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Aligning digital foundations with the day-to-day realities of L&D

As we wind down our quarter-long deep-dive into digital foundations, we thought it would be a good time to examine a brief evolution of L&D, focussing on how COVID-19 has accelerated this evolution, a day in the life of L&D in 2020, and how to align these changes with the day-to-day realities of L&D professionals under the new normal. 
Dom Murray
2020-12-14

L&D has been evolving rapidly for many years now. However, in 2020, COVID-19 pushed that acceleration into overdrive, forcing digital transformation to the forefront of most L&D agendas, while making it hard to remember what the office even looks like. For a year that started with everyone working in the office, now, the very idea of holding a meeting in a meeting room instead of over Zoom seems foreign. Like it or loathe it, this is the new normal for L&D. 

So, as we wind down our quarter-long deep-dive into digital foundations, we thought it would be a good time to examine a brief evolution of L&D, focussing on how COVID-19 has accelerated this evolution, a day in the life of L&D in 2020, and how to align these changes with the day-to-day realities of L&D professionals under the new normal. 

We’ll also focus on the all-important M-word: mindset, looking at how L&D teams can pivot from just working from home to learning from home. Finally, we’ll wrap up our digital foundations series with 4 practical steps your L&D team can take to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Before all that, though, it’s time for a quick history lesson. 

A brief evolution of L&D 

Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. So, while L&D may be evolving at a whirlwind rate, it has also never been more important to stop, breathe, and reflect on how we got here. A complete history of L&D would require a series of novels. However, a brief look at L&D’s evolution reveals a few key themes that continue to resonate. The (very) short answer is that almost everything has evolved; from technology to technique to attitudes. 

EdApp highlights one of the major evolutions in L&D over the last 30 years, stating, “skill requirements of employees were centrally stored on a simplistic database, taking little account of...the needs and preferences of employees to perform at their optimum… [now] instead of traditionally teaching what is considered mandatory for the topic, modern L&D professionals focus on building on pre-existing knowledge of learners, as well as identifying areas of weakness.”  

Personnel Today expands on this point, adding, “learners are often called customers or consumers now. This terminology signifies a move towards having learner needs at the heart of learning...this has engendered the concept of continuous, lifelong learning, something that wasn’t talked about 30 years ago.” Training Zone backs this up, saying the past few decades have been defined by a “more person-centred approach to training”, while Degreed adds that modern L&D strategies are a stark contrast to strategies of yesteryear, which “were meant for mass production and workers were rarely given unique opportunities.”

Clearly, one of the most fundamental evolutions in L&D over the past 30 years has been from one-size-fits-all training to bespoke, learner-centric development. 

While this move towards self-directed, soft-skill focussed training has been huge, it also goes without saying that technology has played a major part in the evolution of L&D. Technological advances have forced L&D to embrace collaboration and take wider business contexts into account — Personnel Today states that “L&D as a business partner or business consultant was not even thought of 30 years ago and now it’s commonplace” — while also allowing learning to be delivered in exciting, intuitive, and varied ways that break the traditional classroom-first mould. 

Still, while a lot has changed in L&D over the last 30 years, a few things have stayed the same. According to Personnel Today, the L&D pillars that have stood the test of time include lifelong learning, self-development, leadership training, and employees’ desire to work for companies that invest in their learning and development. 

For a more comprehensive overview of the history of L&D, these resources from Personnel Today and Training Zone are packed with great insights. 

That brings us to 2020, where things were ticking along nicely until COVID-19 sent everything into a frenzy, forcing L&D teams to evolve faster than you can say ‘outdated learning model.’

A day in the life of L&D in 2020

What a difference a year makes. For obvious reasons, the day-to-day realities of L&D in 2020 are a far cry from what they were this time last year — let alone 30 years ago. COVID-19 has changed a lot for everyone, fundamentally redefining our conception of ‘normal’, and L&D professionals have not been exempt. 

According to research from Fosway Group, 94% of L&D professionals have had to change their strategy due to COVID-19 (66% have made significant changes), with only 5% expecting their strategy, investment, and resources to go back to what they were pre-pandemic. It’s time to drop the qualifier, the so-called ‘new normal’ is just ‘normal’. There’s no going back. A further 75% of L&D professionals said it wasn’t easy to cope with these changes, with 42% adding they “found coping with the impact on their L&D operation difficult.” 

The good news is that many of these changes seem to be for the better. A survey by Chief Learning Officer finds that 54% of L&D professionals are more optimistic than they were last year about the outlook of L&D, citing three main reasons. A majority of respondents agreed that their company will adopt new training methods (50%), their company’s blend of training methods will change (51%), and their company will look to develop more custom content (53%). 

This positivity is echoed by People Management, who believe that “we are further along now than we would have been without COVID-19 because we are having to think of different modalities and different content elements for the development of our people.” 

Evidently, the pandemic has not been all doom and gloom for L&D. Far from it. While it has certainly changed the day-to-day realities of L&D, much of this change has a silver lining. 

For example, demand for digital learning has increased by 82% from senior stakeholders post-pandemic, with 71% of organisations also experiencing increased demand from end-users, according to Fosway’s research. This is a huge win for L&D, given Go1’s 2020 State of Learning Report identified executive buy-in as the ‘final hurdle’ for L&D, finding “40% still feel executive buy-in is missing from their learning strategies.”

To cope with this increased demand, 21% of L&D teams have implemented a new digital learning solution in 2020, with “video, curated, mobile, and microlearning” proving to be the highest rated content, and “LXPs, virtual classroom, and collaborative learning” proving to be the most important tools to support organisations throughout the pandemic. 

These findings are supported by People Management’s survey, which found that 60% of respondents had made courses shorter, with a further 60% creating a virtual classroom environment, and 40% adding more video content. 

Collectively, this paints a picture of the day-to-day realities of L&D in 2020, showing an environment where change is one of the few constants, training methods are undergoing a major upheaval, demand for digital learning is way up (as is optimism, thankfully!), microlearning, video, and custom content are must-haves, and collaboration is the glue that holds everything together. 

The next step: moving from working from home to learning from home

We’ve discussed mindset a lot throughout our digital foundations series. And with good reason — mindset is at the heart of everything L&D does. Well, here comes that all-important M-word again. Working from home has become the new normal for many L&D specialists in 2020. Equally, lifelong learning and learning in the flow of work have become increasingly important to L&D in recent years (49% of employees want to learn in the flow, while 74% want to learn during their spare time at work). As such, L&D teams will have to grapple with what ‘learning in the flow of work’ means when many employees are now working from home. 

According to Emerald Works’ 2019 Transformation Journey report, 82% of L&D leaders want to “extend learning to other locations/remote workers.” However, only 36% are currently achieving that outcome. 

Teams will need to get up to speed quickly, as 82% of employees say they want to work at least one day a week remotely, while nearly one third say they would like to continue to work exclusively from home post-pandemic. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, employees are willing to accept 8% less pay to work from home. This looms a major challenge that L&D will need to address, as more and more workers go remote in the coming decade. 

So, how exactly can L&D teams make the mindset switch from working from home to learning from home? While the exact implementation will vary depending on your team’s unique needs, most experts agree on similar themes. HR Daily Advisor stresses the need for flexibility, collaboration, and increased emphasis on digital learning technologies, adding that “an organisation’s human capabilities will determine how well the organisation makes decisions and prospers.”

Similarly, Human Resources Director focuses on the importance of identifying skills gaps, investing in soft skills development, and offering microlearning opportunities, saying, “HR leaders should strive to provide training initiatives that do encourage employees to engage through rich content on their device of choice…[content] that is available online and offline all the time, so workplace training does need to be adaptable especially while we have remote workforces.”

Finally, McKinsey highlights the importance of enhancing digital learning and balancing business outcomes with a long-term view. They also underscore the need for continued learning, saying, “whether the effort is reskilling at the business-unit level or a company-wide aspirational transformation, companies can’t simply push the pause button on critical workplace learning.”

Many of these tips won’t come as a shock. Digital collaboration, developing soft skills, identifying skills gaps, and re-evaluating L&D’s relationship with technology are ongoing priorities for future-ready L&D teams. However, for L&D to take the next step forward, leaders must emphasise the importance of not just working from home, but learning from home, to fully embed the value of lifelong learning. 

For more expert tips on embracing lifelong learning, check out our recent webinars on Learning in the Flow of Work with Josh Bersin, and The Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning with PWC

Digital foundations round-up: 4 practical steps for your L&D team in 2021 

As we wind down both 2020 and our deep-dive into digital foundations, we thought it would be helpful to offer 4 practical steps your L&D team can take to kick off 2021 with a bang. 

Those with a keen eye (or just anyone who’s been paying attention, really) will have noticed we’ve been hammering a few key recurring themes that will shape the future of L&D. These are: 

1. Soft skills

We’ve emphasised the importance of soft skills for future-ready L&D teams time and time again, even dubbing them “non-negotiable if you want to succeed in L&D in 2021 and beyond.”

For L&D teams looking to hit the ground running in 2021, elevating employees’ soft skills should be a key focus. 

For more detail on why soft skills are so important, be sure to read our recent blog Skills for the future, today: closing the L&D skills gap.

2. Business value mindset 

Again, we’ve talked about the importance of a business value mindset relentlessly, thanks in part to some excellent expert contributions from Michelle Ockers and Laura Overton. Laura Overton even called business value “L&D’s bedrock of digital success”. 

Forward-thinking L&D teams would be wise to embrace a business value mindset in 2021. 

3. Embrace collaboration 

With remote work becoming the new normal for L&D teams in 2020, collaboration has become critical to success. As outlined above, we expect this to continue in 2021 and beyond, meaning collaboration will continue to be the word on every L&D team’s lips. 

4. Rethink your relationship with technology 

While technology has been critical to L&D’s continued evolution and success, Michelle Ockers believes we need to put technology into perspective, calling it “an enabler of learning and performance, not the saviour.” 

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