Ankur Makhija heads Learning and Development at eClerx Services and he’s responsible for enabling eClerx’s workforce transformation by creating strategic and contemporary learning solutions that build deep professional capabilities and leadership competencies. In an interaction with People Matters, he shares his thoughts on the new paradigm of workplace learning, revamping of L&D strategy in the organization, and how to bounce back from the crisis.
What are the new workplace learning paradigms that COVID-19 has pushed into the spotlight?
COVID-19 has driven the hyper-adoption of digital learning. In the last few months, there’s been a growing realization that instead of decelerating it, working from home can in fact aid professional development. Studies across organizations have shown that while many firms want to increase investments in L&D, employees often cite ‘a lack of time’ for investing in their own learning. Working from home has dissolved the daily commute (according to a September 2020 study in India, while working from home the average working professional saves approximately 1.5 hours of travel time each day), facilitated increased flexibility in managing everyday work tasks – and has in effect for many sponsored a more systematic and committed approach to learning. This in turn holds the potential to drive employee motivation and productivity.
A second critical paradigm that’s emerged is the criticality of cross-skilling. Work volumes may nosedive in one function of the organization and peak in another and in such a scenario the role of L&D in creating backfills can spell the difference between business continuity and extensive downtime. Pandemics like COVID-19 test organizational agility and risk-mitigation strategies and cross-skilling is a vital lever for redeploying people rapidly.
How has the pandemic highlighted the need to invest in L&D?
In pre-COVID times, research reports about the ‘future of work’ fuelled headlines about almost a third of the skills regarded as essential today being cannibalized by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic process automation. In 2019 global giants like Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, and Walmart pledged massive investments in re-skilling programs. The pandemic has highlighted the need to accelerate those change initiatives as organizations across the board are adopting more automation, as they seek to cut costs and increase efficiency. The debate is rife about which skills are most at risk and how soon, but what’s a certainty is that re-aligning employees’ expertise and job roles to the post-COVID ways of working is central to supporting operating-model resilience – and enabling internal talent scale the skills ladder is the more opportunistic solution as against acquiring talent.
How will the way we learn and deliver learning initiatives in an organizational context change?
There are a few trends that are taking center stage as nation-wide lockdowns catapulted virtual learning from one of the many available options to a necessity. Firms are doubling down on investments in asynchronous / self-paced eLearning (LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Pluralsight et cetera).
Large investments in workshops, keynote speakers, team building offsites, and conferences have stopped and pivoted to digital. Firms can now tap global experts for virtual delivery – bringing in the best thought leadership, which in the past was often times prohibitively expensive.
Lastly, in the new normal adaptive learning technologies will become increasingly important – sophisticated platforms to aggregate data-points around employee expertise and experience, uncover skills gaps, and then provide a suite of learning options that would help bridge the gap.
Have you revamped your L&D strategy? Or are you looking to? What are the key learning priorities for your organization as you prepare to bounce back from a crisis?
Our L&D strategy has changed across three key axis – technology, domain, and leadership. Technology platforms that were earlier adopted in tiny pockets have recently seen enterprise-wide adoption, and so we shifted our focus on technology skills for virtual collaboration – skills critical to drive peak group productivity while working from home.
Domain learning has assumed significant importance as we drive cross-skilling to infuse greater flexibility in workforce planning. Domain programs are also enabling our people to make sense of the impact of COVID-19 on the industries we serve, so we can effectively partner with our global clients on agile responses for ‘navigating the now’ and enduring considerations for a hard re-set for creating the future.
We are investing in adaptive leadership as agility, innovation, emotional intelligence, and resilience become key for our leaders to thrive and transform in the new normal.
Lastly, we are keeping an eye on the future (beyond the skills required for navigating the new normal) – and we are driving a firm-wide program for ‘Data Visualization and Storytelling’ in partnership with a U.S. university, to build capabilities in a domain that we believe will be a key differentiator in 2021 and beyond.
This strategy has resulted in a learning participation increase 4x, NPS for learning interventions improve by 16%, an improvement in ROI of L&D programs from 3x to 4x – and the foundation of what very recently won eClerx a Brandon Hall Award for Excellence in L&D in the category ‘Best Advance in Creating a Learning Strategy’.
How is the role of L&D professionals changing?
From a skills perspective, the rapid digitization of learning necessitated significant on-the-go re-skilling for L&D professionals. Designing and facilitating virtual learning programs is now a core competency (a vanilla lift-and-shift approach to transitioning classroom learning programs for virtual delivery impacts learning effectiveness).
From a strategy perspective, while agile learning as a concept has been around for a few years, it’s the pandemic that’s forced L&D professionals to pivot to agile learning. In the past, investing in a new learning technology was a 4-month process, introducing a new training firm-wide was typically a 2-month instructional design process – in the new normal, the vocabulary of L&D professionals has shifted to days, not weeks or months.
Lastly, the role of L&D professionals is now leaning towards coaching employees to develop a growth mind-set around continuous professional development. Driving a growth mind-set culture by highlighting the importance of learning from failures and taking risks, and encouraging self-directed learning is the key. L&D professionals need to drive an organizational learning culture where there’s a learning framework broader than a catalog of training courses or pre-defined learning paths – because that is not how deep or continuous learning occurs – instead, the learning framework needs to leverage an array of formal and informal resources like YouTube videos, conversations with clients, mentoring by subject matter experts, sharing articles with colleagues and much more.
As talent leaders, reimagine workplace learning, what are some of the non-negotiables?
Thinking bigger and bolder will be non-negotiable as the challenges are unprecedented and bringing the same old toolkit to the table will not suffice. Innovation in learning paradigms and agility in implementation will be the key. Driving RoI for workplace learning will be another non-negotiable as divisions across firms strive to drive the highest level of efficiency and productivity.
The pandemic has brought learning & development to the forefront and has opened a plethora of new-age learning opportunities, not only for the employees but also for the organizations. How do you see the larger picture of L&D and skilling initiatives across organizations and how the employee L&D strategies have evolved in the last few months?
In the pandemic, workplace learning has emerged as a new talent engagement. Employees are attempting to bring a growth mindset to the table for continuous learning – this is essentially enabling frontline workers to acquire skills to be relevant for the future of work, and managers and leadership teams navigate the global-scale disruption precipitated by the pandemic.
Employee wellness has emerged as a strategic priority in the pandemic – and now more than ever is a growing recognition that successful wellness programs are a team effort. L&D is playing a meaningful role in areas like skilling up HR to pick up early warning signs of anxiety and other mental health challenges, facilitating sessions around work-life balance, and sensitizing managers and leaders to lead with greater empathy and compassion – as many employees, these days feel overwhelmed, stressed, and uncertain about the road ahead.
Lastly would be building long-term capabilities for managing the learning requirements of a hybrid audience, which is inevitable when some part of the workforce returns to work after the pandemic.
Know more about the latest trends in the learning & development landscape at the People Matters L&D Conference 2020 coming to your screens from 21st-22nd October. Click here to register.