Blog Post

What is Employee Education?

Robyn Hazelton
June 14, 2023
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Employee education is the strategic act of building education initiatives for employees to reach a specific business goal—whether that’s increasing revenue, reducing customer churn, or improving employee retention.

Why does employee education matter? SHRM researchers found that 55% of employees say they “need additional training to perform better in their role.” Highly trained, highly skilled employees are good for your company’s bottom line.

However, when we surveyed more than 500 corporate education professionals we found that just 76% of companies educate their employees. Employees crave training, and companies need to deliver. 

In this article, you’ll learn about: 

Employee training vs. employee education

Employee training 

Skill-specific employee training is important and necessary for workers to complete job-related tasks. For example, if you don’t know how to operate a specific machine, you will be unable to complete your work. 

Training typically focuses on immediate performance-based needs such as learning how to use a new software program or operate essential equipment. 

Employees learn by watching their peers complete a skill or by receiving instructions from their manager. Many times, training takes the form of a document or playbook created by an employee to document processes or help teammates.

Employee education 

In addition to training, employees need company-led employee education.

As your company matures, taking a strategic approach to employee education ensures you’re building the right education initiatives to meet employee development goals and your business goals. For example, you might invest in developing employee leadership skills or soft skills so more individual contributors are in a position to transition into management roles. 

As Learning and Enablement consultant Karol Krahn says, “Employee education means determining how to go beyond skill-specific training and develop the individual.”

Learning and Development strategist Holly MacDonald echoes the same sentiment: “Training is done for a role. Development is for future roles or growth in their role. Development is more akin to education, whereas training should be about how to do something.”

Whereas training is often homespun, education is typically built upon learning best practices. You could lean on your internal instructional designers and learning experience designers to develop courses and content; or, you might direct your employees to take a specific course on a site like Udemy or LinkedIn learning. 

The content sweet spot for employee education

When building your employee education strategy, look for the intersection of strategic business goals, learner needs, and performance needs. We call this the “sweet spot.” 

Business goals = what benefits the organization hopes to gain

Learner needs = what benefits the employee hopes to gain

Performance needs = what must be learned for the employee to perform well

Strategic employee education moves trainers and educators beyond the here and now and empowers them to focus on developing employees in ways that support business development. Formal employee education programs comprehensively address long-term employee development and business growth in tandem.

What are the benefits of employee education? 

As we just mentioned, employee education—if executed well—helps the organization achieve desired business goals. 

But if we zoom in a bit, we see myriad additional benefits. 

Employee education helps companies address workplace skill gaps. According to Deloitte research, skills gaps result from automation, artificial intelligence, and continual advancement in digital technologies.

In fact, closing workplace skills gaps was the central theme of our most recent research report: The state of education initiative ownership

Employee education boosts engagement and strengthens company culture. The same SHRM report found that three-fourths of employees say they’re more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous development opportunities.

Employee education enhances organizational resilience. Happy, fulfilled employees are more willing to follow company leaders—even in times of stress and rapid change. SHRM found that more than 80% of organizations agree building a learning culture enhances their organizational resilience.

Employee education reduces employee turnover. Employees want to perform well in their roles, and they often need training to make that happen. When you deliver on their wants and needs—and invest in their development—they’re more likely to stick around. 

While larger organizations are more likely to support investing in learning and development opportunities, small companies can, and should, educate their employees—regardless of budget.

As MacDonald says, “I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding that you have to be a big enough company [to educate employees], and it's not true. It's much better to do a minimum viable product version, even if you’re a small organization and you're doing pieces at a time. Because if you do grow, you've got the package ready to support growth.”

Types of Employee Education Formats

First, you should understand that learning can occur formally or informally. Employees need both forms of learning.

Informal learning 

Informal learning might look like one employee training another to address a need. Or, it might be a monthly training session where the manager helps their employee.

Informal learning can take place in the office or remotely via phone or video conferencing software. It might be as simple as one employee observing another and learning from that experience. Or, it might take the form of a playbook or instruction manual that an employee put together for the job. 

Benefits of informal learning include:

  • It gives employees the information they need in their moment of need so that they can move forward and complete the job in front of them.
  • It allows for social and collaborative learning; research shows that people learn from collaborating with peers, teachers, or other experts.
  • It encourages diversity of thought as employees are exposed to a wider range of perspectives.

Informal learning is almost always happening. But for best results, organizations must be international about their learning initiatives—which brings us to formal learning.

Formal learning 

Formal learning is a term to describe a strategic education initiative where stakeholders begin with goals, conduct a needs analysis, and take a series of steps to ensure they’re selecting the right content and the right delivery methods.  

An example of formal learning is product education. At Intellum, we have a course that walks employees through our platform; it’s part of employee onboarding. Another example might be a leadership development certification designed to support company-wide career pathing and prepare employees for promotions. 

When creating a formal employee education program, particularly when some or all employees work remotely, it’s a good idea to adopt a learning management system (LMS) through which you can deliver your learning content. 

By adopting the right platform, you’re able to deliver content via a variety of modalities and formats such as:

  • On-demand eLearning courses
  • Virtual instructor-led training (VILT)
  • A combination of virtual content and interaction with an instructor and co-workers

Learning modalities 

How you choose to deliver your content matters; content format impacts learner engagement and knowledge retention. 

Certain formats can also make education accessible to a wider range of learners. MacDonald finds that digital, on-demand formats allow novice learners and non-native speakers to benefit from the ability to stop, review, make notes, and revisit content when it is relevant to their task at hand. 

If your education initiative is simple and static, such as compliance training, building a simple on-demand course inside an LMS might be sufficient. 

But a comprehensive education strategy designed to truly develop people and incite behavior change is better supported through a more robust tool—one that allows you to: 

  • Build learning paths for different audiences
  • Author courses and certifications
  • Deliver VILT, and 
  • Boost learner engagement through features like gamification and community.

It’s not enough to learn information; employees must be able to apply what they’ve learned. (This is the behavior change piece.)

Delivering content via blended modalities and the right eLearning platform allows you to organize all your educational resources in one location for asynchronous learning and retrieval whenever your employees need it.

To aid employees in applying their new knowledge, MacDonald says, “There’s a whole host of tools that we call performance support: checklists, reference guides, help pages, wizards, even chatbots. Those are all tools you use to complete a task and an extension of training. It gives learners reminders, a mental map, or a mental model so they can apply what they’ve learned.”

Setting employees up for success from day one 

Over the last 15 years, Krahn has developed various workplace education strategies and initiatives. She’s often focused on the new colleague experience, which entails determining what employees need to know to do their roles across quarterly milestones. Krahn ensures they have the resources to do self-development on their own, while also participating in other learning activities.

MacDonald’s work consists of conducting organizational needs assessments, developing training for new systems or internal processes, and addressing employee performance problems. A common educational initiative she’s built includes on-demand, eLearning courses for employee onboarding that help new employees feel connected to the business and their mission right away. 

“There's usually a time in the beginning when they just got hired, and you have an opportunity to help them see the great organization they joined,” MacDonald says. “[You show them] We want you, we're so excited for you to join us. You're hungry to know about this place. Here are all the wonderful things we can tell you. Now you're an insider! 

If you build that online, you have the opportunity to get them immersed in the organization's values, vision, and mission before they even start. It's a welcome that creates a sense of excitement and engagement right away and allows for the new employee to feel connected.”

Employee education best practices from L&D experts

Krahn suggests the following: 

Start with the end in mind. Know what your stakeholders want from the program and build from there; understand their vision and what they're proposing. Without their buy-in, you may create programs that don’t meet expectations. If that happens, your chances of a successful education program or strategy will be in jeopardy. 

Ensure alignment. Courses and certifications need to align with the skills and behaviors needed on the job. Creating certifications that fail to match employee job functions won’t result in a successful education initiative or improved employee performance.

Use multiple learning methods, or modalities. That may include ILT, VILT, self-study, videos, audio clips, and reflection. 

Know your audience. An early career professional doesn’t need to know everything that a subject matter expert knows. And for any kind of education program, think about what content depth is needed to successfully perform the job. 

Don’t forget to evaluate learning. Not only skills, but also behaviors. Let’s say you built a leadership development course. Are employees implementing the learned skills? How is this impacting employee performance? Maybe you measure productivity (i.e., support tickets answered) before and after. 

MacDonald suggests the following: 

Know that education exists within a context. The key is understanding the educational content and context. Understand what you're teaching, when employees are going to use it, and in what environment.  

Help employees transfer knowledge to long-term memory. Employees need three things: the opportunity to practice, spaced repetition, and feedback. These are the three primary ways people learn. Through eLearning, digital scenarios, we can provide employees with an opportunity to rehearse and practice. If we can give them a bit of feedback, it helps transfer that practice from short-term memory into long-term memory.

Create conditions for learning to thrive. Educators should ensure that task performance expectations are communicated, encourage manager feedback on new tasks, and ask for employee feedback on the usefulness of education initiatives towards their job role.

Additional employee education best practices

Employee education that is formalized, scalable, and curriculum-based leads to the best outcomes. 

So how can companies ensure their employee education initiatives are all three? By following the best practices below:

Use a learning framework or model to guide your curriculum. The ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) model of instructional design is widely used among instructional designers. 

Establish a goal and measure progress against it. Tie employee education to a business goal and assign KPIs from the beginning so that you can measure the impact of your programs and initiatives on the business. If you can’t show business impact, securing the budget for resources will be difficult, and—without adequate budget and headcount—you’ll struggle to drive positive business outcomes. 

Solicit employee feedback regularly. While lots of employee training is mandatory, you might also provide optional education for your employees to choose from. So it’s important that the content is enticing and engaging—both in terms of topic and format. Ask for employee feedback on your education initiatives to determine what employees want to know and ways to improve your content. 

How can organizations build employee education initiatives?

When it’s time to build an employee education strategy for your company, you don’t need to start building from scratch. Using a strategic framework as a guide will improve your chances of success.

The Intellum Framework is one example that works to align stakeholders on the expected business impact. Our framework stems from the Intellum Methodology, which consists of eight strategic pillars:

1. Business goals

2. Audience strategy

3. Resources

4. Content strategy

5. Delivery strategy

6. Marketing strategy

7 Measurement

8. Application

The Intellum Framework helps you to build your educational strategy by looking at things from three perspectives: the perspective of your goals, the perspective of your audience, and the perspective of your content. 

Continue your learning with the following resources: 

About the Author

Robyn Hazelton headshot
Robyn Hazelton
Vice President of Marketing and Growth
Robyn is the VP of Marketing and Growth at Intellum and helps to ensure that every interaction an individual has with the brand is as awesome as possible. An experienced and trusted leader with a history of consistently impacting revenue, she's always talking about funnel management and biased toward action.