Future-proofing your Learning and Development Strategy
TTRO CEO Kirsty Chadwick shares her thoughts on the the future of work and what businesses need to consider about the future of the L&D role.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly left its mark on the world, in our day-to-day lives and in the realm of work. To quote Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the World Economic Forum: “COVID-19 has accelerated the arrival of the future of work.”
The keyword is “accelerated”. The future of work was already here and striving to be different and COVID-19 has forced the hand of innovation. It has given the world the opportunity to do a lot of rethinking, reflection and reimagining about what the future of learning and development (L&D) might look like. There is an immediate chance for businesses, governments, and academia to implement a new vision for the evolution of the employee. More than ever, we need to seek collaboration and a collective voice to plan and strategise an uplifting pathway that navigates the possibilities around the future of work and strengthen existing and new talent.
The future of work is driven by the confluence of technology and people-related disruptions, and further accelerated by COVID-19, which has seen an increase in the use of robots to limit human interaction, working from home becoming the “new normal”, and a burgeoning open talent economy. This is challenging leaders across fronts and forcing them to reimagine learning and nurturing talent. The most competitive businesses will be those that choose to reskill and upskill current employees. Looking after talent, identifying what skills they need and focusing plans around reskilling and upskilling is a critical advantage that organisations will realise as they move into the future. Nurturing and developing existing talent boosts morale and prevents high employee turnover – it costs more to hire a new worker than it does to upskill a current worker.
The pandemic has brought about the need for L&D to be much more agile as talent is no longer dependent on proximity to the corporate headquarters. We hear about businesses that pivoted through the disruption of COVID-19 on a scale they never needed before as the push to be agile became greater than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has highlighted worrying shortcomings in the L&D profession: According to Skillsoft’s Mind the Gap report, 48% of L&D employees believe their team is underskilled to deliver what is needed for their business. Similarly, Emerald Works’ 2020 Back to the Future report finds that 39% of L&D respondents believe that L&D is “overwhelmed & under-equipped” – up from 29% of respondents in 2019.
How then do we prepare L&D for this critical evolution? We need to set a strategy that accommodates and allows for continuously evolving infrastructure that frequently adapts as the future unfolds. This can be unpacked into five pillars:
The first being L&D governance. Governance defines how the learning strategy, programmes and operations are embedded in an organisation through roles, responsibilities, and processes, and critically how it aligns to the business strategy. There needs to be a clear and well-communicated plan for how L&D is going to support the objectives of the business. It includes planning, budgeting, and managing the ongoing priorities of L&D in a way that allows the business to maximise its return on investment.
The learning operations dimension is an organisation’s map of learning – needs, strategies, and delivery. It gives designers, trainers and managers a clear view of what types of problems L&D solves, how they solve them, what facilities and tools they use and which approaches they take.
Curriculum and content, as per the pace of change of skills in an organisation, need to be dynamic and agile and constantly reassessed. We need to be looking at organisations’ learning plans and understanding the personal development plans that sit within them, and then either creating and/or curating learning content that fits those plans. Providing large libraries of content that people have to navigate to find what is relevant is not enough. It needs to be more specific: learning pathways need to be laid out at a personalised, role-based level. Content must be curated into those roles so people know they’re learning the right thing to be part of realising the organisational strategy.
Learning technology must support this. Technology is an enabler, but the technology is only as powerful as the ecosystem of tools and solutions that help workers achieve the objectives of the organisation.
And finally, culture, which during the pandemic has been fundamentally challenging for organisations to maintain. Workers are no longer immersed in an organisational space, working side-by-side with their colleagues, so psychological safety – which is a catalyst for learning and growth – is of the utmost importance at this time. The culture of learning and the culture of the organisation need to be measured and communicated and must have their own plan.
While COVID-19 has been the accelerator, a transformation in learning has been a long-time coming. COVID-19 is a powerful opportunity for us to come together and decide what this transformed learning will look like in organisations and across the L&D profession.
Transformation is a two-pronged approach. On the one side is continuous reskilling, upskilling, and outskilling – paying attention to which skills are relevant and that align to what people need to be able to do to perform their jobs competently. Sometimes that’s going to mean that a worker is going to have skills that are no longer relevant, in which case new skills are needed. An organisation needs to know what these new skills are in order to take its employees on that learning journey.
On the other side is learning in the flow of work. People are busy unlike ever before, jumping from one call to the next, working on project after project, making it difficult to take time out of a day to learn. Thus learning must be embedded and integrated into the flow of work, empowering people to actively solve for problems and acquire knowledge at the time of need.
Having clear learning objectives that align with business objectives is absolutely critical. This needs to be documented in an L&D strategy, which would contain strategies around digital learning elements. The principal purpose of learning and development plans is to create organisational capacity that empowers the business to achieve its objectives or improve the process in which it does so, either in terms of speed, cost, and overall efficacy. In addition, it needs to be agile and responsive to both internal and external factors. To do that, the L&D organisation must align its priorities and investments to the strategic goals of the organisation. Engaging with leaders is paramount in designing an L&D plan.
Reducing the skills gap and attrition needs to be a primary focus of a learning strategy. Understanding where the skills gaps are and using tools to conduct assessments of current capabilities within functional teams. Knowing that the skills gap has been mapped, what are the future capabilities that need to be built? Then learning pathways can be defined and content can be curated according to what people need and what they may need for the future of their role. Build your L&D in alignment with your workforce’s needs and capabilities. Personalised growth plans are critical for driving employee loyalty, brand awareness and a comprehensive employee experience. Any misalignment can lead to loss of talent and revenue.
Create a people-focused employer brand. Create something that allows people to feel part of the organisation and part of a team. Personalise the pathways for employees to support their professional development while letting them know they’re being developed as part of a team and as part of an organisation. Use that to focus on building an employer brand and value proposition that supports the retention of talent and supports being an employer of choice. Often the employer brand may appear generic and driven by mandate and legislation. Changing that perception and “pivoting” towards becoming more human-centric requires steps in multiple directions; with L&D, the workforce needs to feel that their development is tailored to their needs and capabilities, it is bespoke but also inclusive and makes them part of a team. That way, an employer brand that values the workforce can take hold.
L&D should use different technology functionalities to enable six different behaviours or employee actions that build the right skills and best aligns with the company culture:
1. Helping employees plan their careers inside and outside of the organisation and track the skills they will need in the future.
2. Helping employees find content and opportunities that develop them in their current job and prepare them for the future.
3. Giving employees access to content and experiences that will help them to develop new knowledge and skills.
4. Enabling employees to practice new skills and knowledge, and to get guidance and feedback.
5. Helping employees connect with each other and learn from others – both inside and outside the organisation.
6. Helping employees get information, content, coaching and feedback that helps them perform better in their current role.
Micro-learning and macro-learning will remain constant, but the biggest change required is to identify and deploy learning content at the task level to meet an immediate learning need. Vast content libraries might still hold a position but need to be carefully curated into personalised learner experiences. The forms this learning might take are virtually endless, from on-the-job simulations to online or in-person collaboration. Emerging innovations such as virtual or augmented reality, chatbots or 360-degree video can also be used to deliver curated content.
Sustained reskilling, upskilling and outskilling is not possible without using data, which can point to curated growth opportunities and learning that is more efficient. Qualitative feedback from employees using online courses as well as feedback about behavioural changes can help inform the total workforce management strategy and help L&D teams become strategic partners in talent discussions.
If businesses want to remain relevant to their employees during this time of disruption, it’s critical to nurture a strong culture of learning within the organisation. This is even more vital in light of the “great resignation”, the widespread trend of workers leaving their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic – a strong learning culture encourages employee retention. By developing a growth mindset among individuals and teams, learning culture becomes much more human-centric. The benefits of a strong learning culture are numerous and include efficiency gains, increased productivity, increased profit, increased employee satisfaction and decreased turnover, creation of a continuous improvement mindset, among others.
Equally vital to future-proofing workplace learning is upskilling within the L&D function itself. Learning professionals need to be guided in understanding digital learning technologies and principles of instructional design as well as how to use authoring tools, etc. The shift to digital has caught many in the L&D profession off guard and unprepared and they are only now starting to realise the need for new skills and capabilities. These new skills can be divided across five different areas:
Product management: With the move to learning tech ecosystems, L&D needs the skills to oversee the ecosystem, understand the integrations, negotiate contracts, and ensure deduplication across L&D organisations.
Data analysis: This includes statistics, data cleaning, data visualisation and storytelling, and is often closely tied to people analytics and business intelligence functions. Data is also an important tool to track learning analytics, which helps L&D evaluate where possible knowledge gaps lie.
Marketing and communications: With so much learning content available and so many other things vying for employees’ attention, it can be helpful for L&D to have in-house marketing skills to help employees find learning opportunities and motivate them to engage in learning.
Learner path creation: As learning becomes more and more personalised, L&D needs the skills to help people navigate their unique learning journeys.
Learner-centred design thinking: This focuses on the end-consumers and not the process by making the learning developer an “experience architect”.
The arrival of COVID-19 has been a massive disruption for the L&D profession, with many caught unawares by the sudden need to shift to forward-thinking, digital strategies. But even as some struggle to adapt, the pandemic has accelerated new, innovative ways of thinking and forced an internal re-evaluation of the L&D function. The exciting future of L&D is agile and ever-changing, designed to meet the needs of learners in an unpredictable world.