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Does Your Workplace Have a "Learning Culture"?

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Canadians of all ages go back to school in September, but learning that takes place outside the classroom is increasingly being recognized as a key factor for a thriving economy and a fulfilling life. Following Labour Day, many workplaces move into full swing with preparations for Learn @ Work Week (L@WW), an annual event organized by the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD).

Learn @ Work Week celebrates workplace-based learning in Canada. This year, L@WW is celebrated during the work week from Sept. 23 to 27 and will feature learning activities and professional development events in workplaces across the country. Also happening during this week is the launch of a new online resource to support Canadian employers, particularly in small and medium enterprises, in developing their workplace learning programs -- Advancing Workplace Learning.

Developing good workplace learning programs takes a significant investment of energy and resources -- especially if the aim is to make workplace learning a year-round endeavour--but it is well worth the effort. Even organizing a week-long series of events for L@WW is a large undertaking, particularly when every employee is included. The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network (CLLN) congratulates all of the workplaces participating in L@WW 2013.

The ROI of workplace learning

Learning at work strengthens Canada's economy. Employee performance and organizational productivity are significant indicators of the state of the economy, and workplace learning is a strong contributing factor to both of these indicators. More importantly, from our perspective, previous research and experience tell us that many Canadian workers experience even greater gains when literacy and essential skills are built into workplace learning.

In Canada, nine essential skills for the workplace have been identified and defined. These skills are used in nearly every job, at different levels of complexity, and are the foundation for learning advanced skills. As an advocate for improving the literacy and essential skills of all Canadians, CLLN can demonstrate that the gains from higher skill levels move beyond performance and productivity indicators. We know there are significant and wide-ranging benefits that follow from higher levels of literacy and essential skills.

CLLN's Literacy and Earnings project revealed many potential benefits of higher skill levels, including improved labour market attachment, income levels and health outcomes for workers. Governments and employers would have lower costs for Employment Insurance and workers' compensation programs. The economy and society overall would see benefits resulting from increased government tax revenues and lower costs for contributions to social assistance and health care. The potential return on investment is substantial.

Creating a learning culture in the workplace

Learn @ Work Week can also be an opportunity for employers to look at improving workplace learning in their organizations. Ensuring that essential skills are effectively embedded within workplace learning is an effective way to reach the employees who could benefit the most from these learning opportunities. Here are a few ways to improve workplace learning outcomes:

Make learning opportunities available to workers at all levels -- An increasingly skilled workforce is one of the keys to being competitive, so it pays to provide opportunities for all employees to improve their knowledge and skills, not just those in leadership or management positions.

Include assessment of multiple competencies -- An employee's educational attainment is not always a good indicator of skill level. Discomfort with new technology or difficulty with interpersonal communication can impact job performance just as easily as poor writing or math skills.

Foster a learning culture -- A key component of a successful workplace is creating a culture of learning. It helps ensure that an organization can adapt to changing technologies, work environments and the marketplace in general. Simply put, a culture of learning is nothing more than workplace leaders providing opportunities for learning in a supportive environment.

This definition of a learning culture can apply to small and medium-sized enterprises as well as larger organizations. The smallest employers can demonstrate that they value learning, for example, by connecting their employees with relevant community-based programs and recognizing workers' learning achievements.

As a society we are gradually leaving behind the idea that people are done learning at graduation, along with the idea that learning is something that happens mainly in school. The pace of technological change and increasing demands for a highly skilled and adaptable workforce are making it clear that people will continue to learn throughout their lives and in a variety of settings.

Organizations and enterprises that align themselves with a vision for continuous improvement and support of lifelong learning -- in schools, at work and in the community -- are investing in their future success, and in Canada's.