Future gazing: L&D in 2009 and beyond

by HCA25 Mar 2009

We have all wished at some point in our lives that we could gaze into a crystal ball and discover a few flashes of truth about our future. This urge normally comes at times of uncertainty or stress, so it is understandable that many L&D managers are currently wishing they had some way to predict the future of learning in their organisations.

With the current economic instability, tightening budgets, progressing technology and shifting workforce demographics, the coming years will certainly pose some new challenges for those managing learning and knowledge in their organisation. Although it is impossible to predict with complete certainty which road learning will take in every organisation, there are a number of emerging trends and issues that will effect workplace practices over the coming decade.

Recession-proofing learning
As we move deeper into uncertain economic climates, discretionary spending is likely to be the first to be squeezed. If L&D departments want to continue to hold their own, they need to ensure that they are aligned with business output measures and can be directly attributed to reduced operational costs and/or improved customer operations.

Traditionally, organisational learning practice has been based on the concept that improving an employee's skills and knowledge necessarily leads to an improvement in that person's performance. It is assumed that if training imparts the right skills and knowledge it must increase organisational performance, and therefore the role of L&D should be to deliver as much training as possible. To continue in this frame of mind, however, is dangerous.

Last year, a group of top professionals gathered in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss how L&D can become a strategic business partner in the business world of today. Leading the discussion was Charles Jennings, learning expert and global head of learning at Reuters Thompson. He termed the aforementioned 'dangerous' mindset the 'Conspiracy of Convenience', where management asks for a course, training delivers it and no one measures outcomes or is held accountable for the results. He proposed that for L&D to be taken seriously at a management level, the approach needed to be a joint strategy between the two and based on a 'consulting' mindset driving towards improvement of performance and efficiency.

Jennings said: "L&D managers need to act like consultants when formulating solutions. When a training request is issued, they need to walk in, sit down with the managers and discuss: what's the problem? Who is involved? What's the current situation? Where do they want to be? What's the cost in dollar terms if no action is taken? Then nail down a joint responsibility for solving the problem."

The challenge for L&D will be driving down or containing learning costs, but also focusing outcomes on improved efficiency to help the business maintain competitiveness. Greater operational efficiency will include factors such as reducing operating costs, improving customer service and empowering and engaging workers in order to drive efficiencies within their own control.

Customer service and competition
Business is certainly a harder ball game today than it was 10 years ago. The modern customer is savvier than ever before and, living in a fast-paced society, has extremely high expectations in terms of customer service. The businesses that can't meet consumer needs simply don't last, and those that do survive exist in a very competitive market with high expectations of service. Businesses are already providing self-service access to information on the web that, in the past, could have only been obtained from a customer service representative. This means customer service staff need to have access to much deeper information in order to add value. In another 10 years, this will only be further magnified, particularly in industries that are dominated by a handful of key players - such as banking, insurance and utilities.

For L&D managers this means ensuring employees are extremely well versed in products, services, regulations and policies so their ability to answer queries and solve problems with minimal time and fuss is assured. Strategies that involve timely searches for information during customer dealings will not work.           

Information and business complexity
In 1986, 75% of information people required to do their job was retained in their mind. In 1997, this figure fell to 15-20% and the figure continues to fall. Consider this, along with the fact that the quantity of information is growing by about 30% each year, and we have a situation that doesn't suit the traditional corporate training models. It is becoming useless to 'know' things, because they will be out-of-date in a short time.

Organisations are also becoming increasingly complex. Businesses are forced to grow, merge and continually adapt to maintain a competitive edge. At the same time, employees are challenged by a mix of enterprise applications and complex policies, procedures and product knowledge. Keeping the knowledge stream in check and maintaining customer service standards becomes a challenge in this environment.

There is simply no way that traditional classroom training alone will be able to keep up with the requirements - so what does this mean for L&D managers? We only have to turn to the internet to see information being split into digestible chunks that can be selected and accessed by users as they require it - just look at Google, podcasts, and RSS feeds.

Instead of having to memorise information or actively search for it, the focus will turn to real time 'business process guidance'. Employees will need to be guided through processes and tasks just like a GPS guides a driver in a vehicle. This approach will rely on technology, but these systems will advance from the clunky knowledge management systems of the past. They will be smart enough to recognise where an employee is in a process, their role and experience level, then guide them step-by-step to the desired outcome.

The information in these systems will need to be easily updateable by subject matter experts in the organisation, and also provide opportunities for front line staff to contribute valuable feedback and knowledge.

The other advantage to this GPS type of approach is that it creates more mobile and multi-skilled workers who are not confined to one area of the business. They can easily adapt to changing work conditions or work across multiple parts of the business as demand requires.

The generational shift
Never before have L&D managers had to manage so many different generational groups in the one workplace - and never before have these generations been so different. As a new generation of employees moves into the workplace, their innate understanding of technology, their abbreviated communication style and their informal, fast-switching method of operation must be taken into consideration when designing learning strategies. There is definitely more of a demand for informal 'do it yourself' learning opportunities, and often employees will turn to peers or their own search methods to fulfil their information needs - yet many organisations are still focusing most of their efforts on formal training.

The aim here is not to stereotype employees by their birth date, but rather to recognise that different groups have different learning preferences, whether this is in relation to their age, background or simply personal preference. A single method or narrow-minded approach will not guarantee optimal learning. The right answer is a skilful blend that includes options for those who prefer a more unstructured and independent learning environment. By offering alternatives at the informal end of the learning continuum, as opposed to leaving it to the employee, organisations also maintain some degree of control over the accuracy of information their employees access and share. This results in better informed, more productive staff.

The transfer of knowledge from the wave of retiring Baby Boomers to later generations is also looming as a big problem - in 10 years time most of these workers will have left the businesses they work for. This is particularly relevant for more 'tacit' knowledge. Top level business processes are usually understood by businesses, but all too often the details of everything that goes on beneath that - the processes within these processes - are a mystery. This is because they are completed by various departments who 'just know' how to do what they do because they've always done it that way. This is fine with a stable workforce, but this tacit knowledge can be lost as the older generation retires. Identifying key knowledge and knowledge holders, and enabling information sharing between older and younger employees will be an important consideration for L&D and HR managers in the coming years.

About the author
Ted Gannan is the CEO of Panviva, a provider of business process guidance solutions www.SupportPoint.com