Employers’ learning priorities have shifted dramatically in the last five years, McKinsey & Co. says. According to the management consultancy’s latest global survey, organizations are now paying more attention to building the capabilities of front-line employees than either senior executives or middle management.

Of 1,010 executives surveyed, 33% said their organizations used the most resources on improving the knowledge and skills of front-line employees over the past three years, compared with 26% that favored senior executives. A further 19% used the most resources on middle management. (The remaining executives mentioned technical specialists and front-line supervisors as receiving the most learning resources.)

The 2015 figures represented a turnaround from McKinsey’s 2010 survey, in which 31% of executives said senior leadership got the most learning resources, with 23% favoring middle management and just 22% rank-and-file employees.

McKinsey didn’t explicitly say why this dramatic shift in favor of front-line learning had taken place. But its report does suggest that an increased emphasis on linking learning with business performance may have played a role.

How they do it
McKinsey also broke down the most common methods of conveying employee learning. (Some 1,239 executives responded to this portion of the survey.) They were:

  • On-the-job teaching (used “extensively” by 56% of organizations)
  • Group classroom learning on a single-course basis (34%)
  • Coaching (33%)
  • Individual online learning, single-course (32%)
  • Group classroom learning, series of courses (31%)
  • Group-based online courses (15%)
  • Mobile learning like podcasts or job aids (11%)
  • Off-site experiential learning such as model factories (8%)


Top of the class
What separates the top-class employee learning programs from the rest? McKinsey found two key components.

First, among organizations that self-reported as having effectively used learning to drive business performance (these organizations represented less than 10% of all those surveyed), fully 78% said they encourage employees to develop their skills continuously. Just 42% of the other organizations did so.

Second, of those most effective organizations, 89% have come up with metrics that link employee performance with skills acquired through learning programs. Just 53% of the other organizations did.

Conclusion: No matter which group of employees you want to concentrate your learning programs on — from the C-suite to the humblest factory hands — it makes sense to prioritize continuous learning and some kind of measurement of learning effectiveness.

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