The Importance of learning in today’s business climate – business critical, not just a ‘nice to have’

By | June 7, 2011

developmentDr David Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Change and Head of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour Group at Bradford University School of Management, one of Europe’s leading full service business schools.

A recent piece from HR Magazine highlighted that financial investment in learning and development is falling in the UK. This is yet another worrying if inevitable outcome of the pressures firms find themselves under today (for a view on another outcome of these pressures read my last blog).

It has always been a feature of difficult business environments that businesses make cuts in areas that are seen as having low operational impact and high costs. It is unfortunate that many still persist in the fallacy that learning and development is one such activity. That is not to say that in times of challenge firms have to make difficult choices and learning and development has to shoulder its share of this burden of cost cutting, but these are not just costs, they are investments in the future and when we cut support for learning and development we cut support for the very things that might just help us out of the challenges we face.

Nonetheless, organisations seemingly still persist in seeing these activities as ‘nice to have’ luxuries, rather than business critical activities. This is despite the long standing and increasingly compelling evidence that those firms that take learning seriously (what are sometimes called learning organisations, an often misused and over-used phrase) are indeed those that do show higher levels of success. A recently completed study with a colleague here at Bradford University School of Management (Craig Johnson) shows evidence for the uptake of and interest in learning organisation principles in the UK’s largest firms, and my work with other colleagues published in Long Range Planning makes a case for a link between the learning approach and performance of smaller firms. Similarly, in our work at Bradford with Yorkshire’s Leading Employers, as part of the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards, we have seen consistent evidence of organisations who see investment in training and development as integral to their success.

So what should you do if you find yourself in an organisation that has cut or stopped investing in learning and development? A key implication is that if your organisation is so short-sighted it has stopped investing in its and your future, then that surely is the time that you invest in yourself. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that in recession we do tend to see demand for programmes such as the Bradford MBA being maintained and even rising amongst individuals in work who are investing in themselves. They are recognising that there is real advantage to be gained in developing their understanding, skills and capabilities to ensure that they are capable of responding to the changing environment in which we find ourselves. It is recognising this that we’ve been so clear in ensuring that a focus on professional development should be a part of the MBA programme here.

But even when cuts are made in learning and development budgets that should not mean that all learning stops. It makes it more challenging for individuals and organisations to maintain and support learning, but there are some simple things we can do to encourage learning in challenging times:

1.       As individuals we need to get the right mindset. Challenges and difficulties are more easily addressed and more beneficial in the long-run if they are viewed as learning opportunities. In easy times we actually have little impetus to learn the demand for this ought to be much clearer today

2.       Individuals also need to pay attention to their networking, both internally and externally. The communities of peers and colleagues we engage in and interact with are an unparalleled source of learning opportunities, just by questioning and discussing with these groups we can do much to enhance our understanding. We have to recognise as well though that such engagement is reciprocal we should be seeking to put as much into such networks as we choose to take out.

3.       As organisations we should still invest where we can. High impact, low cost activities are the order of the day. Things like supporting peer mentoring and providing time and space for knowledge and expertise exchange are as potentially powerful as much more timely and costly training activities, but they do need some investment if they are to work.

4.       Organizations also need appropriate leadership support for learning activities. Investment (where possible) is significant, but all managers valuing and supporting learning activities is as important. Learning has to be publically seen as a valuable and valued activity if staff are to keep their focus on this we dealing with the other pressures placed upon them.

As always it not an exhaustive list and I’d be delighted to hear other suggestions of what we can do to maximise our own and our organisation’s learning in times of challenge.

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


+        Organisational learning in small firms

+        Organisational learning in a downturn

+        Styles of leadership – East vs West

+        Cultural change in mergers and takeovers

5 thoughts on “The Importance of learning in today’s business climate – business critical, not just a ‘nice to have’

  1. Dr. Naveed Akhtar

    Core Competencies of an organization should be identified. Investment, organizational and individual, in Core Competencies must be given importance. Moreover, it should be envisioned that what are those diverse products and services which can be produced by applying these core competencies. A strategic Audit of core competencies will order the priorities of investment in learning. Then an strategic investment plan can be made to support the individual and organizational learning.

  2. Falguni Patel

    Dear David,

    I am a student of EMBA Dubai program with your university and recently had an opportunity to carry out change management for an organization. In my experience, another great way to add to your list would be asking departments to give a presentation with a predefined framework which can be based on enhancing the quality of their outputs.They need to come up with different ideas of how they can improve the quality of their outputs, what better inputs would they need from other departments in order to give highest quality of outputs for other departments.This generates ‘out of the box’ thinking and arriving at better ideas of enhancing the quality of their outputs. In the process individual learning is achieved by compelling them to reflect on their activities and think differently than what they are trapped to do and the organization can achieve better work quality from the departments. And all this at no cost at all.


    Falguni Patel

  3. David Spicer

    Hi Falguni and Naveed:

    Thanks for your thoughts.Core competencies had some currency certainly – but the real challenge for me is how do you develop these competencies and significantly recognise when they are not valid and need to be changed – thats where learning – notably the challneges of learning organizationally which the ideas I outline above support- comes in. Its with this idea that I like your suggestion Falguni about encouraging out the box thinking – time to think about learning – to think about what needs to be done differently – even before we make change is in precious short supply so anything we can do to encourage this is great!

    All the best, David

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