Is employee engagement a learning and development issue?

Engagement is emerging as a top three concern for today’s smarter learning organisations. tessello Community Engagement Coordinator Steph Bright looks at the trends to see who should really own the issue.

Employee engagement has become far more than just a buzzword lately. In my conversations with tessello clients, as I guide them through the process of making their learning community into something that adds real value to their businesses, engaging workers to offer more of their capability and potential to the enterprise, it’s something that comes up every day.

Despite having various strategic objectives for choosing tessello that directly relate to learning & development (L&D), there’s always one other thing they’d like to improve as a whole: employee engagement and culture.
A few weeks ago I attended MWD Advisors’ event Making Social Collaboration Work, which looked at some current case studies of organisations implementing tech-enabled social collaboration practices. These case studies weren’t specifically about social learning collaboration, but broader organisation-wide collaboration and engagement issues driven by HR teams, with a primary focus on improving internal communications and creating attractive employer brands.

This led me to ponder a number of questions: if there’s widening adoption of social collaboration tools, how do comms and knowledge management align with a social learning strategy? Can all three be integrated within existing collaboration tools, or should they remain on separate platforms? Is engagement as a business goal separable from L&D, or absolutely intrinsic to it?

I realised that before we could tackle any of those technical case-by-case issues, a bigger question had to be answered first: who owns the employee engagement issue, and who is best suited to tackle it?

A recent CIPD article asked that exact question, and its findings reported that employees turn to their peers to feel engaged, rather than organisationally-mandated initiatives. True engagement is an effect of authentic social connection, and can’t flourish only under command-and-control dynamics.

The article had no specific L&D focus, but did cite that ‘nearly four fifths (79 per cent) of millennials said they would like more discussions on their career path’, which takes us deep into L&D’s natural territory, where they hold the keys to powering both performance and career development.

The Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2015 cited L&D as the third biggest issue facing organisations and a key driver for improving issue number one: culture and engagement.

Trying to increase employee engagement because you know it will make people happier or more productive isn’t enough of a starting point. Unless there are tangible results and benefits for your employees, you can’t bring in some doughnuts on a Friday and expect their relationship to their daily role responsibilities to suddenly transform.

I follow the same principle in my community management activities – you need to find out what makes your employees tick as individuals, what they really need to do their work better and how to support that in the community context. The common themes resulting from research often cite knowledge gaps and, as we’ve already seen, lack of career development progress as critical to a sense of engagement and involvement.

What are the L&D needs of the people you need to engage? If personal development of learning and skills is the start of the cycle that ultimately becomes employee engagement, you need to know where are the gaps in knowledge, skills, or communication that are currently hindering and disengaging your learners. What obstacles do they keep hitting, and how can you give them the capacity to overcome or work around them?

From the learner’s side of the equation, engagement as a business goal is intrinsically linked to L&D. Engagement starts with learning, or I should say, wanting to learn. In order to be engaged at work, you need to want to learn more about your industry, the experts and the knowledge that comes with it. This is the learner’s side of the bargain – meeting the other side is the goal of L&D.

And true learning – changing the way the learner see and interacts with the world is always already about engagement. Without engagement, learning itself is just speaking to an empty room.

Learners need regular feedback, clear goals and a balance of challenge and skill to trigger the addictive flow states where true learning takes place. Engagement is the heart of what L&D do. Real L&D progress, aligned to real opportunities and a sense of social community, forms the pathway to highly engaged employees.

So if you’re thinking about getting serious with employee engagement without thinking about L&D first – good luck!

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