As leaders and organisations prepare to successfully navigate their way out of the COVID-19 crisis, they are looking at learning and development to accelerate transformation and innovation. HRM ask experts what that looks like.
When COVID-19 swept across the globe at the beginning of the year, a trail of chaos followed. Workforces dispersed, fundamental business practices changed overnight, and continuity depended on doing things differently.
Some organisations adapted faster than others, but the general consensus is that new skills and capabilities will underpin long-term sustainability and growth.
As organisations now move into a recovery phase, existential questions are emerging. How do we secure our business model for the future? How do we build resilience? How do we engage with customers and suppliers in a post-COVID world? How do we drive greater efficiencies?
Many of the answers are being sought in the learning and development (L&D) function.
Make a strategic investment
Learning and development is fundamental to building workforce capability and is a valuable tool in attracting top talent. Research from Gallup shows that organisations that have made a strategic investment in employee development report 11 per cent greater profitability and are twice as likely to retain their employees.
A study from Gartner also shows that, prior to COVID-19, development and future career opportunities were among the top attrition drivers for workers across the globe.
Lauren Jackson, partner, people and change, KPMG, says that while L&D remains a valuable driver of attraction and retention, many organisations are now viewing COVID-19 as an opportunity to invest more strategically for the future.
“When I have spoken to L&D teams in the past, there was a strong desire to work more closely with the business, but there’s been a disconnect for a very long time,” she says.
“COVID has changed that – it’s provided that momentum for L&D to get a seat at the table and really start to drive the agenda.”
Jackson says the crisis has placed greater focus on business transformation.
“What we’re seeing now is more organisations accelerating, where possible, their digital transformation to automate and remove the process-heavy functions,” she says.
“The knock-on impact is that they will start seeing larger pockets of unused workforce productivity down the line. As a result, more organisations are seeing a big-picture opportunity to reskill and retrain individuals that are identified as potentially being out of a job in a few years.
“We’ve needed a catalyst to make us realise that we can’t stand still,” adds Jackson.
“We need to be able to reskill people quickly and at scale, and it needs to happen regularly. COVID has brought this into focus and has given us the burning platform to get on with it.”
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A catalyst for change
For organisations like Deloitte, COVID-19 has accelerated the L&D agenda. Connie Hansen, lead partner for leadership and learning at Deloitte Australia, says the company’s 2024 strategy had outlined a compelling case for equipping its workforce for the future, but with COVID-19 “the future is suddenly now”.
“We had been talking about the capabilities we need into the future and we felt like the future was a long way off, but it has come along so rapidly,” she says.
“Because we had already invested in L&D digital and virtual assets, we were in a really good place to respond quickly when COVID hit.”
About six months ago, Deloitte launched its ‘Stepping into the Future’ learning program. It is structured around four key learning pillars – adaptability, the future of leadership, digital fluency, creativity and problem solving – and its structure is divided between a digital and a virtual campus.
Petra Ladkin, senior manager, capabilities of the future, at Deloitte explains the digital campus is designed for “self-paced learning”.
“We’ve needed a catalyst to make us realise that we can’t stand still.” – Lauren Jackson, partner, people and change, KPMG.
“We curated lots of digital assets for individuals to access whenever they choose, all based on the various skills that sit under the four learning pillars,” she says.
The program’s virtual campus provides a series of webinar-style presentations from subject-matter experts to provide greater context and insights.
“Mental toughness is one of the pathways under the ‘adaptability’ pillar, and there are a number of assets that our learners can access through the digital campus, and then go to the virtual campus, where an expert shares tips and expertise around mental toughness,” says Ladkin.
Feedback from Deloitte employees has been positive, she says.
“Over time, we’ve hit 30 per cent of our organisation accessing the content, which is great, considering we’re still in our infancy of launching. We are hearing that people are really passionate and interested in these sessions, which shows that they are really committed to building their future-focused capabilities.”
Skills needed for the future
A 2019 IBM survey showed that executives are seeking strong behavioural skills more so than digital skills in the future. Hansen says a combination of “head and heart” skills will be prized. She predicts that some of the most important ones will be those that include the term ‘virtual’.
“Virtual leading, virtual working, virtual facilitating – these will be essential skills for the future,” she says.
“We just ran an inclusive leadership activation lab about how to be inclusive when everyone is working from home.”
Jonathan Tabah, director, advisory, at Gartner, says a growth mindset is an essential skill to cultivate during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Gartner research shows that at our current rate of change in business, across a five-year horizon, we’re going to see more than half of the skills requirements change in your average job,” he says.
“A growth mindset is the recognition that whatever got you to where you are in your career isn’t going to get you to the next point.
“Building a growth mindset is a self-development activity, but that doesn’t mean an organisation can’t set you up with the right scenarios or coaching in which to do it.”
Technical skills will still be in high demand, and Jackson expects data literacy skills to be among them.
“This involves being comfortable with data, being able to interpret, analyse and provide insights with large datasets and to present it to tell a story,” she says.
“In every role in the future, there will be a component of this, and we really need to start beefing it up.”
Responding to a changing environment
Tabah says that while there is no one-size-fits all approach to L&D right now, some methods are more effective than others.
“I think that most organisations’ knee-jerk reaction to COVID was to just put all their training online as sit-back learning activities – a webinar, a video or a module where they could sit back and let the learning content wash over you,” he says.
“That’s an effective way to give someone information, but the learning actually occurs when someone tries to apply it in a sit-forward manner. For example, if you’ve just watched a webinar about how to do a VLOOKUP in Excel, here are three challenges to be solved by writing your own VLOOKUP.”
At KPMG, L&D investment has focused on identifying the right technology to deliver what Jackson describes as “in the moment, bite-sized, curated pathways”. The company has implemented the Degreed learner experience program, which connects internal learning systems to worldwide ecosystems of open and paid learning resources.
“It takes the heavy lifting away from L&D having to constantly curate things themselves,” she says.
“It also enables people to trial and practice things quickly, rather than waiting for a complete L&D product to build out.”
Jackson stresses that there is still a place for longer-term targeted training.
“You need a bit of everything,” she says. “It’s not about going 100 per cent digital. It’s about looking to the future and saying, ‘What have we got that’s fit for purpose? What are we missing? What do we need to do at scale? What do we need to target smaller groups?’
“There’s always going to be unique cohorts within an organisation that need specific skilling, or a longer-term approach, so you certainly still need that within the L&D ecosystem.”
This article first appeared in the December/January edition of HRM magazine.