7th Dec 2020
3 Min Read

The new learning landscape. An interview with Roger Mason

People & Change

Back in January 2020, when we released our first World Changers report, one of the 10 topics we surfaced homed in on skills gaps. Particularly, how our roles are changing and how the recruitment landscape might evolve to meet the demand for new skills in the coming years.

Now, amid a jobs market reeling from the economic impact of Covid-19 and at a time where many of us have had to adapt quickly to a digital world, understanding what companies need from their people, and what makes a potential candidate attractive, are more essential than ever.

We spoke with Roger Mason, Learning Solutions Director at REED, to get his thoughts on how the year has impacted learning and development (L&D) and what the future might hold.

Roger, how has the L&D landscape changed this year?

When all in-person training events had to move online overnight, there was, for many, initially a sense of panic. Some organisations were more advanced than others in their digital collaboration, but for everyone, it was a rapid acceleration. In particular, for those who had spent their L&D life in a training room setting, they’ve had to learn how to adapt and reskill.

The explosion of digital collaboration has created a demand for employees to be more digitally savvy. Has this had an impact on development of soft skills?

We recently ran a survey with employers to find out what they’re looking for right now. The predominant abilities they were seeking were a mix of teamwork, communication, an ability to work alone, a good grasp of technology and financial skills. For all of the talk of tech-savviness, in most roles, collaboration, leadership, problem-solving and resilience are still going to be essential. We’ve also seen massive demand for greater focus on diversity and wellbeing.

I don’t buy into the whole ‘the world is being taken over by robots’ argument. Of course, the advancement of technology will mean many tasks will become automated. But I think this will allow us to concentrate on the innately human tasks – the more creative, less predictable, relationship and service-focused work.

A lot of budgets are likely to shrink in the coming year. What are the risks to L&D?

I think the impact of the pandemic has sent a lot of companies down one of two paths. On one hand, there are organisations either shutting down their internal L&D departments or cancelling funding for external training.

On the other, some are doubling down on their L&D efforts, recognising that to continue to be competitive, to improve productivity, to continue to meet customer needs and keep morale up, they need everyone performing at their best.

There’s an opportunity to solve all these challenges through training and development – just the delivery might look different. Expensive, three-day offsite learning experiences won’t necessarily be the right solutions anymore.

Will people still have space to learn what they want, rather than what the company wants?

Personalisation has been the number one trend in L&D for the past few years. Learner centric training – focusing on the individual learner’s journey – is difficult, as you can’t just gather everyone in one room for the same course. But with technology and a bit of intelligence, you can create something personalised which is much more valuable to an individual colleague.

The bits that might be lost are funding for qualifications. Where funds may have been available to put people through MBAs or become members of an accredited body, those opportunities might get put on hold while businesses look for ways to save money.

How has remote working changed how we learn, and does it impact our knowledge retention?

I don’t think remote working changed how we learn fundamentally. The way we retrieve information, how we store it and the function of memory is the same. The thought leaders that inspire me in the learning space aren’t put off by the shift to remote working, because they are far more focused on outcomes than the mode of delivery.

Ultimately, people learn through practice. Learning something at the right time will be far more effective than going offsite to learn something that won’t be put into practice for months. Putting the onus on the learner to apply that knowledge and form a habit is difficult. But having access to channels where you can self-select training, videos or guides means you’re getting the information right when it’s most likely to stick. In that sense, timely access to digital learning could be an improvement compared to in-person training.

In our report, we wrote that more employers will move to looking at skills more granularly, rather than making sure they align with job roles. Do you think that’s the case?

Pre-Covid, larger organisations were investing a lot of time, money and effort into solving problems around resourcing, using the data from skills mapping to create a new language around abilities. When you stop looking at a role title such as ‘customer service adviser’, and instead break it down into constituent skills, you’ve got a more flexible way of understanding what people can do.

When you map that across all job roles at an organisation, you can see the crossovers, surface more opportunities across a company and improve retention. From a talent management perspective, you can also see where there are areas that need training and development or outside resource.

It’s important to remember through that there are probably very few companies out there who only care about recruiting against a checklist of skills alone. The reason interviews still exist, albeit virtually right now, is to gauge that human connection. A skills matrix can’t necessarily find a candidate who’s a good culture fit.

What will L&D look like next year?

Most companies will be asking how they can deliver more with less. Looking at the top skills from the survey I mentioned earlier, it’s likely to be more development in those key areas. And for some of them, the answer isn’t in traditional training.

If you identify that your organisation needs to get better at teamwork, it’s better to ask questions like ‘how do we know we don’t have a teamwork culture?’, ‘where are the gaps?’ or ‘what is putting people into silos?’. The answers are less likely to come from a course, and more likely to be unearthed as you look at the structures in your organisation: what actions you reward and how you celebrate successes.

I think the L&D landscape will become more creative in the year ahead, but the foundations of learning, and our need for it, will stay the same.

Our thanks to Roger Mason for sharing his experiences.

Mind the skills gap and nine other key workplace topics for leaders and employers, can be found in our 2020 World Changers report.

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