During my career in education and skills development the focus has always been around working with organisations to identify skills gaps within their networks and to support them in providing their staff with the necessary training and education to get them where the business needs to be done.

However, what if the end goal of education wasn’t just to equip staff with training relating to their role? This may seem radical and rash, especially when I always hear how Learning & Development budgets are being cut, but here is why this might be worthwhile you reading on…

Any new learning can stimulate brain changes which in turn improves performance. The more we stimulate our brain the denser the myelin in our brains becomes, which helps the brain to take on even more!  Learning new skills also stimulate the neurons in our brains which assist in learning more things quicker over time.  This stimulation creates more neural pathways enabling electrical impulses to travel faster across them. The more pathways that are formed, the faster impulses can travel enabling the brain to take on more information quicker.

That’s the science, but it’s well-known that a bored, unstimulated person is far less productive than an engaged person. From a mental health standpoint, this helps keep the brain agile and able to take on new tasks.  I remember when I first became a mother, my mid-wife said, ‘a happy mother makes for a happy baby’. I feel this is the same in the workplace too: ‘A happy workforce makes for a happy and productive business.’

So, for a moment let’s reflect on this: ‘what is it that my workforce really need to enable them to be the most effective team?’ or from an employee’s perspective ‘what is it that makes my job feel unfulfilled and monotonous?’ Could new activities and education support this rather than just specific job training?

The Open University has been working with various organisations to support ‘learning as a benefit in a variety of different ways. These range from attracting people to areas that have struggled with staff retention either by rewarding staff for their service and loyalty to a company or by acknowledging that their organisation is a stepping stone for them moving into another career. I recently worked with one large organisation who actually saw social mobility and job retention as part of their CSR so they are funding staff to study law, engineering and nursing courses whilst continuing to work in their logistics organisation. The return on investment for them is greater staff retention and savings in recruitment and training but also knowing they have supported the UK economy with a skills shortage in key areas.

Most recently, the Open University has been working in partnership with Uber. The Uber team views education as a benefit, not only for the drivers who use the app, but also the wider community; for example, a driver’s family. Thanks to this initiative, over 750 drivers have enjoyed the opportunity to convert their international qualifications into ones recognised in the UK, train in a new career, or support a family member studying for a degree. As the majority of drivers are from lower income households or have English as their second language, this programme is a pioneering example of the OU’s mission to make education accessible to all via flexible learning at work.

I have also had conversations with retailers on how education could be passed on to VIP customers as a benefit as well. Imagine if you could, as a customer, earn enough reward points towards a qualification or you knew using one retailer would gain you a sponsored place on a programme if you were loyal to them for many years?

My argument is that organisations shouldn’t just see education as sitting within their HR department confined to a decreasing L&D budget. It shouldn’t just be focused on workforce skills development. It can mean so much more. It can mean a more agile workforce that is more mentally resilient, a happy and productive workforce that is more eager to take on new projects and opportunities, it can support staff loyalty – and potentially customer loyalty too, but fundamentally it would also truly mark that organisation out as an aspirational place to work at or as a customer, to buy from.

If you would like to watch the Uber case study video click here or contact me at Elizabeth.hanway@open.ac.uk

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