As a new decade dawns, it’s a good time to explore how global changes in the nature of work are altering the way organizations train and develop their people. Business has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and there are a couple of shifts worth touching on. First, more and more business leaders have evolved from a primary focus on business and market strategies toward including “people strategies.” Technology is causing business strategies to shift so quickly that the biggest challenge is making sure employees can keep up with the pace of change. What’s more, according to The Conference Board, selecting, retaining and developing talent is now a top priority for many CEOs.

Given these and many other developments, there are five priorities for organizations looking to develop their people in challenging times:

1. Articulate What Excellence Looks Like

Though Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows that employees aren’t job-hopping any more today than they were a few years ago, their jobs are changing around them. Technology is taking away the routine and data-gathering components of many jobs and requiring different skills to understand and use that data fully.

For example, a customer support job for an online shopping company may have previously had as its primary success metric the number of customer inquiries handled, but chatbots now resolve most customer questions. The only requests handled by humans are the ones requiring deeper product knowledge or a delicate handling of dissatisfied customers. Those interactions may also be opportunities to upsell. All this change means that the core skills required for the customer service job have fundamentally altered.

The key challenge for employers is to continually recognize and respond to such shifts. Organizations need to know which key skills and activities make a difference to job performance, articulate them clearly to their employees, and measure and reward performance accordingly.

2. Connect People to Learning Resources

The way companies approach training and development has changed rapidly over the last few years, with a current emphasis on “fast and short.” Companies that were willing to invest in two-day training courses five years ago now routinely look to compress the same training down to half a day or less. Even e-learning courses are shrinking into two-minute chunks of content that learners can consume as needed.

Traditionally, this training lived in a corporate learning management system (LMS), but it is now available across the internet in many forms from a huge range of providers. The issue is not having the right training available but enabling learners to find the right content when they need it.

This area is one where technology can contribute to the solution. We all experience recommendations when shopping online and targeted ads wherever we go on the internet. Similarly, we can expect to see leading organizations leverage this artificial intelligence (AI) technology to connect employees with the information and training they need. Although organizations are positive about the potential benefits of AI, many currently lack the skills to prepare themselves to meet this challenge.

3. Prioritize Time to Learn

The reduced time allocated for training is a reflection of the amount of time that’s available; everyone is busy. The agile methodology carries with it continuous deadlines and expectations of progress. Agile environments emphasize selecting a top priority and continually moving it forward to the exclusion of lower priorities. Professional development is rarely the top priority, so employees frequently do not make progress in that area.

Organizations need to find a way to make learning a top priority — which they can’t accomplish through communication alone. It’s a structural and cultural issue stemming from how organizations measure and reward their people and the stress employees are under to catch up off the job. There are few examples of companies that have cracked this challenge; even Google’s famed “20% time,” when employees can work on their own projects, may now be more of a concept than reality.


4. Provide Opportunities for Growth

The days of providing a career-long path of development and promotion in one organization are long gone, but career development is not dead. An average tenure of four to five years in a company means that most of us are staying with a company for one position or, at most, one internal job move. Organizations that want to retain their talent need to help employees identify their next internal opportunity so they don’t feel that the only way they can progress their career is to look externally.

Such opportunities could include a promotion, lateral move or a new assignment — something that will stretch an employee’s capabilities but set him or her up for success. There are many ways to help, and all require organizational effort in identifying potential next steps, connecting employees to other people who can help them and removing barriers to changing job responsibilities.

5. Develop a Growth Mindset

Most organizations say that people are their most valuable resource and provide some form of training and development to their employees. But there’s a big difference between paying lip service to the notion that people can develop and truly believing that people have the capacity to grow. Those organizations that can connect professional development and business results, and clearly articulate the benefits for both the employee and the company can drive engagement and innovation and outperform those that can’t.

One way for employees to develop a growth mindset is to engage in activities that allow them to experiment, try new ways of doing things and learn from mistakes — all of which many organizations do not explicitly encourage. In addition, challenging stretch assignments that provide the foundation for building new or enhanced capabilities, employees will benefit when organizations encourage them to do things where failure is an option — as long as it spurs reflection, learning and growth.

Final Thoughts

We know that the future is self-directed development, but organizations still shouldn’t leave employees to their own devices. Both employers and employees need a fundamental shift in mindset along these lines:

Employees need to be proactive in their own development, seeking and taking advantage of development opportunities and putting aside some time regularly to learn something new or improve their skills.

Employers need to clearly articulate business priorities and where employees need to focus in order to make a difference. They need to provide growth experiences, anticipate training needs and provide resources.

Lastly, such a shift requires an ongoing focus on development and will only happen if employers and employees have a shared belief that professional development makes a difference and impacts employee performance and business results.