Imagine if you will, I’m delivering my third customer session of the day, virtually on MS Teams of course. I’m the husband of a hard-working medical doctor who’s hardly seen his wife since the lock down began. I’m also the father to a four-and-a-half-year-old son. We’re holed up in a flat owned by “the outlaws” aka my in-laws as our home is part way through a major conversion project and is lacking some of the essentials e.g. a kitchen. I’ve just kicked off my demo and my son screams out at the top of his voice; "Daddy, come and wipe my botty". Like so many people over the last few months, I’ve certainly had to learn one or two new skills in both my personal and my professional life since March. It really has been a year like no other!
As a professional, who's been in and around workplace learning for near on 30 years (yes I know this does not compute with our four-and- a-half-year old, but hey, I started late) I wanted to take some time to reflect on my own profession and the why learning, or to be more specific, the process of continual workplace learning, is so critical to both the individual and the organisation.
Back before the crisis, if you can remember that far back, demand for learning and supporting technologies was growing exponentially. According to MarketsandMarkets™ (Jan 2020) the size of the global learning market was expected to continue its metaphoric rise from USD 23,214 Billion in 2019 to USD 56,519 Billion by 2024. This equates to an Annual Compound Growth Rate of 19.5% during the forecast period of 2019-2024.
What then is driving this growth? In a recent report, “The Upskilling Crisis: Effectively Enabling and Retraining Employees for the Future” Hughes, Ghalayini, and Orehowsky (2019) present data that shows that “60% of surveyed employees think their current skill set will be outdated in the next three to five years. When asked “why” they point to several pressures. These include “the need to learn new technology (55%), automation replacing their skill set (32%), and the skillset in their role growing more complex (25%)”.
Accepting this data, it was clear that in the first quarter of 2020, driving a culture of continual learning would be critical for all organisations. Enter Covid-19. The pandemic has had a profound effect on the demand for learning. This really is stating the obvious. The disruption caused has meant many businesses can’t operate in the usual way. Huge swaths of employees have had to reskill or cross skill in order to survive. All this when the options available to deliver workplace learning have been reduced overnight. Gone are the days of the classroom course and a few days away in a nice hotel. Enter a world where WEBEX, Zoom and MS Teams is the new norm. Alongside this, the popularity of Micro eLearning is going through the roof. Whether it’s Joe Wicks in the morning, the delivery of your child’s education or a TED Talk between meetings, the shift to virtual is like someone has flicked a switch.
How ready are organisations to deliver workplace learning in the world of Covid-19? The CIPD study, Learning and Skills at Work 2020 presents some interesting findings. The report finds that “while online learning is far from the default way of delivering learning, it was the second most popular delivery method over the last 12 months (behind on-the-job learning), with more than half of organisations doing this”. Positively, this suggests that many organisations have the right infrastructure in place to support digital learning. Their research, however, finds that “digital or remote learning is more common in large organisations compared to SMEs. For example, over the past 12 months, large organisations are more likely to have funded and arranged online learning methods (67% in large organisations vs 44% for SMEs) or mobile device-based delivery (20% vs 5%), as well as emerging technology-enabled methods, such as AR and VR (23% vs 11%). This suggests that many of the UK small to medium sized businesses may need to quickly invest in new technology and approaches to enable the continued workplace learning critical to their ability to weather the storm.
Unfortunately, history tells us that workplace learning tends to fall down the priority list in turbulent times. Given that current economic outlook, with a deep recession looking likely in many countries round the world for months and even years to come, there’s a danger that workplace learning is left behind at a time when it is needed most.
I would argue that it is critical, now more than ever, that we ensure employees have the right capabilities to deliver in challenging times, allowing our organisations to adapt and thrive. This should be in the DNA of any organisation's people strategy. I would also argue that our profession, the people profession, has an essential role to play in championing learning, supporting line managers in guiding their teams, and ensuring that the right resources, strategies and supporting technologies are in place to facilitate that learning.
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