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Six things every learning and development leader should know in 2021

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In this new world of work, L&D professionals have an opportunity to play a wider, more strategic role than ever before in boosting key skills for a changing future. Here are six good places to start...

8th Sep 2021
Chief Executive CP2 Experience
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We are all aware of the many challenges that businesses have lived through over the last 18 months including changing customer requirements, big shifts in demand and channel usage, business continuity, working from home and technology deployment for customers and employees.

The reality of the pandemic has made it even more important for businesses to make sure their people have a sense of purpose, empathy and the skills and tools they need to support customers (and each other).  And yet many of the familiar methods we have used in the past to manage people and teams, to coach, develop and equip them with the expert skills they require, have been unavailable to us as working from home became the norm for so many. 

the history of 2020/21 will show that how organisations respond to the need for ‘learning’ will be equally important. 

Our response, in terms of the L&D programmes we were implementing to support our clients and their business objectives, was to react quickly, be creative and develop new ways for people to learn and apply the learning to the new realities of their roles. 

We have learned a lot about how people learn, what works and what doesn’t. The role of digital has been pivotal. Those companies that were ahead of the curve in terms of digital capabilities will have fared better than those that lagged behind. Equally, I am clear the history of 2020/21 will show that how organisations respond to the need for ‘learning’ will be equally important. 

Here are six critical lessons we’ve learnt over the past 18 months as we worked with our clients, adapted to the new normal and studied some of the emerging best practices.

1. Learning and development professionals need to talk the language of business

Their job is to come up with and deliver solutions that meet the new, critical needs of the business and deliver measurable impact. Learning must be integrated with the overall business strategy and be able to demonstrate its impact on organisational performance, customer loyalty, market share, growth, costs and other metrics of interest to executives. 

Learning professionals who talk training content and programmes rather than business issues and results will not get a seat at the C-suite table.   

2. Build organisation-wide skills at scale

Many of the changes we’ve seen over the past year are here to stay. Deciding which capabilities will be required in the future, assessing the current situation and identifying the gap is critical. 

There will be some skills that become foundational and are at a premium and foundational given the changes all organisations are facing in terms of their strategies and operating models: 

  • Leadership and management skills to help manage the ambiguity in transitioning to the new world of work.
  • Interpersonal skills and empathy to build stronger relationships internally and with customers.
  • Adaptability and continuous learning to support people with role changes and new ways of working.
  • Basic digital skills. 

These are the skills that, above all else, will serve organisations well if they adopt them at scale across the business. 

3. Leaders and managers at all levels have to embrace learning as a key accountability

The opportunity to send employees to a face-to-face training event has not existed over the past 18 months and successful line managers – at all levels – have recognised the critical role they must play in equipping their teams for success. 

Being accountable for learning does not mean turning managers into professional trainers, but it does mean that managers need to add the behaviours that foster learning to their toolkit of skills.

It starts with showing they care and are interested in helping their people be the best they can be. This requires a different style of leadership – 'servant leadership'. Servant leaders are authentic. They persuade, empower, listen, delegate and connect to a shared purpose. They encourage team members to test new ideas and ways of working and are driven by developing people, building a trusted team and achieving results.  

Setting the right tone through leadership is complemented by the ability to coach people and conduct effective coaching conversations – a critical skill that is often under-developed. 

4. L&D needs to see learning through a much wider lens 

Learning designers need to think of a broader range of learning solutions than they have in the past. Traditional face-to-face ‘events’ are not currently an option and yet the imperative to learn has never been greater. 

But with the playing field for learning firmly anchored to the role of accountable managers, instructional designers have the licence to build solutions that are digitally supported, learner, peer and manager-led, individual and team-based, and integrated into the tools and systems employees use in their daily work. 

Profound learning that sticks comes from action, reviewing what went well and what could be improved, and trying again under the helpful eye of a coach. When the coach is the line manager or a colleague, the workplace becomes the learning lab and the issue of transferring training room skills to the workplace disappears.

If the workplace is the learning lab then operational leadership and L&D need to open up the places where the most powerful learning takes place.

In the new world of work, delivery of the learning outcomes and behavioural changes that are needed is shared between L&D and operational management. 

5. Focus on attitudes and beliefs as well as skills 

The views that people had before the pandemic have, in many cases, changed, as they’ve re-evaluated what is important to them. The seismic changes that have played out for us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work for, requires companies and employees to ‘contract’ – to make sure there is alignment between personal and corporate values. 

Skills development on its own does not create belief in a new direction and a commitment to change. The catalyst for change is embedding the new direction into individuals’ values and belief systems. New skills are always required, but these skills need a solid foundation of belief and commitment. 

6. The L&D support infrastructure needs to evolve

The support infrastructure in which companies have historically invested is focused on learning management systems and the efficient management of training delivery and evaluation. 

There is always a place to improve efficiency (the cost per head) of training delivered, however, with the shift to leader-led, workplace learning; the investment needs to be in support tools that ensure alignment between leaders/managers in different parts of the company and which encourage feedback loops and sharing across teams and business units. 

A final thought ...

The pandemic has propelled the L&D community to think differently and design different kinds of interventions.  And the workplace is no longer somewhere where training events 'happen'. The workplace is the new learning lab. 

If the workplace is the learning lab then operational leadership and L&D need to open up the places where the most powerful learning takes place. That might be by shadowing a senior leader, participating in a customer project, sitting in on a client meeting, drafting documents or participating in brainstorming sessions. These are the most powerful places where people can learn from colleagues and their bosses whilst contributing to ‘real work’.   

To sum up

Far from being constrained, L&D professionals have an opportunity to play a wider, more strategic role than ever before. Learning has become an organisational imperative. The learning function should be working with technology and others, as well as operational management, to develop learning solutions that shape culture, attitudes and beliefs as well as develop the skills that are needed – today and in the future.

Interested in this topic? Read: Who needs to be involved in the learning experience?

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