Why L&D must make more of artificial intelligence – or risk being rendered redundant

Martin Coles looks at the opportunities for generative AI to improve the learner experience

Martin Coles

Generative AI has taken off in a big way. The first iteration of ChatGPT only launched in November 2022, but the take up of it and other variants, such as Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s Bing Chat, has been incredibly fast and widespread. But has it taken off in L&D?

L&D teams have the opportunity to leverage AI to transform the learning experience and create more organisational impact, but the latest Learning at work research from the CIPD shows that despite 68 per cent of L&D leaders agreeing that their teams are successfully using the learning technologies available to them, only 5 per cent were actually using AI tools in February 2023, when the research was conducted. Turn that figure around and it means 95 per cent of L&D teams weren’t using AI tools, a strong indicator that take up of AI has been slow in L&D.

Why the uptake of AI is taking its time in L&D

There are several reasons for the sluggish uptake. Although AI has been around for a long time (think search engines, for example), L&D is still at the early stages of integrating technology generally, with face-to-face learning reigning supreme until Covid struck. As we all know, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital learning and there have been many benefits to that shift, most notably around increased convenience, efficiency and reduced costs. A downside to the digital-only approach is that it has made learning fairly generic and one-dimensional, and learning teams are aware of that.

Once the immediate, Covid-induced need was over, L&D had to establish what was working with digital learning and what wasn’t, and it’s still finding its way. This is reflected in the same CIPD study, in which 48 per cent of people working in L&D reported an increased use of digital learning. Factor in technologies such as AR and VR, again still in their infancy in terms of integration in learning, and L&D has a lot to grapple with. Staying up to date in a rapidly moving industry is a real challenge.

So, L&D has already gone through a significant amount of change in the past few years and is continually evolving its offering. Generative AI is a new and exciting challenge, bringing a whole raft of opportunities to L&D and to organisations, but learning teams want to understand it before they implement it. These latest technologies are very new and organisations are still working out how to best use them; there isn’t a lot of guidance out there for L&D to draw on.

Changing skills

There is also a wider skills challenge and what that means for organisations and L&D. The World Economic Forum produces regular reports about the future of work, such as its The Future of Jobs Report 2020, which predicted that 50 per cent of workplace tasks will be performed by machines by 2025. There is already a pronounced skills gap in the UK and that gap is only going to increase if L&D and organisations don’t get to grips with upskilling and reskilling the workforce. But it’s not always clear what that skills challenge will look like or how to tackle it because change is happening so quickly and so deeply.

As well as all the excited chatter around the new generation of AI tools, there are also concerns around the reliability of the technology. There has been extensive reporting of these tools being biased and problems with hallucinations, causing many L&D teams to approach AI with an understandable degree of caution. Organisations want (and need) to know that content is accurate, bias free and of good quality, and a lack of surety is affecting take up.

The potential for AI in learning

AI has so much more to offer than one-dimensional digital learning. It is accelerating the shift from consuming content (read this text, watch this video, listen to this podcast…) to interactive, tailored learning through a conversational interface. The integration of AI in learning enables L&D to capitalise on the benefits of face-to-face learning, but in the digital space. It enables learners to trial and practise specific behaviours and to focus on the areas that will have the most impact in their work. This is how to address skills gaps, with really targeted learning opportunities that learners and organisations can mould to their needs.

The risks of not embracing AI

Any learning teams that are hesitant about using AI need to think about the implications of holding back. What does it mean to the L&D function and to organisations to sit on the fence? AI is here to stay and is only going to have a bigger and bigger role to play. It’s not a fad, so L&D has to accept it at some point. It's best to go with the direction of travel, rather than fall behind. Otherwise, L&D risks being sidelined, at best. At worst, it could render itself redundant.

How can L&D move forward?

L&D needs to understand the potential of AI. It needs to explore the tools, play around with them and think about how they could be used in their organisational setting. But this isn’t a journey L&D should undertake on its own – seek out those with AI expertise, both internally and externally. Talk to learning providers to find out what functionalities they offer and why. How do they enable personalisation? How can it be tailored to individual and organisational needs? And so on.

It is also important to collaborate with engineering teams to understand ‘the rules’ that can be applied to AI in the context of the learning experience. For example, ring-fencing AI to keep the learner on the topic so they don’t deviate too far from the intended learning outcomes.

L&D has the opportunity to help solve business challenges quickly and effectively, through using AI to create personalised, meaningful learning. Now is the time to be curious, to understand the potential of AI and to work with your technology partner to transform your approach to learning.

Martin Coles is customer coach at GoodHabitz