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Is L&D Ready for “The New Learning Era”?


We’ve all been hit hard by this pandemic in both our personal and professional lives. Some governments chose to lockdown their communities, which has been a difficult experience for us, our families, and our organizations. Adjusting to our digital “home offices” was the only option to continue working, and despite many challenges we’ve started to see several advantages: no commutes, determining our own pace, and shorter, more efficient remote meetings.

Early lessons from these turbulent times indicate that:


  • This crisis is further driving digital transformation.
  • We can commit to making the digital workplace thrive.
  • Travel and events look to be limited or postponed for a longer period of time.
  • Online meetings lack the warmth of in-person meetings, but surprisingly have also given us more insights into the personal lives of the people we connect to.

In addition to influencing the way we live, work and connect, this crisis has also impacted the way we learn. Digital learning in its most general sense has all but replaced classroom training, as employees are now accessing learning from home. If remote working is here to stay, digital learning will become a bigger and more critical part of the corporate digital learning offer. This is reinforced by broader initiatives from leading companies like Novartis, who is offering content to parents to teach at home.


Short-term impact on L&D

L&D has been in crisis-response mode since March, as L&D teams were suddenly forced to work from home. We reached out to our network of L&D leaders to ask them three questions, in order to understand their mind-set and current areas of focus. The first question relates to their current state of mind, and the overview shows a mix of emotions, with most leaning towards the negative which is not entirely unexpected.


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The second question focuses on the impact of the crisis specifically on the L&D offer, and most responses confirm what we’ve been reading in L&D blogs and articles in recent weeks: that the face-to-face (F2F) learning offer in all organizations was stopped within 24h, and L&D is now either converting their offer into online formats or waiting for the post-crisis era to determine how to proceed. Many experts, however, indicate that F2F learning formats will not return soon, influenced by travel restrictions and the understandable anxiety of spending time with bigger groups.


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The final question explored which new activities L&D has prioritized based on crisis needs. Four areas were highlighted by L&D leaders as new priorities and validated by senior leaders in their organizations:


  1. support the workforce to work remotely
  2. provide an online offer for staff health and wellbeing
  3. develop leaders to take the reins in times of crisis – empathy, leading remotely, etc.
  4. reskill target groups, for example reskilling airline stewards for healthcare roles

It is amazing to see how well organizations have managed to transition their learning offer, in terms of their content and (online) methodology. L&D professionals have shown great resilience and creativity by pulling together new digital programs for their workforce colleagues in a short time span. All the while they had to deal with new remote-working challenges, like dealing with uncertainty, staying healthy, home-schooling children, finding the best home office environment, and staying connected through digital tools.

For this short-term offer the delivery channel is purely digital, including virtual classroom sessions, with focus on access and speed rather than perfection in curricula. The use of digital communication tools in the learning process, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex, has exploded. Development processes have been simplified and L&D response teams have provided much-needed remote working and wellbeing programs. The main challenge in the first weeks of this transition was that most employees were not in “learning mode” at all.


Medium- & longer-term perspectives for L&D

Now that there is a short-term online learning offer in place, it’s time to reflect on THE big questions around corporate learning for the near future. Do we return to the pre-crisis way of delivering learning? How can we best enable upskilling of our workforce in the medium- and longer-term? How will L&D be impacted by the crisis in terms of focus, budget, resources and key enablers?

Based on recent surveys and interviews with L&D leaders, we have developed views on the medium- and longer-term implications for the L&D world, which we’ve coined “The New Learning Era”.


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As organizations begin to retransition from lockdown mode, with L&D following right behind, it is important to state that we expect different scenarios for different industries. To be sure, not all industries have been equally affected by this crisis. While big retailers like Amazon and Walmart are hiring 100K+ new staff to meet growing customer demands, airlines and other businesses in the tourist industry have been forced to lay-off large portions of their staff. In reviewing and sharing lessons on corporate learning from the previous crisis, the expected impact on financially troubled industries will be far higher. The medium-term starts by redefining L&D objectives, priorities, key target groups and resources, while staying focused on the urgent need to re- and upskill (as BCG’s managing director Andrew Dyer stated in his article series).


4 priority areas

It’s a fair assumption that in the new learning normal, L&D budgets will be redirected, sometimes drastically, and this could be made more complicated by a growing pressure to down-size the L&D team. As digital learning is an essential part of the “New learning Era”, L&D will need to, in close collaboration with IT, explore how to optimize the use of existing learning technology. At the same time, they will have to transition to a new learning solutions formula, one with a higher degree of digital learning and a substantial reduction in classroom training. Given L&D’s expertise and agility, they can surely make this transition to deliver new solutions based on business needs. The main concern in this phase will be whether staff has the time to learn, and whether line managers will create a supportive learning climate as businesses try to regain traction.

In the longer-term organizations will most likely need to re-examine their L&D resources, doing more with less and in different ways. Based on the interviews we’ve conducted, we fully expect L&D to be actioning 4 priority areas:


  1. Integration of learning and knowledge management: by anticipating that workers now have limited time to learn, it makes sense to integrate access to knowledge elements and learning opportunities (including communities) for the individual employee;
  2. Learning in-the-flow-of-work and embedding learning in the flow of work for many years, as advocated by Bob Mosher. The momentum of this crisis provides L&D with the opportunity to accelerate this embedding and boost learning impact in the process;
  3. Redesigning the learning ecosystem: as team communication tools become standards in the corporate learning landscape, organizations will need to redesign their learning ecosystems. This implies a new ecosystem, where all relevant tools are integrated to enable formal, social and workplace learning;
  4. Make or buy? Inevitably, senior management will (again) challenge whether L&D is a core function for the organization. The answer to this should be twofold: a regular L&D performance analysis that includes what they deliver and the impact, followed by a solid business case with an emphasis on the value of L&D expert resources and capabilities to dissuade outsourcing.


So, is L&D ready for the New Learning Era?

As we’ve all been affected by the current crisis in every aspect of our lives, it’s vital that we first take time to recover and find the energy to bounce back. In parallel to this recovery, corporate L&D needs to explore the framework and implications of “The New Learning Era”. The drive and passion they demonstrated during the early weeks of the crisis has built a strong foundation for success. But it is not enough. In order to be ready for what comes next, L&D will have to adapt to new realities, including acquisition of relevant digital learning capabilities like blended design skills and data-analytics. In addition, performance consulting skills and a solid learning governance can help ensure the necessary alignment with business stakeholders and their priorities, to ensure a truly value-added result.


The author of this article is Jan Rijken – Learning Director at Wiley-Crossknowledge / visiting professor at IE business school / former CLO at KPMG, ABN-AMRO & Daimler.

Profiles International EA
Profiles International EA

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