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Invest in learning to reverse the ‘Great Resignation’

Published 12 April 2022 in Human Resources • 6 min read

Learning may be the essential glue that holds your workforce together in these turbulent times — and keeps them interested in being productive and engaged at the organization.

As companies and employees continue to adjust to the demands of hybrid working, the issue of learning becomes even more critical to figuring out how to deal with this emerging workplace phenomenon.

That’s because burnout and a sense of purposelessness have been blamed for widespread employee disillusionment with the workplace that’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation”, an economic phenomenon whereby record numbers of people have quit their jobs in search of more rewarding or better paid work, leading to a sharp increase in vacancies. 

The trend is even more pronounced among younger workers: a 2021 survey by Microsoft found that Generation Z (anyone born after 1996), women, frontline workers, and those new to their careers reported that they were struggling the most over the previous year. Overall, 37 percent of the global workforce said their companies were asking too much of them.

And while learning has always mattered to organizational success, it may be the essential glue that holds your workforce together in these turbulent times — and keeps them interested in being productive and engaged at the organization.

Stemming the tide of resignations

The problem is, the paradigm for a long time in corporate learning has been how to align the learning agenda with the strategic priorities of the entity, instead of the individual. In the old days, employees and managers were sent for general skills training. Then, there was a move towards ensuring that those skills were more specifically aligned with the organization’s strategic needs.

While this helped ensure that chief learning officers (CLOs) have a seat at the decision-making table, it led to a transactional approach to learning that failed to prioritize personal development. This partly explains why we are seeing the Great Resignation. The last two years of Covid-19 strictures have resulted in a remarkable number of highly skilled employees calling it quits.

What we have seen in parallel is a real weighing up, especially by millennials, of whether the organization they work for cares about them as much as they are expected to care about the organization. Value alignment has become vital for this group.

And corporate learning can make a real contribution to stemming this tide of resignations by showing that the organization cares about them, and specifically their learning journey.

So, how can CLOs get the balance right between satisfying the needs of employees and their company’s strategic goals?  

image of a puzzle symbolising union
“Corporate learning can make a real contribution to stemming this tide of resignations by showing that the organization cares about them, and specifically their learning journey”

Learning can ‘fuel the great re-engagement’

One of the reasons why many companies have sometimes been reluctant to invest in a different type of learning and talent development is fear of employee churn — that is, people taking what they’ve learned to another employer. There is this perpetual concern that you invest in training, and then people leave.

The first thing to realize is that learning is a great way of attracting and retaining people. As Andy Bird, Chief Executive of online learning business Pearson, said in a recent letter to the Financial Times: “Learning should be at the heart of fueling the great re-engagement”.

Some people might leave anyway. But you will increase the likelihood of keeping the people you care about in the times we are in, if the individual’s strategic objectives are the priority, rather than the organization’s.

It’s important not to give in to the temptation to be more conservative and rein in learning because the Great Resignation doesn’t seem to make it worthwhile. The employee may perceive this itself as a lack of care and commitment to personal growth. The second thing to bear in mind is that in order for learning to function as a retention mechanism, the learner should be empowered to determine what it is they want to learn.

This idea is resonating with CLOs. IMD recently surveyed learning and development managers during a “High Impact Learning Day” event. And a strong majority (61 percent) said the employee had the greatest influence over their annual learning agenda, compared with 22 percent who cited the learner’s line manager, and 11 percent who cited the human resources department. This democratization of learning, which is reflected in the data, is precisely what makes learning so pivotal as an antidote to the Great Resignation.

The evolution of the chief learning officer

This means that the CLO’s role as head of learning moves from being one of designer and prescriber to that of curator and evangelist. Curation means bringing learning into the workplace rather than sending people away on external learning programs.

The role of evangelist may sometimes mean fostering a spirit of corporate learning from the top down, to show that everyone is engaged. Even Indra Nooyi, former CEO of US drinks and snacks company PepsiCo, has spoken about the value she got from learning about China through a six-month training program designed for her by her team. This is leading by learning, and it can help CLOs in their role too.

Ultimately, it will be important to keep learning at the top of the corporate agenda, especially during times of turmoil. One way to do this is by going beyond formal learning programs and embedding learning into processes and culture, not just at the leadership level but throughout the entire organization. Another way is to revamp existing learning programs so they are optimized for digital delivery as opposed to face-to-face delivery.

But the big takeaway from the Great Resignation is that as far as the CLO is concerned, this represents a great opportunity.


David Bach

David Bach

Professor of Strategy and Political Economy

An expert in political economy, David Bach brings to IMD a proven track record of creating impactful learning journeys in a dual role as both Professor and Dean of Innovation and Programs. Through his award-winning teaching and writing, Bach helps managers and senior executives develop a strategic lens for the nexus of business and politics. 


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