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Nic Newman



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Five ways to embrace the future of workforce development

If L&D doesn't to take a more business-focused and data-supported approach then it risks irrelevancy.

As the UK gets back to work, L&D will be challenged with resolving a dire shortage in talent and skills, particularly in new digital areas. Globally, we’re looking at an $8.5tn skills gap. We knew this was coming pre-Covid and its threat has grown since then. But now we also face budgets tightening like never before.

This will require a significant shift away from recruitment towards reskilling and upskilling, as it is cheaper to develop than to hire. But it won’t be easy considering that training is still siloed, is often about box ticking rather than true integrated development, and skills gap identification is poor.

As L&D practitioners rise to the occasion, let’s look at what’s needed, where we need to get to and what we should be doing to get there.

By 2030, workplace learning will have moved far beyond simply replacing face-to-face classroom sessions with online sessions.

A snapshot of the future

The evolution of workforce development is at a pivotal point. As the next wave of tech and automation sweeps across the workplace, the future of work is becoming faster moving, less constrained by geography and other boundaries, and service-based.

Professionals are now also driving this change forward; FutureLearn’s ‘The Future of Learning Report’ found that two fifths of UK adults are likely to use online learning to enhance their skill sets and boost their careers. 

We can plug the skills gaps and respond to this future through digital transformation, new ways of learning and a new role for L&D. It’s become clear that the future of learning is not simply about replacing face-to-face classroom sessions with online sessions but changing the nature of workforce development itself.

To ensure these changes are successful necessitates a shift in culture and organisational structure. It requires significant internal transformation alongside the replacement of some large, unresponsive learning management providers with new, more agile innovative players.

Insights from experts

In partnership with FutureLearn, we at Emerge Education sought to uncover what the future holds for workforce development and how technology is going to shape its success.

We set up an action group of L&D practitioners, led by Donald H Taylor, and conducted research interviews with more than 50 CEOs, heads of L&D and policymakers. This action group is made up of the trailblazers – the true innovators in the sector. (If you fit this category, scroll to the bottom to find out how you can join the action group.)

The role of L&D is changing to become ever more focused on business aims and far more integrated into the business.

Practical changes

Our research uncovered three key areas of focus for the evolution in workforce development. These can be summarised as:

Digital transformation

By 2030, workplace learning will have moved far beyond simply replacing face-to-face classroom sessions with online sessions: technology will drive a shift in workplace development from transferring learning to transforming performance.

The changing role of L&D

The role of L&D is changing to become ever more focused on business aims and far more integrated into the business. The tradition of creating and delivering courses will be replaced by a role of empowering people to perform better and supporting them as they do so, directly or through coaching managers.

The changing nature of learning

‘Training’ and ‘development’ will no longer require employees to stop what they’re doing and make a dedicated effort. Learning in the flow of work will become the norm, with data and AI enabling employees to learn what is most relevant to them, how and when they need it, while tracking their progress.

The steps L&D practitioners need to take

Change is optional. But so, too, is staying relevant. If you decide not to embrace a more comprehensive, business-focused and data-supported role for L&D, then you are also choosing to remain the equivalent of an internal pizza delivery service (and it’s not even tasty pizza either, but a little cold and bland).

Expect to continue to receive emails demanding courses that will have no impact. Expect to be the first department to be cut when times are bad. After all, if you can’t prove your value, why should you be kept?

Our five recommendations for L&D practitioners are as follows:

1. Accept it: we don’t own the learning

It is crucial to work on relationships with those outside L&D, in the business and beyond.  We do not own the learning anymore. But we do have the expertise to act as a centre of excellence to coach and offer support on how to build a programme. Connecting people and combining L&D skill sets with functional expertise is where the magic lies. 

2. Learn how to use data better

Learning how to use numbers and data in a way that understands the needs of the business is the key to having influence.

If you don’t speak the language you will be condemned to forever execute the will of those who do – and they care less about learning than you do. Ignore this and risk being stuck in the training ghetto

3. Don’t be a silo

The borderless future means distinctions between departments will continue to crumble. In particular, workforce development will have a huge role to play in the traditional area of HR. 

Build relationships now with HR to understand the talent marketplace for your organisation, internally and externally. 

4. Think more 

It is not enough to be a reactive producer of courses on demand. L&D needs to be proactive and help the organisation effectively diagnose the performance gaps, not just the solutions. 

To provide strategic advice to the business you need to build networks of smart people on social media and listen to them. Read, digest, debate, reflect and, above all, THINK. How will your future be different and what will you do about it? 

5. Embrace tech

Technology will help you. Look to the vibrant marketplace of the startup community – small, agile firms likely to respond quickly to your requirements for change, and who are eager to get your input into developing their ideas.

Consider how any new tech will fit into your existing ecosystem and learning culture, and prioritise interoperability. 

Are you a trailblazer?

If you are the head of L&D for an international workforce, and you are interested in sector innovation, please do connect with Don Taylor or me, Nic Newman. Tell us you are interested to join the Donald H Taylor and Emerge L&D edtech advisory board and we will get straight back to you. 

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Nic Newman


Read more from Nic Newman

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