Lift and shift. That was how most HR departments coped with the impact of COVID on learning and development a little over a year ago. It was understandable.They had little warning and needed to continue L&D delivery. Content previously delivered in person was simply shifted to Zoom calls and webinars. This was particularly the case for leadership development programmes where in-person solutions reigned supreme before the pandemic.
While most content can be moved online and in-person interaction can be recreated to some extent through webinars, online meeting fatigue is making it harder and harder to engage learners. With many spending almost the entire day on conference calls, it’s no surprise that some organisations are restricting its use. Citibank’s CEO recently called for a Zoom-free Friday. Organisations are realising that their initial ‘lift and shift’ response is not a sustainable solution. At the same time, a return to pre-pandemic in-person, analogue training and development solutions is unthinkable.
At an organisational level, the pandemic has accelerated workplace digitalisation by several years as shown in a study of 900 c-level executives and senior managers by McKinsey. Not surprisingly, this acceleration has been largely driven by changes in consumer behaviour and organisations' responses to these changes.
This accelerated digitalisation must now filter through to internal processes in order to find long-term development solutions that engage learners and deliver results.
The challenges of development in a remote world
While not all organisations are ready to embrace a ‘work from anywhere, anytime’ policy, increased working from home is likely here to stay. However, despite home working having clear employee advantages such as increased flexibility, it makes personal development harder.
Personal development relies on effective development conversations between line managers and team members. These conversations and the actions resulting from them are the cornerstone of personal and professional development. However, even in pre-pandemic times, this process was less than perfect:
Development conversations happened infrequently or were hijacked by conversations about operational issues
Development objectives were not turned into development actions. A busy day job meant learners and line managers often forgot to follow-up on actions. As long as a PDP (personal development plan) was in place, compliance with HR processes could claim to have been achieved. Unfortunately, little check up on actual development actions took place
Development activities often fizzled out as people focused on the pursuit of quarter-end business results
Managers did not know how to develop their people beyond suggesting structured e-learning modules
Development information and resources (objectives, e-learning, 360 feedback) were stored in different systems
Remote working has not improved this situation. On the contrary, it has added further challenges:
It is increasingly hard to find time for development conversations in a busy online call schedule, while simultaneously firefighting to the pandemic
We no longer have the ability to learn informally by observing people in an open plan office or by overhearing ad hoc conversations
A lack of ‘face time’ reduces the chances for informal, in-person feedback
We are less likely to be seen and recognised outside departmental or team silos
The situation may seem dire, but there are workable, digital solutions. One essential requirement of any solution is that it must involve line managers in the development process. No digital solution can and should replace the conversation between the learner and their line manager, but digital solutions can build a development ecosystem that brings key stakeholders into a real-time development process. Jointly agreeing development needs, turning these into agreed development actions and tracking progress can become a helpful framework for professional development. Reminders, progress tracking and recommendations can help take some of the heavy lifting off line managers and learners alike.
A digital development solution has already started to gain some traction. A pre-pandemic report by KPMG showed that a minority of organisations have started to invest in AI-enabled systems. However, there are many more organisations that have yet to realise the benefits of digitally-enabled development. This is a hesitation that organisations can now ill afford.
The urgent need for reskilling at pace
One of the reasons for the urgency around a new approach to learning and development is the widespread need for reskilling, including reskilling leadership. This is a big focus for almost every HR function right now. With changes in business models, product lines and delivery channels comes the need for new skills.
Reskilling was mentioned as a top priority by 68% of HR leaders in a recent survey by Gartner. Furthermore, jobs are becoming more complex with a 10% year-on-year increase in the number of skills required. There are also dramatic changes in the skills that are required: 33% of the skills that were present in an average job posting in 2017 won’t be needed in 2021. And this reskilling must happen at pace, for a large number of people and it must deliver results.
AI-enabled systems (which must be thoroughly checked for bias) can help create smart, self-directed development. This style of development is an important concept in the quest to reskill large swathes of the workforce and to develop the right calibre of future leaders. Solutions set up to support self-directed development provide all necessary development modules in one place: background information, assessments, objective setting and development modules. They can also help learners and line managers by suggesting the next best development activity. While learners chart their own development journey, they are fully supported.This is an important feature as we know that learners and at times line managers struggle to identify the best development activities .
Developing in the flow of work
Remote working is a double-edged sword. It allows organisations to save on office space and employees on commuting times. But at the same time, it has created unnecessary meetings, many more emails and a blurring of work and non-work time. Bite-sized, flexible ‘pick and mix’ development solutions that adapt to the needs of the learner, their available time and even their appetite for development are increasingly important. Using technology to be nudged at the right time will make things easier too.
The return on development
The pandemic has tightened already stretched L&D budgets, which brings effectiveness and the transfer of learning ever more to the fore. It may not be a new concept but now more than ever, successful recovery depends on it. While digital solutions can deliver e-learning at scale, this type of learning often stops at the end of the video with little transfer of learning back to the day job. As shown by research into the 'forgetting curve', if it is not applied, the vast majority of new learning is forgotten within seven days.
Furthermore, switching in-person leadership development solutions to webinar learning means a significant loss in the quality of the training. Virtual communication loses information, and is sometimes referred to as low-bandwidth communication, while in-person communication is regarded as high-bandwidth communication due to the additional non-verbal information that is being transmitted.
This is where experiential learning trumps traditional learning approaches. There is no need to worry about the transfer of learning because learning happens on-the-job. Furthermore, learning doesn’t become outdated or irrelevant as it is directly linked to organisational priorities. While sharing theoretical knowledge as part of a workshop or webinar still provides employees with a head start, this can only ever be the starting point. The focus of development should be on how this theoretical knowledge is turned into applied skills and then how those skills are applied to a range of different situations which help make emerging leaders well-rounded professionals. The era of workshop or webinar-based learning as a stand-alone solution is over.
Adaptation has been the key signature of life over the last year. We have had to adapt to survive. Now we need to adapt to thrive. Digital development solutions, adopted and embedded in the right way, offer an effective route to reskilling and leadership development. We need to move on from the temporary ‘lift and share’ solution, to a new way of engaging and inspiring learning that will meet both our organisational and our personal needs.