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Looking Backward and Looking Forward

According to various business leader sentiments and our own Center for the Future of Work learning report, most CEOs are concerned...

9 Minutes Read

According to various business leader sentiments and our own Center for the Future of Work learning report, most CEOs are concerned that their available talent can’t keep pace with how quickly robotic process automation and artificial intelligence are changing businesses and ultimately work. It is a great time to be involved in training and developing talent inside organizations. As the needs of businesses evolved, universities began offering business-oriented education, with the first MBA offered by Harvard Business School in 1908. Roughly around the same time, businesses started organizing Learning and Development (L&D) functions as physical spaces known as corporate universities, among them the famous ones being:

The common feature of L&D functions here resembled their manufacturing organizations, with focus on consistency and efficiency, having everyone complete the same materials, in the same order, and performing at some acceptable level.

Learning in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: New Challenges for L&D

Moving into the fourth-industrial-revolution, approaches that worked earlier didn’t help drive big breakthroughs. Scholars such as Ikujiro Nonaka noted that a paradigm shift had happened, in which companies weren’t processing information but were creating and acting on knowledge.

With automation changing the number of people working in every industry, the training needs of organizations have shifted. But the way learning and development in organizations happens have not changed to reflect this new business reality. L&D function in most companies has peculiar challenges that inhibit transformational change.

Organizations need to be able to connect the talent in their teams to produce immersive learning experiences faster. We have to not only develop new ideas, but we have to implement them across the globe at the pace demanded by technological change. This is the way for organizations to drive transformational change.

L&D’s Fork in the Road

Robert Frost wrote a poem about a choice to take on a fork in the road, and how choices shape us. L&D faces this fork in the road: should it focus on its past, on developing skills at scale or its future to develop performance through practice? What should companies choose – the past or the future? The answer is not as obvious as it appears.

Those preferring to hold on to the more traditional model tend to focus on the tactical agenda rather than the strategic for the organization. If L&D focuses on delivering cost-managed value as scale, it is perceived as a support function, not a co-creator of the future. While it is heartening to see that many L&D functions have adopted approaches and technologies that are changing the direction, the changes are often not enough and too slow.

What then is the right approach? L&D needs to rethink its role and mission in an organization. The approach should be to integrate learning and work towards individual and collective performance. We need to devise a culture where associates can learn while working and work while learning in a very symbiotic way.

There are a couple of dimensions and consequences to consider around choosing one over the other.

Established Path: Continue Just-in-Case Training for Business Requirements

If L&D wants to focus only on celebrating the past – the dominant paradigm in most L&D departments – it really is a trainer-driven environment where instructional design is centered around how the trainer should be delivering content to the audiences. This is just-in-case learning, in which training is offered to address a potential eventuality.

This approach is designed for standardization and efficiency of delivery, whatever the mode of delivery. The environment often is oriented around a Learning Management System (LMS). The approach is a top-down one, assuring content coverage and testing employees. Certifications add an entire dimension to it.

LMS provides maximum efficiency in matters of compliance or mandatory training, working well when knowledge doesn’t change frequently or quickly, and precludes any sort of independent thinking or autonomy. LMS puts much more focus on inputs not outputs – geared around certifications, courses etc., without there being any measure of how soon, where or when that knowledge will be applicable. This sort of LMS does not consider people’s aspirations, talents and pushes content to people irrespective of their desires. This approach reminds one of a Parent-Child model, where the company is the parent and the employees children.

The Path Less Chosen: Embracing the Future

Today, we are aware of better techniques and approaches to learning, knowledge retrieval, practice difficulties etc. We are treading a new path, where learning is lifelong and not a one-time event. Companies now are realizing the need to focus on effective experiences and not standardized curriculum. The individual or the company’s current and immediate needs become more important than getting certifications. The focus is on outputs not inputs. And this then becomes the mantra of learning. It is much more personality-centric, because that is our prime resource.

Companies are choosing this path, but the transition is not as smooth or seamless as we would wish it to be. Neither is the length of time it is taking to make this transition, although its benefits are evident. This path is all about what people will do with that training and when and whether there’s any measurable impact at all levels – individual, project and organizational. The stress and focus now is not on quantity of training but on ways of making accessible tacit and implicit knowledge. It presupposes that the learner will use human judgment, ingenuity and creativity.

What then is the Way Forward?

There is no need to reject the past forthwith. And the choice of past or future is not as binary as Robert Frost suggested in his poem above. Knowledge is an important dimension in the overall learning mix – how to embrace it becomes a learning function. (There are quite a few leading thinkers in this space, including Jane Hart , author of the very timely Modern Workplace Learning series.)

We should empower people and let them create their clearly defined goals, holding people more accountable to goals while giving them the autonomy to select paths. The impetus to learn has to come from associates because they see the benefits it will provide to their careers. Organizational leaders need to realize that learning is their business, not incidental to the business. Learning faster than our competitors is our only competitive advantage today and we need to devise ways to leverage that. We should make available platforms and resources and provide them the liberty to decide what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. In standardized curricula, the L&D function both sets the expectations of the end goal and dictates the path that people have to follow towards that end, presupposing a sameness in people that is not a reality.

The future should have autonomy on the how. L&D in this changed landscape, selects people for their curiosity, celebrating the layers in their personalities and encouraging them to pursue their paths, displaying to them the benefits of this pursuance, the importance of it in their careers. L&D functions have to create learning platforms that move from a push to pull environment, which is a more learner-driven, bottom up approach. This is the model for the new Knowledge economy. We need to create knowledge frameworks and people can navigate and negotiate their own ways, without unnecessary restrictions. It will keep associates interested and invested. The learner needs to keep the control, to access at the point of need. They need to find compressed nuggets of knowledge/information to help them with specific tasks.

The ferocity and speed of competition requires employees in businesses being part of the renewal and innovation. This is already happening in some ways but we need to know that we cannot stop anywhere. Employees need to be connected and collaborative and make the best use of the new technology which again, is in a state of flux. We do this or we risk being edged out of existence.


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