Article: Reimagining workplace learning or getting real?

Learning & Development

Reimagining workplace learning or getting real?

Empowering employees to take control of their learning cannot just be a motherhood statement: it must involve equipping them with the tools to do so, and ensuring they have the managerial support they need.
Reimagining workplace learning or getting real?

COVID-19 has forced us to restructure work; come up with new business models, revisit roles, and set new priority areas, among other challenges. Over the last few months, the power of contemporary technology has been adopted rapidly to enable virtual interactions and learning. Face to face interactions and training sessions have largely disappeared.

Some effects have been very positive. Many employees claim that they have never had so much attention from their managers. Many employees are excited by the accessibility of learning materials and webinars etc. And, many organizations are very happy indeed to declare that they are empowering their staff to take control of their own development and to spend time on their development whilst working remotely.

But, let’s not kid ourselves. Even before COVID-19 struck, there was already a vast array of learning and development material available either through in-house LMS’s or through dozens of internet sources such as YouTube,, Udemy, Coursera, The Khan Academy, etc. And, since when did we need to be “empowered” to take control of our development? Which organization has ever inhibited its employees from developing themselves? Such statements are patronizing at best—so, let’s get real!

If accessibility was a driver of personal development, most of us would eat healthily (it’s often cheaper than other diets); most of us would be fit (exercise such as walking and climbing stairs does not demand a membership); most of us would sleep longer and better, and so be less stressed. But, that simply isn’t how humans work. We need guidance, triggers, reminders, reinforcement.

The five 5Ws of development

The first challenge for many of us is facing up to WHY we need to develop, and most of us do not give that sufficient thought. Day to day priorities and distractions typically leave personal development in that “Important but Not Urgent” box. COVID-19 is certainly going to provide some incentive to shift it into the “Important and Urgent” box. Sudden increases in global unemployment, rapidly changing working practices, and increasing automation will demand that many of us upskill or reskill. It will not be a choice. We are going to have to face up to the fact that skill development may shift from a means of getting promotion, a better position, or a pay rise, to a means of survival. 

The second challenge for most of us, even if we know we must develop, is determining WHAT we need to develop, and therefore what learning materials or learning opportunity to engage with. Many L&D professionals struggle with producing a valid and reliable diagnosis of development needs, let alone, determining the optimal solutions to them. 

Organizations are going to have to invest in excellent management, and in enabling all staff to take control of their own development. It is not going to happen because we tell them they are empowered. We, at least, have to teach most of them the 5ws of development

So, how can telling employees that they are empowered to develop themselves solve that problem? Replacing an old catalog of training courses with a virtual and almost limitless candy store of options merely creates the illusion of progress. Yes, many will at least do something. But the crisis most organizations face deserves something better than such trivial solutions.

Organizations that are surviving the COVID-19 lockdowns well, and those that will survive the exit, are those that recognize the need for Management Mastery. By investing in Management Mastery, they will also drive cultures in which continuous personal development is seen as a core business strategy—one that will vaccinate their businesses against most future crises.

Excellent managers will work with their employees to enable them to determine WHY they need to develop; will enable them to diagnose WHAT they need to develop; and will partner with them to develop a WAY of planning and implementing effective development. 

We know that around 70 percent of all our skills are developed through doing meaningful work, not through watching videos and listening to podcasts. “Knowing about” something is far removed from “being able to” do that something. We also know that a further 20 percent of our skills have been achieved through interactions with others, which has now been seriously curtailed. So, it is critically important that managers work WITH their staff to create those opportunities.

Employees also need to be taught how to spot and seize, or create, opportunities themselves. Even with that, they also have to have the WILL to do it, and commit that they WILL do it, and follow up to make sure that development has actually happened. This is not all going to happen just because organizations announce that their staff are empowered to take control of their own development. 

Why do employees need to develop? What do they need to develop? And how can organizations enable them to plan and implement effective development?

Hope is not a strategy. Organizations are going to have to invest. They are going to have to invest in excellent management, and that is no easy or inexpensive task. And, they are going to have to invest in enabling all staff to take control of their own development. It is not going to happen because we tell them they are empowered. We, at least, have to teach most of them the 5W’s of development:

  • Become acutely aware of WHY personal development is critically important
  • Diagnose WHAT specifically you need to develop
  • Have a rigorous WAY of planning, implementing, monitoring, and adjusting your development
  • Put in place triggers, processes, reinforcements, and people to work WITH you to keep your development on-track and energized
  • Make sure you have the WILL to commit and commit to what you WILL do.

None of that removes the responsibility from L&D professionals to be aware of contemporary tools such as AI, simulations, or VR, new materials, and new delivery methods. Learning design and development is critical now. But, it will only address a small percentage of the development needs. L&D professionals must play an active part in ensuring that every individual, every day, is spotting and taking advantage of on-job and off-job development opportunities. And, they must use business acumen, their personal effectiveness, and courage to convince senior management that investment in that is needed too.

Read more such stories from the October issue of our e-magazine on 'Reimagining Workplace Learning’

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Topics: Learning & Development, #ReimagineLearning

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