Learning And Development In The Digital Age

How do you prepare workforces for, and inform them about, periods of disruption?

DISRUPTIONHUB spoke to Sam Stamp, Commercial Director of learning company Freeformers, and Myra Cooke, Head of Performance, Talent and Development at Virgin Atlantic*, about their approaches to change.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone within any organisation who hasn’t been on at least one training course. Often, it will have involved sitting in a classroom, reading a few PowerPoint slides, then lining up to get a certificate. While this can be a welcome break from the office, have you ever thought about what these days have actually achieved?

In this digital age, companies need to rethink their development strategies. Whether it’s initial training for new employees, upskilling, or providing continuous personal development, learning and development (L&D) programmes must be fit for purpose. Since the aims and operations of these programmes will vary wildly according to each organisation, what does a digital transformation company and a large legacy corporate have to say on L&D in the digital age?

Defining goals

No matter the business setting, strategies for learning and development must be well defined if they are going to be effective. This involves a company sitting down and having a long, hard think about what L&D means for them. For Sam Stamp of Freeformers, L&D means giving people the confidence, opportunity and capability to earn a meaningful living throughout a period of disruption.

“The increasing commodification of tasks means that more is being taken out of the hands of people and given to much cheaper machines,” he says. “It is going to be increasingly difficult for people who aren’t comfortable or capable of learning new things and interacting with other people in a slightly more intellectual way to earn a meaningful living.”

Freeformers aims to prevent people from being kept out of the workplace because they can’t adapt. By working with front line organisations such as retailers, insurers and banks, Freeformers can reach people still in employment yet still at risk. “Our programme is an advocacy model,” Stamp explains. “We go into an organisation and measure mindsets, skill sets and behaviours. These aren’t hard, specific skills – ‘Can you do X,Y, and Z?’ Instead, we want to ask, ‘Are you capable of developing certain skills?’ The ability to change is going to be the most valuable skill that anyone can have.”

Although she operates in a very different space, Myra Cooke of Virgin Atlantic also places a high value on identifying and propagating ideal qualities in individual members of the workforce.

“A lot of my work has been around setting the foundations for a talent strategy within Virgin Atlantic by understanding what the business needs for the future,” she says. “We are now focussing on what makes up the ideal capabilities of our people and our leaders, and what we need to do to drive the business towards this.”

In Cooke’s mind, this involves a clear distinction between the terms L&D (learning and development) and OD (organisational development).

“Very few organisations clearly differentiate between the two,” she explains, “but I’ve worked in both spaces, so there is a big difference in my mind. When I was in learning and training, it was very much around understanding what the training needs were in the organisation, building a learning and development offering around those needs, then trying to assess the return on investment by seeing if it was having an impact or not.”

“Organisational development, on the other hand, is about looking at the whole system and really finding out what makes the organisation tick. Is it systems, people or culture that need to be looked at again? OD is much more of a deep dive.”

Moving beyond compliance

Many corporate L&D departments are faced with the growing realisation that training needs to be more than just sitting in a classroom or completing forms online. Routine, compliance based programmes simply don’t engage employees enough to make a meaningful difference to their skills set.

“Every large organisation has spent millions on e-learning content, but the completion rates are tiny,” Stamp notes. “Take MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for example. Even when people have paid for them, completion rates are lower than 10 per cent. A click, click, click ‘Yes, I’ve seen it’ approach just isn’t good enough.”

The face to face element of L&D is important as it provides greater opportunity to connect with workers. Fostering learning among peers is another crucial L&D strategy.

“At Freeformers,” says Stamp, “we identify individuals who are already further along in their learning and then give them the ability to train their colleagues through micro, face to face learning sessions. This is where we give them little 15 minute sessions that run once every week or fortnight with their colleagues. We can then point them in the direction of other online learning.”

Digital strategies

Online learning is also crucial to Cooke’s work at Virgin Atlantic.

“If you think about the way that organisations are currently constructed,” she says, “there are four different generations in the workforce. Soon though, the workforce will be dominated by millennials. You’ve got to make sure that you’re appealing to everybody in the organisation.”

“For us, this means considering how we engage with people and how we share knowledge. We have the traditional classroom approach to learning and development but we have also introduced Facebook for the workplace. This has been adopted by over 90 per cent of our people, connecting them to available development and also to the CEO.”

For Cooke and her colleagues, the nature of the airline business means that face to face learning opportunities aren’t always possible. This is where technological developments can be successfully applied.

“In performance management, we have to think about our crew,” she says. “Normally you would meet somebody and give them feedback around their development. But we have staff who are always on the move. So every crew member, every flight service manager and every engineer has an iPad. We have created a bespoke app that all staff can use to give feedback.”

Virgin Atlantic is also applying this digital approach to training.

“When we take on crew,” Cooke adds, “we do interviews through videos. People go online to do their interview, then have a group of recruiters who assess them. When they come in to do their first weeks of training, we then use virtual reality, with 3D images depicting our aeroplane layouts as well as club houses.

“For us, this is the way of the future in terms of how we train and develop people. Rather than having everyone first visit a plane or a club house, they can be introduced to that space via VR. This is one forward thinking move that has worked really well.”

Delving into the data

The technological approach at Freeformers relies less on specific items of technology and more on the way that data is collected and used.

“We constantly ask employees small questions about their confidence relating to certain attributes of their work – much like a sort of Fitbit for work,” Stamp says. “This enables us to collect data to show them that they are actually changing.”

“We then aggregate these metrics and correlate them with business outcomes. Can you see a relationship between the people change and the business change in an organisation? Nine times out of ten in our pilots, yes you can. This means that we are achieving our aim of firstly giving people the confidence to learn and change, and secondly, providing them with the proof that it’s working.”

Data also enables Freeformers to identify those members within an organisation who are most likely to instil positive change in the community. This helps to promote the social learning environment that is so crucial to the success of L&D.

“Just like the early days of social media, we want to identify the individuals within organisations who have the strongest network effect – the influencers. This enables people in a workforce to better learn from each other.”

More than a business case

Ultimately, and as unpalatable as it sounds, it may not always make business sense for companies to invest heavily in their employees in order to bring them into the digital age. There is also a compelling business case for pursuing technological solutions and simply getting rid of anyone who isn’t willing – or capable – of jumping on board.

But what is cheapest doesn’t necessarily equate to what is right, and it isn’t controversial to point out that businesses have some kind of obligation towards their current employees. Also, as Stamp notes, many problems can arise when companies find themselves in the grey space between seeking technological innovation but failing to adequately prepare their workforce for it.

“Part of the issue is that lots of businesses sit in between,” he says. “They invest in technology and also keep all their people. But if these people aren’t confident technologically, then it’s a waste of money. At the same time, they then have loads of people who feel out of place, disjointed, unrelated to the business – and are less productive.”

At the heart of L&D is giving people confidence around change and learning new things. This is the only viable way of reskilling workforces in the digital age, since, given the current pace of technological evolution, no L&D programme can ever teach people everything they’ll need to know.

But if organisations can get employees on board with a culture of learning, they will not only have protection from digital obsolescence but also have the potential to get more out of their work. Crucially, more highly engaged employees translate into improved performance and better outcomes for any business.

“Imagine if you had a workforce of 250,000 people,” says Stamp, “and you genuinely turned them all into a positive force. This means that every time they talk about something new, they will now be able to say it in a positive sense. They can also bring customers on their journey as well. That’s better for the business. We are working with the likes of Barclays, HSBC and Facebook to achieve this kind of change.”

Importantly, if large businesses are able to equip their employees for the digital age, they are also ensuring that significant amounts of the general population feel truly connected to the future of work. While this is a duty that employers take on with L&D, it can be a difficult path to navigate.

For Cooke, steering this comes down to finding the right balance. “It is about moving away from my old way of doing things as well as thinking about what is going to attract people now into learning,” she says.

“Since we now spend most of our time on our phones, the best way to develop people isn’t necessarily in the classroom. However, being old fashioned – and having studied psychology – I do believe that connections are made through people actually sitting and having conversations and connecting. I will never say that this is going to be entirely replaced by technology.”

* As of January 2019 Myra Cooke is Group Talent Director at Nuffield Health.

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