Learning as a reward?


Posted by Julie Hiipakka and Peter DeBellis on January 15, 2019.

If you believe that access to learning and development (L&D) opportunities in your organization is democratic, this next statement might feel like a splash of cold water: it never has been. Aside from the most basic of offerings—like choosing your own adventure from a learning management system catalog or required compliance training—formal learning opportunities have historically been a de facto performance-based reward in most organizations.

Don’t believe us? Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What do you do when two employees want to go to the same conference, but you can afford to send only one?
  • Who on your team gets invited to those highly visible leadership development programs?
  • Who is exposed to L&D that might help them in their next possible role as opposed to their current role?

The answer to the last question is high performers/high-potentials, right? Of course. L&D programs can be both directly and indirectly expensive for an organization and pull resources away from the short-term tasks at hand. As such, learning (beyond standard onboarding/advancement requirements) is often distributed on a performance basis or at least subject to a threshold performance level. (For example, “You did such a great job on this project that I think it’s time to get you in front of an executive audience to talk about it” or, “I think you should focus on catching up on your day-to-day work before we worry about [insert conference, course, cool new project idea].”)

But is rewarding performance with learning the right strategy going forward? Consider the following points:

  • Employees (and their employers) want to improve skills. Younger employees desire access to development opportunities,1 and 54 percent of respondents to Deloitte’s 2018 Human Capital Trends study said that their organizations had no programs in place to build the skills of the future.2 Formal and informal developmental opportunities can also be highly beneficial for employees who are looking to refresh and update their skills. That benefit extends to their employers, who may be wondering where to find employees with the critical skills they need to move their business forward.
  • “Rewards” are expanding. The traditional rewards perspective has been that it makes sense to pay for performance and therefore invest more in your best talent. Data from Bersin’s High-Impact Performance Management study3 speaks to this, showing that paying for performance drives enhanced business and workforce outcomes. But the definition of “rewards” is expanding. Bersin’s High-Impact Total Rewards study finds that high-performing organizations are 1.7 times more likely to have a rewards philosophy that reaches beyond just compensation, benefits, and well-being.4 Perhaps it makes sense to revisit which rewards elements fall under the pay-for-performance banner. And therefore, perhaps learning—save for its most expensive and time-consuming permutations—should be increasingly democratized.
  • Performance management is evolving toward workforce growth and development. Bringing learning to more people where they are increases the perception that development is available for workers. This is especially true if that access is communicated as part of an employee development philosophy that states everyone in the organization should be learning all the time. Setting the expectation for continuous learning—and then making it easy to accomplish—meets the interests of digitally savvy workers.

Greater democratization of access to learning and the increased demand for it across workforce generations could mean that more of your organization’s workers choose development. In doing so, those employees make themselves both more valuable to your organization and more marketable externally. Some organizations attempt to limit or focus development to combat the associated attrition risk, while others take a more open view that embraces development and enables mobility. Perhaps you’ve heard this old HR parable: A CFO asks a CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people, and then they leave the company?” The CEO responds, “What happens if we don’t—and they stay?”

We’re interested in hearing from organizations about the extent to which they limit, or open up, access to learning as part of their rewards strategy. If you have a story to share, please contact Julie Hiipakka ( jhiipakka@deloitte.com) or Pete DeBellis (pdebellis@deloitte.com).

Julie HiipakkaJulie Hiipakka is vice president and learning research leader with Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
Peter DeBellisPeter DeBellis is a vice president and the total rewards research leader at Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.


1 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Millennials disappointed in business, unprepared for Industry 4.0, Deloitte Touche Tohamatsu Limited, 2018, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/gx-2018-millennial-survey-report.pdf.
2 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends: The rise of the social enterprise, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte Insights, 2018, https://hctrendsapp.deloitte.com/reports/2018/the-rise-of-the-social-enterprise.html.
3 The Performance Management Maturity Model, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Kathi Enderes, PhD, and Matt Deruntz, 2018.
4 Seven Top Findings for Redefining Total Rewards, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Pete DeBellis and Anna L. Steinhage, PhD, 2018
5 The Performance Management Maturity Model, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Kathi Enderes, PhD, and Matt Deruntz, 2018.

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