By Katherine Kirkwood, Senior Learning and Development Business Partner ‑ Projects Lead

When people ask me why I’m proud of the changes we’ve made at Afford, my excitement truly comes alive when I talk about the remarkable strides we’ve made in learning and development. I know this is why I was hired of course – but it means more than that. An organisation strategically invested in continuous learning and development is an organisation that cares about people, genuinely has its sights set on doing better and better, and is future-focused.

It’s easy to say that it all starts with strategy, but making that happen requires the commitment of an organisation from the very top.

One of the first things our new Executive Leadership Team did when they were appointed 18 months ago was significantly boost the investment in learning and development by appointing a specialist L&D team. That’s a big first step.

Our Learning & Development Strategy was developed in consultation with all departments and teams.

As an example, it’s our role to translate the knowledge and skills our employees may require into learning solutions that consider the needs of our learners and find ways to also ensure this is embedded in the way we do things every day.

Our strategic approach does not just consider the immediate learning needs of our organisation or have a limited focus on specific roles. Of course, there is a regulatory and compliance aspect to how and why we learn – and that’s a ‘must have’ because we are absolutely committed to meeting and exceeding the regulations and standards that underpin client support. We go beyond that, though. A strategic L&D approach like the one we have built at Afford looks at how the development of knowledge across the organisation will impact our overall sector needs, and improve the needs of our clients and the community so that we deliver positive outcomes. We look to client insight and feedback to guide where we need to build the learning.

Our Learning & Development approach recognises that one size does not fit all. We account for the diversity of our employees in terms of learning styles, locations, work schedules and role differences, culture, expertise, digital literacy and access to learning.

We’re mindful that the rapid growth in the workforce in the disability services sector has resulted in a need for ‘catch up’ in learning and expectations – but we’re not looking backwards at Afford, we’re looking forward and hiring for the right qualifications, and enhancing the knowledge and skills of our people once they join our team.

We have aligned our learning and development strategy to improve performance and provide ongoing opportunities for growth including: coaching; online; self-directed, peer-to-peer and structured learning. We also know that we can’t do it all so we work in partnership with industry leaders to achieve our learning outcomes at Afford.

The above outlines the vision of our strategy, and we have a robust matrix that sets in motion how we go about implementing this strategy.

It takes time and commitment across a whole organisation to take a strategic approach, and that means embedding a culture change so that it is clear that learning and development belongs to everyone.

We have changed by building strong learning and development foundations

In the last 18 months since Afford established its new Learning & Development team, we have created the core foundation and structure for what we must do. Once this foundation is in place, we can get to the innovative and fantastic stuff.

We have achieved this in three key ways in 18 months.

1. We got ‘Back to Basics’ and online

We centred the focus of the organisation on quality and practice first – because it’s essential, and we wanted to establish a baseline ‘new Afford way’ of understanding, consistent knowledge and accountability for this across the organisation. Our Back to Basics program supported the roll out of more than 140 new policies and procedures that will ensure we keep our clients safe, and it also meant we established a ‘safety first, clients first’ culture within our teams.

Learning & Development worked in partnership with our Brand & Engagement team to communicate, raise awareness and drive engagement to the program and ensure 100 per cent participation online. We took a whole of organisation approach, bringing together our service delivery, quality and practice, safeguarding and corporate services and our 400 Australian Disability Enterprise employees. Nobody was forgotten. It was truly inclusive.

2. Digital experience

We completely revamped the digital learning and development experience for our employees, building a new digital induction, and all our essential online modules. We improved the content and experience, rationalised any duplication and streamlined the experience for our employees.

We also launched a Learning Hub on our intranet (we call our intranet Central) to house our curated ‘just-in-time’ self-directed learning resources. The idea of providing this is to ensure our employees don’t have to rely on structured for learning to get the know-how they need in the moment. They can search for resources quickly and the knowledge is there at any time of the day (or night). We appreciate we have a 24/7 team supporting our clients, and we support them.

3. Learning in person

Going digital doesn’t mean doing away with live forums. In-person learning is important because it provides the opportunity for peer discussion, connection, seeking clarity and reassurance.

We are in the process of delivering two significant face-to-face programs for more than 1,500 client-facing employees. The first program focuses on core Practice Skills in Medication, Epilepsy & Manual Handling – which will be refreshed every two years and will be delivered face to face. Also coming soon is our Your Life, Your Adventure, which is about providing support in the way our clients’ want. It will also give our employees a fresh perspective around best practice client support, and aligning support and services to the achievement of client dreams and goals.

We are on a journey to become a learning organisation

A learning organisation – at its core – has a growth mindset. There’s a heap of information on the difference between a fixed or a growth mindset. Here’s the Harvard Business School take on this.

With a fixed mindset, people see the world as binary: it’s good or bad, black or white, and unchangeable. A growth mindset sees every experience as a chance to improve and the key word for a growth psyche is: ‘yet’. Ie: I’m not good at this ‘yet’ and I believe in my potential to get better at it. That’s at an individual level. At an organisational level, we believe in seeking knowledge, seeking insights, embracing the opportunity to get something done and then continuously improve it over time. It’s all about getting better and better. The Afford of today knows that learning is not a one-time event – it’s an ongoing process that grows and evolves.

So why are learning organisations better?

Because learning organisations keep great talent. Why? Because great talents want to learn. There is also a direct correlation to continuous learning and improved organisational performance including higher productivity. There is a lot of evidence for this. Only last year in 2022 there was a research project between Deloitte and Deakin University, which demonstrated the link between the investment in L&D and organisational growth.

Employees in learning organisations are also more resilient and adaptable in times of change, and apply creative and critical thinking to problem solving. If our people are geared this way, they are better set up for success to meet the needs of our clients more effectively.

That is why a growth mindset is at the heart of our learning philosophy at Afford and it is what shaped our Learning & Development Strategy.

We evaluate our learning and development

Back to the point on continuous learning and a growth mindset – we are committed to learning how we can do learning better.

We evaluate all learning and development programs through immediate feedback loops and reflection activities.

We also look at key performance indicators like employee retention, employee engagement measured through our Q12 Gallup Employee Engagement survey, and importantly: monitoring our quality indicators in areas such as incidents, feedback and complaints – and our client satisfaction.

A learning and development system that learns, means that our organisation learns – and we get better and better.

That’s why I’m proud of how we have changed our learning and development at Afford.

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