Buckle up, HR: L&D is about to get really exciting

COVID is transforming learning and development in ways that will outlive the crisis—and require leaders to 'unlearn the old schoolbooks,' experts say.
By: | August 2, 2021

The days of off-the-shelf templates, standard workshops and mandated employee training are vanishing, as pandemic-driven shifts create new expectations for development on the part of employees and change how, where and what employees need to learn. In response, many HR professionals are abandoning practices born in the industrial era and developing new ways of learning that aren’t just customized, but cross silos and motivate employees to want to learn more.

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“We have this authentic and real opportunity to reshape the nature of [learning] and how we do it,” says Lars Schmidt, author of Redefining HR and a speaker at a recent HRE-hosted webinar about learning, engagement and performance. “If you work in HR, buckle up because it’s going to be an exciting 18 months.”

Today, the focus for many employers is on developing long-term strategies around remote work, including training managers on how to help staff navigate the post-COVID reality.

Anna Sargsyan

These new demands of hybrid and remote work are tasking HR with being much more intentional about learning design, says Anna Sargsyan, chief learning officer at Allencomm, a global learning developer and provider of custom content. Employee expectations around more human-centered learning are creating a need for more personalization within L&D, while leaders also have to be proactive to help distributed employees learn from one another despite the distance, create innovative approaches to non-classroom learning and ensure learning is accessible everywhere—in different formats and to all employees.

Meanwhile, she says, some employers are leaning on their learning and development strategy as a talent attraction and retention tool, touting how L&D can impact job success and help the business reach its goals—particularly important as employers struggle to hire in today’s market.

Related: 6 questions on the future of L&D with Microsoft’s learning leader

And learning will continue to be integral beyond the initial hire, Sargsyan adds, as many organizations are exploring expanded applications for existing infrastructure like onboarding. Since employee roles and employer expectations will continue to evolve as the post-pandemic workplace develops, how else can onboarding be used to reskill or upskill workers?

As an example, Sargsyan points to a flexible learning program her company developed for a medical client that employees at all levels of the organization are using. New employees can follow a suggested training path while more skilled workers can blaze their own trail, choose different modalities or focus on topics they want to learn.

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“HR has to find the right mix of learning, at the right time, the right modality and the right size,” Sargsyan says. “It needs to plant some seeds, really cultivate or foster a new employee mindset. When you do that and give employees support, they’ll know they’re not alone in learning something new and will be successful.”

Tal Goldhamer

When it comes to modality, expect high-quality virtual learning to be predominant across most companies, adds Tal Goldhamer, chief learning officer at EY, a global professional services network. However, that’s not to say the learning design will be impersonal. Currently, he says, many programs generally fall on one side of a spectrum: academic learning, which tends to be straightforward or mundane, or human learning, which is usually more fun for employees but can be deemed ineffective. He says learning in a post-pandemic workplace will fall somewhere in the middle by balancing the desired business impact and outcome with an experience that employees enjoy, particularly as the emphasis on employee experience continues to heighten.

In that vein, he says, more organizations are now focusing on developing well-rounded professionals and will teach human and professional skills—once called soft skills—such as resilience, mindfulness or empathy.

“We’re trying to create a world where people feel so inspired by what they’re learning that they feel compelled to pass it on to others,” says Goldhamer. “It’s a world where learning feels desired, not required, and where peer recommendations mean a whole lot.”

But developing this type of culture is at least a five-year process, he says. Changing people’s ways of thinking and habits is never easy. Besides, not all learning and development teams are equipped to make their case using data or evidence-based science with executives who make funding decisions about training. L&D and HR professionals, Goldhamer notes, will need to become more adept at using data to prove to senior executives whether or not a learning program has the intended business impact.

Thasveer Salim

L&D and HR leaders also need to get comfortable breaking down silos, Schmidt says, as learning moves from a closed environment—where employees typically keep information to themselves—to open source, where learning is shared and encouraged among employees, particularly as the workforce of the future is forecast to be highly connected and team-based. This will, in fact, be one of the biggest fundamental shifts that HR professionals can expect between legacy and modern L&D.

To make that transformation, HR professionals will need to “unlearn the old schoolbooks,” become more agile and view change as an opportunity versus a threat, says Thasveer Salim, COO at global human capital consultancy Tracez Training & Consultancy Services.

“A total 180-degree change in the hiring and training process is required,” he says.


Learn about the latest tech developments supporting the new expectations for L&D at this fall’s HR Tech Conference. Click here to register.

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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