Redesigning the Corporate Learning to Beat the Pandemic
Chapter And Authors Information
As we plan for the future of work, the corporate Learning and Development (L&D) function faces an urgent task of rapidly upskilling the workforce. Given the fact that employees had accepted digital learning in 2020, the tendency of L&D is to do more of the same. However, the Work-From-Home (WFH) situation has evolved, requiring a more empathetic and design thinking approach to make the learning strategy effective and successful. This chapter presents an empirical view of how L&D needs to work at organization, employee and its own function to strategize a learning plan to beat the pandemic.
Design Thinking, Digital Adaptation, Learning Attitude, Learning & Development, Work From Home.
The pandemic has changed our lifestyle and our work-space. It has accelerated the acceptance of digital as the way of life. Consequently, to stay relevant, most organizations have embarked upon their journey to the ‘future of work’ as they envision it. Their focus lies in redesigning work and reskilling their workforce. In fact, according to a study conducted by the World Economic Forum, 54% of the workforce needs to be reskilled and upskilled within the next three years (Zahidi et al., 2020).
This has put a huge responsibility upon L&D managers to strategize and deploy learning programs that are effective in teaching the new concepts and what it takes to be successful in the new way of life. Most L&D teams are already on the task. Having seen the success of digital learning in 2020, the L&D managers are rapidly designing in more of such interventions.
At this juncture, it becomes critical to review a few facts. Digital learning has been around for a while. However, prior to 2020, organizations were still shy in adopting it as the results had not met their expectations. In fact, prior studies have reported the effectiveness of corporate trainings to be as low 12% (Glaveski, 2019) and 62% of the managers did not feel that corporate trainings have met their work related learning expectations (Fyfe-Mills, 2015). But the scenario has changed in 2020, wherein online learning has gained acceptance. It is important to understand the key factors in 2020 that led to acceptance of digital learning in 2020. Then one must review whether the conditions are still valid in 2021. Accordingly, the L&D deployment strategy needs to be devised.
During 2020, when the pandemic invaded most parts of the world, apart from the frontline workers, all employees stopped going to their workplace. There was a lull set in by the sudden void of workplace and then employees started settling into the culture of Working-From-Home (WFH). They grappled to get adjusted to the lifestyle of limited external social interactions and the uncertainty of what lies forward. Employees readily switched to online for communication and entertainment to seek engagement. Around the same time, many online learning tools opened up quality content at zero-cost to help them cope with the situation and utilize their time meaningfully. The organizations had started communicating the need for new technologies, new way of doing things, new mindsets. Everyone tried setting behind their innermost fears with the concept of finding an opportunity in the crisis. Therefore, many employees embraced the digital L&D solutions as part of this opportunity. The synchronous digital learning tools like Zoom, Webex, etc., gave them a sense of being together as well as the window to listen to the global Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). The asynchronous digital learning formats like the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) gave access to plethora of new-age topics and quality content taught by the Ivy League Institutions. Prior to 2020, when the employees had access to these learning tools, corporates reported minimal usage – maximum of about 10%, and very less course completions. Employees cited reasons like work pressure and too much of content to skim out what matters at their work as reasons for non-utilization (In-house Survey, 2017).
Therefore, it is clear that one of the key success factors that drove digital learning in 2020 was the employee’s willingness to gainfully utilize their ‘time-out’ from the rigour of workplace.
However, the situation now has changed. Although employees in many cases continue to primarily WFH, the stress of integrating work into their personal lives has taken its toll. The impact on their mental health owing to prolonged physical isolation, fatigue from over-usage of digital tools and their fears on health as well as losing jobs, have impacted their learning abilities and attitudes. A prior research on Composite Persistence Model for determining whether a student would continue or drop off an online learning course (Rovai 2003). He had identified the following external factors as significant determinants – hours of employment, family responsibilities, opportunity to transfer and life crises. In the present scenario, these external factors are strong deterrents affecting employees’ learning behaviors.
Hence L&D needs to empathetically rethink their learning deployment strategy. First, one needs to understand ‘what-matters-the-most’ to the employees. With this appreciation, the prioritized learning topics from an organizational requirement need to be positioned as much as possible within the ‘what-matters-the-most’ basket of the employees. A Deloitte study has coined the term ‘learning in the flow of life’ as an apt description of this requirement (Seaketso 2019).
Some of the key questions that the L&D team must ask are listed below.
• How do we prioritize on the learning topics for the employees?
• How to ensure that employees really learn and that the retention of the learning is high?
• How do we reduce discomforts that could potentially impact learning?
• How do we bring in fun and engagement into the learning program?
It is important to note that ‘retention’, ‘discomfort’. ‘fun’, ‘engagement’ are individual parameters. Thus these would vary across the employees. So the L&D managers need to apply design thinking to identify different employee personas and accordingly bring in a plethora of solutions that will appeal to the learning appetite across employee cohorts.
To bring in a holistic picture, this chapter is segmented into three sections. In Section 1, we look into the learning need prioritization from an organizational standpoint. In Section 2, we take a deep dive into the life situation of the employees that will help us plan the interventions. In Section 3, we discuss some of the changes that L&D teams need to repurpose themselves with to lead this change.
2. Organizational Learning Need
The organizations are in a state of flux, where agility, flexibility and adaptability are their keys to survival. There is an urgent need to learn about new ways of engaging with all stakeholders, and at the same time redesign deliverables and work processes using new-age digital tools and technologies. A significant amount of emphasis lies on AI, ML, robotics, cybersecurity, etc. to manage the data. These call for stronger mathematical, logical and analytical skills – often bundled together as critical thinking. Also, moving into the new way of work requires a mindset shift (Lund et al., 2021). This in turn requires significant amount of unlearning and then onboarding into the new realm of work.
L&D team needs to partner closely with SMEs from business to set up the overall learning plan. The following activities are recommended:
– Filter the learning topics as ‘must-have’ and ‘nice-to-have’, based on the business plan
• For those topics where the application potential is not clear, a pragmatic decision should be made about the training plan so as to minimize forgetfulness in learning
– Consult SMEs to make the ‘knowledge content’ relevant to organizational context of work; Also knowledge management systems need to be put in place such that learners get a space to socialize their understanding of concepts and strengthen their fundamentals
– Design in plug-in modules along with SMEs to add ‘application space’; this should be similar to physical workplace and classrooms, where employees get an opportunity to socially validate their learning with their colleagues and thus gain confidence in their learning
– Invite external SMEs and stakeholders who are linked to your business eco-system to bring in fresh outside-in perspectives about the varied utilization of the learning content; Internal SMEs depending upon their time availability also need to be equipped with mentoring, coaching and facilitating skills to help the employees learn better
– Revisit the competence map of employees, and based on existing skills and the skill-gap, map a learning plan for each employee
– Communicate the learning plan with transparency
• First and foremost, the primary message has to be that the organization will support the employees through these challenging times
• The need for reskilling has to be clear and embedded in hope rather than fear, ex: we need to learn to do better in our business and not that not learning would mean perishing
• Learning has to be strongly coupled with organizational performance; thus along with revenue numbers, the reskilling initiatives need to be included on the same dashboard
• It is important to unbundle the learning topics and communicate to employees in a manner that simplifies the learning task and makes them feel confident about their ability to learn. Thus, instead of placing AI as a black-box, it needs to be communicated as a series of learning modules on mathematical modelling, statistics, data handling, data visualization and programming.
– Link recognition of employees with their learning efforts; Celebrate employees’ who are investing in learning as people who are taking the organization ahead.
The way in which L&D executes this plan will make a significant difference on how the organization beats the pandemic. The plan also requires an empathetic approach to learners, such that they are inspired to learn and bring in innovations at work to reach the next level of performance.
3. Employees’ Learning Ability in the WFH situation
Adapting to the various ongoing complexities, employees are also in the process of learning how to learn in the digital world. There are certain basic facts that we need to acknowledge:
– Learning using devices is a new skillset; and it is not the same as using devices for communication and entertainment
– Learning space has changed for all of us and our habits are not aligned to the new space. The social isolation of the learner makes it very easy to get distracted. The physical fatigue is high on account of the intensive lighting of the devices. Also, mental fatigue is high as no social validation is available to encourage us to learn. Self-sustaining the motivation to learn is a big challenge.
– Learning habits too have changed. Ex: Physical learning had an associated habit of making notes, which was a way to reinforcing our understanding. In the online world, the easy access to the content has made many of us drop the note-taking habit.
Overall, as learners we are missing on the emotional side of learning. L&D could bring in coaching and mentoring support. However, the fundamental learning appetite needs to be taken care of which planning the learning strategy.
We take a deep dive by designing a few learning personas representing our employees. The objective is to understand their digital behaviors and their likely learning behaviors.We consider the following cues to create the personas:
• Who are present in this employee’s eco-system?
• What matters-most to him / her in this present situation?
• What is his / her online presence like?
Case 1: Jim had been in the organization for 2 months when the pandemic struck. He is a 25 years old bachelor, who had shifted to this city to take up his dream job. He is keenly looking forward to the new project where he will take charge as a Project Manager. Although the last few months had been very boring at home, he has utilized the time to complete Agile and Project Management certifications in order to prepare for his role. He has been active on the Open Source platforms and has gained a reputation as a good coder. On the personal front, he has been high on exercising, trying his hand at fancy cooking following online recipes and playing online games.
Case 2: Bill would soon need to be in office, at least thrice per week as he has a group of fresh graduates joining. He is not happy as he does not feel safe to get back to work. He feels concerned as he has an infant daughter at home, who has just started walking. He enjoyed WFH that he had an opportunity to play with her in between work. Also, he feels that he has managed his work very well through video calls with clients and all stakeholders. He sees the mandate for attending office as completely unnecessary. However, he has not been vocal about his dissent as he is expecting a promotion and a salary hike soon.
Case 3: James works in the hospital management team, and thus he had to be in office almost every day. Initially his family was very scared that he would bring the infection home, and so he had stayed back at the hospital. During those days, he became addicted to the internet! Although some normalcy has returned in his life with being back at home, he feels fatigued and overworked. He is longing to get back to life before pandemic. And if this situation continues, he is actually thinking of quitting. Given his experience and performance records, he is confident that getting back to work later would not be a challenge for him.
Case 4: Cynthia is a single-mother with two kids, aged 6 and 8 years. During the initial lockdown, she had to manage work and home without any support. She feels over-worked and tired. She has been listening to the HBR podcast for working women and had heard some inspiring tips to manage her situation better. However, she is yet to implement any of her learning. She is craving for some time off-work. But she is afraid to ask as she is scared that it might lead to loss of job. She definitely cannot afford to lose her job.
With respect to the above personas, we try to identify their digital behaviors, their existing learning attitude and then list out some of the potential learning intervention formats which are likely to appeal to them. The below table is provided as a conceptual framework that respective L&D managers need to conduct in their organizational context.
Persona Profiling and Potential Learning Intervention of Interest
Persona; What matters Most
List of persona-specific Learning Intervention
Jim – Recognition as Authority figure
High on online presence & Ability to assimilate online information
Curious about new things and Open to experimentation
Engage as SME to curate organization specific content; Lead to design plug-in learning options, game based learning & other innovations for ‘application’ opportunities for others
Bill – Monetary gain but status quo in work-life
None – too occupied in personal space
Reflecting over personal life experience
Not likely to be open for learning challenging topics; Animated mobile learning nuggets on soft skills might draw his attention
James – Distance from pandemic
Mindless surfing of internet
None – too fatigued
Cynthia – Managing family
Familiar with options, but needs more directed nudge
Listens to podcasts but unable to reflect and apply
Podcasts, Communities of Practice, Netflix like Learning Movies that could be watched along with family
This table opens up ideas on multiple formats which L&D could use to gainfully attract attention of the employees to different learning programs. They need to follow people’s learning behaviors and accordingly design the packaging of the content. Thus while a technical content might need gamified dashboards for some, others might need an online community to discuss. Similarly, for life-skill learning, while some might respond to communities, a few others might need coaching and mentoring. Additionally, cultural considerations need to be factored in – example: mental health is a well appreciated topic in USA, but it still is a taboo topic in India.
This is a mammoth exercise that requires L&D to partner with HRBPs and business to find out the pulse of the employees. If budgets were not a challenge, this exercise could be simplified. The employees could be allotted an allowance to pick and choose content from sources of their choice, within the scope of the organizational learning topics, with the additional motivation of a recognition if they were to complete the learning.
4. Change Management within L&D
L&D function in itself has multiple unlearning and new learnings to incorporate. Some of the salient points are:
– Change its mindset from that of an influencer / Centre of Competence to that of a business driver and partner. This is necessary for them to nurture a sense of urgency and ownership across the organization. Also given the limitations and challenges, L&D would need to take hard decisions on deprioritizing learning topics and delisting employees from certain learning initiatives, which might be a first time experience.
– A more empathetic connection with the employees; Earlier L&D would rely on business to mandate employee participation. Given the present situation, L&D needs to create engagements directly with employees to understand their life flow, design learning options and accordingly communicate the same transparently.
– L&D needs to watch its budget carefully; every investment needs to be weighed on whether it would be an organization and employee-friendly solution and what are the creative alternatives that could be utilized; ex: if employees are complaining of Zoom fatigue, then instead of investing in virtual classrooms, it might be more productive to experiment with a WhatsApp micro-learning format.
– L&D needs to keep abreast on all online tools that are available in the market and get creative about how those tools could be adapted for learning; ex: could a wellness program through Facebook or Twitter create more energy and reflection around it?
– L&D as a function needs to become experimentative in its formats – ex: usage of gamification in online talent assessment centre, or using challenges like designing gameboards for children based on the technical concepts learnt, using storytelling for integrating business in context of M&A.
Also, L&D as a function has been organization specific. Given the fact that the business boundaries are getting redefined with closer linkages with customers and suppliers, L&D needs to establish itself in this bigger, new and virtual space. They need to take charge of building an integrated learning culture, such that the whole eco-system is able to grow and perform at the same pace.
Today as businesses are in a constant state of flux to adapt themselves to beat the pandemic, L&D is in the driver’s seat to make this successful. One of the biggest transformation required is that L&D must shed its earlier mindset of an enabling function and take up the reins as a driving function. And this has to happen on a war-footing, so that with their right thought leadership, agility and creativity, they can help employees reskill and upskill in an empathetic and effective manner.
This is an independent work, not funded by any agency. The write-up is based exclusively on insights gathered through the change initiatives that I have led over 2 decades of experience as OD professional and the L&D strategy that I have executed as the Director of Talent Development in Harman, A Samsung Company. I would also like to acknowledge global L&D thought leaders in my professional network, with whom we discuss on roadmaps for our future ahead.
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