Several business people believe training is something distracting and a waste of time. And even though India spends more than 41k INR per employee (1), executives often question the investment’s return.
However, we believe that one of the essential sources of competitive advantage is your learning strategy. And as we will see more in the article, the learning strategy goes far beyond developing good training department courses.
According to companies that operate in brutally competitive markets, among all the issues they have to address, such as leadership, globalization, and recruiting, the most prominent strategy is driving innovation.
What drives innovation? All major companies believe that the single more significant contributor to creation is collaboration and internal learning. Hence, they make sure that their learning strategy is heavily concentrated on expertise development, continous reinforcement of expertise, and knowledge sharing, as the key to success.
Even smaller players without a worldwide career model focus on their talent-driven learning strategy (2). In a highly competitive market, product excellence offers a market edge that comes from learning – defining learning as capability.
The Meaning of Competitive Edge for a Company
In the world of shrinking delivery channels, increasing customer expectations, and commoditized products, it is more demanding than ever to stand out in a congested marketplace.
However, no matter how complex or straightforward the situation is, companies can not operate without people, and the best organizations know that they are the only truly sustainable competitive edge.
A knowledgeable team is always ready to serve and exceed customer expectations to earn and keep the business. But how would you keep the unit operating at such a level? By making it cultural.
While the phrase ‘culture of learning’ is common, but culture is more than mere words. One needs to start from the top to develop a learning culture.
When leaders at the top embrace and promote education, it will naturally flow through the whole organization. It takes work to affect culture, but it is also effortless when the leaders believe in and encourage learning (3).
John Reznick, the President of Electrical Wholesalers (4), believes that learning is the X factor that fuels his company’s growth. The company is all about investing in its people through training. He believes that those who would invest in knowledge would win the game. And those who are not prioritizing learning would be left behind.
He further explains that he feels that training helps the company attract and retain the right people and offers them a competitive edge in the market.
Michael Porter, the author of Competitive Advantage, outlined three basic competitive strategies (5). It includes:
- Cost leadership, providing comparable value for a lower price
- Differentiation: marketing the unique benefits that make products and services more valuable
- Focus, finding, and understanding the requirements of a niche market
The competitive advantage definition is the skills a business requires to outpace its rivals. Most of those come from information and knowledge. Successful companies seek the latest in data, strategies, and technology.
While several short-term competitive strategies one can adopt to gain a leading position in business, these will only get him so far.
Businesses need to look at strategic learning if they are looking to build a sustainable competitive edge that would reinforce their business in the short term and long term. They need to adopt solutions that would allow them to make a learning culture, helping employees keep their knowledge and skills at the front line of operations and innovation.
As we say throughout the article, learning, knowledge, and development are vital for business success. In this ever-evolving market, businesses need development programs to keep up with the new challenges. And to understand why and how it is a crucial driver for business success and create a competitive edge, we need to take a little deeper look into learning.
According to a report that analyzed the ‘Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For’ (6), the top 100 companies are best because they are committed to employee development as their top strategic priority.
As we previously stated, employees are among the most valuable assets of a company and investing in training further enhances their productivity and capabilities. There are significant benefits companies can get by focusing on training and development in their strategic business plans.
One most obvious benefit of product knowledge training is sales, leading to increased market share and revenue. Moreover, service training also improves customer service experience, leading to brand loyalty. Innovation training also generates new ways of thinking, which can lead to new products and services.
Achieving a Sustainable Competitive Edge
One of the primary challenges of a business is to stay ahead of its rivals. Creating a competitive advantage can be a tedious task, and one needs to implement different strategies to make the company stand out in the marketplace.
In such a scenario, training and development can play a leading role in making a difference to your competitive edge. Ensuring that all your employees are making constant progress, the business automatically gains more value and continues to move forward with a powerful market position.
If one can make his team more substantial, more knowledgeable, and a force to be reckoned with, the strategies he will place in other places would be more effective.
Ensuring Employee Satisfaction and Retention
Several reports suggest a link between training and improved job satisfaction and employees’ intention to stay in an organization (7). It directly impacts motivation, reduces employee turnover, and increases productivity, leading to more profitability.
It means that when a company invests time and money in its employees, it makes them feel more valued. It leads to a positive relationship between a company and its employees.
It is also vital to keep employees engaged at work. Higher retention rates and less employee turnover are essential for the success of a business. All of it can happen with good training and development plan. Apart from keeping the employees motivated, retaining existing employees is also much less expensive than replacing them.
Conventionally, learning and training mainly focused on improving productivity. However, today, it also contributes to employability. In the last several decades, employment has shifted from staying with the same company for a lifetime to a shift where workers only stay with a company as long as it can add value to their personal growth (8).
If one shows his employees that he wants his team to grow with the business, his employees are more likely and willing to stay with him for a long haul.
Internal Promotion Opportunities
We all understand well that recruiting new employees often comes with a lot of hidden extra costs. With the training and learning developments implemented, the existing employees would turn more eligible for internal promotions. Hence, it would cut down the requirements for new recruitment.
Another advantage of internal promotion is that, unlike a new recruit, the existing employees have a better insight into the business and have the new role’s needed skills. Plus, one already has a well-built trust with existing employers and knows how the company works. Hence, it is a win-win for business recruitment funds and development plans.
It should come as no surprise that training and development can lead to increased productivity in the workplace. By ensuring that all the employees have received the necessary training to improve their skills, the company, in turn, gets a higher productivity rate.
When employees are well-trained, they show both quantity and quality in performance, leading to less wastage of time, money, and resources.
Another way of increasing productivity in a business is by engaging employees. The best way to achieve this is by offering them opportunities to learn and develop their professional and personal skills.
When highly engaged team members are challenged and given the skills to grow and progress in their selected career path, they are more likely to get energized by new opportunities at work, leading to higher employee satisfaction.
It means that they would also work harder, and business can get done more than a to-do list! Making you go above and beyond competitors in no time.
Attracting Top Talent
Every company wants the best talent as its employee for a better success and innovation chance. However, what is the best way to attract top talent? Training and Development.
One can attract new talent to a business by ensuring that candidates are fully aware of all the training and development plans you have set up for them, considering that it is one of the key features people usually look for while searching for a job (9).
Implementing the Latest Technology
Investing in the latest technologies is necessary for business growth. Technology is invariably evolving, and businesses need to ensure that their employees are using the newest tech at its full potential. If one manages to apply it correctly, it can significantly increase revenue and reduce costs.
People are not always born as team players. Fortunately, employers can teach it via employee training programs with topics that contribute to effective teamwork, such as conflict resolution, goal-setting, management change, and coaching. Your rivals would have a hard time keeping up with you when your team works for a common goal.
Staying Up-to-date With Industry Changes
It is necessary to ensure that your employees are keeping up with industry developments and changes. One can do it via ongoing training. It would help your entire team stay aware of what is happening in the industry and keep you a step ahead of your rivals.
So, how would you use your learning strategies to build and retain a competitive edge?
Start with End Goal
Before you begin training yourself and your team, you need to be clear about your business goals, linked with each learning topic.
By taking the first step, you will already be ahead of several other businesses in the industry. It seems like an obvious step, but several organizations and their leaders are not transparent about their goals or don’t believe in training to reach their goals.
When you are trying to implement your strategies, their success is more dependent on having your entire team on board for execution than the strategy itself.
“Our best competitors unveil our weaknesses. The aim is not to ‘bash’ our competition, but to better ourselves.”
– Simon Sinek, an author and inspirational speaker (10).
In short, to be on the top of the industry, you need a constant focus on your team.
The most forward-thinking organizations are taking a whole new mindset in how they are thinking about learning.
Some examples include Airbnb, Mastercard, and Unilever. Instead of adopting to command and control model, they are starting to create a learning culture. They are letting others know that they are supporting their learning and development. They are also encouraging their employees to learn and build skills continuously.
Even though it sounds simple, that is where we need to make a start.
A Corporate Capability Model
The development of high-impact learning is complex. You not only need to understand the basics of training and development, but you must also integrate with your company’s talent practices like leadership and career progress, which ultimately creates a ‘learning culture.’
And we have seen that learning culture is an essential asset a company can possess.
We can take examples of companies such as Nokia who lost their market to new competitors like Apple (11), or several other organizations that lost the search market to Google (12). While these companies didn’t fail to innovate, they did fail to learn.
What did they fail to learn? That is most likely that their company culture did not torerate making mistakes, the process of disruption, and the need to grasp and iterate while operating. People who innovate and invest must not be capable technically but must have the freedom to learn and share their learnings in an open space.
When there is no formal training in an organization, managers and colleagues tend to coach each other while trying to do their jobs more effectively. While such an organizational learning form can be effective, it won’t scale well and highly depends on the senior people’s skills.
As managers either get tired of training other team members themselves or realize that they can no longer develop people well, that’s when professional trainers’ role comes into play. It jumps to the next level that helps an organization builds a corporate university.
The training department analyses the work and figures out the training form, job aids, development, and support the employees need to do their jobs well and develop professional training.
There are over a million training professionals across the globe, and they offer a massive range of techniques and tools to create excellent learning programs.
Today, companies tend to have a lot of initial-level training taking place even when they need to run a corporate university. Since they often don’t have enough resources and capital to tackle every training issue, incidentally, manager-led training is happening at all times.
When companies realize that learning is more complex than training, they enter level three. Here, the organization brings together several learning programs such as leadership development, compliance, technical training and seeks to make sense of it, applied against its talent strategy.
Over time, businesses realize that specialized skills need years to develop. Hence, they start creating long-term career paths and continuous learning and training programs, enabling their employees to grow richer and deeper skills in their selected job function or profession. It takes a new set of skills and forces the HR and L&D teams to workly closes with each other and other talent management staff.
The next is level four, which only a handful of companies have achieved today. These companies combine formal and informal tools with a sharp focus on direct job capabilities. These companies manage to turn themselves inside out by focusing on the audience and their profiles instead of thinking about job requirements and skills.
For instance, what does it take to turn a good salesperson into a leading salesperson? Or, what does it takes to turn a good engineer into an excellent engineer? The answer doesn’t lie in training. Instead, it is a combination of performance support, training, coaching, and employee assessment. And the answer is unique for each business.
One of the essential tools for these organizations is knowledge sharing and learning culture. Professional services firms should insert after-action reviews after their projects, make the team take a break, and learn what went well. And they should share and socialize these reports.
For businesses, programs such as performance support, action reviews, mobile learning systems, coaching programs, and small teams are crucial.
Capability Development is What’s Ahead
According to several research and studies (13), skills and capability development are among the top issues in the minds of business, talent, and HR leaders. Even though spending on India’s corporate training has gone up over the past few years, we believe that almost all businesses can look at its capability and find improvements.
The bottom line is that in today’s skills-constraining workplace, learning culture is not merely a program to reduce errors and improve productivity. But when handled properly, it can be one of the essential sources of competitive edge.