How the pandemic will change workplace learning for good

Changes to how we work because of coronavirus have provided a much-needed boost to L&D efforts, say Simon Harwood and Rachel Kay

Workplace learning has needed a jolt of change for some time, to make sure there is the connection between individual aspirations and organisational goals. The pandemic looks to be providing that opportunity.

There has always been a nagging sense that training is disconnected – one-off spurts of activity followed by an inevitable dissipation and drift of the learning under the everyday pressure of workplace responsibilities; a situation where the L&D team can sometimes feel more like event planners than focused on the strategic contribution with measurable outcomes. 

Some progressive organisations have built learning cultures that confer strategic value. But many more still see learning as an overhead to be cut, a lever for compliance and a badge of skills – and where’s the impact?

The pandemic has shown us the opportunity, strategic value and need for L&D to be put on to boardroom agendas. Workplace learning should be a continuous mechanism with connected parts: outcomes based and leading to change in working lives that can be seen and felt by both individuals taking part and the organisation around them. 

Businesses have had to be agile like never before and this agility only springs from employees with the right capabilities, including critical thinking, learning agility and a growth mindset. It’s a principle that has become central to many training improvement projects in the Ministry of Defence, including Project Selborne, Capita’s £1bn contract to reinvent learning in the Royal Navy.

The pandemic has accelerated some existing trends that will allow the outcomes model to become dominant, overcoming some of the barriers involved with tracking and assessing training impact. That includes the rise of remote working and learning; the familiarity with micro learning online; and with greater use of data analysis of work roles and performance. 

Employee learning in some organisations was already integrated into the ‘flow of work’ but, over the last year, this has become the reality for almost all businesses and employees. Digital environments will be fundamental to taking an outcomes-focused approach. They allow for more tailored emulations and simulations of actual workplace situations for immersive, richer learning experiences. 

Better understanding of the nature and parameters of work roles means data analysis can be used for assessment and to provide support tools in real time. Rather than based on single events and courses, learning can take place in flexible forms through on-demand content in micro or longer forms to suit work routines. Learners as consumers with ownership over their choices and ability to dip in and out of different packages of external and in the workplace education. 

Focusing on outcomes is also a way to address one of the major barriers to effective L&D – making sure employees care about what they are learning about. When there is transparency and attention to the results of training, there can be a virtuous circle of employees who are aware of the impact on them personally, of improved capability, a better experience at work, more possibilities for career progression and so a greater commitment to and personal investment in learning. The approach makes for a culture of learning – where people are conscious and capable ‘learners’ – and makes a habit of sharing their knowledge with people around them.

As a model, anything that involves monitoring performance and behaviours can start to look like a ‘Big Brother’ initiative. So transforming learning needs sympathetic handling, making sure monitoring is non-intrusive and data is only used for insight and support. 

Again, learners benefit most when they are allowed to behave more like consumers, choosing to benefit from opportunities, when and how. But there is a citizenship dimension in learning too. The sense of collective effort – the difference that individuals make as part of a team, as well as the overall impact of organisations – is an important part of the story. 

The pandemic recovery period has become filled with organisations and sector bodies talking about the opportunity for change, making a fresh start. But genuine change can only be realised by people with new and different mindsets and capabilities. Employees need to be helped in ways that encourage them to give more of themselves when they are learning. For that to happen, employers need to make a new commitment to linking learning to outcomes.

Dr Simon Harwood is director of defence and security at Cranfield University, and Rachel Kay is learning director at Capita