A learning path is a sequence of activities that allows a person to build knowledge or skill. For instance, an employee who wants to become more proficient in project management might have a learning path that includes: proposal writing, budgeting, scheduling, critical evaluation, and project management. The idea being that each topic builds upon the previous and makes the employee better at project management.
Learning paths are different from talent pools, in my opinion. A talent pool is often used as an alternative to succession planning. Organizations that aren’t ready to make the definitive statement “We’re grooming Leonard to be our next chief financial officer.” can instead identify future talent needs and provide career development opportunities.
And that’s the difference to me. Learning paths address the organization’s current needs and talent pools take more of a future approach. Any employee can have a learning path. In fact, every employee probably should have a learning path. And an employee’s learning path should help them achieve their goals.
I’m a fan of cascading goals. The idea that the organization’s goals are the department’s goals. And the department’s goals are employee’s goals. It all flows downhill…in a good way, of course. The idea being that if companies want to achieve their goals then employee goals should be aligned. Employees should understand how their goals help the company accomplish their strategy.
So how do companies create learning paths? Consider these six steps.
- Educate employees on how to develop relevant goals. Employees need to know not only how to state the end result (i.e. the goal) but outline the individual steps toward accomplishment. They also need to know how to establish priorities along the way.
- Train employees on self-learning. For learning paths to really become a part of organizational culture, employees need to buy into them. That means emphasizing from hire to retire the concept of learning. Being a lifelong learner isn’t some trend du jour. It’s how individuals and businesses stay competitive.
- Use SMART to develop learning action plans. You guys know I’m a big fan of the SMART acronym (specific, measurable, actionable, responsible, time-bound). One of the reasons is because, once you learn it, it’s very adaptable. Teach employees how to use SMART and they can create their own learning paths.
- Allow employees to learn using different learning styles. In #2, we talked about self-learning. Part of self-learning is having a self-awareness of how someone likes to learn. In addition, knowing when to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and learn a different way because it will benefit us in the long-run.
- Create an environment that encourages feedback. All learning involves feedback. The feedback might occur before, during, or after the learning takes place. The goal of feedback is to improve performance. Train employees at every level how to deliver feedback to their peers and their manager.
- Allow employees to fail. This is probably the toughest part of a learning path. Organizations have to be willing to let employees make mistakes…and learn from them. Managers should play the role of coach and truly help employees learn from missteps.
Learning paths can provide employees with educational opportunities to achieve their goals. When employees achieve their goals, organizations can accomplish their goals and strategies. But it means that organizations must make an investment in training – at the employee and manager level – so learning thrives.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby after speaking at the SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas, NV23