We are all aware of the many challenges that businesses have lived through over the past 18 months. Changing customer requirements, big shifts in demand and channel usage, business continuity, technology deployment for customers and employees, working from home, how to continue with learning and development – these have been the unprecedented challenges of our working lives.

The reality of the pandemic has made it more important than ever for businesses to make sure their people have a sense of purpose, empathy and the skills and tools they need to support customers (and each other). And yet many of the familiar methods we have used in the past to manage people and teams, to coach and develop them, and equip them with the expert skills they require, have been unavailable to us as working from home became the norm for so many.

Our response, in terms of the L&D programmes we have been implementing in support of our clients, has been to react quickly, be creative and develop new ways for people to learn, and more crucially to apply the learning to the new realities of their roles. We have learned a lot about how people learn and what works and what doesn’t in our new normal.

The role of digital has been pivotal. Those companies that were ahead of the curve in terms of digital capabilities will have fared better than those that lagged behind. I am also clear that the L&D response will be equally as important.

“The history of 2020/21 will show that how organisations respond to the need for learning will be equally important”

So, what else have we learnt over the past year and a half as we worked with our clients, adapted to the new reality and studied some of the emerging best practice? Here are six critical lessons.

1. Learning and development people need to talk the language of business

Their job is to come up with, and implement, solutions that meet the new, critical needs of the business and deliver measurable impact. Learning has to be integrated with the overall business strategy and L&D professionals need to be able to demonstrate its impact on organisational performance, customer loyalty, market share, growth, costs and other metrics of interest to executives.

“Learning professionals who talk training content and programmes rather than business issues and results will not get a seat at the C-suite table”

2. Build organisation-wide skills at scale

Many of the changes we have seen over the past year and a half are here to stay. Deciding which capabilities will be required in the future, assessing the current situation and identifying the gap is critical. There will be some skills and capabilities that are at a premium and foundational given the changes all organisations are facing in terms of their strategies and operating models:

  • Leadership and management skills to help manage the ambiguity in transitioning from today to tomorrow
  • Interpersonal skills and empathy to build stronger relationships internally and with customers
  • Adaptability and continuous learning to support people with role changes and new ways of working
  • Basic digital skills

These are the skills and capabilities that – above all else – will serve organisations well if they adopt them at scale across the business.

3. Leaders and managers at all levels have to embrace learning as a key accountability

The opportunity to hand off employees to a face-to-face training event has not existed over the past 18 months and successful line managers – at all levels – have recognised the vital role they must play in equipping their people for success.

Being accountable for learning does not mean turning managers into professional trainers. But it does mean that managers need to add the behaviours that foster learning to their toolkit of skills.

It starts with showing that they care and are interested in helping their people be the best they can be. This requires a different style of leadership – ‘servant leadership‘. Servant leaders are authentic. They persuade, empower, listen, delegate and connect to a shared purpose. They encourage team members to test new ideas and ways of working. They are driven by developing people, building a trusted team and achieving results.

Setting the right tone through leadership is complemented by the ability to coach people and conduct effective coaching conversations – an essential skill that is underdeveloped generally.

4. L&D needs to see learning through a much wider lens

Learning designers need to think of a broader range of learning solutions than they have in the past. Traditional face-to-face ‘events’ are not currently an option and yet the imperative to learn has never been greater. But with the playing field for learning firmly anchored to the role of accountable managers, instructional designers have the licence to build solutions that are digitally supported, learner, peer and manager-led, individual and team-based, and integrated into the tools and systems employees use in their daily work.

Profound learning that sticks comes from doing, reviewing what went well and what could be improved, and trying again under the helpful guidance of a coach.

“When the coach is the line manager or a colleague, the workplace becomes the learning lab and the issue of transferring training room skills to the workplace disappears”

In the new world order, delivery of the learning outcomes and behavioural changes that are needed is shared between learning and development and operational management.

5. Focus on attitudes and beliefs as well as skills

The views that people had before the pandemic have, in many cases, changed as they have re-evaluated what is important to them. The seismic changes that have played out for us as individuals as well as for the organisations that we work for, requires companies and employees to ‘contract’ – to make sure there is alignment between personal and corporate values.

Skills development on its own does not create belief in a new direction and a commitment to change. The catalyst for change is embedding the new direction into individuals’ values and belief systems. New skills are always required, but these skills need a solid foundation of belief and commitment.

6. The learning and development support infrastructure needs to evolve

The support infrastructure in which companies have historically invested is focused on learning management systems and the efficient management of training delivery and evaluation. There is always a place to improve efficiency (the cost per head) of training delivered. However, with the shift to leader-led, workplace learning the investment needs to be in support tools that ensure alignment (between leaders/managers in different parts of the company) and encourage feedback loops and sharing across teams and business units.

A final thought …

The pandemic has propelled the learning and development community to think differently and design different kinds of interventions. And the workplace is no longer somewhere where training events ‘happen’. The workplace is the new learning lab.

“If the workplace is the learning lab then operational leadership and L&D need to open up the places where the most powerful learning takes place”

This could be by shadowing a senior leader, participating in a customer project, sitting in on a client meeting, drafting documents, participating in brainstorming sessions. These are the most powerful places where people can learn from colleagues and their bosses while contributing to ‘real work’.

To sum up

Far from being constrained, learning and development professionals have an opportunity to play a wider, more strategic role than ever before. Learning has become an organisational imperative. The learning function should be working with technology and others, as well as operational management, to develop learning solutions that shape culture, attitudes and beliefs as well as develop the skills that are needed – today and in the future.

Our six insights are shared to help clients, partners and friends navigate an accelerated path through some of the most challenging terrain we have seen in our lifetime. We’d love to hear your feedback and your experiences. Thank you.

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