Innovative learning and development (L&D) leaders are in demand more than ever before. Professionals who know how to leverage learning programs to drive sustainable change are like gold dust to chief executive officers. This was the case before the pandemic and is even more the case because of the crisis. Pre-pandemic skills requirements were already constantly shifting as innovative technologies, new ideas and new business models changed the face of work. These changes create constant gaps in the workforce’s capabilities, making the importance of the learning and development manager more important as ever.
Employers and employees must continuously update their skills in preparation for the needs of the constantly changing future. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that more than half (54%) of adults in the labor force believe “it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace.” Workers feel constant pressure to keep their skills relevant, and many organizations are not structured to help their workforce develop new skills. The good news is that effective and easily accessible learning to help people and organizations deal with change is becoming more and more available as the long-promised “eLearning revolution” seems to finally be coming to fruition.
Preparing Employees for Change: A Case Study
The requirement to drive and sustain change in organizations through effective learning has been building for nearly two decades. At the beginning of the 21st century, the introduction of internet technologies into organizations required a massive need for learning to help managers and employees deal with rapid change. One of my favorite early examples is a project that I worked on from 1999 to 2002 at British Telecom (BT) in the U.K. This large, formerly state-owned European telecommunications company faced ever-increasing competitive and regulatory pressures. It had been privatized in the mid-1980s but enjoyed a monopoly until the late 1990s.
However, things were about to change — drastically. With the commercialization of the internet, the company was forced to rethink its products and services and to transform from a traditional “poles and phone lines” telecom company to a digital products and services provider. As a result, it faced the urgent need to convert 20,000 sales and customer service employees from selling and servicing decades-old traditional communications products to selling web-based products and services.
This reskilling required organizational innovation that went far beyond repurposing existing training and knowledge repositories for these employees. Internal surveys of the sales and service workers (including call center employees) showed a woeful lack of basic understanding of, let alone capability to sell and service, a rapidly emerging generation of products and solutions. Fewer than 20% of respondents to the surveys had any experience or knowledge of what the internet was or how it worked. How could they continue doing their old jobs of servicing their client base while learning new products and services and dealing with the disruption of change? The successful introduction of these new products and services required more than just the analysis and evaluation of knowledge-sharing. It required a strategic investment to facilitate large-scale change in the skills and mindset in a workforce of over 20,000 people.
At the time, I was senior manager at the consulting firm responsible for architecting and implementing a learning program to help BT create its first completely online learning program to help this massive workforce move into the future. What better way to help them become familiar with the internet than to use the internet to learn?
We developed the program and its online content and then rolled it out over a three-month period. We measured a baseline of capabilities beforehand and then measured those capabilities again after the three months was over and found a massive change in people’s skill levels: Over 90% of the workforce reported that they were now comfortable discussing new products and services with customers and BT saw a 57% increase in sales of new internet-based products and services. The investment in L&D to drive change paid off handsomely.
Fast-forward to more recent times, and while there is more access to learning programs, people say they don’t have a lot of spare time at work. I’ve seen that if we present learning content in the flow of work and in familiar consumer formats, with channels, topics, recommendations and featured content, learners are more likely to complete it. This approach creates an opportunity to embed learning programs that drive change into the everyday work of individual employees.
Additionally, technology is rapidly becoming more intelligent. It knows the learners, their role and their skill gaps, and it serves up learning “nuggets” at the right time and the right place. Given that these emerging models and technologies are making learning more targeted, accessible and easy to consume, the main task left is to know which skills the organization needs today and tomorrow.
Which brings us to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations and workers find themselves in one of the most stressful periods since the Great Recession of 2008. In a crisis, forward-thinking businesses invest more, not less, in L&D as a way of keeping people engaged and helping them deal with a new reality — and of reinforcing new beliefs or strategies after the crisis.
Organizations that are adept in leveraging L&D to manage change have the following characteristics:
They Use L&D Programs to Help People Feel Empowered During Change
Two of the biggest emotions people experience during a change are fear of the unknown and a loss of control. Put your people back in the driving seat of their change journey, and set personal and/or team objectives for the change period. One of the things people can control is making sure they achieve the best from the change.
They Create Faith in the Future
The best L&D leaders help their organization create a picture of the future and inspire people to get on board. It’s important to be intentional and help people learn and understand what the future can look like and what is in it for them. L&D leaders can help by tightly weaving the future ambition into L&D programs that already exist to be sure they are being fueled by the new belief and are completely aligned with it.
They Make Change Sustainable
Using the process of change as an opportunity to develop your managers into better leaders and people managers embeds the ability to drive change in the organization from top to bottom. Leaders who walk the talk, as they say, speak volumes to the workplace.
To conclude, L&D managers have a once-in-a-career opportunity to make the point that investing in learning during a crisis can pay big dividends. Learning leaders who embrace the massive change in how we work will create competitive advantage by putting in place an L&D function that will drive transformation through learning programs.
The time is here. The time is now. What will you do?