Businesses have faced many drastic changes during the times of the pandemic. On one hand, it slowed down businesses in certain areas, but on the other, it caused an over-acceleration of the adoption of unimaginable levels of changes and technologies. Some strategies failed miserably during these sudden transformations and adjustments, while others worked miraculously. More than anything else, there was a significant shift in the strategic thinking of learning and development leaders.
Leveraging the lessons
While we are all eagerly looking forward to the end of the pandemic era, we can take this moment to look back and reflect upon some important lessons. L&D executives, business professionals and training thought leaders learned the importance of formulating effective strategies for the future to be at par with their competitors. This article bridges reflection of the past and the strategic planning for the future.
5 major lessons learned in 2021
There are five major lessons learned from trends in 2021 that L&D executives should keep in mind for years to come.
Speed continues to be an unmatchable competitive weapon. During the pandemic, traditional L&D strategies proved inefficient in delivering the same value to the customers. Most organizations adopted new technologies, processes and new ways of doing things. Moving fast became critical.
The pandemic also brought “time to market” of new products and services in some industries, such as technology, down to three months. Correspondingly, the shelf-life of most skills was shortened too. However, the time required to master new skills or solutions continues to be as long as it used to be. These dynamics made many organizations press their employees to learn faster. As a result, some new training and learning solutions came into play.
During this time, learning leaders understood how the speed of employee development was an unmatchable competitive weapon. They understood that they needed to equip their employees with new skills faster.
As we step into 2022, the competition and the need for innovative solutions will increase drastically. Leaders will need to prioritize speed in employee development as a key strategy to stay ahead in the market. Employees will need to be enabled and equipped to master skills to match the speed of their business and stay ahead. The focus will need to be shifted toward developing the proficiency of employees on new skills, technologies, solutions and situations at a much faster rate, which will offer long-term advantages.
As a futuristic learning leader, you must be strategic about speed and consider how to prepare your learners at the speed of business.
The role of formal L&D is de-emphasized. In my research, I discovered that ill-designed training was the number one bottleneck to speed for many organizations. As opposed to speeding up performance, formal training slowed down the speed. Those who benefitted from formal training indicated that it has minimal contribution to speeding up employee proficiency.
Businesses that used to rely heavily on travel-intensive formal, instructor-led, classroom-type training programs almost came to a standstill during the pandemic. Those programs quickly transformed into self-paced, e-learning or remote learning programs as the “new normal” to support ramp-ups and employee development.
Many of them have seen the incorporation of next-generation technologies in learning like augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality to allow employees to better understand the job. This kind of efficient, on-demand learning during the workflow, in fact, could cut significant time out from their learning journey. Remarkable results were attained when this approach was coupled with suitable performance technologies and social learning or on-the-job learning.
As we move into 2022, organizations should continue to emphasize field learning as it proved to be more effective. However, this move will require more technology-based learning, performance support systems, goal-directed social and informal learning avenues and on-demand learning in the flow of work.
An integrated ecosystem supersedes separate efforts. When formal training was not feasible, most organizations had to resort to field learning using peer support and more leverage of workflow coaching by senior employees. When there is a problem, employees tend to seek help from their immediate peers. They need simple coaching for certain issues, and targeted training for others. Some issues can be resolved by leveraging what already exists in the company, while other tasks might need automation by technology.
During the pandemic, the ecosystem was the unsung hero. Executives realized they could develop employees by leveraging the proper dynamics in the ecosystem around them.
Now, we recognize that employees need to be supported by integrating six essential elements of their ecosystem: peers, coaches, managers, technologies, subject matter experts and the work environment itself. All these elements should work in unison to produce a speed-enabling ecosystem.
Your front-line managers are the core to making this harmony happen. Managers should prioritize giving them the assignments and projects that matter the most to produce the desired outcomes. After that, managers need to design a system of timely support from six ecosystem elements to ensure employee preparedness in a shorter time.
This thinking process is all about designing a supportive, speed-enabling ecosystem as a leadership strategy focussed on the entire journey to reach consistent outcomes at a faster rate.
Strategize technologies to play a center stage role. There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of promising new technologies. The central focus has been on the large-scale implementation of technologies that could improve efficiency and delivery of services, projects and solutions while quickly supporting remote, hybrid, augmented and flexible work.
However, leaders began to understand that most of these technologies were about better efficiency, more effectiveness, enhancing user experience, saving costs or sometimes, just looking cool. Many leaders realized that the sole purpose of technology couldn’t be efficiency alone. They realized they must rethink how to use technologies for the specific purpose of employee development beyond efficiency goals. Many organizations also began to understand that digital transformation for competitiveness in the market must go beyond the divides of HR, learning, performance, and social technologies.
We are now seeing organizations emphasize strategic use of performance support technologies, such as decision support software, AI-based search engines, AR or VR gadgets, knowledge repositories, etc. These technologies could provide on-demand support to employees in the context of the workflow, at the point of need, whenever they need it. Performance support systems have lately been shown to speed up skill acquisition tremendously. Several organizations are also implementing more social technologies that allow employees to learn from their peers and social interactions. Such technologies that could support instant access to star performers, networking with peers and the community of practices are indispensable in speeding up learning new skills.
Leaders need to keep technology at the center stage of their operations moving forward. The business world needs metrics beyond efficiency and productivity. In the learning space, organizations should use traditional metrics in learning and training such as learning effectiveness, business KPIs and ROI. The HR space uses a range of metrics and employee data, which has operational values and describes the human capital of the organizations. Historically, both categories of metrics have been used to determine the composition and capabilities of the workforce.
However, new modes of operations during pandemics also forced organizations to measure additional productivity metrics to ensure that business continues on the same, positive trajectory.
While many organizations continue to assess their current composition and capabilities, the critical need now is to track whether the workforce is being developed fast enough to match the speed of business.
In a large-scale study I conducted with 70 best-in-class organizations, it turned out that the speed-savvy organizations that managed to stay ahead in the market adopted time-to-proficiency metrics as a part of their business dashboards. Time to proficiency metrics is the yardstick to measure the speed of employee development.
Measuring time to proficiency requires understanding the workforce’s past and current performance to produce business-specific outcomes, an idea about the average time taken to achieve that performance, and a business-driven target to shorten that time.
As we step into 2022, the learning function should track how long employees and teams take to become fully productive in various roles across the organization. A vital part of this approach is implementing a comprehensive process organizationwide or across selected departments to measure and baseline time to proficiency of the workforce in key roles. Then, one needs to put systems and strategies in place to shorten that time. Driving that time down leads to a massive speed advantage in the marketplace.
Many of the lessons learned in 2021 are here to stay, given the amount of transformation those lessons have created. To accelerate post-pandemic recoveries, organizations need to recognize that the speed of employee development continues to be an unmatchable competitive weapon. However, they should be thinking far beyond formal L&D interventions in order to achieve that speed. It is time to leverage all elements of the ecosystem that surround a given job role. A crucial part of those is understanding the importance of technologies and giving them the center stage. Lastly, learning leaders need to institute time to proficiency metrics to measure, baseline and speed up the employee development process.
Dr. Raman K. Attri is a subject matter expert on the science of speed in learning, performance and employee development. An author of 20 books, his most recent book, “Speed Matters,” guides executives to bring speed-savvy culture in their organizations. To comment, email [email protected].