Post Corona - what have the learning industry learned and what happens now?

Author: Alex Brittain-Catlin
Published: September 10, 2020

Not so long ago, pre-pandemic, many in the Learning and Development industry were delivering face-to-face, classroom-based training. The move into digital and virtual was a disruptive element but by no means was it a universally accepted method of delivery, by customers and service providers alike. In many cases, digital tools and virtually delivered elements were perhaps an add-on at best. Perhaps having a virtual kick-off, or viewing the digital tools available very much for administrative or support purposes only. Their job was to let the stars shine in the classroom.

A lot has changed as a result of the ongoing pandemic, which now looks like it will be far more of a disruptive factor in this industry than was thought not so long ago. When speaking to customers, there has been a wait and see approach in the hope that things would return to normal once this was just a particularly unpleasant memory. Now, this view is changing as the news headlines talk about new outbreaks of Covid-19 and that there may not be a return to normal until sometime next year – the hope anyway. The realization that virtual delivery of L&D programmes may not be the short-term fix that was intended but instead might just be the new normal is felt by many that we have spoken to.

The short-term solution is not here to stay

What this means is that many of us are having to rethink our approach to delivering training and really get going with a conversion of our programmes into digitally supported and virtually delivered offerings. This time not as a temporary stop-gap until the pandemic passes but as a genuine approach to future delivery. For many this is somewhat unsettling, not least because it requires a different approach from face-to-face training, the subject matter may be the same but actually the differences, whilst in many cases quite subtle, require programmes to be re-worked from the bottom up. It may have been accepted as a temporary solution to deliver some hours of PowerPoint driven material but this has its challenges and is less likely to pass muster in the longer term.

Our customers require and demand an effective approach to delivering their programmes that offers them the quality that they want and at the same time leads to change in the participants afterwards. The purpose, after all, of Learning and Development programmes is to train the workforce to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow and there is also increasing pressure from business to ensure that these often-costly undertakings lead to real results. We may have been able to get away with a temporary solution for the last few months but this is increasingly untenable as we see the disruption we are experiencing lasting well into next year.

The great fear of something new

Though not everything has been in vain, the steps that have been taken over the last few months have set the Learning and Development industry up for future success if only we can take stock of what has happened and really press forward with the digital approach.

One of the game changers that has resulted from social distancing is the rapid uptake of digital methods in the course of work. Prior to the pandemic, there was some hesitation in going fully digital because of the fear that would be participants would be unable to really partake in digitally delivered, live programmes. This fear and the ease of holding face-to-face sessions often lead to using the tried and tested methods over trying something new, which might lead to unknown problems. Only yesterday, I conducted a survey of facilitators and their main fear when asked about challenges in their organization was the unpreparedness of participants to participate in virtual trainings. This fear of the unknown persists and it’s still a challenge to have the discussion around the necessity of having a digitally supported, virtually delivered programmes.

What we have seen is that participants in most cases are more proficient at using digital tools that we give them credit for. The last few months have required most of us to familiarize ourselves with digital meeting tools and even the idea that blue-collar workers are technically unsophisticated is challenged. What happens when they go home from work? They turn on their tablets, mobile phones, and computers and just like the rest of us, live in the digital world. This provides us with an opportunity, to embrace digital as a method of delivering programmes.

The greater challenge

We also have to be honest about another challenge, an uncomfortable one. Many of us are unprepared to deliver virtual training – we simply do not have the digital material available to go virtual. Most of our material has hitherto been aimed at the classroom, where a skilled facilitator can display their skills. Suddenly, we need to provide digital aids, to reproduce material that works in a digital format and create the videos that we need to make such sessions really fly. There is an increasing number of ways to host videos but that doesn’t really seem to be the problem. Rather than the precise content that we need for our company doesn’t exist and has to be created. Many of us are having to start from scratch in creating the material we need, or at the very least trying to curate the content that exists somewhere in the organization. Whilst it is not so difficult to do, it is a new skill set and takes not only time but also money to get it right. With the hope that we were going to be able to return to the classroom, there has been a delay in creating long term solutions, but it’s now looking as though we will have to build programmes from the bottom up once again and generate the digital material that we need.

Digital tools have come a long way

Additionally, gaining buy-in within our organisations for the digital approach is not as straight-forward as may be thought. It’s all very well for the L&D department to understand and support the move towards digital solutions but it’s still an uphill struggle to persuade our organizations. Senior managers are familiar with face-to-face training and so converting them to something that is seen as being potentially risky is no simple task. That there will be costs and time required to redevelop programmes that may have been running successfully in the past is not a welcome message. Similarly, there is still the hope amongst trainers, both inhouse and consultants alike, that the move to digital is unnecessary and that the good old days will come again. Too many times in the last few weeks have we heard that digital delivery is impossible for this or that programme. It is true that not everything can be turned into digital training, particularly when it comes to on-the-job training, but much of what used to be delivered in the classroom can and should be.

The argument to provide digitally supported and virtually delivered training should not come down to whether there is a pandemic or not. Actually, it should be judged on its own merits and not in response solely to the current situation. Digital tools have come a long way and we can really deliver something special today. Not something that is a simple replacement for classroom-based training but something that gives us more opportunities than we ever had in the classroom and the potential to support performance in the workplace that simply was not possible before – well not in a replicable, reliable manner.

Digital is here to stay – so where do you start?

The move into digital is happening right now and the questions is: are we on board or not? Whatever happens in the future, digital is here to stay. This is not to say that there will not be some return to classroom-based training, but this will be based on a compelling case to hold such sessions rather than being the default, first-choice option.

To get going there are some requirements:

  • A common approach as to how we are designing programmes is a good starting point. A means by which we have a similar understanding and starting point when it comes to delivering programmes in the digital world.
  • The support of an internal champion, to gain buy-in, take the challenge. Also to perform the duty as someone who has the mandate to make the changes and overcome the obstacles, who often come in human form, that are needed to gain momentum and uptake of digital delivery.
  • An internal expert or access to a subject matter expert who can smooth the transition to an effective approach from everything from design through to delivery and application.

Having these resources should not only get the move into digital underway but support an organisation through its L&D transition.

Set up for success

Success doesn’t just reside within L&D and top-management stakeholders. If we are going to succeed in this journey there also needs to be revaluation of what is required to get the successful application of learning to work in an organisation. That managers at all levels can no longer expect to have their direct reports go away for a couple of days and come back “uploaded” with a new approach. Instead, we are going to have to get buy-in from managers that their direct reports need to apply learning on the job and that they will need direct support to successfully apply what they’ve learned. That participants will be attending a training for extended periods of time but that this is designed to deliver results directly to the business. We will have to gain the commitment of managers in supporting their direct reports to achieve the results that we are after. Equally, when it comes to Performance Management, there needs to be a direct link to what has been learned and what has been applied and that there is an expectation to apply when someone goes to training and that it’s not just nice to have. It has long been the cry of Learning & Development professionals that gaining management commitment at the hands-on level has been a challenge and, unfortunately, they will not be able to gain this without organisational support.

There are challenges in converting to a digital approach but they are not insurmountable. They require dedication, a change in mindset and a budget. Digital should no longer be seen as a temporary replacement for classroom-based training in times of a pandemic but rather as a means that organisations can achieve their business objectives in an effective manner. After all, the cost of getting it wrong will not be solely reflected in the classroom but in the balance sheets of the organisation which we serve.