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5 ways HR can prioritize L&D in times of change

Lee-Anne Vallée
Lee-Anne Vallée is senior director, Advisory, in the Gartner HR Practice.

For the past several months, most organizations have focused on cost optimization to counter the global economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Often when economic uncertainty hits, learning and development is one of the first things organizations cut. In reality, learning and development efforts should be prioritized when crises and changes in the business environment take root, as it enables organizations to maximize the contributions of their employees.

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Many organizations have prioritized building a culture of learning and have successfully leveraged technology to bring the digital experience to the world of L&D. These strategies have now been disrupted. Along with the risk that development may either stop or stall in the face of cost-optimization efforts, an unprecedented opportunity exists to innovate and accelerate learning throughout the organization. At the same time, learning is essential for employees to be effective during this time; a Gartner survey of 113 L&D professionals in April revealed that 50% to 60% of respondents reported that their workforce has had to use new skills in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same survey found that almost six in 10 L&D professionals said their organizations have created new trainings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a post-pandemic world, learning and development will be even more important as business continuity and growth will become more dependent on a responsive workforce that is able to learn and adapt to meet fast-changing needs. The challenge for HR leaders now is to make L&D initiatives more affordable and sustainable.

See also: Exploring the virtual future of L&D

Here are five actions HR leaders can take to optimize the value of their learning investments in the face of disruptive change:

1. Embrace innovative virtual learning and collaboration platforms.

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L&D teams have already responded to the drastic increase in remote work brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. Gartner research shows that 84% of organizations have moved learning to virtual platforms, and 59% have created new trainings. Of those that have created new trainings, 82% say their organizations have introduced training on how to work remotely.

The good news: Gartner’s 2020 L&D Innovations Report showed that virtual learning is already embedded in many organizations. What’s different now is the scope and scale. HR and L&D leaders must review planned investments and consider alternative applications. For example, in a post-pandemic world with more remote work, combining virtual learning with collaboration platforms can create an opportunity to foster much-needed soft skills, like interpersonal communication, collaboration and teamwork, and flexibility.

2. Accelerate the adoption of design thinking and agile ways of working.

Design thinking is a methodology that centers around thinking creatively about designing solutions for the end-user. By engaging directly with learners–conducting ongoing brainstorming and prototyping and iterating on potential solutions–L&D can match the learner’s needs with the right learning solution. It’s important, however, that L&D leaders support the development of learning solutions that deliver not only what the learner values but also what the organization needs.

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While putting learner needs and the learner experience at the heart of design and delivery of learning solutions isn’t new, business disruptions can motivate L&D to implement a more agile approach. To inject more agility into L&D, leaders can bring together flexible, cross-functional teams to create and iterate on minimum viable products, i.e. learning solutions that meet changing needs of learners and the business.

3. Identify cost-effective opportunities to invest in workforce development.

Increasing cost pressures, combined with the urgency and the scale of the development needed, demand that L&D step up as a trusted strategic partner. L&D leaders must guide the business through important decisions and investments in developing critical skills and key talent.

In times of crisis, organizations lean on their high potential (HIPO) employees more than ever; Gartner research reveals that HIPOs are 28% more likely than non-HIPOs to have experienced an increase in the demand of their job throughout the pandemic. Organizations need to invest in supporting and growing HIPOs now or there’s a risk that they will burn out. Progressive organizations have transitioned their HIPO program to be entirely virtual, and therefore more cost-efficient. The key is to be thoughtful about how to preserve the most meaningful elements of the program–things like peer networking, mentoring from senior leaders, action learning–in a virtual environment.

4. Build a dynamic skills organization.

Gartner research shows that the total number of skills required for a single job is increasing by 10% year over year, and over half of the total skills needed in the average job are new. Unfortunately, only 29% of new hires are highly prepared with the skills they currently need, and only 16% are highly prepared with the skills they need both now and in the future.

Many HR and business leaders see this time of disruption as an opportunity to offer more focused skills building. Rather than relying solely on development programs to address long-term reskilling and upskilling, organizations can leverage opportunities to match employees with adjacent skills, or “minors” rather than “majors,” to address gaps in critical roles and workflows. HR leaders should also consider leveraging their internal talent pool to fill critical skill needs, though many organizations are faced with a lack of knowledge about what skills and capabilities their current employees possess. Understanding employees’ current skills, and development preferences, allows HR to be more strategic about mobility opportunities, and more flexible with assignments and staffing as skill needs change.

5. Develop manager and leader capability in context.

Managers and leaders need access to development opportunities as well. In a 2019 Gartner survey, 67% of heads of HR and 78% of talent management leaders cited building the leadership bench as a major priority. One of the challenges for leadership development is that most organizations expect more than 40% of leadership roles to be significantly different within five years.

One way for L&D to support the development of leaders is via their direct reports and their peers. Direct reports can provide input on what behaviors or skills they urgently need their managers to demonstrate to help them complete their work effectively. Employees can also hold leaders accountable for progress on their development areas with feedback through team meetings. Structured peer coaching and consulting can be used to increase transparency into collective leadership capabilities and enable leaders to draw on each other’s experience and expertise to navigate difficult decisions and achieve business goals.

Some organizations have already started to implement the actions above. While the pandemic is forcing businesses to change course in many respects, it is also accelerating some changes that were already happening. The goal for L&D leaders is to avoid being sidelined during uncertain times by demonstrating the potential value learning and development offers. The qualities organizations need to survive and succeed through massive change events like COVID-19–agility, adaptability, resilience–are the products of effective L&D strategies. In times like these, the need for learning and development has never been greater.