From VR to kaizen, three organisations share their workplace learning strategies

Building a successful learning and development culture can be challenging, but, as these three companies show, there are a number of strategies businesses can adopt

Occupational learning offers employees the chance to expand their skills, build confidence and develop their careers. It also offers benefits to the business in terms of more engaged, knowledgeable and productive staff. 

However, analysis by the Learning and Work Institute found that employer investment in training has fallen by 28% since 2005, with UK businesses spending only half the EU average per worker.

Learning and development practitioners have described the traditional expectations of leaders, where learning is treated as a secondary priority, as the biggest challenge facing their profession, with 78% of people surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development describing it as a position that’s difficult to challenge.

Finding new and innovative ways to bring learning into the workplace is therefore key to changing perceptions. As Learning at Work Week kicks off, three organisations share their advice for developing a future-facing learning and development programme.

The kaizen philosophy of continuous learning

Digital contracting software business Summize shirks away from the traditional one-size-fits all approach to learning. 

Its CEO Tom Dunlop took lessons from his experience as a badminton player for Team GB to introduce the concept of kaizen – a Japanese concept referring to continual improvement. When he was a professional sports player, there was emphasis on finding the marginal gains that would help him to continually develop his performances on the court. 

“I’d always be analysing how I could get a little bit better than the competition because the margin between winning and losing was so small,” he says. “A small change in diet or a change in training routine might be the difference between winning or losing a championship.” 

Dunlop says he has carried this mindset into his business setting by constantly trying to find ways to become more efficient and productive. He has also translated this Kaizen approach across the business. Summize employees are encouraged to suggest ways they can improve by 1% each month and find the marginal gains that can help grow the business.

“I didn’t want to create a workplace culture where people were expecting to be told what to do all the time and where they feel they don’t have the flexibility to contribute or make improvements themselves,” Dunlop says. “We wanted our team to feel like they’re contributing to the vision of the company. The Kaizen concept of continual improvement really fit that profile well.”

As an incentive, those that come up with the best personal or business-related improvements each month are rewarded with a bonus, equivalent to 1% of their salaries. In order to support people in reaching their professional and personal development goals, staff are also given a budget of £400 a year to spend on learning with the freedom to invest it in anything from training courses to fitness classes.

“Everyone has different objectives,” Dunlop says. “Some people want to learn things that are completely unrelated to their job but develop them personally, which makes them feel rewarded. We want to provide flexibility for people to learn and develop in the areas they’d like, rather than just mandating training on a particular topic because the company thinks it’s a good thing to invest in.”

Using tech for training

Maudsley Learning, the training arm of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, specialises in training for mental health professionals, which previously relied on actors to create training simulations. It is exploring the use of VR technology to train frontline NHS staff, with its chief operating officer James Pathan saying the technology allows the organisation to deliver “experimental and immersive training at scale” - something that wasn’t possible with other training methods.

Maudsley Learning believes VR training  can improve access to training for people working in a sector where it can be difficult to take time away from the clinical setting for such exercises.

Pathan says: “The theory behind the use of VR is that it allows us to run experiential learning at scale, which then starts to bring the cost down per head and gives more staff the opportunity to have really high-quality training and not just be given a one hour lecture or e-learning exercise.”

Another advantage of using virtual reality for learning, according to Pathan, is that it improves the ability of people to retain information because of its immersive nature.

“In learning theory, we see that experiences which trigger an emotional response produce much higher retention rates,” he says. “We’ve started to see 30% to 40% retention of information with experiential learning, compared with more static exercises such as people reading off slides.”

The VR simulations are one element of the trust’s diversity and inclusion training, which it is running as part of a research project with King’s College London. There are plans to begin deploying headsets on the wards for people to practise their skills.

Pathan believes this strategy could also be used in the corporate setting to help improve engagement. “If every office or every meeting room has a VR headset that anyone could use at any time, it would allow people to access learning ad hoc whenever they need it.”

Sending staff back to school

At 22 Bishopsgate, the team behind the 62-floor commercial London skyscraper of the same name have developed a learning and development programme for employees of the building to advance their professional development.

The School of 22, which was devised by head of operations Annie Panteli, offers masterclasses in a range of subject areas, from emotional intelligence to sustainability.

“We wanted to give people access to options they may not normally take up in their working roles,” Panteli says. “The school was designed to provide people with the opportunity to learn and support their personal growth.”

The programme, which started in December last year, will see all 160 people in the company booked on to complete the learning and development course by September.

Panteli believes that creating an environment free from judgement and testing is key to making the School of 22 a success. “We really wanted to distinguish between learning and training,” she adds. “This opens people’s minds to the fact the courses will benefit them as well as the company they work for.”

The school theme also extends to extracurricular activities including a sports day, volunteering days and a “prom” for those who complete the programme. This was important because it helps to “recognise and reward” people’s contributions and attendance of the courses, according to Pantelli.

“It provides a real incentive for people to join,” Panteli says. “The value of human contact and interaction is clearer now than ever before and it’s really contributed to our culture of happiness within the team.”