2. Learning cultures in the public service

Today’s modern public service faces complex and emerging policy problems, seemingly continual crises, and a new technology-driven global environment. As circumstances change, learning becomes essential for flexibility in the public service because learning itself is at the heart of innovation, adaptation, and workforce resilience. The role of a public servant has evolved substantially, requiring new skills and competencies that necessitate lifelong learning and capability enhancement across the course of a career. As such, learning has become a “part of the job” in the public service. Successful, future-focused and crisis-ready administrations are made up of public servants with vast skillsets and have the ability to continually develop staff to meet the needs of modern governance. Such administrations inevitably have strong learning cultures, wherein learning is not only an expectation but a natural, habitual aspect of the organisational experience and design.

A learning culture fosters, enables and incentivises learning, and creates an environment in which it is viewed positively by employees, managers and the organisation more broadly. With the establishment of a learning culture, continual development shifts from being viewed as burdensome, optional or unexciting to being associated with growth and career progression, and is both needed and expected – and ideally also welcomed.

There is also a shift from learning being solely delivered formally and through traditional course-based means in punctuated moments (often only in the beginning of a career) to being factored into the day-to-day ways of working, with a multitude of opportunities for learning. A learning culture places the responsibility for learning and development on not only employees, but also on managers, teams, systems and structures, and the workplace as a whole. It aids in fostering an environment in which employees maintain and update their skills, and continually develop new ones, leading to a wider and more diverse skill base within a workforce, which can contribute to greater workforce resilience and flexibility.

Creating learning systems and strategies – and embedding learning cultures into organisations – requires a deep understanding of how adults learn in – and learn for – their workplaces and their professional selves. The actual impact of learning at work depends largely on an organisation’s recognition of employees’ learning efforts and individual competencies (Desjardins, 2017[1]). Adults make conscious decisions about whether to formally engage in learning, and also how and when to learn (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[2]). They are “not very inclined to learn something of which they cannot see the point on the basis of their own life situation” (Illeris, 2003[3]).

Beyond formal settings, learning comes in many forms that can have different outcomes and goals, and varying utility for individual types of learners. It can be active and intentional through formal courses, for instance. It can also happen more collaboratively, such as through non class-based formats such as workshops or discussions, or informally, such as through learning-by-doing or observing others (OECD, 2021[4]). A one-size-fits all approach, across people and situations, is seldom the best solution; determining what is can be more complicated, yet the most impactful on outcomes.

Leadership plays a substantial role in creating learning cultures. Organisations who reported that their senior managers truly value and support employee learning and development as a priority also report significantly higher ratings on many other aspects of a learning culture, such as whether line managers support their team’s development and the extent to which employees participate and engage in learning opportunities (Elizabeth Crowley and Laura Overton, 2021[5]).

An employee’s direct manager may teach a lot without realising – simply by doing their job and interacting with their team. This learning may be amplified through feedback, reflection or coaching. Further, leaders who model their own learning behaviour and who give value to learning in an organisation are more likely to create organisations with strong learning cultures (Elizabeth Crowley and Laura Overton, 2021[5]). Social learning theory, when applied to the workplace, develops the idea that observing, modelling and imitating the behaviours, attitudes and emotional reactions of others – particularly those closest to us or in immediate positions of leadership – is a primary driver of how humans learn (Bandura, 1977[6]).

Learning most often happens without us realising it – or at least, somewhat involuntarily. While some very tangible skills and knowledge can be learned, if desired, through traditional means – lectures, studying, and acquiring information – other large swaths of learning take place through far less identifiable means; through experience, through watching others, interactions, experiments, and so on. Learning in the workplace is “a messy object, existing in different states” (Fenwick, 2010[7]), and happens in a variety of ways for each individual; there is no one way – or one right way – to learn at work.

The most effective organisational learning and development systems incorporate and foster many types of learning. Learning exists at the crossroads of the individual (and their own abilities) and their surroundings – their organisation, team or society. The design and delivery of systems and support for learning is as important as content in terms of whether employees attain new knowledge, retain it, and then use it in real situations (OECD, 2005[8]).

Because of this, workplace learning intersects with organisational structures and workforce planning policy, particularly in the areas of incentive structures and the design of day-to-day work. Since learning happens naturally, though often unintentionally, organisations can recognise this phenomenon and harness it’s potential, creating situations wherein natural learning can happen with intent, and also be recognised and rewarded. This can be used as part of an overall development system in a workplace, for instance through feedback, structured reflection and well thought out team design.

A public service that places greater value on competencies, behaviours and socioemotional skills is likely to be better equipped to tackle modern problems and crises that call on the resilience and resourcefulness of public servants. An increased need for not only technical skills but also high-level cognitive and complex social-interaction competencies is leading to new learning and training needs. These competencies contribute to aspects of effective leadership, crisis and change management, innovation and more.

The urgency and pertinence of creating and maintaining a public sector workforce that has the skills and competencies to be future-ready in the modern world of complex policy problems demands strategic and prioritised learning and development systems inside administrations. Such training systems for improving employee skills and capacities are complex and require sufficient resources and strategic planning supported by evidence. Competency frameworks, workforce planning and a view of the workforce as a set of capabilities rather than roles (and thereby enabling greater flexibility and resiliency to adapt to changing circumstances and priorities) can help guide what skills are needed most. In turn, these can inform training and learning decisions.

Designing and implementing effective systems in governments requires understanding not only what skills are needed, but also how to instil them and how to attain the participation of target learners. Succeeding at this is a much-discussed topic, though one that is rarely studied – despite research demonstrating that training and workplace learning and development have a direct effect on organisational performance and strategic goals (Kroll and Moynihan, 2015[10]). This chapter contributes data on the topic not otherwise available to decision-makers from OECD member country central administrations.

The following sections of the chapter discuss how learning and development systems are being designed and implemented inside OECD countries’ public services. They do so with a specific focus on learning cultures – overall and systemic organisational attitudes and actions that orbit around and creates space for continual development. Learning cultures have several elements – for instance, leadership, incentives, depth of opportunity and evidence-based strategy – that combine to create what is otherwise a less tangible concept. What follows outlines many of these, using data from an OECD survey conducted by the Public Employment and Management work stream, which undertakes work guided by the OECD Recommendation of the Council of Public Service Leadership and Capability (OECD, 2019[11]). Principle 8 of the recommendation, elaborated on in Figure ‎2.1, below, highlights the impact of learning cultures on skill and competency development, within the public sector context.

This section first explores the structure of learning systems, as well as who has responsibility for learning and development in teams and central administrations. It then discusses ways to incentivise employees to undertake learning and elements of quality and strategic development offerings, followed by information on the individual learning and development needs of employees.

How central administrations implement and co-ordinate training across ministries and agencies contributes to the overall learning culture. Organisational learning strategies and tools can be centrally organised, distributed throughout ministries, left up to individual managers, outsourced, and a range or combination of other options. OECD countries that have learning and development strategies organise and implement them in a variety of ways. Figure ‎2.2 below, shows that only 5% of survey respondent countries report that there is no L&D strategy in their administration, while 68% say there is a strategy at the central level and 65% say that most ministries or agencies have their own strategy.

Ministry-based plans are sometimes due to a more decentralised government model, such as in Norway, where each individual organisation is free to work towards agreed national plans in ways that suit them, including by accessing available training programmes executive through the Norwegian Agency for Public and Financial Management. In Figure ‎2.3, we can see that around half of countries have a centralised national School of Government or similar, or a central agency that executes training and development offerings, while in nearly 80% of cases, ministries and agencies are delivering or arranging their own.

Combinations of answers are possible, as in many cases countries’ learning strategies are made up of several combined systems. For instance, in Spain, the National Institute of Public Administration runs training for employees across the civil service, and individual ministries also run their own specialised training programmes linked to the needed competencies in each area. Another example is from the United Kingdom, which has launched the Government Campus Curriculum, an administration-wide strategy that aims to bring all training, throughout all ministries, under one umbrella and available to all. It also takes advantage of specialised ministerial training by making it more broadly available rather than centralising it, and losing the expertise behind its creation and delivery (for more in this initiative in the United Kingdom, see the additional case study in this report).

Many strategies can be effective, but planning, organisation and co-ordination are key for effective and fit-for-purpose systems. Many countries that do well at workforce learning and development have well thought out and universal systems that cover the entire administration workforce, foster communication and best practices across departments and agencies, and provide equal opportunities for growth and development to all staff (though, tailored to the needs of individuals and roles). Networks, working groups and communities of practice across administrations and departments can contribute to the overall culture, and ways of thinking and working can spread beyond departmental borders. Creating equal opportunities and rewards for learning organisation-wide also prevents the formation of silos of talented and motivated staff in only some areas of government. Having a government-wide culture of learning also serves to support initiatives that contribute to skill building, workforce resilience and flexibility, such as through opportunities for mobility between different departments and roles.

Effective systems require financial planning and strategy to implement. Especially with the shift to digital learning technologies and e-learning platforms, a tangible investment in learning development is required for administrations to succeed. Therefore, it is important to allocate a required budget and to be able to measure and monitor the results of this expenditure.

Managers play an essential role in establishing and maintaining a learning culture. The sense that developing employees is “part of the job” for managers cyclically contributes to and is reinforced by a learning culture. Specific behaviours and competencies can be sought and developed in managers that define and foster the understanding of their role as facilitators of learning, and their effectiveness in the task. This aspect of the role of a public sector manager is perhaps a shift from traditional systems; from the manager as the smartest and most knowledgeable, to the manager supporting and enabling excellence, autonomy and development in their employees. It suggests moving away from immediate managers being only “bosses” with a focus on organising and distributing the work, to being “coaches” who work with their staff to build their skills and competencies. Managers also play an extremely significant role in their employees’ learning and growth simply by proximity; people learn a large amount of professional skills and habits from observing and working alongside their managers – making every manager a mentor of their team, whether they realise it or not.

In OECD countries, employee and team development is emerging as a defined and expected managerial task. Figure ‎2.4 below shows ways that this is fostered, encouraged, or reinforced. Almost two-thirds of OECD countries report providing voluntary training for managers on how to develop their staff and the inclusion of employee development in managerial competency frameworks, and around half expect managers to co-create learning plans with their employees. However, other measures scored much lower. Very few countries take a manager’s ability and success at developing employees into consideration for promotion decisions, hold managers responsible for ensuring employees participate in training, or use indicators to measure or track employee development outcomes.

Countries are approaching managerial responsibility for employee development in different ways. In the United Kingdom, a managerial competency framework includes “developing others”, while in Portugal, a manager’s statute mentions HR development, and some managers are measured against this in performance appraisals. In Spain, managers must undertake yearly questionnaires outlining the training needs of their staff or departments, and in France managers are required to discuss professional development and training with staff as part of yearly professional assessments. Managers and senior leaders contribute immensely to the overall culture inside an organisation, and must learn to create space for employees to try new things and undergo the process of developing themselves.

Continual improvement and progress in the modern public service relies on learning as well as freedom and support to innovate, experiment and try new things. Managers who model learning behaviour and innovative practices can also “pass it down” to their teams, and then can further support and reward this behaviour when it is demonstrated. Experimentation, especially in innovative policy-making settings, can contribute substantively to individual and administration-wide learning (Dutz et al., 2014[12]) and is a key indicator of a healthy learning culture. Innovation and experimentation are essential components of progress, problem solving and a forward-looking public service. In order to create an organisational culture of learning and development and instil innovative and experimental thinking and skillsets in the workforce, employees should feel enabled and supported to try new things and take some risks – even in the (often likely) event that those things do not “work” in the traditional sense of the word.

Experimentation leads to learning – in fact, that is its entire purpose. Experiments expand our understanding by trying new things, and in that context, they seldom “fail”; even if things do not “work”, learning has taken place. Managers can encourage this type of learning by clearly removing the expectations of “success” and the risks around “failure”. Often, existing traditional structures inside administrations work against fostering innovation and experimentation. A tendency to maintain the status quo or follow direction may be frequently found within governments, especially in administrations with top-down managerial structures or abundant regulation that dictates ways of working. Further, fear of failure (or of negative performance reviews stemming from it) results in masking some of the best learning opportunities. Finding ways around this is a key challenge for developing learning cultures in the public service.

Collecting data and evidence is essential for any informed strategy or plan, and learning and development systems are no exception. Data collection and analysis allows organisations to better understand if training systems are working; if they are reaching the right people, teaching the right things, and fostering the culture they hope to achieve. Across the OECD, there is variation on whether data on learning systems are being collected, and if so, what type of data.

Around 90% of countries do track – in some way, either centrally or in ministries – training uptake, employee satisfaction, completion of and time spent in training, and feedback on instructors. In Australia, Canada, Korea and United Kingdom, numerous types of data are collected both centrally – through national training schools or centres – and on a ministerial or agency level, to some degree.

However, fewer countries track the outcomes and results derived from training systems, or how new skills are used on the job. Australia further collects information on learning effectiveness, by running staff opinion surveys. Korea has ambitious data collection aims stemming from the intensive focus on advanced e-learning systems, which can by extension collect a variety of useful data.

Many organisations are beginning to collect more data through e-learning systems, as they build up such systems into substantive parts of overall learning strategies. For example, Ireland has a platform called OneLearning (see Box ‎2.2), which enables the central administration to collect certain information on its use, and Canada’s national school and most ministries collect and aggregate online training data.

Notably, data collected on the diversity and inclusion aspects of training programmes ranked comparatively low. The survey asked if participation across various diverse groups – gender, disability, age and socioeconomic background – is tracked. The majority of responding countries do not track this information. This leaves questions about whether all employees are reached by training initiatives and being given opportunities for growth and development. Lack of data in itself does not mean there is an issue – but it is impossible to know for sure without it. Reaching all employees and allowing them to learn, grow and reach their potential can be a huge factor in creating a broadly skilled workforce.

Workers need reasons – incentives – to learn. To engage in learning, employees must view it as valuable and purposeful. How an organisation and its management treat and incentivise learning, and the culture around learning expectations, matters substantially. The actual impact of learning at – and for – work, depends largely on an organisation’s recognition of employees’ learning efforts and individual competencies (Ioannidou and Desjardins, 2020[13]). Adults make decisions about whether to formally engage in learning, and also how and when to learn, when the perceived benefits outweigh costs. For this reason, top-down directives to learn do not usually result in desired outcomes, without some sort of incentive or justification for it in the mind of the learner.

Incentives for learners need not always be financial; in fact, linking learning to things like performance evaluation, career progression and feedback cycles can be more effective and contribute more to an overall culture of learning rather than it being perceived as an extra task. Further, increasing the overall visibility of these rewards, justifications or incentives for acquiring new knowledge can be key in motivating adults to learn. Linking learning to incentives such as performance evaluation is also an effective way of signalling the importance of learning, aiding to create a broader culture of learning. The use of competency frameworks, and incorporating them into human resource and development processes, can be a very effective strategy to define and incentivise development objectives.

Quite often, governments struggle to substantively incentivise development when it is not linked to these processes – for example, performance evaluations or promotion decisions – and is also not incorporated into feedback or identified as important by managers. To address this, redesigned incentive systems are now emerging in many OECD countries, as illustrated in Figure ‎2.6, below. Around 75% of responding countries say they consider L&D efforts in performance evaluations, and 50% are developing individualised learning plans for employees. Considering L&D in promotion decisions is an emerging incentive, with 39% of countries undertaking this strategy, although precautions should be taken to make sure such learning is relevant and not framed as simply a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise required for promotion. Financial incentives are rare among survey respondents.

Existing but unused skills work against motivation for learning. Once news skills are developed, gaps and lags in their use can hinder learning cultures, productivity and employee satisfaction. Workers across OECD countries report that their existing skills are often under-used, and skill mismatches – where employees are both under- and over-qualified – are common (OECD/ILO, 2017[14]). If skills will not be substantively used or rewarded, workers are unlikely to be willing to attain them, or to “see the point”.

Learning itself has many positive outcomes on an individual or personal level. It keeps adults happy, increases satisfaction at work and overall well-being. Learning at work is associated with lower turnover and greater levels of innovative thinking and overall acceptance of innovation. More and more research indicates that employees are more likely to stay at organisations that invest in their continual learning – but new skills must be used as well as learned.

Continual and habitual learning, and learning with new technology, reduce barriers to a workplace digital transformation. Creating a culture of learning can reduce hesitancy around developing new ways of thinking as well as using new technologies. Employees who are used to learning can more easily adapt to new software and platforms, assured that they will be able to learn the required new skills, and further, that their workplace will help teach them. It makes sense then that harnessing new digital technologies for use in learning can provide dual benefits. It can help employees learn new digital skills but it can also provide substantive benefits in providing catered, rapid and interactive training that employees can take flexibly. Digital learning technologies also often allow for more effective measurement and monitoring of participation in, and outcomes of, learning systems.

There are also aspects of e-learning that can present downsides that should be considered in designing overall learning systems. The digital transformation, and shift to more numerous forms of and potential for digital learning, in many cases reduces the more passive, informal learning that often takes place through in-person interaction (for more on informal learning, see the next section), even while presenting many opportunities for learning that are more formal, active and intentional. Recent OECD work estimates that informal learning dropped by 25% in the COVID-19 crisis as a result of limitations to social interaction (OECD, 2021[4]).

Even so, the use of digital technologies in learning systems – such as through remote instruction, AI and “social bots”, and tailored approaches – hold tremendous potential for helping in reaching goals such as increasing learning culture and willingness to learn, monitoring and assessing of the effectiveness of training and making new knowledge more broadly available to underserved individuals (OECD, 2021[15]). Unlocking and harnessing the potential of digital and e-learning opportunities is an essential task for public service learning and development strategies, and to ensure that the use of digital technologies has a net benefit. Moreover, it can also have a positive environmental impact – Türkiye, for example, has calculated use of its online learning platform reduces the need for in-person travel and associated carbon dioxide emissions.

Online learning is now widespread, though there is room to grow. After the shift to telework that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, nearly all OECD countries now offer live training online or offer some sort of self-directed e-learning, often through their own portal or platform. In fact, three of the top five responses have a digital or online component. However, far fewer administrations have yet to incorporate other next-level digital technologies – such as apps, gamified learning and AI – into their learning systems. Figure ‎2.7 below illustrates this sharp drop-off in the types of digital learning being offered. Only 13% of responding countries are incorporating AI into their learning tools, while around 40% use mobile apps or gamified learning.

Korea, for example, is integrating many of these technologies into an ambitious e-learning platform (for more, see the case study on Korean’s e-learning systems, in this publication). Finland provides another example. It’s digital learning platform, called eOppiva, offers not only training modules but also innovative content like micro-learning content, blogs and podcasts – all available on a mobile app. Notably, several countries indicate that they plan to use these more advanced digital technologies soon (within the next two years).

Learning and development systems are essential for finding and closing skills gaps. Administrations aim to design their training offerings to target prioritised and needed skill sets internally. Figure ‎2.8 and Figure ‎2.9 illustrate the topics that countries say are their biggest priorities for L&D, for both non-manager employees and senior managers.

Across both groups, digital skills stand out, with 86% of countries ranking it in the top five for non-managers (the highest response) and 51% for senior managers (the second highest). Perhaps unsurprisingly, leadership comes in at the highest priority rank for senior managers with 89% of countries, and change management, innovation and ethics and integrity having around 40% each. Ethics and integrity also ranked highly for non-manager priorities with 57%, and teamwork rounding out the top three with 49%. The data may point to a lack of L&D opportunities for developing a pipeline of future managers; for non-manager employees, only 3% of countries ranked leadership in the top five priority skills.

How these subject areas are determined and prioritised can depend on the strategy of each country or administration, as evidence in Figure ‎2.10. Some countries (42%) try to keep afloat of global best practices, while formal assessments (58%), workforce planning (58%), and managerial feedback (81%) are common strategies to identify needs. Awareness of skills needed for the digital transformation is also a reason given by 67% of countries. This data also provides more insight on strategies to create a pipeline of future leaders, with only 33% of countries saying that this is a focus. Similarly, while the creation of competency frameworks is an emerging trend in public employment, only 14% of surveyed countries say they use such frameworks to identify L&D priorities.

Australia undertakes strategic workforce planning that takes the whole central administration into account and aims to identify skills needs in both the short and long term. Survey data is collected from various sources – including employee feedback, leadership, and individual ministries and agencies – and informs an overall risk assessment alongside a framework identifying areas with skill gaps. Capability areas with the highest risk and biggest gaps are then prioritised for learning and development focus. Greece is currently designing reforms that aim to identify skill gaps using various information sources, including managerial feedback, performance management results, and AI-assisted workforce planning. In Israel, development needs are linked to the skills model for civil servants, which informs training priorities across key skill areas.

While many countries use their training systems to upskill and maintain employee skills, survey results show there is work to be done on aligning these systems with reskilling needs. As Figure ‎2.11 shows, a large majority of respondents indicate that there is no strategy or specific training for reskilling (training of employees for new skills to fill new roles after their original roles become redundant). An inability to reskill can cause major problems in an organisation, such as spending unnecessary resources on salaries and benefits for employees who do not hold needed roles, a sluggish or unproductive overall workforce, a lack of learning culture or innovation, and essential roles going unfilled. Reskilling is also essential in a world of digitalisation, as some jobs become automated and other new roles appear. The modern public service is constantly changing, and must be able to rapidly and flexibly evolve its overall skillset, and mindset, to meet the challenges of a complex world of policy problems.

Successful reskilling strategies have many components. Beyond identifying redundant roles and affected staff, there is also a need for effective assessment of an employee’s current skills and those that are needed. Pathways for reskilling can be put in place, to move employees between roles, and needed training programmes must be implemented internally or outsourced. Methods for evaluating the outcomes and effectiveness of the reskilling, and ways to adapt it as needed, can also be part of the strategy.

Individual employees are likely to have diverse needs when it comes to learning. Some may thrive in formal learning environments such as instructor-led courses. Others may prefer a self-directed curriculum or choosing what they want to learn. Still others may learn more informally, such as through on the job tasks or mentoring. Providing an assortment of opportunities to learn, to reach the widest number of staff, therefore becomes vital.

Additionally, there are other needs of diverse employees to consider that influence learning outcomes. For example, workers who have childcare responsibilities may not be able to participate in training at certain times of day or that requires travel. Perhaps not all employees will feel comfortable in mentorship or leadership roles, and these may not be the best choice of development techniques for all roles. The underlying point is that effective development strategies take into account the diverse learning styles and needs of the workforce and can flexibly adapt to provide opportunities that realistically provide the best outcomes.

OECD countries are beginning to expand the types of learning opportunities available to staff, as well as consider the ability of each type of learning offer to reach and benefit the entire, diverse, workforce population. This tactic is especially important considering the wide range of roles in the public sector, and the need to strategically offer training that provides targeted establishment of skills across areas and employees. Needed skills are ideally distributed across diverse employees, to further increase the depth of skills, experience and understanding that can be called upon when needed.

Learning can also be a driver of inclusion and diversity within a workforce. There are examples of efforts to foster diversity in learning and development in several OECD countries. For example, Canada runs a rotation programme called the Mosaic Leadership Development Program, which targets specific diverse groups, and is designed to develop future leaders across diverse backgrounds using job mobility and training initiatives. Canada also has specific training for executives intended to foster diversity and inclusion, such as sessions to develop inclusive leadership skills, a focus on Indigenous leadership, and peer coaching sessions with the Black Executives Network.

In Japan, gender inclusion is being pursued in part through inter-ministry training programmes that offer peer to peer learning and targeted development of management skills, and training to HR managers on creating environments that promote the development of female employees.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness training is a key mandatory learning module for induction programmes across all agencies. Some senior leadership training programmes teach senior leaders to perform ‘acknowledgement of country’ in the language of the local Indigenous peoples. Agencies also offer training on disability awareness, unconscious bias, and reasonable adjustment (for managers).

Informal learning has tremendous potential as part of an overall strategy. As evidenced above, learning can be active and intentional through formal courses, for instance. It can also be less formal, such as through non class-based formats such as workshops or discussions, or more experiential, such as through learning-by-doing or observing others. Collective learning from collaboration with others makes up a substantial portion of knowledge acquisition (Tikkanen, 2002[16]), especially when paired with structured reflection on what was learned and how to use or adapt new skills or knowledge. Informal learning generally makes up a substantial part of overall learning; in all likelihood, a much greater part than formal learning.

Where learning is more formal, the design of training modules and their delivery can be viewed as being as important as content in terms of whether employees attain new knowledge, retain it, and then use it in real situations. Formal learning can be effective in some circumstances, and less so in others. Sometimes, employees who may require training the most are the least likely to take it up. For workers already in employment, this often includes those in jobs at risk of automation, older employees – who tend to learn and use certain skills at a lower rate than younger workers – and those in lower-skilled or redundant roles (OECD, 2019[17]; OECD, 2019[18]).

Informal learning is not only effective, but it can also address many of the challenges associated with formal learning. Informal methods such as giving workers more autonomy, structuring some tasks around teamwork, or enabling non-managerial employees to occasionally take on leadership tasks, though difficult to analyse and organise, can make up a substantial or even majority contribution to an employee’s learning. In OECD countries, around 70% of workers (in all industries, not only the public sector) have some degree of regular informal learning engagement, compared to just 8% who engage in formal training (e.g. towards a qualification) (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[19]). These types of learning can be as effective – or sometimes more effective – than formal learning and can often incorporate higher levels of active attention and participation from the learner and reduce or eliminate issues related to selection for learning. While on the surface these learning opportunities are more complicated to structure, plan or amplify, finding ways to do so can provide a large return in terms of employee development.

While informal learning plays a vital role in workforce development, it can be difficult to tangibly plan, measure and offer. Many OECD countries are beginning to – or already do – structure work in ways that better foster or enable informal learning. While there are efforts to do this more systematically and strategically, in fact many administrations are already taking important steps without being concretely or intentionally aware of it. In Figure ‎2.12, we can see that many countries already use organisational and operational methods and tools that increase informal learning – such as networks of practice, designing work around teamwork and encouraging interaction between teams and work streams – to some degree, without having intentionally done so for the purpose of informal learning. When considering what is done without direct intent, nearly all respondent countries have implemented ways of working that foster informal learning, as evidenced below.

This overlap provides a way to see that work and systems that harness informal learning can potentially be designed and implemented more intentionally and strategically. This provides enormous potential to augment learning and development capacity inside public organisations. Perhaps this would mean setting goals for the distribution of leadership tasks, even on a small scale, or strategic planning and design around the formation of teams or cross-project units. It could also mean adding in more time for reflection into feedback cycles, including discussions between managerial and non-managerial staff about how they learn from each other, and how to harness that interaction. Mobility between teams and departments, even over a short duration, can also be implemented into workforce planning.

The data in this report show that learning and development contributes strongly to organisational flexibility. It is also an area that is becoming more flexible itself – for example, through the provision of e-learning modules that allow staff to access learning opportunities relevant to them at a time that best suits or motivates them. Overall, the picture that emerges from the data is encouraging: most OECD administrations take a strategic approach to learning, tactics to create a learning culture are emerging, and there are many opportunities for effective informal learning. So, what can administrations do to make sure that their learning systems are flexible and contribute to organisational flexibility?

First, the goal of learning and development opportunities should be to contribute to a learning culture in the public service. Learning is not just something that happens in the classroom, or at occasional points in the career of a public servant – it is a critical part of ensuring that the public service is equipped to deal with emerging and future challenges. This may call for a review of learning content and formats, for example, to make sure that it aligns with broader organisational objectives, such as workforce re-skilling for the digital era. It also means broadening the scope of what learning is and how it takes place for adults; informal learning can make up a huge part of overall learning and skill acquisition and can be incorporated into strategies.

Second, the importance of leadership in the creation and maintenance of a learning culture cannot be understated. Learning cultures are reinforced by leaders who prioritise learning, who work to develop their staff, and who model learning behaviour through their own career-long self-development. Further, employees learn a substantial amount from their direct manager – meaning managers are at all times mentors and teachers, and as such, even more important for a learning culture.

Third, the incentives around learning opportunities, as well as the way they are framed, matter substantially. This reinforces the need to position learning content and formats as part of everyday work rather than as a ‘nice-to-have’ if workload and time allows. It also highlights the potential for greater linkages with career development. If employees have a clear sense of what it takes to be promoted, learning opportunities can be a valuable tool to help motivate and engage staff.

Finally, there is scope to gather and use more data to inform policies around learning and development. Many public services are focussing on leadership and digital skills, two areas that underpin public service flexibility and capability. Broadening the reach, diversifying learning opportunities, and developing insights around who is accessing or requiring what, and what skills have been developed where, can help paint a better picture of the overall impact – and future direction – of learning and development in the public service.

The broad picture is that lifelong learning across a workforce is essential for a flexible public service. Governments that create and maintain learning cultures are therefore better prepared to rise to the challenges they will face, and weather to storms they cannot predict.


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