Learning in the times of corona
The year 2020 will remain etched in our memories forever. We have seen it all in the last year. Lockdown of the economy, massive disruption, cash flow crunch, gradual unlocking, sudden pent-up demand, bold business turnaround strategies and the turbulent stock market. Even the learning domain has witnessed the transformation, right from capturing the need, delivery to measuring its effectiveness. As businesses have survived and thrived, we observed significant shifts in learning strategy and how they have adapted to the pandemic. We spoke to several industry experts and benchmarked their best practices and survival mantras. Introducing digitized content, upgrading the learning platform, developing internal facilitators for online learning are noticeable actions. Our effort has been to understand how organizations have realized the need and adapted to the new normal. Lessons and insights from their change management have also been captured.
The article explores five trends and insights by speaking to several industry experts and benchmarking their learning practices.
#1: Defining the learning needs
Observation: With business survival being threatened, the critical question that emerged was, "What are our core capabilities, and how do we build them?" With non-core capabilities being either outsourced or eliminated through automation, identifying the learning need for reskilling / upskilling the core capability became the fundamental question. The one-time annual ritual of need identification has evolved into a continuous dynamic process based on current and future requirements. In addition, the need identification process gains from the inputs of other HR levers like Talent Management, Performance feedback and development centres, Rewards & Recognition.
Insight: Though there is no shortage of learning platforms for enabling continuous learning (based on learning needs), the fundamental question remains: Are people managers providing constructive actionable feedback? Are they having meaningful & deep conversations with the team members? Do they explain the rationale of learning need identification and its benefit/ purpose in aiding employee's career growth?
It is time to formalize the manager's role in need identification where the manager acts as an agile coach, providing & shaping a supportive environment for learning to occur, clarifying expectations on applying the learning on the job, and giving feedback on improvement post the intervention. Often, we observe that the learner is at a significant loss to understand why s/he has been even nominated for a program. Instead of learning to advance his/ her career journey, it has become a tick-in-a-box to fulfil the training team's KRAs.
#2: 2-minute instant learning:
Observation: In a Microsoft study, it is suggested that humans lose concentration after eight seconds which is lesser compared to a notorious goldfish (nine seconds). Leveraging this information on a shortened span, the OTT platforms have adapted their content to shorter formats. Most of the viewers are no longer watching hourly episodes or iGTV on Instagram. With Twitter compressing our expressions to 280 characters and Hotstar reducing quix episodes to 7 mins, the learning function is not far from adopting this new trend. We notice that shorter bite-size learning modules (or nuggets) replace long drawn content.
With remote working becoming the new normal, the learning mediums have quickly imbibed Virtual Instructor-led training (vILT), virtual on-the-job exposure or live project, scenario-based learning and gamified activities and the one trending that is communities of practice (COP). However, in this ‘learner-driven ecosystem’ designing and delivering digitized content in a short span was observed as a challenge. Three out of four L&D professionals just about managed to fulfil the learning needs of their employees in 2020 owing to a lack of digitized process and platform. Nevertheless, they managed to fulfil about 50-70% of needs. A two-wheeler Indian MNC's L&D expert mentioned that they have a majority of Gen X and Baby boomers who were accustomed to classroom modules.
Insight: Though "Netflixization" bite-sized learning modules and Twitter shortened, 280 characters are in fashion, will they truly enable deep learning, reskilling, and upskilling? Think what if a person earns his Ph.D. by just observing 2-mins videos on the subject, highly unlikely, right? We advocate that deep learning/ reskilling requires a blend of macro and micro-learning. Though micro-learning will continue to be in "fashion", deep skilling/ reskilling will require more structured efforts, including facilitator-driven masterclass, technical education degree/ certificate, etc. Thus, a combination of macro (structured efforts) and micro-learning (bite-sized nuggets) will become prevalent in the learner's journey.
#3 Process tweaking vs Process re-engineering
Observation: The learning methodology reflects the business realities. Due to lockdown restrictions, most of the "relationship" based roles that had customer/ client, vendor or even internal stakeholder interaction had to be redefined. While the processes have been tweaked (in "Jugaad" style) to ensure business continuity, there is a need to redefine/re-engineer processes and roles for sustainable, new normal.
Most of the classroom training was delivered virtually with minimal or no change in content to suit the digital platform. The facilitators were unsure of the delivery effectiveness as the medium had changed from classroom to digital format.
Insight: In the shadow of the pandemic, the learning programs had to be modified from existing classrooms to virtual ILTs and digital learning content. However, as the new normal evolves, there is a need to redefine the business processes keeping overall strategic intent, core capabilities, and digitization maturity in perspective. The new processes emerging will require fundamental shifts in organization structure (matrix, tribes), org capabilities (digital, agile) and ways of working (networked, real-time). The emerging process may have little or no resemblance to the existing business models. Like Box 1 and Box 2, the learning strategy needs to be relooked with core and dynamic capabilities. Core capabilities are required today and continue to be strengthened. Dynamic capabilities will be emerging from Box 2 (new business models, re-engineered processes). Faster the learning systems adopt and embrace Box 2, it will be able to create a competitive advantage.
#4 Devil is in the details
Observation: With a focus on digital learning, there have been significant investments in upgrading learning management systems and digital learning content. The word "e" added to the entire learning value chain from learning needs identification to delivery. Classroom-based training programs got replaced with Virtual ILT based sessions. Scenario-based workshops had a makeover with virtual simulations. The investment in the learning platform got influenced by either upgrading existing LMS or going for a full-fledged LXP platform for learner experience.
Insight: The devil is in the details. As e-tailers provide you with the choice of products in their shopping catalogue, every consumer search keeps adding to their repository and enhancing their algorithm recommendations. It is a similar case for searching relevant learning content. Without a robust content library being hosted on LMS, the searches on LXP platform may not be meaningful. Few organizations even focused on upgrading their existing LMS, rather than migrating to LXP, as they believed the current platform could suffice their business requirements. Despite the availability of learning platforms, curators still rely on Google and YouTube as content sources which results in low adoption of the platform.
Upgrading the existing learning platform requires reflection on the following requisites.
- Traction: If the current platform didn't get traction, why do we feel the new learning platform would change the learner behaviour? Is the problem with the platform usability or learner experience or content application?
- Relevance: Does the current content library have a good mix of internal and external sources? The internal content will provide a context-specific application (e.g. product development process in the organization), whereas the external content will give perspective on best practices.
#5: My growth, my learning
Observation: Organizations across industries have seen a paradigm shift in curating the content for learners. Facilitators and curators are faced with an interesting dilemma - Do they focus on cohort learning or self-paced depending on the nature of the learning intervention. Cohort learning is a collaborative method of imparting training and works on the similarities of the target audience. Self-paced learning is an individualized basis of one's preference and learning style. In today's busy schedule, self-paced learning allows learners to strike a balance and adjusts to their busy schedules. Personalized learning is not a new concept. But the emergence of appropriate processes and platforms have made it easier for L&D professionals to curate and deliver learner-centric programs. It challenges the traditional 'one-size-fits-all’ approach. This combination of technology and personalized need gets the learner's attention, interest, and retention higher than other combinations.
Insight: An essential feature of contextualization is to balance both business needs and individual aspirations. High performers may feel stimulated with challenging assignments and high-value training programs. Average performers get an opportunity to learn and apply at their own pace. In short, there is something for everyone when learning gets personalized.
However, the focus needs to make the individual learner accountable for their career growth and upskilling. As a result, the organization's millennials and Gen Z learners are enquiring 'what's in it for me?' for each learning assigned to them. Unless the learner sees value in time & effort being invested in the learning intervention v/s the expected outcomes, s/he is unlikely to hold the learning program in high esteem.
The pandemic showed us that the individuals who never invested in reskilling/upskilling had higher chances of being laid off with the onset of any economic crisis. It has challenged the status-quo and infused newer ways of working. We observed several commonalities in practices related to learning needs and fulfilment during the pandemic. The sustainability of these new practices will be tested as we begin to unlock and embrace the new ways of working.