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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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L&D’s keyword for the next decade: human

We have a unique opportunity build a better L&D model. Will we take it?

The most useful statement about our fast-moving century I've ever heard was from Canadian SF writer William Gibson, who said back in 2003, "the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. Apply that to our complicated situation in L&D after the tumultuous events of 2020, and I think we can indeed already see the shape of ‘things to come’. Why? Because they are already being experienced by a lot of teams already, and that will be all of us, eventually.

Medium term, I think we’re all going back to school. We’ll see massive reskilling initiatives at country level, driven by structural unemployment concerns and an allied personal motivation to skill up in the face of uncertainty. I also expect a lot of tolerance for failure and a craving for connection and belonging.

Learning will become the crucible in which connections and bonds are formed across organisational boundaries.

We will get back to the office – maybe not all of us, maybe not all at once. Coming back together will be a privilege, will be somewhat disconcerting, and still slightly dangerous for months or even years to come. By the way, how our employers treated us this year will not be forgotten. Nor, in some cases, forgiven.

Let’s be realistic about it – even more job losses are coming. We are, however, going to see a surge in innovation and creativity as a result, as we all move to the age of experimentation and greater agency. What are the implications for L&D out of all this? The pandemic has brought our discipline from the risk of real and permanent near-irrelevance just 12 months ago to the centre of attention by the C-Suite. As a result, we have a once in a lifetime career opportunity to build back a better L&D model, and learning leaders are already on the case.

Finding purpose

Smart companies like Visa and Google are using learning as a way to connect and bring together not just employees, but vendors, customers, partners, and the whole ecosystem of a business. Not just in technology, actually far from it; Swiss life sciences leader Novartis has used the concept of curiosity as a central tenet of a shift to a learning culture, and has even extended learning benefits to friends and family, not just staffers. Learning will become the crucible in which connections and bonds are formed across organisational boundaries.

Finally, leaders are urgently looking to strengthen corporate culture, build the agility and skills needed for an uncertain future, and support a broad range of stakeholders. Interestingly, in the US at least, this is being framed as going beyond the shareholders to include workers, suppliers, customers and the societies and ecosystems in which they operate. This is typically described in terms of the organisations defining a sense of ‘purpose’ (sparked, or maybe even made ‘acceptable’, by the famous 2019 Business RoundTable announcement to that end).

Let’s now explore these trends in a bit more detail.

Rethinking of bedrock work concepts

After the reset comes the rebuild. While that rebuild may likely be slower than we all hope, it will be characterised by experimentation. As we take back agency for our working lives, we are being given the opportunity to rebuild our working lives in radically different ways. This will be driven by three forces:

  • The individual choices of people who have been exposed to new possibilities, and choices at organisational levels, too. Yes, we face employment uncertainty, especially in consulting and business services. There’s also, however, a new sense of flexibility around when and where we do work and learn new skills.
  • Organisations are seizing on the opportunity to rethink real estate, travel, and talent access models.
  • At governmental level, states will be forced to invest heavily in reconstruction and social support programmes, as well as modernising employment and benefits based on the free-agent reality of much of work today.   

Here are three trends that I have seen are already underway, and will likely be coming to a workplace near you in the not too distant future.  

Digital transformation gets human

Much has been written about the accelerating effect of the pandemic on tech adoption. Remember though that many jobs cannot be done remotely as efficiently and effectively as the bean counters would like, especially roles that are customer frontline, or critical to our collective health and wellbeing.

Those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely are starting to see fatigue and shortcomings in a 100% virtual workplace, and a decline in productivity. For L&D, the pressure is also on to take our digital experiences to a new more human level. A blended model will soon emerge here that preserves the best of both worlds, but that model will only win widespread acceptance if it satisfies both capitalism’s and people's needs.  

Interestingly, that puts a long conversation we’ve been having with ourselves out to pasture (at last). A shift to digital learning has already happened. For example, Simon Brown, CLO at Novartis, has said in a recent Future Workplace seminar that I attended, “the battle for the primacy of digital learning is over; it’s no longer a discussion”.  

Everyone has climbed on the digital learning train, so now our job is to make it really work. Look for inspiration here from artists, performers and designers (i.e. Airbnb Experiences) who are testing the boundaries of what you can do with technology, making online collaboration more personal, more human, healthier, and more inclusive. I also expect to see a lot more startups in HR technology and educational technology – there’s a lot of investment capital around, and now with lots of smart people laid off, it's never been easier to start a company with cheap access to technology and talent marketplaces.  

New ideas about buildings, offices and spaces

How we use all this is getting a radical rethink. We’ve tasted the freedom to work from the cabin, or the beach house, or our parent’s basement, and we sort of like it. At the same time, collaboration and connection has always meant a physical coming together. It's hard to imagine those fundamental human needs for interpersonal connection remaining suppressed for much longer.

As a result, for L&D as an inveterate sponsor of key corporate events, the stakes will be high for the conferences, hackathons, sales kickoffs and leadership programmes that we design and run. We will get better and very imaginative about online convening, and the value of every second spent in the physical company of our coworkers just went through the roof. Don’t ever let yourself get accused of wasting it.  

Organisational boundaries will start to blur

Women are voting with their feet and leaving a workplace model that was rude to them for too long. This is a reminder that while change can feel like a loss, there are some aspects of our former working model that were definitely just not working for everyone.

At the same time, team-based collaboration software is technology that fosters transparency and flatter organisational structures, and it is beginning tear down the old hierarchy and make the performance review and evaluation mechanisms that we built to support them now seem so unsympathetic and even divisive.  

These management approaches are starting to be questioned and even abandoned. In their place the concept of organisational purpose and culture will emerge as the glue to connect all of the people (traditional employees, gig workers, contractors, and specialists) who work for the same brand or enterprise.

Increasingly – and this is very much what I mean about an unevenly distributed Gibsonian ‘future’ – we might stop working for a ‘company’ and start working for a collective ‘purpose’. That might be on the payroll of a one defined organisation, or it might be as part of a loose collective of collaborators, or a string of different gigs, the more lucrative of which can support the more rewarding ones. This will be a key way to open up workspaces much more respectful of women and minorities, as well as being more diverse and inclusive.  

All of these shifts could be really good for individuals, for business, for society, and for humanity as a whole, and there is a big role for L&D and HR functions to evolve and help drive them.

Let’s work towards a more human future more evenly distributed – and let’s do it soon, because this serious crisis for our shared humanity is also an immense opportunity for long overdue change.

Interested in this topic? Listen to Chris Pirie's podcast discussions exploring the issues identified here including purpose and what it means for L&D.

Author Profile Picture
Chris Pirie

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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