Writing

The future of learning at work, part one – setting the scene

The world of learning at work is changing and we need to change with it.

This is not a matter of adopting some new, hyped technology nor of championing the latest fad in training techniques. The shifts in how we work in the West are fundamental and long-lasting and are not susceptible to superficial solutions. We are now in a global economy where most organisations derive their value from their people’s knowledge, skills and attitudes. This will demand fundamental changes in how people develop themselves at work.

You might think that would mean that learning and development (L&D) is more important than ever, but the truth is more complicated than that. The changing world of workplace learning is as much a threat to existing L&D as it is an opportunity.

“The challenge to L&D goes well beyond a turf war about who is going to provide the next training course.”

I’ve written about this before on Training Zone. Where I focused on the shifting perception of skills in the workplace: executives, managers and employees all see skills and learning differently now to only a few years ago. This trend will continue, creating profound effects for learning and development (L&D) practitioners. We must respond, or – and this is the threat – risk irrelevance.

The key change, which I outlined in Learning at the crossroads, is that while executives know that skills are crucial, they do not regard the L&D department as able to provide those skills. Certainly, the higher you go in an organisation, the less likely L&D is to be involved in skills development. If the board needs refreshing in governance, for example, it is likely that task will be directly outsourced to specialist consultants by the managing director’s office without L&D even being consulted.

But the challenge to L&D goes well beyond a turf war about who is going to provide the next training course. For an organisation to function today, it has to be constantly developing and supporting its people’s knowledge, skills and attitudes because they are its source of value and differentiation. For L&D to remain relevant in this context, practitioners must help the organisation develop people in line with business aims by working in four areas:

1. Capability building – centrally-controlled “push” learning that builds individual employees’ long-term knowledge and skills. This is what we’ve always done, and we do it well.
2. Performance support – personally-driven “pull” learning that answers specific short-term performance issues. We’re familiar with this as what’s often called the “Googlization” of learning. This term trivializes an increasingly significant part of L&D’s role.
3. Personal learning support – this has two parts. One is helping organisations select learning tools wisely and stimulate quality user-generated content. The second is supporting employees in their meta-cognitive development – their ability to learn through their careers.
4. Skills management – we need to provide both a long-term view of how we grow organisational skills for the three-year executive vision and to meet managers’ needs for their projects in three to 12 months’ time.

This is not to suggest that everyone in L&D must perform each of these roles nor that L&D should do them alone, without any input from the rest of the organisation. However, these things do all need to be done, and the L&D department should be in the lead on each.

In my next four articles, I will examine each of these four points in more detail and will conclude with a fifth aspect of workplace learning in which L&D is fundamentally involved, but which it cannot lead.