Leaning on Learning during the “Big Pause” and Beyond

How the L&D business has become a life raft in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

Ryan S.
Ryan S.
Jun 13, 2020 · 8 min read

To quote the great Bob Dylan, “The Times They are A-Changin”. The short-term impact of the global pandemic is evident to every one of us as we sit at home, sheltered from the outside world. On the other hand, we do not yet know the long-term effects that come from an event of this magnitude.

One long-term side effect that we can almost guarantee, however, is the global shift in the way we work. By this, I mean not only our day-to-day jobs — but the way we conduct business and how our workforces operate overall.

Leading up to 2020 — for many organizations — the strategy and decisions made in relation to technology, culture, and operations were a ticking timebomb. As the novel Coronavirus grew into a global crisis, the clock on that metaphorical timebomb finally reached zero.

Even though we may not know what the future holds or what the corporate climate will be like, we can look to recent trends across all industries and verticals as hints to how work may change forever. One area that has been able to emerge as a saving grace, has been the “people” focused teams within our organizations, including the key function of Learning & Development.

What Went Wrong?

Looking back on the early months of 2020, in hindsight, it is easy to say you would have done things differently; the gaps are so apparent, why weren’t they addressed? But, it is not that simple. The reality is that prior to the outbreak business was booming. The global markets had seen their longest “bull” position in history, steadily climbing since post-recession 2009.

For many organizations, the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seemed logical. This is not to say we were complacent, but companies simply never thought the highly improbable scenarios in their Disaster Recovery plans would ever really occur. After all, the investment in real transformations are costly, and the value of digital readiness often goes unnoticed until it is too late.

With virtually all of the world’s leading countries in lockdown, businesses of all sizes were forced to pivot. Offices were closed, business travel was cancelled, borders were shut down, and employees were forced to work under new conditions.

An ironic truth became quickly evident. Some of the corporations boasting to have gone through dramatic, value-add digital transformations were (and still are) struggling to transform themselves into a digital-first operation. Challenges seem to appear on two fronts:

  • Failure to address critical infrastructure — meaning newly remote workers cannot access critical resources like data and applications. When the workers you rely on to run your business cannot reach resources, your business simply stops. A private network — for those who still use them — should be architected to support your max load, whether this infrastructure is statically allocated, or dynamic.
  • Failure to invest in “work tech” — an emerging technology domain covering everything that encompasses an employee’s experience. Out of those who have the core infrastructure covered off, some organizations faced challenges in how their workforce was working. Collaboration tools, messaging apps, file sharing, mobile apps, project management, learning — all of these aspects of an employee's day-to-day should ideally also be remote-friendly.

One important aspect of work tech is the capability to support collaboration and knowledge sharing across a distributed workforce. Prior to currently, organizations could get away with working physically together and disseminating information through non-digital channels. This is often referred to as tribal knowledge. Nobody really knows how they learned these things— they are unwritten — but over time, this knowledge snowballed through their day-to-day interactions with fellow teammates.

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A Knowledge Network Breakdown

But when teams are forced to distance themselves, this network of tribal knowledge breaks down and gaps emerge for people who need info asynchronously. The need for a digital solution quickly arises.

The best organizations were already using technology as a way to digitize tribal knowledge and build networks of expertise and valuable information. For them, they understood that knowledge was a competitive advantage, and platforms that enable collaboration and social learning will quickly lead to a competitive advantage. And for those who didn’t— there is now a clear struggle and a race to catch up.

Outside of knowledge and technology, a third factor greatly impacts an organization’s ability to weather a storm. Although it may be the hardest to detect and measure, culture is the foundation of high-performing teams.

Monolithic enterprises sometimes tend to possess what I’m referring to as cultural dissonance. Meaning, they have inconsistent beliefs related to major cultural changes.

For example, with digital transformation being so hot in the media, many organizations felt the need to stake large claims about how their culture is changing to accommodate the radical business shifts that come with digitization. However, underneath the hood, these claims do not necessarily reflect reality. Often, this is due to the rate of change for culture — it isn’t something that drastically changes overnight. Employees need to warm up to changes and need time to feel comfortable with the transformations being proposed by their leaders.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Digital Needs

It is a simple fact that for some organizations, even ones well equipped from a technical and intellectual standpoint — remote culture never truly existed. Teams never felt comfortable taking advantage of whatever remote policies were in place. This resulted in the pivot to staying home impacting every aspect of the business because employees had to learn or re-learn how to operate in a remote world.

Thinking back to tribal knowledge — some teams have a very poor culture around knowledge sharing and transparency. Organizations may claim that talent is a key strategic pillar, but fail to invest in the necessary upskilling and technology that supports it.

And what happens to these teams who fail at culture, but also technology and knowledge? Continuous learning grinds to a halt, they fail to onboard and certify their workforce, and operations slow even further.

Emerging From The Ashes

Some may disagree with the idea that HR teams are unsung heroes, especially in times of economic instability which results in job losses and higher-than-average unemployment rates. These teams may get a bad rap due to the necessary setbacks incurred during a crisis — downsizing, reduced wages, policy changes, etc. However, the “people” teams focus on more than just hiring and firing.

There is a silver lining of the crisis which will work in the favour of employees — and that is the perceived value of L&D to all organizations. “Learning” is often used as an input to achieve various business outcomes in organizations, irrespective of the size, industry, or vertical. For example, how does an organization onboard new employees at scale, develop critical skills in their workforce, remain compliant with laws and regulations, and keep their employees safe in the field? Still, it often goes overlooked.

In the wake of the “Big Pause”, Learning teams will show their power in two critical ways:

  • Owning the platform and capability related to knowledge sharing, upskilling, reskilling. With this, they also own the strategic and cultural aspects necessary to transform and sustain a business in a digital, remote world.
  • Becoming key stakeholders in major organizational shifts. We now know the criticality of knowledge and skills to the business, and CLOs will be involved in more strategic decisions to understand the impact on human capital.

The traditional instructor-led, in-person training curriculum that occurred a few times a year and was quickly forgotten is no longer going to cut it. L&D teams will be prioritizing their budget to invest in powerful digital platforms that promote knowledge sharing and retention.

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Google Trends Data for the Search Term “Learning Platform”

People teams have been talking about this topic for a few years, with anticipation that AI will replace admin-like jobs forcing this talent to be re-skilled and re-deployed. However, much more realistic is the idea that jobs that were necessary in a physical world will be shifted, and these workers will be the targets of re-skilling.

Further, with the necessary reduction in the workforce of large organizations due to the economic climate, workers will need to up-skill in order to fill gaps that were previously open for hire. In other words — a lot of employees are taking on more responsibilities, or having their responsibilities dramatically changed.

Having a repository — a knowledge hub — is critical for business continuity. Global events like COVID-19 show us that no business, no matter how resilient, has true permanence. At any moment, an organization may be forced to drastically reduce its workforce temporarily or permanently.

As we see our staff move on, we will need to ensure we’re not creating gaps that impact the business. L&D will focus on implementing cultural changes to promote collaboration, and user-generated content will become prominent across industries — where organizations lean on their internal experts more than ever before to learn from them.

What We’ve Learned

Remote readiness is a spectrum. As evidenced by the growth of Zoom and Slack in their revenue user bases, some working practices are an easy shift for organizations. With the right tools, we can quickly pivot to ensure the wheels of the business are still turning.

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The stock price for Zoom Video soaring amidst the mass digital shift

Other working habits are more of a marathon than a sprint. The digitization of knowledge and the cultural implications that come with it are not something that will spike, but rather grow exponentially. It takes time for workers to adapt their routines to include learning in new ways, and to get used to the idea that they have an obligation to share their expertise with everyone else.

Why stop with employees? The opportunity to shift the way we work can provide value to our customers and partners as well. Customer Experience teams should be leaning on L&D and adopting similar frameworks and tools to focus on digitally enabling their sources of revenue.

This means that the same knowledge network concept can be applied to customers, allowing companies to grow communities of individuals who are experts in their products and services. We know that well-enabled customers will reduce churn and lead to further promotion and adoption.

Similarly, the functions of Corporate Citizenship and Learning are working together more closely than ever. Just as we can train and educate our employees and customers, what can we do to give back to the broader community? Companies that rely on consumers to keep their business viable will re-purpose the platforms and capabilities to provide education and awareness to broader audiences on topics that may not be business-related.

We may not know what the future holds, but we do know that continuous learning and adoption of knowledge-centric organizational culture will impact the way organizations do business. As these sweeping trends pick up speed and compound, ask yourself this: what will the world look like in 5 years?

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Ryan S.

Written by

Ryan S.

Product Person. Beer Nerd. Traveller. Writes about software, culture, and innovation. In constant search of the best coffee, tacos, and IPAs in a city near you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

Ryan S.

Written by

Ryan S.

Product Person. Beer Nerd. Traveller. Writes about software, culture, and innovation. In constant search of the best coffee, tacos, and IPAs in a city near you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

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