Why Company Onboarding Needs to Inspire a Learning Mindset


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Oct • 18 • 2017

Why Company Onboarding Needs to Inspire a Learning Mindset

During employee onboarding, most companies emphasize training on tools and company procedures; but one of the most valuable attributes a new employee can have is a learning mindset. A learning mindset can transform the organization as a whole, especially in today’s dynamic business climate.

Too many companies approach onboarding as a transaction with their employees. They collect the paperwork, orient new hires to what it’s like to work for the company, and send them on their way. By infusing the onboarding process with opportunities for learning, companies can both increase the effectiveness of the process and help instill a learning mindset in their new hires.

Why learning-based onboarding is more effective

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve was first explained by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in his book Memory in 1885. After testing the brain’s ability to recall information over a period of time, he discovered that the mind’s loss of retention is exponential, flattening out at a fraction of the original ability by about 30 days.

Yet the front-loaded training approach many onboarding programs take assumes that new employees can learn everything they need to know in a concentrated session.

Instructional design consultant Margie Meacham wrote about the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve for ATD, where she says that the “one and done” approach taken by many learning professionals is ineffective. “Instead,” she writes, “you need to build frequent refresher modules to boost memory and fight the curve, especially in the critical first 30 days after the initial learning.“

Instead of treating onboarding as a one-time event, employers need to understand that learning happens in repeated sessions over time. Furthermore, when on-the-job training is structured to go beyond training for the “hard skills” employees need to perform job-related tasks, they can actually develop soft skills related to understanding how to learn. This helps transform employees from being static receivers of knowledge to participants in their own education.

More on this topic: Building Soft Skills and Employment Pathways

Principles of a learning-based onboarding program

Begin embedding learning into the onboarding process well before the new hire’s first day of work. A welcome packet and email series can be designed to help them learn about the company culture, policies, and any special skills or programs they’ll need to know.

The first few days on the job may be the most learning intensive, but keep in mind that an effective onboarding program should encompass the first few months of a new employee’s experience with your company. After the initial orientation, work with the new hire and their manager to identify areas in which continued training is needed and put together a program to help them get up to speed efficiently.

Remember that everyone learns at their own pace. A learning management platform that delivers just-in-time content when the new hire needs it most can be far more effective than time-intensive seminars that attempt to cover as much material as possible.

Finally, take learning to the next level by connecting the new hire with a mentor who can continue to check in with their progress, offer suggestions, and answer questions as they arise.

In fact, we consider feedback to be an integral component of College for America courses, as student work is evaluated on a mastery model rather than a system of grades. If a student receives a “not yet” mark on a specific competency from their instructor, that mark is accompanied by feedback meant to help the student revisit the work until they achieve mastery. The same principle applies to learning in the workplace.

This type of coaching reinforces that learning does not happen in a bubble, and can help employees with one of the most valuable aspects of a learning mindset: the ability to solicit and receive feedback.

More on this topic: How Degree Programs Helped Build a Company Culture of Dedication

Promoting learning as an ongoing habit

In a 2017 report titled Learning and Earning, The Economist profiles companies around the globe that have implemented a culture of learning. One such is Microsoft, whose CEO Satya Nadella was inspired by the research on mindset by psychology professor Carol Dweck. As a result, Nadella added an appraisal of how employees have sought out learning — and then applied their knowledge — to the company’s performance review criteria.

This culture of learning is valuable, despite concerns felt by some companies that investing in their employees is only developing knowledge that competitors will ultimately benefit from. “We want people who are intellectually curious,” Gail Jackson, vice president of human resources for United Technologies, tells The Economist. “It is better to train and have them leave than not to train and have them stay.”

And the concern about investing in employees and having them leave is probably overstated anyway. Research is showing that employee training makes employees less likely to leave. Continued training and education programs can have major benefits for employers, including increased retention, better employee engagement, and a talent pipeline that helps groom frontline workers for management positions.

A culture of learning goes beyond training

Business culture and consumer expectations are changing more rapidly than ever. Whereas companies may once have thrived by adhering to specific skills and competencies, today the most successful organizations are those that can learn, change, and adapt along with evolving technology and their customers’ needs. At the core, that requires employees who have been trained to learn, change, and adapt.

Encouraging a learning mindset in your employees begins with an onboarding program that makes learning foundational. Not only will this make the onboarding process more effective, it will infuse an ethos of growth and adaptation into the core of your culture.

# # #

Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon.