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Five drivers of learning transformation

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 30th July 2013.

Learning is changing. Technology is one of the drivers of that change, but also an important enabler in helping L&D cope effectively with the volatile and uncertain world within which it now operates, confronted by complex and ambiguous challenges. (Yes, we’re talking VUCA!)

Over a series of posts and articles, LINE will seek to draw a picture of the New Learning Organisation that is busy being born, with particular reference to the role of technology, learning culture and the changing behaviours of learners.

We’ll look at the way changes in the way organisations support and develop their people are impacting the role of L&D, and the implications that has for governance and learning strategy. And give tips for how technology can best be deployed to counter the threats and make the most of the opportunities.

First, let’s take a look at the key drivers that are shaping these changes.

Global skills shortages

The so-called ‘war for talent’ (a phrase coined in the 90s) is not ending anytime soon. In fact is if anything more intense, with skill shortages widespread across the global economy. The first world has an ageing population, and thus a shrinking labour pool. At the same time, jobs are changing: more graduate jobs are needed, and more technical skills.

Firms that can’t easily hire the talent they need are forced to either grow it from within, recruit from related sectors or prospect for talent in the new, fast-growing talent pools in the developing world (Towers Watson). All of these routes put pressure on L&D.

If the education system in the first world is failing to provide needed skills – a conclusion that seems logical to draw, given the picture of global skills shortages alongside a rise in global unemployment – firms that can’t source their labour abroad or offshore operations to follow the talent have to pick up the slack. L&D has to develop existing employees and new hires.

The worldwide labour force is increasingly mobile, increasingly diverse. This diversity presents challenges for L&D in onboarding and compliance. Common technical and HSE standards may have to be assured, and on the softer ‘side’, brand and company culture have to remain cohesive.

Challenging productivity targets

The current economic climate also throws up a further, knottier problem for L&D, highlighted by Charles Jennings in the recent iVentiv London event.

Corporates are looking to grow their way out of recession – at a time when headcounts are capped or actively being decreased. Research from CEB shows that organisations therefore need breakthrough performance in the period ahead if they are to meet their business goals. And this is happening at time when traditional means of training are reaching the limits of improvability. Classroom training has improved in effectiveness over recent years – through introducing technology into the classroom, improving materials and facilitator skills, and enhancing facilities – however this improvement curve is flattening. Research shows that investing in further improvements will yield limited gains.

Innovation in learning is key to meeting the steep business targets for productivity.

Increased regulation

Industry regulation is an important driver for L&D because it is one of the chief sources of compliance training needs (along with general legislation, best practice guidelines and technical and quality standards).

The general trend with regulation is for there to be more of it, but the picture is complicated by the contradictory force of deregulation. Many feel that regulation stifles business, and various politicians periodically promise bonfires of ‘red tape’. However high-profile scandals and disasters (Enron, Soham, Deepwater Horizon, global failure of the banking system) tend to lead to more regulation.

Thus while financial regulation ratcheted down from the 1980s onwards, at the same time there was increased regulation to cover particular issues around money laundering, corruption, securities and accounting standards. All of these generated compliance training needs for L&D.

Since the 1970s there has been a further trend towards global regulation. The need is seen to increase international regulatory cooperation, leading to harmonisation of regulation. This too plays badly in domestic political agendas, where it can be seen as an attack on national autonomy (‘sovereignty’ in the UK), however for corporates operating in an increasingly globalised environment it has become a pressing need.

Harmonisation prevents the tiresome and expensive duplication of effort involved for multinational companies in dealing with multiple regulatory regimens in different territories. It can also have virtuous economic effects on the macro scale, opening markets and promoting exports, contributing to economic growth and job creation.

In the cases of HSE regulation harmonisation can save lives. The upstream oil and gas industry provides a useful example here. The sector has a highly mobile, peripatetic workforce that is increasingly a global one. Teams at particular safety-critical sites might comprise workers from many different countries who have worked for different companies, and who have thus received a different training when it comes to safety. In an emergency situation it is important that everyone in the team has a common understanding of what constitutes an emergency and what has to be done, down to using the same procedures and terminology. In such a situation, harmonising training standards – not only across individual global organisations, but industry-wide – has a clear and obvious benefit.

The same logic holds true, though with a commercial rather than a safety focus, for service-focused organisations with mobile, globalised workforces. Maintaining a common culture and brand across multiple territories can be a business-critical issue, and a strategic challenge for L&D.

Another factor driving global compliance is the increasing transparency and visibility of corporate operations in all parts of the globe, due to the spread of electronic and, latterly, social media. Big companies are more easily held to account for their operations in what were once far-flung territories, and gathering documentary evidence of transgressions is no longer the exclusive preserve of news media, but can be done by any member of the public with a smartphone to hand.

Without wishing to suggest that corporates might formerly have been slacker in their ethical standards at the periphery of their organisation than in their home territories, it is certainly the case that consistency of standards now more than ever need to be maintained right across the organisation.

Gen Y, Gen U and the rise of employee power

The traditional model of corporate training was forged in the furnace of two world wars, and suited a post-1945 population many of whom had served in the forces. It was highly directive, behaviourist and went along with a hierarchical, command and control management culture.

No WW2 veterans remain in the workforce and management culture has changed beyond recognition. However, training models have lagged behind the times. Despite a recognition that adults learn very differently from children, and observations that workplace learning is heavily experiential, corporate training is still dominated by classroom-style learning events delivered away from the workplace, outdated instructional models and a dearth of effective assessment.

Meanwhile, social change continues apace. Depending on the country you are in and the business sector in which your organisation operates, you might find that the command and control culture has all but disappeared and work is organised around cross-disciplinary teams. Or you might find the opposite. Certain countries and sectors cling to a more directive model still. Defence and the safety-critical industries are necessarily more directive in style. Cultures such those of China and Japan still have a level of deference towards managers that would appear comical in UK or The Netherlands – or in a Silicon Valley start-up.

The real challenge for L&D is the diversity of this picture. Global organisations can span many different countries, each with its own distinctive cultural norms – and include workers from many different skill areas (e.g. accountancy, web development, chemistry, marketing), that each have their own distinctive cultures. Modern leadership courses teach mangers to cope with such problems by adopting ‘situational leadership’: you adjust your management style to be more or less directive depending on the situation you are in. Is it possible to do something analogous for various different categories of learners?

At the same time, there is also a trend for employees to be less siloed within their own disciplines. More work in cross-disciplinary teams, under a system of matrix management – yet another example of the contradictions with which L&D must grapple.

Other social factors have worked in the last twenty or thirty years to change the relationship between individuals and companies. ‘Jobs for life’ are a thing of the past – and so is unquestioning employee loyalty. During the recent recession, many organisations will have shed jobs, which they can now do much more easily than in former times. As growth returns and they need to staff up again however, they will face a shrinking labour pool; with the result that Ernst & Young predict a growth in employee power in the coming years.

Much has been made of ‘Gen Y’ entering the workforce: the first generation to have grown up with the internet. Meanwhile at the other end of the age spectrum, we have Gen U – unretired Baby Boomers. As skill shortages bite deeper, employers will have to look to sources of previously untapped talent in the workforce, including women and those among this older group of workers who are not quite yet ready for retirement. L&D’s span of target learners could thus broaden in terms of age range and diversity of needs.

Tech gets faster, more pervasive, more personal

A survey by IBM in 2010 showed technology becoming of increasing importance to CEOs. Asked about the external factors that would have the biggest impact on their organisations, technological factors came second only to market factors, having been sixth in 2004.

Digital technology has both a positive and a negative face for CEOs. It provides opportunities, in opening up new markets and product lines, and the chance to find greater operating efficiencies. However it is also a disruptive force, constantly threatening established businesses with erosion of margins and even wholesale destruction.

Information and communications technologies are arguably the areas with the biggest impact on L&D, since they consistently offer opportunities for learning that L&D is challenged to realise. Nowadays this pressure often comes both downwards from the C-suite and upwards from frontline staff and managers.

Such has been the case with mobile. The exponential growth of smartphones and tablets as tools for life and work has created widespread expectations that the productivity gains reported in other areas of working through their use will also be seen in learning.

In just a few years mobile has eclipsed desktop in sales terms and promises to change patterns of working as it continues to develop. As the next wave comes on stream in the shape of wearable (Google Glass), driveable, scannable and flyable technologies, computing will become yet more personal and yet more pervasive. The opportunities for training and performance support using these methods are already being explored. The pressure L&D currently finds itself under to assimilate and benefit from mobile technology will not abate.

Of course, not all technologies that seem to promise a lot when first announced on a PowerPoint slide subsequently end up fulfilling that promise. User acceptance is always a sticking point. Will Google glass headsets – even when designed by Ray-Ban – be just too geeky for the average employee to stomach? Time will tell.

The rapid acceptance of mobile technology and social media have both shown how fast and powerful user acceptance can be when it does happen, though. The BYOD phenomenon came out of left field for many IT departments – with personal technology becoming so embedded in user behaviours around information and communication that employees began to exercise an unprecedented level of assertion over the work tools they wanted to use. Predicting what will fly and what will fail is difficult. L&D will have to continue riding the waves.

Privacy scares are becoming a perennial feature of social media use. In the always-on, always connected world, the new socially connected user is beginning to wake up to the fact that whatever they do online leaves an audit trail. Businesses too are wising up to this fact and beginning to look at what innovators like Amazon and Facebook are doing with embedded value in that ‘firehose’ of data.

While the traditional training world seems almost to have given up on learning assessment (it’s too expensive) enlightened CLOs are beginning to glimpse a new world where data can be harnessed to drive and enable L&D in aligning itself with business goals without breaking the bank. The future of learning could lie in new and innovative uses of data that help personalise and optimise learning for the individual – and at the same time allow learning activity metrics to be linked to business performance, more or less in real time.

An important development in this area is the new version of SCORM, Tin Can API, version 1.0 of which has recently been launched.

Summary – three key focus areas

So if these are the important external drivers for L&D, where are they driving us?

That’s something we hope to explore in subsequent posts. Looking at the above however, we can see three key focus areas for L&D that arise out of the pressing requirements on today’s large organisations:

  • Performance – how can we help employees to do the job better tomorrow than they did it today?
  • Development – how do we induct and move employees through the organisation so as to help them reach their maximum potential, identify the stars of tomorrow, and then when they’ve reached the top of the organisation, how do we make sure they pass on what they’ve learned to those at the start of their journey?
  • Compliance – how do we ensure consistent and appropriate standards and behaviours right across the organisation and beyond, reaching out even to our supply chain and industry sector?

Drivers of learning transformation and change

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