Across the world, the workplace has suffered a stunning blow in the last few months. Many industries and companies will come back contracted versions of their former selves. One department that is likely to take a hit is training and professional development. Here are my predictions for what our function will look like in the coming years.

1. Virtual Training Will Take off

There are two important reasons I predict virtual instructor-led training will be more in demand than ever going forward. First, now that many companies have made the switch to working from home (WFH), they realize it’s not as impossible as they feared. One of our clients is a call center that finally offering WFH options due to the virus. A call center customer service representative is not a role that requires sitting with others in a central location, but this company was previously resistant to the idea of WFH. Now that its leaders realize that their employees can work from home, it’s not hard to sell them on the idea of learning from home as well.

The second reason virtual training will take off is because it is so affordable. Post-coronavirus, companies will have to use their resources wisely. During the Great Recession, I managed an onboarding process for a client for five years. We onboarded approximately 300 people, in 10 to 12 groups, throughout the year — all virtually. Virtual training is convenient, affordable and logistically simpler.

There are also a number of reasons why virtual learning is a preferable methodology for adult learners, such as the ability to use spaced learning and add built-in time for reflection — but those benefits are fodder for another article.

2. Companies Will Realize the Value and Necessity of Cross-training

When I first became a consultant in the early 1990s, one of the first projects I worked on was a cross-training project for a manufacturing firm, where we upskilled every employee on the manufacturing floor to be able to backfill at least two other positions. The curriculum required them to learn five new topics in total, but three topics were knowledge-based (such as understanding more about procurement or finance) rather than skill-based. The objective of the training was for each employee to pay the company back in multiple ways. For example, a machinist who had additional training in finance was more likely to complete routine maintenance knowing that difference between the cost of maintenance and the cost of repair was enormous.

I thought this approach was brilliant and have been amazed, over the course of my career, by how few companies take it. What is more prevalent in training — especially in the last 20 years — is training for depth, not breadth. If someone enters a company in a finance role, all of their company-sponsored training will probably focus on finance. They will never be exposed to marketing or human resources (HR) or operations. Through this approach to training, companies have kept employees in silos and, by doing so, hobbled their agility. A company may be forced to lay off its overabundance of marketers (for example) while hiring salespeople, because not one of those marketers was cross-trained in sales.

This shuffling of people like pieces on a chess board has a variety of negative ramifications, such as increasing recruiting costs and losing company history and knowledge — but, again, that discussion is fodder for a different article.

3. Subject Matter Experts Will Be in More Demand as Trainers

Having been a consultant for nearly 30 years, I have seen this pendulum swing back and forth a few times. First, there are fully staffed, centralized training departments that run learning like its own business with marketing and sales, delivery of products and services, and requests for feedback. Then, an economic shakeup swings the pendulum to focus on what is they truly need to help employees learn: the transfer of business-critical knowledge from employees who have it to employees who do not. This process often means direct contact between subject matter experts (SMEs) and newbies, eliminating the “middle man” of the training department.

Other business leaders often see training and development as a cost center (it’s not!), and it is often one of the last functions they bring back after an economic downturn. But a lack of a training department doesn’t stop the need for training, whether it’s onboarding or skill-specific training. In the coming years, companies will redeploy resources, and SMEs will likely do most of the training.

While using SMEs as trainers is a great cost-saving tactic, it doesn’t always result in the best training outcomes. SMEs often aren’t knowledgeable about the best ways to transmit content to learners, and they tend to start at a higher level of capability than their audience, because they forget what it was like to be new and unskilled. They have the “curse of knowledge,” as this 2017 Training Industry article says. The best way to leverage SMEs as trainers, again, could be an article (or a book!) all its own.

As business returns to “normal,” business will be altered in many ways. Underlying those changes will be the need for cost savings and efficiencies, which learning and development teams can help their organizations achieve through virtual training, cross-training and using SMEs to deliver training. The next decade will see a bold new future for training and professional development; will your organization be ready to adapt?

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