The businesses have seen a drastic change during the dire times of the pandemic in the year 2021. While on the one hand, it slowed down businesses in certain areas, on the other, it over-accelerated the adoption of unimaginable levels of changes and technologies. Certain strategies failed miserably during these sudden transformations and adjustments, while a few others worked miraculously.
More than anything else, a significant shift occurred in the strategic thinking of learning and training leaders.
While we are eagerly looking forward to the end of the pandemic era, the time has come to look back and reflect upon the lessons learned while it lasted. The learning executives, business professionals, and training thought leaders need to formulate effective strategies in the near future to be at par with their competitors. This article attempts to bridge the reflection between the past and the future strategic focus.
FIVE MAJOR LESSONS LEARNT IN 2021
There are five major lessons learned from trends in 2021 that learning executives need to keep in mind and use for years to come.
1. Speed continues to be an unmatchable competitive weapon
During the pandemic, traditional methods proved inefficient in delivering the same value to the customers. Most organizations adopted new technologies, processes, and new ways of doing things. The critical thing was to move fast. The primary focus has been on improving efficiency, that is, the time to deliver the services or products to the customer.
However, the pandemic also brought ‘time to market’ of new products or services in some industries, such as electronics, 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 would need to prioritize speed in employee development as the key strategy to stay ahead in the market. The employees need to be enabled and equipped to master skills to match the speed of their business and stay ahead. The focus needs to be shifted towards developing the proficiency of employees on new skills, technologies, solutions, or situations at a much faster rate, which will give long-term advantages.
Therefore, as a futuristic learning leader, you need to be strategic about speed and think about preparing your business and workforce at the speed of business.
2. The role of formal training is de-emphasized
Research conducted by the author shows 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 were seen to transform quickly 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 AR, VR, 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 could continue to emphasize field learning as it proved to be more effective. However, this move would require more technology-based learning, performance support systems, goal-directed social and informal learning avenues, and on-demand learning during the workflow.
3. 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, while they need targeted training for some. Certain issues can be resolved by leveraging what already exists in the company, while other tasks might need automation by technology.
That’s how during the pandemic, the ecosystem emerged as an unsung hero. Executives realized that they could develop employees by leveraging the proper dynamics in the ecosystem around them.
As we step into 2022, we must 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.
The front-line managers are the core to making this harmony happen. Managers need to 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 elements of the ecosystem to ensure employee readiness 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.
4. Strategize technologies to play a center stage role
No doubt that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of promising new technologies. The central focus, however, 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, the leaders understood that most of these technologies were about better efficiency, more effectiveness, enhancing user experience, saving costs, or sometimes, just looking cool. Many leaders understood that the sole purpose of technologies 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 begin to understand that digital transformation for competitiveness in the market must be thought beyond the divides of HR, learning, performance, and social technologies. Further,
That’s how we are now seeing organizations are now emphasizing strategic use of performance support technologies, such as decision support software, AI-based search engines, AR/VR gadgets, knowledge repositories, etc. Such technologies 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 also implemented 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. While most technologies would continue to be evaluated for efficiency and automation gains, organizations now need to start implementing technologies that would speed up skill acquisition. Leaders need to be strategic about what technologies to acquire, as not all technologies are built to bring speed to employee development.
5. The business world needs metrics beyond efficiency and productivity
In the learning space, organizations continued to use traditional metrics in learning and training, such as learning effectiveness, business KPIs and ROI. In the HR space, a range of metrics and employee data was used, 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 have pumped in all they can to keep their workforce on the heels and be more productive, the leadership teams in most organizations continue to assess the current composition and capabilities. However, the crucial need now is to track if the workforce is being developed fast enough to match the speed of business.
In a large-scale study conducted by the author 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 needs to track how long employees or teams take to become fully productive in various roles across the organization. A vital part of this approach is to implement a comprehensive process across an organization 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.
SUMMARY OF LESSONS
|Key element||The year 2021 trends||What to focus on in 2022|
Increased focus on improving the efficiency of tasks and projects
Pandemic compressed the time to market new services and products to the customers
|Emphasize speed of employee development and accelerating proficiency|
Transformation of formal training into self-paced, e-learning, or remote learning programs
Incorporation of next-generation technologies in learning like AR, VR, mixed reality, AI, and analytics
|Leverage informal training, social learning, and field coaching|
Higher dependence on the practical or field learning using more peer support
More use of workflow coaching by senior employees
|Integrate various elements of the ecosystem like peers, coaches, managers, and technologies|
Increase in speed of adoption of promising new technologies with the potential to improve efficiency and delivery
Large-scale implementation of technologies that support remote, hybrid, augmented, and flexible work
|Keep technology at the center stage, evaluate technologies for its ability to speed up skill acquisition in addition to efficiency and automation gains|
Use of traditional metrics in learning and training such as learning effectiveness, business KPIs and ROI
Additional focus on productivity metrics
|Institute organisational-wide ‘time to proficiency’ metrics, set up a mechanism to baseline, and then monitor the reduction in time to proficiency as a measure of speed|
Some of the lessons learned in 2021 are here to stay, given the amount of transformation those lessons have created. To speed up post-pandemic recoveries, organizations need to recognize that the speed of employee development continues to be an unmatchable competitive weapon. However, they should think far beyond formal training 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.
This article first appeared in Chief Learning Officer Magazine as 5 Long-Lasting Lessons from 2021 to Speed Up Workforce Competitiveness in an Accelerated World.