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Digital transformation key to L&D effectiveness

Digitising learning and development is core to enabling the workforce during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. New research finds L&D professionals further along this path are more agile when faced with disruptions like COVID-19, say Dublin City University's David Collings and John McMackin in the first of a two-part series

Digital transformation key to L&D effectiveness

What role does learning and development (L&D) play in enabling the workforce of the future? This was the broad question that we set out to answer in a major research study conducted in the second half of 2019. Little did we know the global impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the global workforce within months of our report being published.

In monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on work over the past few months, it is clear that the pandemic has accelerated many of the trends we were already seeing in 2019 and in many ways has increased the profile of the L&D function.

In our two-part article, we highlight the digital transformation of L&D as an illustration of how, as a function, L&D is playing a central role in enabling the workforce in working through COVID and for a post-COVID world.

The results highlight the growing importance of knowledge of business and strategy, as well as the consulting and coaching skills, in enabling the L&D professional to engage fully with and deliver strategic value for the business

We highlight three key trends in this regard: the digitisation of L&D professionals, the digitisation of delivery and the digitisation of accreditation. In this article, we look at the first of these.

Digitising L&D professionals

The skills profile of L&D professionals is evolving with a strong digital core. In exploring what the skills profile might look like in the future, we asked respondents to our survey to indicate, for each of a list of 20 skills, whether they expected it would become more important, about the same importance or less important for L&D professionals’ effectiveness. The results from this question are included in the figure below.

Competencies required by effective L&D professionals

Competencies required by effective L&D professionals

Respondents reported a very clear shift towards a skill set that is considerably different from the competencies traditionally seen as core for L&D professionals. Emerging priorities include digital skills, specifically the development of digital learning and curation of online content, as well as stronger data analytical skills. The results highlight the growing importance of knowledge of business and strategy, as well as the consulting and coaching skills, in enabling the L&D professional to engage fully with and deliver strategic value for the business. There is little doubt that these competencies have become even more critical in the response to COVID, as classroom training was curtailed almost entirely and L&D needed to pivot rapidly to online provision to meet demands of upskilling on working remotely and the use of digital technologies, in addition to employee wellbeing and the like.

It was also interesting that fewer than one in five respondents suggested that more traditional skills, such as design and delivery of classroom training, were likely to become less important at the time of our survey. We saw this as reflective of the fact that many organisations had yet to fully embrace the emerging balance between the old and new models of L&D. Our sense is that the current crisis will have moved forward this discussion considerably in most organisations. Indeed, follow-up research since the pandemic took hold reinforces the importance of this emerging digital skill set and indeed, those organisations that were further along the journey in reskilling their L&D teams have recently reported that they were more agile in responding to the crisis.

We identified some great examples of L&D teams embracing technology to free up capacity of team members for higher value tasks. One pharma company, for example, developed a bot for scheduling training, freeing up capacity for higher value work in the team by successfully scheduling some 2,800 courses annually on a global basis. The L&D lead in an international bank emphasised the importance of upskilling the L&D team and the value add of having a more capable team as follows:

"I think you need less people that are better-skilled. Even if I look at the consultants that I have now…they're all really, really skilled, their grades are higher in the organisation because I expect more, and I expect somebody just to be able to take something and run it and be really successful. So, the expectation of people has got really, really high. But we're reflecting that with the types of people that we're recruiting with how we're rewarding them. For me, it's a better profession for people now. It's definitely where you need a well-rounded skill set. And it's interesting work."

There is little doubt that COVID has brought a sharp focus on the skills required by L&D professionals. Those organisations that were further along this journey were best prepared to respond to the challenges of upskilling and reskilling workers in response to COVID in the short term. For those playing catch up, reskilling L&D teams will be a key starting point in enabling their wider workforce to manage through and beyond the current crisis.

Our research was funded by Skillnet Ireland and the Irish Institute of Training and development and was undertaken in the second half of 2019. As a first step we conducted focus groups with professional bodies, government offices and policy bodies, educators and employers. We then collected interview data from 21 organisations across a variety of industry sectors in six countries. In each company we conducted a minimum of two interviews – one L&D leader, and either a business leader or HR leader. In total we conducted some 50 interviews. Our interviewees included chief executives, chief human resources officers, chief learning officers, chief operating officers and various other HR and business leaders across six countries. We validated our initial findings though a survey of L&D and HR professionals with 251 responses. Since completing the initial research, we have conducted follow up interviews in a number of organisations.

David Collings and John McMackin, pictured below, are professors of HCM at Dublin City University Business School

David Collings and John McMackin, Dublin City University Business School

Published 22 July 2020

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