2020 has so far been a period of evolution for many L&D functions – with lots of scope for transformation still ahead.
Over the summer, reports, stories and evidence have begun to emerge about L&D’s active and important role in many organisations, in supporting the rapid and unanticipated Covid-related change that has been impacting strategies, structures, workforces, processes, working practices, and more.
In global survey carried out by LinkedIn Learning in May this year, L&D professionals reported massive jumps in C-suite commitment to L&D since October 2019. There was a 159% global increase in CEOs championing L&D and the number of L&D professionals reporting a seat at the C-suite table jumped from 24% to 60%. 66% of L&D professionals agreed that theirs had become a more strategic function since its pre-Covid days. The L&D remit is also shifting, with a big push on training and resources supporting new working methods, mental health and wellbeing, including financial wellbeing, something that David Fairhurst predicted in an article he wrote back in January. And delivery of training and learning has jumped from the classroom to virtual environments – a transformation that could have otherwise taken years.
To put this change into context: earlier this year in the UK CIPD’s 2020 Learning and Skills Survey, many L&D practitioners reported that their functions were facing challenges, including limited resources, a lack of proper evaluation and measurement methods, and successfully adopting emergent learning technologies. They also reported a prevalence of ‘traditional’ job roles (like Administrator or Trainer/Facilitator), with 1 in 3 feeling unable to address skills gaps in their organisations. 2019 academic research into L&D professionals (in the US, UK and Ireland) described a function ‘stuck’ with historical perceptions of being operational, tactical and administrative, rather than strategic. And ‘the need to improve learning and development’ was the top-rated trend in Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends global survey (with just 10% of respondents feeling ‘very ready’ to address it).
The last few months show impressive progress, and looking ahead to ongoing uncertainty and change, the demands on L&D functions are likely to keep growing. Digital approaches to learning are here to stay in a socially-distanced world. LinkedIn also point to the role of L&D in developing, retaining and deploying talent in a budget-constrained world, and 75% of practitioners surveyed agreed that building skills was the most critical thing they could do to prepare their organisation for the future.
So, how can L&D functions create or maintain their forward momentum, and reimagine, reorganise, and renew themselves to meet these challenges?
There are frontrunners in this race. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review identified “the Transformer CLO” (Chief Learning Officer). These leaders of learning across 21 organisations are reshaping learning capabilities and culture (in organisations including Standard Chartered, Cargill, UBS, GE Digital and Accenture).
The Transformer CLOs have redefined learning goals. They take an inclusive and enabling approach to learning, focusing on each employee’s overall ability and commitment to learn and grow – ‘learning to learn’, an important capability for agile organisations in a dynamic environment. They find leadership development approaches that can reach all leaders (not just the chosen 10%) – critical given the role of managers and leaders in employee wellbeing and leading change (not to mention talent retention). And they align learning goals with organisational goals, including tackling future-critical organisational capability gaps (such as digital-data competency).
As well as moving learning out of the classroom to the digital environment (which many L&D functions have done in a hurry this year), they have exponentially increased capacity and relevance through new learning methods, such as turning peers and leaders into teachers and content developers, by personalising learning with multimedia content and channels, and by using data analytics to curate learning inventory.
They are hiring learning strategists, experience designers, software developers into their L&D teams, and are expanding L&D capability outside the team by helping employees to be peer teachers and coaches. They use agile methodology to design learning programmes, quickly getting a minimum viable product into the business and continually improving future iterations of this (a vital capability for organisations in times of fast-paced change).
There is a broad and nuanced spectrum of L&D functions, and the trends mentioned here will not be showing up everywhere. Not all have board level champions, many will have been subject to furlough, redundancy, restructuring and diminished teams and budgets. It would be wrong for many reasons to describe this time as a ‘great opportunity’ for L&D.
But looking to the months and years ahead, what can L&D functions take forwards for maximum impact on change and performance? What can be learned from past experience, the evolution of L&D in recent months, and the transformer CLOs, to stay in a positive direction of travel?
There is no single right answer – here are our suggestions for five areas for L&D focus in the months ahead, and some food for thought:
- Strategic position, strategic action: How and where can L&D best position itself to have a seat (or at least a voice) at the decision-making table? If there is no board or leadership team position that facilitates this, who could be a champion for L&D? How will the L&D function know what strategic and operational priorities are, both short and long term, in order address them and measure impact? How can L&D engage leadership teams to plan how to address critical skill gaps and organisational capability? Getting a seat at the table is by no means a short-term goal, but every step towards this and every step towards closer alignment between L&D and strategic goals, are steps closer to raising the profile and unleashing the potential impact of L&D.
- Branch out and engage: This is time when work environments have been dispersed and disrupted, working practices and goals are shifting - and so is the context for networks of relationships within organisations. As well as working to find a seat or voice at the top table, how can L&D meaningfully engage and collaborate with stakeholders up, down and across the organisation? Which leaders can be engaged in creating content or delivering virtual learning? Where can L&D act as a strategic partner in the work and goals of other functions? Which employees or areas of the business can be re-engaged in learning through new and relevant offerings? What skills gaps does L&D have that other functions could help them to address e.g. data analytics/measurement, supplier management, digital transformation?
- Update L&D skills: Restructuring or growing the L&D function may not be on the cards, and you may not be hiring a software developer any time soon. However, much can be done to update skills and evolve the performance of existing L&D teams. What does a learning needs analysis reveal about the L&D function’s capability to drive learning and organisational goals? What do metrics and feedback say about the function’s performance? How are skills and knowledge around learning technologies? When were members of the L&D team last really excited about learning? What are their learning goals? Data analytics? Digital learning? AI? Have L&D leaders ever been mentored by someone outside the L&D team?
- Make learning agile. How can learning content be created and deployed rapidly in response to emerging or urgent challenges and organisational needs? What further opportunities for agility does the recent push towards virtual learning create? What organisational factors might block or challenge agility? How can longer term programmes and change initiatives take an agile approach? What channels must be established to capture feedback and measure impact, to fuel a culture of continuous improvement? How agile are learning systems and processes - is there just one window per year to sign off requested training? Are there waiting lists for manager development programme? Is development driven by a 3-goal Personal Development Plan discussed once or twice a year? How can L&D create agile, motivated and self-directing learners?
- Continue digital transformation in L&D: We’ve referred at many points at the role of technology in learning and the sharp increase in this over the last few months. Employees have also gone through rapid change in adapting to digital methods of working, communicating and learning (LinkedIn Learning reported a 139% increase in time spent on learning since the start of 2020 among enterprise learners). How can L&D build on this rapid change and increase its capacity for delivering content? What digital infrastructure is in place to support learning? How and where can L&D source reliable digital content, and curate and promote this? How can digital content can be created in house?