Bestselling author Denis Waitly stated, “All of the top achievers I know are lifelong learners... looking for new skills, insights, and ideas. If they're not learning, they're not growing, and they’re not moving toward excellence.” With the rapid transition that is occurring in the graphic communications environment, setting up a lifelong learning environment for you and your employees is essential to business success.

The graphic communications market is making an unprecedented transition to a high-skilled, information-based industry. This has created a disconnect between the jobs that are being created and the current skills of many workers. Considering this shrinking and increasingly diverse workforce and the existing skills gap, continuing education must be an integral part of your business strategy.

Research also shows that when measuring job satisfaction, a supportive work environment is as important as the number of hours an employee works. Today's employees are seeking employment in workplaces that enrich their skills and provide career advancement possibilities. There is a direct link between training and employee retention. Employees involved in ongoing training feel that their employer is interested in them doing a better job, and that the employer cares enough about them to make an investment in their development. Competing for skilled and loyal employees is of the utmost importance, and providing a supportive and employee-centric environment is key.

Training & Development, a widely-respected publication in the training industry that is published by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), conducted an employee survey in 2001. The survey questioned 8,000 employees over 35 industries, asking, "What are the leading drivers that are keeping you with your current employer?" Here are the findings, in order of priority:

  1. Exciting work and challenge
  2. Career growth, learning, and development
  3. Fair pay and benefits
  4. Relationships and working with great people
  5. Supportive management, a great boss
  6. Pride in the organization, its mission, and its products
  7. Great work environment or culture
  8. Being recognized, valued, and respected
  9. Meaningful work, and the feeling that one is making a difference
  10. Autonomy

Note that exciting and challenging work combined with career growth learning and development are the top two areas essential for supporting retention of your best people.

ASTD’s 2006 Annual Review of Trends in Workplace Learning and Performance indicated that employees in top-performing organizations received an average of 43 hours of formal learning at a cost of $1,403 per employee. E-learning experiences are being heavily leveraged, with more than 36% of education delivered electronically. At least 60% of technology-based training was online, and 90% of online learning was self-paced.?

When it comes to supporting continuing education for employees, knowledge is not just power; it is also increased productivity, profits, and employee loyalty. Management consultant and author William Scherkenbach possibly said it best: "Management will recognize the need for education and retraining when they realize that people are an asset and not an expense."

So How Do You Help Employees (and Yourself) with Lifelong Learning?

Building a lifelong learning organization starts at the top. Leaders who want a learning organization continually learn themselves. They read books and articles and share the content with the rest of the organization. They attend training sessions and conferences. They communicate the importance of good decision-making on the part of all information personnel. They promote an organizational environment that supports learning and personal mastery. The following list represents ten techniques that are being implemented by what I consider to be effective graphic communications learning organizations:

  1. Assignment of organizational responsibility and a focus on employee development. Lifelong learning in today’s market means that successful graphic communications firms are establishing continuing education programs. The most effective programs make continuous education a defined responsibility of someone in the organization. This is an important function that focuses on keeping staff members current about critical market trends, policies, procedures, and technologies. Responsibility may reside with the owner or a key department head, but someone needs to ensure that the organization has the right skills and education to keep pace with market trends and technologies. Lou Gerstner, former Chairman and CEO of IBM, got it right when he said, "In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value."
  2. Educational options need to be the right blend of technology and personal enhancement for future positions. The program should allow the staff the opportunity to develop solid management skills, coupled with a better understanding of their position and function, and how that fits into the relationship of the organization. It should also provide access to the right technical resources so employees have the appropriate skills for their current jobs and can build capabilities to take the organization into the future. When you think about education, training, and development, options exist externally, internally, and online. Choices range from seminars to mentoring programs. In today’s market, the existing alternatives to help your employees continue growing are limitless. For recruiting, retention, and managing change and continuous improvement, there is room adopt all of these practices within your organization based on individual needs.

    External Education, Training, and Development

    • Seminars, workshops, and classes come in every variety imaginable, and they can be held in-person or online.
    • Colleges and universities provide classes, and the same is occasionally true for local adult education programs, community colleges, and technical schools. Universities are reaching out to adult learners with evening and weekend MBA and business programs.
    • Professional association seminars, meetings, and conferences offer training opportunities as well.

    Internal Education, Training, and Development

    • On-site seminars and classes provide training that can be customized to your organization.
    • Coaching gives employees the opportunity to share knowledge.
    • Mentoring is increasingly important in employee development and training, as are formal mentoring programs.

    You don’t need to look very far for affordable opportunities. Associations like NAPL, PIA, IPMA, and IPA all offer conferences, seminars, training, and education. Information can be obtained on their Web sites. WhatTheyThink sponsors free Webinars as well. Equipment and software vendors are committed to business development programs that include professional skill enhancement as well as technical training. Industry tradeshows provide the most up-to-date information on technology. These tradeshows typically have conference programs that offer the latest information on market trends and provide solid user implementation information. There are online offerings as well as face-to-face training opportunities.

  3. Define necessary skills to run the business and conduct ongoing skills assessment as business dynamics change. The best type of training program for a workgroup is one that is tailored to its needs. Owners need to define organizational requirements and combine them with employee needs. Successful graphic communications owners define essential skills and also conduct training needs assessments. They also ask staff members themselves about the skill sets that they would like to develop.
  4. Build individual development plans for staff members that link to organizational objectives and individual needs. These should list negotiated expectations for growth and learning. These plans may include cross-training, skill stretching assignments, and representing the department at organization-wide meetings, as well as education. Map the generally available personal development offerings (i.e., management training, consultative selling, presentation skills) with strategic and technical training for employees. Point employees to the best alternatives for personal and professional development.
  5. Provide alternative sources for learning, such as CDs and online learning. Not everyone can travel to a conference, nor is it always affordable to do so. Sometimes a self paced e-learning experience is the best answer.
  6. Put each person directly into contact with customers. When each individual personally knows customer needs, he or she is enabled to make better decisions to satisfy the customer. Several graphic communications firms I have worked with will invite their most important clients into an employee communications meeting to share their business needs and priorities with the staff. It has an amazing impact on the employees.
  7. Promote site visits to other organizations. Even organizations in different industries can provide opportunities for learning. See and learn what others are doing to address the challenges that you experience in your organization. There are a number of peer groups in the graphic communications industry and most are surprisingly gracious about sharing information.

Lifelong Learning: The Most Important Investment You Can Make

The right employee training, development, and education at the right time provides a big payoff for employers in terms of increased productivity, knowledge, loyalty, and contribution. It’s one of the most critical expenditures that you should make each year, yet very few graphic communications firms even budget for it. The messages for graphic communications firms are simple:

  • Create a learning environment. Communicate the expectation for learning and lead by example!
  • Offer work time support for learning.
  • Identify learning tools for employees that are aligned with your business objectives.
  • Provide access through associations and publications for industry-specific as well as personal development tools.
  • Enable schedules so that employees can attend classes.

Once again, Lou Gerstner got it right when he said, “In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value." It’s time for you to enable your employees to create value for your organization.