Is it time to rip up the learning and development rulebook?


Covid-19 has given organisations the opportunity to renew learning and development plans

Leaders have a unique opportunity to question how things have been done in the past and create new organisational norms. What does this mean for learning and development, asks David Williams? 

The events of 2020 have been unimaginably hard for so many and for so many reasons. Yet, the seismic shifts in working practices seen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have arguably catalysed some of the biggest changes we have seen in generations.

Out of the unprecedented stress and havoc of Covid-19, as we begin to see businesses re-emerging, senior leaders are being gifted a unique moment in time to look at ‘the ways things have always been done’ and really question what works and what doesn’t, to establish what a ‘new normal’ means for them and what their organisation (and people) are truly capable of.

We talk about organisational agility as the holy grail, but the truth is, many people are inherently uncomfortable with change and reluctant to embrace it, yet we have seen over the course of the year, just how much can be achieved when we are forced to question some often long held ways of working.

Take for instance the changes we saw in March, as businesses, many of whom had been guilty of a culture of presenteeism and fastidiously bound by the notion that remote and flexible working would be the death knell of their organisation, were quickly able to pivot their entire workforces into this precise way of working, almost overnight. This has led to many companies challenging the very notion and validity of the office space at all.

Shifting to a virtual world

In our own work at Impact. we were tasked with successfully shifting entire learning and development programmes from conference centre locations and our famous outdoors facilities, into the virtual world and at pace.

Suddenly, longstanding formats that have seemingly worked fine, are being questioned on ‘how can we make this work for now?’, or even more excitingly, ‘how can we build on this to make it better?’. That’s when we really start to rip up the rule book.

At the heart of any organisation’s success is its people and for that reason we would strongly argue that if ever there was a time to take a look at training and development with a fresh pair of eyes, now is the time to do it.

After all, change is a learning experience itself, so if organisations are to capitalise on the opportunities these times of change present, businesses need to be ready to change the way learning takes place.

Moving away from the traditional

Much like the relic that presenteeism is turning out to be, traditional training and development methods have also been falling short, as historic methodologies have been much too inwardly focused to truly support the individual and therefore, ultimately, the achievement of business objectives.

Previous organisational learning styles have been unfulfilling and often unsuccessful, because they have focused on a static, one-way approach.

To really unlock human potential, we need to focus on learning through the flow of work. To do this, training and development programmes need to be considered with four key factors in mind:

1. Learning is the work 

The pace at which we need to learn is increasing and we need to be able to use new knowledge directly and immediately, not letting knowledge sit getting dusty in a folder somewhere – that is not learning. Learning is now much more socially constructed, tested and applied through a mesh of relationships, collaborations and connections. We need to deploy digital technologies to support the process of integrating and connecting learning with work.

2. Let the learning lead

We must never be led by tools, techniques or fads such as mobile phones, algorithms or virtual reality goggles. We must be led by the learning need and design from there – what is the ultimate goal you want the learning to achieve?

We should then use technology to support the delivery of learning experiences relevant to the work employees are doing now, as well as what they need to do in the future.

3. Context not content

Creating huge libraries of learning content creates different channels to access knowledge, but this doesn’t guarantee learning transfer or the ability for the end user to apply learning to context. Successful programmes must facilitate learning through the flow of work, to ensure real change is achieved by the individual and the business in a meaningful way.

4. Process not platform

Digital technologies haven’t changed the way people learn, they have just provided an additional range of tools to help us learn.

What remains true is that any intentional learning process needs to be designed. We see all too often a “one-size fits all” approach to digital learning. It doesn’t work. A successful approach needs to offer a unique learning experience that is agile enough to adjust and flex.

These factors need to be placed at the heart of any decision-making process surrounding training and development, to ensure solutions are both agile and robust enough to be able to support the individual, as well as the wider organisation’s needs.

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