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Why on-the-job learning may die at the hands of automation

On-the-job learning is fundamental to employee skills development. But Gartner’s latest trends report suggests that the automation of routine tasks will eliminate this critical learning opportunity. We spoke to Emily Rose McRae, Director of the Future of Work Research Team at Gartner, to find out more.

27th Feb 2020
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In Gartner’s 2020 trends report on the future of work, challenges such as the unethical use of employee data, the need for radical transparency and the ever-rising demand for remote work – although significant – may be of little surprise among employers.

One more unexpected trend, however, is the elimination of on-the-job learning. Gartner’s research found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of CHROs believe leveraging on-the-job learning to develop skills among employees is a top priority.

However, by 2025, almost half of all internal development opportunities will disappear as on-the-job learning opportunities based on highly repetitive tasks are eliminated.

On-the-job learning is a cornerstone of corporate L&D today – but with many routine tasks becoming automated, L&D professionals may need to look elsewhere, and perhaps even go back to traditional modes of learning, to develop and upskill employees.

How should L&D teams respond to these findings? We spoke to Emily Rose McRae, Director of the Future of Work Research Team at Gartner, to give us some more insight...

I'm surprised to see Gartner's prediction of the elimination of on-the-job learning. Can you provide more detail on why you foresee this happening in the near future?

This comes down to the similarities between the way AI works and the way on-the-job learning tends to work. The most useful on-the-job learning is for regularly performed tasks where there is rapid feedback on whether the task was successful or not. 47% of on-the-job learning is around these repetitive tasks, and AI is going to replace the need to have humans complete these tasks.  

But what happens when we lose these repetitive learning opportunities? It’s important to note that employees aren't just being trained on how to execute a task, but also developing skills that are critical for higher complexity tasks both for their current role and future roles.

Employers will need to figure out how they will develop these skills in employees without the on-the-job learning that is currently used. 

Organisations will have to be more creative in thinking about what they want to develop in employees, when on-the-job learning is less of an option.

What kinds of skills and tasks will not be taken by automation?

AI needs lots of data to learn from, clear standards for what it is trying to achieve, and many opportunities to practice to be able to evaluate the results. For both physical and thinking tasks, AI struggles if the task has ambiguous standards for success, or is done infrequently. So there are some physical and thinking tasks that AI cannot do now, but may eventually learn to do.  

When we think about the skills that are most likely to be protected from AI, there is a category of skills called ‘Social-Creative’. These are the skills for tasks that AI really struggles with – feeling tasks such as empathy and persuasion, yes, but also creativity, strategising and improvising.

The good news is that as AI takes over certain tasks and skills, we’re seeing job postings shift to request more social-creative skills. Some jobs are eliminated, while others change to focus more on the skills that AI cannot excel at.

Training that currently focuses on executing specific tasks will likely shift.

The L&D industry is currently going through the transition of moving away from traditional L&D methods to address learning at the point of need. Based on this recent research, are we moving in the wrong direction?

Point of need may very well still be the best approach. What our research shows is that the nature of this training will likely change. Organisations will have to be more creative in thinking about what they want to develop in employees, when on-the-job learning is less of an option.

Training that currently focuses on executing specific tasks will likely shift to training that helps employees develop the critical thinking, creativity and adaptability that they need to execute the more complex tasks that AI cannot perform. 

A rising number of industry experts believe very little learned in a training room is applied back in the workplace and learning is far more effective at the point of need. How would you respond?

That seems accurate, the question for them is: how do you help employees develop the skills they need to do their jobs well without repetitive on-the-job learning, as well as building Social-Creative skills for long-term stability? What other options will they develop for point of need learning?

What guidance would you give to HR and L&D professionals on how to prepare for this potential shift?

I would recommend the following: 

  • Audit existing learning strategies for dependence on on-the-job learning for repetitive tasks that may be replaced by AI.

  • Consult with IT and business leaders on the IT roadmap to identify the skill development that is currently most at risk of being eliminated by AI.

  • Consider piloting experiments of new techniques for cultivating the skills that are currently being developed with on-the-job learning for repetitive tasks. Mentorship programmes, apprenticeships and rotational programmes could be potential techniques to test.

  • Collaborate with business leaders to identify the positions that are most likely to be wholly eliminated as AI is introduced, and create development plans for how you might redeploy impacted employees into new roles your organisation needs.

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