Long reads

The L&D roles of the future

21 Feb 2019 By Susie Finch

From data expert to digital curator, what sort of jobs will help tomorrow’s workplace learners flourish?

The world of learning is changing fast – but are L&D departments prepared for just how fast? The stats suggest a significant mismatch between the skills learning leaders witness today and those they think will be important in the future. Towards Maturity’s The Transformation Journey 2019 report found that while 95 per cent of learning leaders believe facilitating collaboration will be vital, only 23 per cent feel their department is competent in it right now – a 72 per cent shortfall. When it comes to analytics, the gap is the same, and performance support is barely more promising at 68 per cent.

How these issues will affect L&D roles is vital, both for individuals planning their own careers and for leaders contemplating the future. Which is why People Management asked the experts for their views on the jobs that will flourish tomorrow – and how they’re already being introduced into businesses.

Performance engineer

Being a shopkeeper is a noble calling. But Andrew Jacobs, L&D transformation lead at HMRC, says it’s not the role learning leaders need to play in the future. He points instead to the idea of a ‘performance engineer’ who looks holistically at business objectives, relationships, systems, technology and culture and how they fit together, rather than just providing products.

Creating courses and content in isolation is simply no longer an option. This is partly due to the Google effect, as Jacobs points out: “People are happy to find what they need online. Whether they find what they actually need is another matter. But if you just offer content like a shopkeeper, you’ll quickly become irrelevant.”

Author and consultant Charles Jennings calls the role a ‘performance detective’. It means finding out what’s really causing a business challenge and recognising that the solution isn’t necessarily offering more training, he adds.

Data analyst 

Analytics mean different things to different people, but there’s a general understanding that L&D has to follow the example of customer marketers and target what it’s doing based on behaviour.

For example, Nick Hindley, workforce development manager at Norfolk County Council, is working on an app to track personal learning, which will automatically generate evaluative questions to help people apply their learning effectively. “We need to be better at evaluating learning that happens at random times and on a range of devices,” he says.

Jennings calls this role ‘performance tracking’, and he has some sound advice: “If you don’t know what you’re measuring, don’t start.”

Measuring usage and completion may be useful for L&D, but you really need to get a handle on behavioural change. A good example, says Jennings, is to see whether sales figures rise after sales training: “If you approach it with a mindset of learning, it’s incredibly difficult. But it’s easy to measure productivity.”

Technology specialist 

There’s a clear need to deploy the latest cutting-edge tools, but lack of understanding about technology can mean it fails to deliver. “A learning management system is often bought with the aspiration that it will fix everything, and it doesn’t,” says Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development content at the CIPD. He sees the solution as a range of part-time contractor roles to advise a core L&D team.

“AI has the potential to both disrupt and support L&D,” adds Lancaster. “Chatbots, for example, could be used for coaching. But L&D professionals need someone who is abreast of cutting-edge technology to advise them.” 

Lisa Johnson, OD manager at NHS Blood and Transplant, comes from an IT training background. She’s experimenting with voice-activated smart speakers like Alexa as a possible solution. Staff testing blood all day in a sterile environment don’t have access to their phone, she says: “In their moment of need, they look over their shoulder and ask a supervisor for help.”

Community manager 

The top 10 learning tools on consultant Jane Hart’s well-known annual list are always social. According to Hindley, if you’re not using some of them to engage with learners, you won’t remain relevant. He has previously used closed Facebook groups for leadership development programmes, and when he launches an online academy shortly, he’ll be including professional communities. The idea is to create groups that are self-learning, but that L&D is also involved in.

Johnson intends to use online communities to help shake up a traditional leadership course culture at NHS Blood and Transplant. Currently, a new manager might wait eight months to get on a training course, she says: she’s working with the leadership team to make resources available online from day one, with a community for managers to share their aspirations and needs.

Marketing & comms expert 

Shouting about your success is critical for the future of L&D. Hindley says practitioners should be adept at “the art of attracting people to you, to interest them in what you’re offering.”

When he worked at Marshall Aerospace and Defence, he used a weekly email called ‘3 at 3’ – three useful things sent at 3pm on a Thursday. One YouTube video – showing the pitfalls of virtual meetings – went viral throughout the company and beyond. “That did more to improve the standard of telephone meetings than any training,” he says.

Marketing learning also means leading by example, says Hindley: “We have to show that as an L&D team we have the best, most fantastic, fun-loving learning culture in the whole organisation.”

Virtual facilitator 

If you’re going to reach an increasingly dispersed workforce, you need a new set of facilitation skills. Michelle Parry-Slater runs CIPD skills webinars and says the biggest challenge for traditional trainers is usually twofold: fear of technology and lack of confidence.

Parry-Slater, lead volunteer for L&D at Girlguiding, says there are relatively few people talking about virtual facilitation, yet it can be such an obvious solution. For example, Girlguiding has 109,000 adult volunteers: using webinars means it’s easier to reach them.

Digital content creator/curator

The role of digital content creator is far greater than today’s instructional designer. There’s a need for someone to produce videos, podcasts and mobile-ready resources to support learning in the flow of work. Johnson has recently hired a full-time videographer, as she sees video as integral to her plans for an online toolkit of multimedia resources. Face-to-face practical masterclasses will complement this to help solve real business challenges.

Meanwhile, Jacobs curates rather than creates content when he can, using Windows cheat sheets and Microsoft videos for Office 365. Charities are adept at curating like this – lack of budget has fostered creative solutions.

Head of human intelligence

The future for Marie Duncan, head of learning development at Kibble, is not just about technology but building on L&D’s people skills: “For me, the skills of the future are about being more human,” she says. “We will continue to use analytics and digital technology. But none of that is possible unless the human aspect happens first.” And that means talking – to peers, to the business and to learners.

Buffy Sparks, head of training at the National Fostering Agency (NFA), agrees: “We need to find out what learners want – what is useful for them, what makes it meaningful.” The NFA has developed multiple ways for foster carers to give feedback: “It can be difficult to hear, but it’s really important to know we’re meeting their needs.”

For Lancaster, this means a radical rethink. “We have to change the way we work, so we’re business aligned, with data-informed solutions,” he says. “First, find out what the business requires. Then understand how your learners like to learn. Then work out what that means for how you approach design and delivery.”

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