The Future of Learning & Development

The new role of Learning & Development, in the post-Covid era.

Circa 2015, I saw a handful of organisations that started encouraging employees to work from home a few days every month. On 12th May 2020, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey announced its employees could work from home “forever”.

Consider one general insurance company that announced that 90% of their insurance services would now be moved to the digital platform in 2018. By the time COVID-19 was gaining momentum in Q1-2020, it moved its entire portfolio online – instantly doing away with the archaic ‘agent led’ insurance model.

While the technology was available to us back then, it takes more than tech-readiness to make changes for us humans. Even prior to the current covid-19 situation, changing technologies and new ways of working were disrupting jobs and the skills employees needed.

 

The occurrence of COVID-19 has led to a complete a complete digitisation of activities across industries globally.

A recent Gartner CFO survey revealed that almost three in four CFOs plan to “shift at least 5 percent of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.” The same Gartner survey reveals 74% intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently.

Today, in the wake of COVID-19 aftermath, organisations across the world have adopted every possible technology to enable their businesses.

 With the changing demographic mindset, companies around the world are waking up to the need for a changing set of skill sets for its employees.

This article examines the current needs of businesses and through that proposes to talk about the emerging role HR professionals will need to play in the post-COVID business era.

What will the new-era companies need, to thrive?

Various businesses across industries globally will experience a varied ‘bounce-back’ cycle. A few things will remain common in terms of what these businesses will need to grow and sustain themselves in the post-COVID era. The ‘new normal’ will require companies to re-imagine their blueprint for success and re-assess their operating models across the board.

 

 

The nature of products and services will need to be re-aligned to the new ways of operations in the marketplace. Ergo, the way internal processes and systems are developed will need a hard re-look.

Employees will need to re-examine old ways of working and dramatically quickly change them to survive and thrive.

The winners will be those who are able to get their act together – quickly. We are suggesting a radical shift for businesses that operated in the archaic ‘brick-n-mortar’ format. The 5 Success Factors will play a key role in making businesses future ready.

5 Success Factors – The New Business DNA

1.An Agile Mindset

The last 20 years has seen a rapid acceleration of the pace with which we are experiencing change. Ergo, organisations are looking at more frequent change programs and a more enabling culture that embraces such changes, proactively and willingly.

Waterfall programs with a ‘freeze-change-unfreeze’ approach is not only defunct; it is also very costly for organisations today. After all, everything needs to change, right? Even the way we have managed change.

Organisations will need to adopt an entrepreneurial start-up like approach to their business. Every product, service, program, or project will need to be like an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) that goes through continuous cycles of evolution at the same speed or faster that the marketplace outside.

Consider the case of this large FMCG company in India that has adopted the Agile way of working along with OKRs (Objective & Key Results). They have replaced hierarchies and functional silos with ‘borderless teams’ bound by common goals and rapid cadence reviews done fortnightly. This is now allowing them to re-invent the age-old game in the FMCG sector.

2. A Purposeful Organisation

Companies are at their wits end when it comes to engaging and motivating their workforce. Providing senseless incentives and bonuses, personalized holidays, etc. are not yielding the desired results. While monetary benefits are critical for employees so that they feel fairly compensated, they are no longer causes for employee engagement and productivity (especially in middle and senior management cadres).

In fact, in the book Drive, Dan Pink feverishly points out that when it comes to rudimentary tasks, incentives work well. However, when it comes to those right-brained, critical thinking jobs that do not have a set answer or a precedent in place, higher incentives lead to poorer performance.

So, what causes people to perform and be engaged?

The answer lies in creating an organisation that is driven by a sense of purpose. When employees are enrolled in the purpose of an organisation, explicit motivators are needed sparingly. It is the intrinsic, volitional drive and the commitment to the larger cause that inspires people to show up at their workplaces, feeling engaged. Customers too are growing acutely aware of buying products and services from companies that are responsible corporate citizens. Environmental sustainability, CSR and consumer welfare are important agendas when you lead with purpose.

3. Empathy Trumps Sympathy

In the book ‘Rehumanizing Leadership’ author Sudhanshu Palsule highlights that the

 “last evolutionary upgrade to the human brain was the development of the pre-frontal cortex, approximately 70,000 years ago. The emergence of purpose and empathy as vectors of human development was a major evolutionary breakthrough. They still play a profound role in human behavior today, yet where have they been in the dominant discourse surrounding economics and business in past decades? Individual interests were put before anything else and we became dehumanized to our natural environment and the wider communities in which we exist. The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark wake-up call for us to challenge the various economic, political and leadership practices that are associated with a dehumanized discourse. Even before the virus’s outbreak, it was clear that the old individualistic narratives had reached the end of their usefulness”.

4. Rapid Digitization

Frugal and flexible operations across the value chain using rapid digitization and analytics will become the backbone of operational excellence. Be it employee productivity, production, R&D, sales and distribution or customer experience, digitization will be the new norm to get things done.

The coming years were bullish on technology-enabled systems using AI and robotics. COVID-19 has catalyzed the process making that a mandated demand in order to even exist as a business.

Radical changes in socio-economic policies, demographic habits, political moxie, and the legal framework of various nations worldwide will cause an equally radical shift in how businesses will need to restructure themselves to be market ready. It is the relentless use of technology and rapid digitization that would make this possible.

What we are seeing today, as the rapid adoption of technology to even survive, will go down in the annals of history as a moment in time when people across the world woke up to Moore’s Law as if it were Nostradamus on steroids.

5. Kill the Culture Vulture

Leaders playing politics, blurred lines of communication, hoarding ‘critical to success’ information until there is a crisis, power-plays, passive-aggressive stances to prove your point. The list is endless. These are all examples of symptoms that showcase the lack of a supportive culture for a truly progressive organisation. Building an organisation culture is the first step toward creating the right ecosystem for the post-Covid era.

Businesses that realise that there is simply no time or appetite for such shenanigans in the highly digitised, socially distanced, yet connect ecosystem, will be the ones that eventually get the recipe right.

We have all heard the adage – culture eats strategy for breakfast, right? There wasn’t a time where this was truer than today. Building an organisational culture with its digital workforce will be a daunting task for leaders.

 

Businesses have discovered what was once considered a ‘no-no’ a year ago is now a reality. Adapting to these realities, experimenting, and failing fast will be the new competitive advantage.

Symbols, structures, control systems, rituals, routines, and stories will need to be re-written. Organisational values and beliefs, mission and vision statements will need a long hard look to see if they truly stand the test of time and are future-ready.

Performance and reward structures will need to be seriously turned into contemporary practices that make sense to that remote employee who may very well end up never meeting his / her boss, face to face. Employee engagement will have a whole new meaning and so will the definition of productivity.

Since we define organisational culture as ‘how things are done around here’ – leaders will truly need to create a new blueprint for business success by redefining how things will be done within their organisations in the post-pandemic world.

There will be no right answers here as there is not a precedent we can rely on. But organisations that are truly agile and develop a start-up, beginner’s mindset will be able to experiment constantly to discover the best-fit culture for themselves.

These 5 factors are not exhaustive by any stretch of imagination; however, these are surely some of the more germane ones. One other thing to bear in mind is the interwoven nature of these factors in that they do not work in isolation bur are interdependent and feed into each other.

We will now look at how learning & development will need to evolve to cater to this new business DNA.

New Role of Learning & Development

There is no doubt that technology will be the backbone of everything L&D will do going ahead. It was slated to take fruition in a few years to come – Covid19 just accelerated it. The context of this technology can be examined through the life cycle of learning and development in any organisation.

Traditionally, learning and development has played a role in providing either remedial interventions of preparatory ones. For example: employees struggling to use a skill at work as part of their current jobs would partake in a remedial intervention.

Alternatively, initiating a leadership development program as part of a succession plan would constitute a preparatory intervention.

These Learning and Development interventions would be found in any part of the employee life-cycle from the time they commenced a new role in an organisation right up until the time they separated. Employee induction programs, skill building training, leadership & management development, etc. are some examples of such contextual L&D interventions.

Change has Changed

If you think the pace of change in the workplace has been fast lately, a new report published by Dell Technologies says things are about to get a lot faster. A 2019 IBM survey showed that, in the future, behavioral skills will be the area with more significant gaps than digital skills.

“People will change their habits, and some of these habits will stick… there’s a lot of things where people are just slowly shifting and this [pandemic] will accelerate that,” said Susan Athey, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in a March 2020 article published by The Washington Post, “The New Coronavirus Economy: A Gigantic Experiment Reshaping How We Work and Live.”

Chief Learning Officers will now need to redraw the L&D framework for their organisations with digitization as the main construction material. Some of the facets of the new L&D Avatar mentioned below will be worth considering.

Humanizing Digital Learning

While digital learning itself had arrived a long time ago, the challenge ahead is to humanize digital learning. Merely appointing e-learning courses to employees will not be sufficient anymore.

Using technology to leverage social learning tools as we continue to stick to adult learning principles will be a key role to be played here. The 70-20-10 principle will need to be re-packaged using tech-enabled methods. The traditional face to face learning (10%) will no doubt be converted to ‘on demand’ e-learning or virtual instructor-led training courses. The 20% – learning with and through others will have to be using social learning platforms like e-Coaching or e-Mentoring. The 70% development through on-the-job application will need to be relentlessly self-governed with employees being given productivity tools to enable such application.

The library of training programs will also need a massive overhauling as we come together to look at new challenges of a new business era. Dell has issued a report arguing that 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not yet been invented.

In the wake of this reality, our traditional training and development courses like influencing others, decision making, communication skills, etc. will need to be replaced by more pertinent and contemporary skills like virtual empathy, virtual teams, virtual leadership, virtual change management, etc.

Informal & On-Demand Learning Tools

The CLO will need to pivot the focus on making learning self-directed and informal. Building an organisation culture that places trust on its employees to know what they need to learn and prudently use the resources provided by the company will be the key.

 

More and more instances are seen where employees do not want to learn by spending hours in a virtual or ILT format. The employees of tomorrow are looking at ‘solutionbased learning’ where they want to learn on-the-go. This means the heavy burden of providing such on-demand productivity improvement tools will lie on the broadened shoulders of the learning & development team.

Holistic Well-being

More focus on equipping managers with skills on how to address employees’ holistic well-being. With WFH becoming a norm, L&D professionals will need to re-calibrate their focus on not just developing functional skills but more holistic employee well-being interventions. Creating an environment and culture of psychological safety will be especially important.

Organisational Culture

At Boeing, work on organizational culture transformation was initiated after the two airplane accidents from 2018 and 2019. The change program was focused on building collaboration, innovation, safety, and pride in work, while simultaneously working on improving in areas such as transparency and integration. One traditional FMCG company is know to have moved away from its mechanistic organisation design to form agile ‘crack teams’ to respond to the VUCA markets in India. At Delta, the CEO is doing two town halls each month, and managers are doing two town halls weekly.

 

Developing the human capital to learn how to cope with agile environments and be ahead of the change curve will be one of the key shifts L&D professionals will need to create from a cultural standpoint.

Building Adaptability & Resilience

With agile ways of working comes the need for experimentation and failure. Waterfall methods for anything is passé. Businesses will need to learn to thrive on lean, MVP methodologies for everything they do. Ergo, developing adaptability and resilience will take centre stage for L&D professionals as employees start ‘failing fast’ in sprint like work cycles.

Overall, there is a felt need to amalgamate the distinction between givers and takers of workplace learning and development. We moved from centralized learning to decentralized learning in the post millennium period. Now we need to move from decentralized learning to distributed, social learning systems. Creating a global open source platform for learning and development is the felt need of the hour and L&D professionals will need to up the ante. Long live change, long live human resilience – the future is here and its exciting!

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