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Continuous learning for the competitive edge

Written by Written by Forum Corporation and posted by John Duncan on December 15th, 2016.      13 comments

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Continuous learning for the competitive edge.
Top companies recognise and embrace the power of their workforce’s progression.

Knowledge capital—the expertise and capability of employees—is fast becoming a key competitive advantage in today’s business world. Top organisations recognise that the knowledge and strengths of their employees are central to their success: employees are more than an asset, they are the base source of growth. Some 66% of the “world’s most admired companies”, and 30% of other large companies list building human capital as one of the goals for their managers. To attract and then retain people who can achieve critical business results, companies must invest and be known to invest in their knowledge capital. This means that managerial coaching is becoming a primary way of contributing to this critical investment in individual and organisational capacity.

Managing knowledge- workers 

Today’s managers are often required to provide leadership to employees who have more expertise in certain business processes than themselves. As knowledge grows, managers need to lead an increasing number
of employees without completely understanding what these employees actually do. Managers must let go of the traditional and outdated practice of trying to be the expert – the person with the answers – and instead enable their employees to learn and create knowledge-sharing, both within their own teams and across the wider organisation.

Development policies attract candidates 

Downsizing and layoffs have taught employees not to expect or demand company loyalty, and that they must be marketable at all times. To be marketable they need to keep developing their skills and knowledge. Organisations that prioritise development are therefore more likely to attract and retain the most talented employees, while at the same time building the critical capabilities they need to achieve results. Managers play a critical role in facilitating this development.

Workplaces become learning labs

Constant learning on the job is now required by both the organisation and the employee. The shelf-life of much knowledge and many skills is steadily decreasing. For example, there is an estimated 20% “depreciation rate” per year in certain technical areas. Companies used to assume that they could hire MBAs and other professionals to bring in the necessary knowledge, but this is no longer true. Today, everyone must be learning constantly, and companies and their managers need to facilitate on-the-job learning.

A diverse and dispersed workforce

The workforce is becoming increasingly diverse and geographically widespread because of the global nature of business and advances in technology, which have enabled anyone to work from anywhere. The manager’s job is complicated by the fact that they must now consider the developmental interests, varied perspectives and learning styles of employees who they may only rarely see them in person, and who may differ in age, background, and culture? How can they coach an employee through an assignment if they themselves are always on the road? How do they ensure that all employees – who can be located in different regions or countries – are all learning the right thing at the right time? As managers look to capitalise on the talents of a diverse and dispersed workforce, these are some of the challenges they face.

Implications for managerial leadership

These growing trends mean that the importance and style of managerial coaching is changing. Instead of focusing primarily on improving performance among employees who had fallen below standard or on providing opportunities for those with the potential to advance, coaching is now seen as a way of building capabilities in all employees in order to achieve business results. This change in perception and practice has important implications for managers. First, they need to recognise the impact of the critical role they play in coaching their employees. They also need to learn and develop their own skills to enable them to provide a good standard of coaching in today’s time- pressured business environment. Managers should help each employee focus on developing specific capabilities that will impact on individual and organisational success. While coaching skills are diverse and extensive, there are three practices a manager can apply to quickly accelerate their employees’ learning:
  • Incorporating learning into the everyday
  • Becoming a thinking partner
  • Providing feedback to increase capability

Incorporating learning into the everyday 

Employees cannot postpone their learning while they wait for specific training events. While formal training is effective and necessary in developing capabilities, learning should also be built into everyday work. The Center for Workforce Development conducted a study that concluded that 70% of all workplace learning is informal. Other research estimates that 80% of all critical work skills are gained on the job. In this competitive, fast-paced market, where human capital is a company’s core capability, this 80% must not be left to chance.

Effective workplace learning can be ensured by managers, who must first identify the capabilities needed to achieve important business goals, and then create or capitalise on the learning opportunities that present themselves in everyday work.
The Center for Workforce Development study also found several key practices in the cultures of companies that recognise and encourage learning and knowledge creation. The study showed that workplace learning is most effective when:
  • Key learning activities are integrated into daily work
  • Key learning activities are grounded in company goals
  • Managers provide access to relevant resources to supplement learning
  • There is trust, including honest communication
  • Diverse perspectives are welcomed
  • Risk-taking is tolerated n Mistakes are tolerated
  • Problem-solving is cooperative
  • Employee-manager relationships are good
  • Exchange of opinions and ideas is encouraged
  • Reflection is supported and encouraged

These factors show that it is the manager who makes the biggest contribution to creating an environment where learning is an integral part of everyday work. 

Becoming a thinking partner

Managers cannot be expected to have the time or the expertise to offer ready solutions to every problem. It is more important to have a way of helping employees become more self-reliant and make sound decisions themselves. One way to do this is to use the coaching practice of a “thinking partner,” working collaboratively with employees to help them analyse their issues and challenges, make good decisions, and take sensible action.

A skilled thinking partner contributes by helping employees see situations objectively, providing a sounding board for various courses of action, and helping them identify the best option so that they can determine the best way forward.

A thinking partner should be able to ask the right questions and listen to the facts of the issue and the beliefs and feelings that may keep the employee from taking effective action. There also needs to be a reliable process for initiating the conversation, demonstrating that the issues can be seen from the employee’s point of view, discussing options, and helping determine the best course of action.

Providing feedback to increase capability 

Feedback is an essential and effective coaching practice. In his book Coaching for Improved Performance, Fournies asserts satisfaction and performance result (Beer, 1987, DeGregorio and Fisher, 1988, Wanguri, 1995).

Despite the positive effects of feedback, however, managers are often reluctant to provide it. Studies summarised in Public Personnel Management (Smith et al., 2000) conclude that managers choose to not give performance feedback, especially if it concerns a performance gap and may be perceived as negative. 

Reluctance to give feedback is not just limited to areas for improvement: often employees do not receive adequate feedback about what they are doing well either. Managers estimate that they reinforce and acknowledge only a quarter of their employees’ achievements (Fournies, 2000).

Organisations have known for three decades that the two greatest contributors to workplace performance are achievement and recognition (Herzberg, 1966), yet still insist that good work is normal and expected, and therefore does not need to be acknowledged. However, behaviour that is reinforced will be repeated and therefore strengthened: and that feedback that reinforces skills, progress, and results is a highly effective practice for building capability.

By not providing feedback, managers fail the employee, the company, and themselves. Avoiding developmental feedback allows minor problems to become more serious, and allows larger problems to negatively affect business results and the professional growth of the employee and the manager. Failure to provide reinforcing feedback leaves employees in the dark about what skills and practices they should continue to apply, and their talents may actually diminish as a result.

Instead of thinking of feedback as evaluation, managers need to see it as a fundamental way of helping employees learn – as brief, specific information that either reinforces existing capabilities or helps develop new ones. Managers also need to learn how to give feedback effectively, so that it achieves its purpose.


As a result of the ongoing changes in the workplace, the line between work and learning is blurring. Learning is simply a part of getting work done. Competitive advantage goes to companies that embrace continuous learning and make coaching a core responsibility of their managers throughout their organisation.

Forum is a global professional services firm that mobilises people to embrace the critical strategies of their organisation and accelerate results. We help senior leaders with urgent strategic agendas equip their organisations to perform, change and grow. Our expertise is built on decades of original research; our business insight keeps companies out ahead of their markets, competitors and customers. Harvard Business Press published Forum’s latest book Strategic Speed in 2010.

For more information, visit or call John Duncan on +64 3 3594003
© 2016 Forum New Zealand.


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