaleups over recent years, there are some clear challenges.

Raj: I started Learnerbly because I noticed a trend that fast growth tech companies were allocating personal learning budgets to people, but they were reporting that only about 10% of the budgets were being spent. People don’t know they have the budget; they don’t know how to access it; it’s not transparent and it’s too much effort. People are left feeling: “I just simply don’t know what I should be learning”.

PLBs for many startups are no better than a £number written on a careers page. Without the right processes, culture and communication in place, they go unused. And this, of course, is where the Learnerbly platform comes in.

How does Learnerbly help?

Raj: Learnernbly is a learning development platform that curates the very best learning opportunities, based on what you want to learn and how you like to learn. We remove all the admin and handle the process from end to end. From the minute you make a request to us purchasing it for you, it’s just a fully seamless transaction.

Companies host their PLBs on the platform, allowing individuals to more easily access learning opportunities and removing the time-consuming, administrative burden that is typically part and parcel of PLBs within small companies.

Raj: We empower employees to own their own development. They can choose whether to spend their budget on courses, conferences, books, coaching, free podcasts and videos. And your manager can recommend learning to you through the platform too.

Instead of the 10% utilisation of PLBs typical in the UK, Learnerbly customers utilise above 50% of their budgets, with 40–60% of people engaging in the platform each month.

So, clearly a solution that is really helping companies to make PLBs something that work. So, how does this approach help with Talent Attraction, Growth + Retention?

How does a PLB approach through Learnerbly attract talent?

PLBs are clearly a very tangible way to show potential talent how much you plan to invest in their learning. If you offer me £1,000 per year, that sends a better signal than your competitor that only offers £250. A recent survey by recruitment firm Wilson-Grey showed that 40% of talent expect their employer to provide a PLB.

Raj: Your whole DNA as a startup should be about learning. Philosophically it is important that every company is a learning business — this allows you to deal with turmoil, uncertainty; to iterate, pivot and learn as a whole business. To become this, you don’t want to attract fixed mindset people to join your company — you want a growth mindset. They will ask: how am I gonna get the opportunity to grow?

How does this approach really enable my people to grow?

Raj: Learnerbly democratises learning, empowering employees to really drive their own development forward. We don’t believe that just because you’re a developer you should learn about coding — we would encourage a broader set of interests, so we don’t permit companies to restrict people’s learning.

Raj was kind enough to educate me on The Difference Between Pedagogy, Andragogy, And Heutagogy (worth a read!) — and explains how it is the heutagogical (self-directed) approach to learning that Learnerbly brings to life.

Raj: The role of the company or manager is to signpost or curate — to guide not dictate. This is about inspiring your colleagues — make them want to do it, don’t force them to do it. This is also an opportunity to trust people to make the right choices to develop themselves.

Raj: The other key factor is that learning is multi-modal — that it’s based on what you want to learn and how you like to learn. One style of learning won’t appeal to the whole company. By giving people access to courses, conferences, books, podcasts and more, you can appeal to more people.

What about retaining great people?

If people feel like they are being invested in and that they are genuinely growing, it follows that they should be more engaged and, in turn, stay at your business longer.

Raj: With personal learning budgets, every single person feels like they’re being invested in, which is important from an employee engagement perspective. By making the learning budget transparent, you enable the people to come forward who would ordinarily feel it’s not their place to ask for money, so it’s also about increasing inclusion.

Raj: Ultimately, scaleups cannot continually promote people up a ladder. Giving people a learning budget shows them you are investing in their growth and also enables people to explore their wider passions and curiosity.


How does this typically work?

This is a more centralised approach to investing in your people’s development. Do a piece of analysis to understand what people want or need to learn, go to market to find partners that can deliver those learning outcomes and then make arrangements so that your team can participate. This might be a management skills programme for a cohort of people managers, or perhaps a training in personal effectiveness for those wanting to improve their output at work.

What’s broken with the standard approach to organising learning experiences?

As Raj’s comments highlight, telling people what, how and when to learn will simply not work for a large portion of your organisation. People are more engaged in learning when they are in the driver’s seat. As a result, businesses commonly find both empty seats and phone-distracted participants in training sessions they have invested in.

On top of low engagement, genuinely learning new skills can be a real challenge for people too, as the secure training environment protects people from really needing to push to develop. Unless new theories learnt in these sessions are really woven into everyday situations, exciting concepts are often forgotten after a matter of weeks.

But there is a real opportunity for businesses to create experiences that go beyond these training norms and leave a lasting impact on their people.

How does Circl go beyond the traditional approach?

Charlie: We believe that the best way to learn is to have a real world experience of leading alongside talented future leaders — instead of roleplay. In a typical training environment, everyone is kind of in on the joke. Compare this to working with young people, they’re bringing completely different challenges or goals, they have a very different perception, and they are not filtered like our colleagues — they tell it how it is, and that’s challenging. And challenge, as we know, is where you learn the most.

Circl achieves this through their Be a leader, build a leader programmes. Companies select a chosen cohort to take part in the 3 to 6 month experience, whereby Circl’s accredited coaches train these professionals in coaching skills. However, instead of just learning with their colleagues, they’re matched and learn 1:1 alongside a talented, but under-represented young adult from outside the company.

Charlie: We believe in a new kind of leadership — leadership that needs to look different and be different, but also act differently. This is a mutually beneficial relationship — learning this coaching approach to leadership together enables both our professionals and our young people to benefit.

How can this approach help with talent attraction?

Whilst a programme for a specific cohort is not so tangible as a £number on a careers page, the emotional story-telling opportunities are huge. This 2016 study is one of many to show how important values and social conscience are to millennials when deciding where they want to work — with 75% of people saying they would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company.

Charlie: People looking for jobs want to be able to answer: “Are you investing sustainably in your community whilst also investing in your people?”

Circl companies use their careers sites to attract talent by demonstrating the social impact that the Be a leader, build a leader programme clearly has on the young people that their professionals are partnered with.

How does this approach really enable my people to grow?

Charlie: There’s a lot of value in investing a significant amount of time in a programme with other people where you can have a shared experience that you connect with emotionally. This is what people go home and talk to their housemates and families about, which drives real learning.

So by putting people out of their comfort zone and exposing them to a genuinely memorable experience that they actually feel, the learning embeds much more deeply than something that seems “run of the mill”. This is true of any emotional learning experience, but the Circl approach goes further, by focusing on coaching skills as the central learning outcome.

Charlie: Developing coaching skills in your people is so important. Leadership needs to move away from command and control and towards this coaching approach. Not telling people the answers, but helping them through questions, active listening and observation get to their own, autonomous solutions to their goals. The two key components of coaching are raising awareness and building responsibility. Creating a culture of coaching transforms these into collective awareness and collective responsibility, which are really powerful.

And from experience, I can tell you that coaching is a very hard skill to learn in a roleplay environment. It is a skill that develops through practical implementation and continuous learning.

Charlie: The professionals on our programme find that every time they deploy the coaching skills that they learnt on a Circl programme, they feel “Wow, I learnt this because I was working alongside a young person and was helping them, but I’ve also improved, and now I’m using the skills to help this person in my team come to their own solutions”. And so the learning embeds.

How does this emotional learning experience approach help with retention?

For those who are fortunate to be part of the programme, the benefits are huge!

Charlie: Participants reflect, “I feel so lucky and privileged to have this experience provided for me by my organisation”. And this provides an emotional connection to the workplace. And ultimately that’s what we want. If we’re spending so much time in the workplace, you want to be able to feel emotionally as well as rationally good about that. If businesses can achieve that kind of emotional connection, either through Circl or through other emotional learning experiences, then they’re onto a winner.

You don’t have to take one approach alone…

Whilst hearing the detailed experiences and expertise of both Raj + Charlie, it quickly became clear that these two approaches do not have to sit apart from one another, and that the best learning strategies will always take a balanced approach of providing autonomy and empowerment to their people through well-managed personal learning budgets, but keeping some money and time aside to create amazing, memorable, emotional learning experiences for the talent in the business that they are most keen to grow and retain.

When developing your learning strategy, regardless of the end solution, one thing is clear — it should never be one size fits all.

Charlie: Ask your people what would actually help them and co-create your learning solutions alongside them.

Raj: Put yourselves in the shoes of the employee — how would you want to be treated when it comes to learning + development? Use the answer to this question to design the culture of learning in your business.

Written by People & Culture Partner at Unleashed.Company Tom Jewell.

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