Time to re-calibrate: lessons on innovation in talent and learning development in the “new normal”

The last decade has seen a rapid paradigm shift in the workplace. Exciting and innovative technology continues to drive and transform the world of work across all regions, industries, and professions. We have seen it, heard it, experienced it, and are surrounded by a plethora of noise on social media platforms, and it has only gained traction since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each new development in the learning technology space claims to evolve our workforce, supporting employees to perform more efficiently and to a higher standard than ever before. Talent and L&D functions are under increased pressure to balance the needs, goals and cultural drivers of the organisation amidst this continually changing landscape. Learning teams across the globe are experiencing a heightened sense of urgency to meet new corporate learning demands as almost everybody jumps onboard the “digitisation wave”.

But in this new world of constant progression and accelerated digital transformation, are they genuinely adding value?

A report released earlier this year by Emerald Works confirms that investments in corporate learning are continually increasing. This year alone has seen a 3% increase in technology spending vs last year, and yet, these investments have not shown a corresponding impact in business growth. Only 15% of business leaders have reported success in driving innovation for business growth, a decrease of 3% on last year.

Global Spending on learning and development: Download the report

Humans drive innovation, not machines!

In 1894, W.K. Kellogg revolutionised the way people ate breakfast. While seeking a more digestible breakfast alternative to baked bread for his brother’s Battle Creek Sanitarium patients, Kellogg accidentally left a pot of boiled wheat out overnight. Later, he noticed the wheat had softened. He then rolled and baked it until each grain became a crispy flake. He tried the same technique on corn, and over several years of experimenting, invented corn flakes.

But he didn’t stop there. Kellog believed that everyone, not health resort patients, would enjoy this product. With the help of his brother, he started the Sanitas Food Company, which later became the Kellogg Company. His success didn’t just come from the invention of breakfast cereals, but also from his human-centric focus, iterative prototyping process and careful consideration of the entire product experience — from the cereal itself to its packaging, marketing and distribution.

As with Kellog’s founding principle of customer-driven demand, humans and human-centred design principles should be the starting point of every talent and learning initiative.

Technology represents the how of chnage, humans represnt the why

The way we work and the skills we need will never be the same. Progress is permanent, and in this new age, things that lag in quality are being discarded without a second thought. Once we have automated and perfected everything that can be, the one thing that will stand out as being irreplaceable by machines is the human element. Traits such as creativity, imagination, intuition, emotion and ethics will become incredibly valuable because they are not and will never be able to be replicated by AI and simulations.

The opportunity in the new normal is to focus on what cannot be automated and find new ways to make it better.

Too often, we focus on technical solutions but neglect the human behaviours that drive adoption. We bring new systems and processes, only to discover that employees find a way around them and go back to the old way of doing things.

With all the noise around digital transformation today, creating an innovative workplace culture is more important than ever before. Despite the allure of digital technology, it will not have a real and lasting impact unless employees are primed to embrace opportunities for technology and growth. Because of this, organisations need to ensure that they are investing equal time and money into developing the right organisational culture as they are in digital technology.

Senior Leaders play a pivotal role in encouraging a behavioural and cultural shift towards innovation, and it begins with understanding what workplace culture is and how it can be influenced.

A simplified definition by Siobhán McHale in her book ‘The Insider’s Guide to Cultural Change defines workplace culture as:

“It’s how things work around here”.

It is what drives human behaviour at work and is as unique as the people that contribute to it.

Although organisational cultures are inherently complex and interconnected, learning leaders and corporate learning teams need to develop a holistic understanding of their culture if they are to learn how to influence it effectively. Having this comprehensive understanding allows them to make measured decisions that better identify and address critical barriers to an innovative mindset. Given that workplace cultures are fluid, a key consideration for leaders in developing their understanding today, and in the immediate future, is the possible effect of COVID-19.

The new “permanent” normal

COVID-19 has forced an irreversible shift in the way that companies operate and manage their employees. The fact that 67% of companies have reported that COVID-19 has forced a major shift in their functions that will permanently transform both what they do and how they do it gives a strong indication that these changes are here to stay.

The ability to make these changes has been a wake-up call that has caused many to reflect upon the need to be more proactive in their approach towards technology. Over the past year, they have been given the time and opportunity to adapt their approach as this pandemic continues to force employees to stay at home. Given this recognised need for change and their newly improved current strategies, it is perhaps unsurprising that only 5% of companies predict that their learning strategy, investment and resourcing will revert back to how they were before.

We have already seen several widespread changes in workplace practices. Remote working has been naturally integrated into everyday work and has become a common expectation of employees rather than a privilege that needs to be earned. Meanwhile, flexible working hours have become the norm, allowing employees to fill their workday in a way which maximises productivity and accommodates personal commitments. However, these practices have also dealt employees with an entirely new set of challenges. Issues such as establishing an appropriate workspace, developing their technical skills, learning to effectively collaborate in an online environment and being able to unplug from work at the end of the day are all at the forefront of their minds.

Source: COVID-19 Pulse of HR, built in partnership by Josh Bresin, CultureX and Waggle.

The rapid digitisation of content and the shift to remote working throughout COVID-19 also has employers facing a whole new set of concerns. Corporate strategy makers have been forced to rethink budget allocations on office space and infrastructure due to a decrease in essential office workers. Similarly, CEOs and business leaders are preparing with renewed urgency for AI to radically change their business in the next three years. Many have already introduced significant automation projects across different areas and are now focusing their efforts on driving innovation for business growth and improving employee engagement. People leaders are grappling with the need to learn new skill sets to allow them to manage their employees remotely and are turning to external learning resources. Here are some free courses and learning paths released by LinkedIn at the onset of the pandemic.

With significant changes being made across the board, learning teams have jumped to deliver new skill sets and support new roles in an effort to validate their contributions with stakeholders & business leaders — that they are responding to the new environment. But amongst the excitement and agility, we seem to have forgotten our audience and are instead delivering content through our “L&D” lens.

Learning at the forefront

As an employee’s access to information and technology evolves, the modalities of learning provided by corporate learning universities need to evolve with it. In an app-centric, hyper-connected, snapchat-insta-twitter-tiktok driven, mobile, google search dominated world, our learning solutions need to be immediate, relevant and digestible. Most importantly, we must focus on the reason and method that employees consume learning and not transform our content merely to show that we can meet digitisation demands.

Moving online ≠ innovation

In this accelerated digital age, the measure of success at the forefront of every learning leader’s mind is the rate at which their business is able to implement digitised content. Classroom learning programs, particularly in leadership and behavioural training, have been digitised, re-badged and distributed at a tremendous speed, and ‘new and improved’ virtual programs are abundant in corporate learning programs. These programs seem to operate on the assumption that methods of learning that were previously successful when delivered in person will achieve the same result when delivered online. However, a failure to recognise the changing behaviours, habits, and mindsets of employees means that these programs often generate little to no measurable business impact.

A learning experience today is an important way of challenging assumptions and helping to encourage rich conversations that facilitate broader understanding. It is not about dumping a bunch of digital gibberish on employees for the sake of meeting training requirements or proving that we can use technology to deliver learning to keep our jobs relevant. Instead, it needs to add value to their ability to perform their role and do so in a way that is conscious of their changing needs and is ultimately led by human-centred design. Webinars and virtual conferences need to be used sparingly, with an awareness that employees have likely spent 5 days a week glued to computer screens doing their work and in Zoom meetings with clients, colleagues, and even family. Day to day human interactions that were personal in nature before are now virtual. Content should instead be presented through a range of innovative and portable methods that can be consumed during their own time.

The way forward

The greatest learning of the last year has been that your work is not determined by location or hours of working but by the outcomes and the people who make it happen. Despite the influx of digital learning platforms and the perceived pressure to keep up with what everyone else is doing, learning teams need to critically evaluate the value of their strategies to ensure that their culture is curious and agile enough for digital innovation in learning to have a meaningful impact. This requires learning leaders to have a holistic understanding of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic and remote working has changed their workplace culture and human behaviours. Only then can they create talent & learning strategies that are aligned to the business and relevant to the most valuable asset a company will ever have — humans.

A creature of contradictions with ideas to share on eLearning, UI/UX/CX and any other Xs, creative designs and web/mobile/app development.