The greatest virtue of man, our first passion and our last; never, Einstein warned, lose your curiosity.
He may have been plain wrong about the uncertainty principle, but he was right about this. British companies spend £33bn a year feeding that curiosity, training and educating staff, from lessons in literacy and numeracy through to technical training and management qualifications.
It is difficult for bosses to know whether all this is worthwhile, but research by the Hilton hotel group suggests that it is. When bosses indulge our curiosity, we drones are all the happier and more loyal.
In a poll of 1,500 employees in May, 40 per cent said that being given opportunities to learn was the main reason for them staying with the company. A further 49 per cent rated this as very important. Cynics may say this hardly reflects well on Hilton's pay, but the poll does draw attention to the fact that if employers want to reduce the gamble in taking on new recruits, the best thing to do is to keep them interested.
Hilton commissioned the survey to look at its own vast online training programme. As a major hospitality company, with nearly 2,800 hotels and 485,000 rooms in more than 80 countries, it was a logistical nightmare to use classes and training days to keep all 150,000 staff up to speed on new systems, let alone giving them the extra knowledge they needed to move ahead.
So, in 2002, Hilton set up the Hilton University, a massive online resource for employees, with 550 e-learning courses, online mentoring and virtual classrooms, which all workers can access from desks or laptops and from learning centres in the hotels.
It has been a huge success. Maarten Staps, who as international learning and development manager heads the programme, says that 25,000 Hilton staff have taken 185,000 courses through the scheme. A learner - there are 10,000 of them at the moment - finishes a course on average every seven minutes.
Staps won't say how much the scheme has cost, but it will not have been cheap to set up. But it is, he reckons, money well spent. "A learning culture is important; it gives us a competitive edge," he says. "It means we can attract and retain the best people and develop future leaders."
It is not just a recruitment pull. Most training is of immediate practical use to the firm, and 70 per cent of those polled by Hilton said that what they learnt one day, they went on to use the next. For some jobs, it is simply an essential tool.
Lucy Hearson is a Hilton University regular. As an analyst in user acceptance testing, it's her job to test new IT systems brought in by the company. "We try to break the systems before the users can," she says. She uses the courses to get the lowdown on the technology they are testing.
While she laughs at the idea that the learning is her main reason for staying with Hilton, she admits it is more than just a tool. "There's a great feeling of achievement when you finish, and it gives an insight into what's going on out in the hotels" - all at the touch of a keyboard.
Training new staff is easier, too. "We can sit them down at a computer and know they'll cover everything," Hearson says.
Helping staff to learn is big business for business - and getting bigger, says Marion Seguret, senior policy adviser at the Confederation of British Industry. "Training is on the rise. It's at the top of our agenda."
On-the-job training is as old as work itself, but in recent years bosses have found ever more ingenious, occasionally bizarre, ways to keep us curious. The bus company Arriva hires professional actors for work-based roleplay workshops.
Expensive as this all is, if major groups from Tesco to Shell are shelling out, they must be making a return on their investment, Seguret says. "Most important to employers is the bottom line," she says. "Technology moves so fast. Businesses have to do this just to stay in the game."
And the more bosses splash out on training, the better for us all. "It's a great way to re-engage with learning," Seguret says.
For Hilton jobs, see hiltonworldwide.hilton.com
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