Learning and Development Are More Important Than Ever

October 30, 2020 John Rossheim

4-minute read

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What are we learning about learning as we struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic? Among many other things, it’s clear that workforce training and leadership development are more than a nice-to-have.

“Now is not the time to take your foot off the pedal,” says Tracy Duberman, CEO of The Leadership Development Group. “The pandemic is an incredible time to do on-the-spot leadership development.” Whether it’s pivoting a small functional group to work from home, or transforming a mammoth marketing division to target a radically changed market, there are plenty of opportunities for potential leaders to step up.

Still, managers may need to labor to make the case for training and development in 2020’s business climate. “Especially during a crisis, it’s easy to look for budget cuts in training and leadership development,” says Vibhas Ratanjee, senior practice expert at consulting firm Gallup. “But that’s a mistake. Organizations need to turn adverse experiences like the pandemic into learning opportunities. So it’s crucial to establish the value of leadership development and demonstrate it to the executive team.”

What do pandemic-era training and development look like?

With so many professionals doing all of their work online, often with many videoconferences per day, it’s easy look at training and development as nothing but online instruction. But that view may turn out to be short-sighted – during the pandemic, and beyond.

“Learning has to be a hybrid of online learning and lived experience,” says Ratanjee. “Ongoing support and coaching are the most important experiences right now. There’s more value in sharing learning experiences in a Zoom call than in one-way instruction.”

This view is backed up by research. “We looked at how workers themselves wanted to learn the skills they need,” says Ben Eubanks, a principle analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory.  “Their first choice was experiential learning, which can be a safe space to try out new knowledge and test it. Second was mentoring and coaching, because it’s participatory and collaborative. Third and dead last was a course, which is the default for many organizations, even though it’s shown by research to be not very effective.” Studies show that people retain knowledge effectively only if they immediately use what they’ve learned, he says.

During the pandemic – and really anytime in this 21st century – leadership development and workforce training need to be fast-paced and short in duration, Duberman says. The pandemic has provided many opportunities for “in-the-moment” support on leadership challenges, such as the pivot to working from home when the coronavirus outbreak hit.

Those who drive training and development need to “recognize that there are limits to what can be addressed when using virtual live sessions such as webcasts, virtual classrooms, and video- and audioconferencing,” says a March report from consulting firm McKinsey. “Such platforms may not work well for deep socioemotional- and interpersonal-skill building.”

Organizations will have to maintain safety as the top priority for essential workers who must be on-site, while providing effective training in hands-on skills. “As humans, we learn by doing,” says Eubanks. “Experience is where you learn the stuff that isn’t in the book.”

Learning through social engagement

When it comes to online worker training, self-paced courses may not always be the best solution. Even when people are working at their far-flung home offices, they often learn better together. The McKinsey report advises organizations to “consider incorporating social learning, for example with participant journeys that focus on cohorts of people undertaking programs together on a set schedule rather than on individuals working at their own pace.”

Mentoring and coaching – often critical to leadership development – can be successful even when people can’t be together physically. But the essence of these support activities is that they are highly personalized. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, “there have been fewer one-on-ones, but people want them – not just big Zoom meetings,” says Ratanjee.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI): integral to learning and leadership

Leadership development in some organizations is limited to talent that has already climbed into the upper echelons of management. That can be very limiting for organizations that are serious about promoting DEI, if only because upper management is still typically not diverse.

“Leadership development needs to be democratized,” says Ratanjee. “Operational talent needs to be recognized, not just the top three levels. If all learning and development is focused on the top, it won’t be diverse. You have to push it down through the organization to reach more diverse talent.”

Top management needs to be deeply and continuously involved with leadership development programs. “A longstanding problem with leadership development had been the lack of senior executive involvement, which means programs fail,” says Duberman. “Most companies have generic leadership development programs that don’t necessarily tie to specific behaviors or to the goals of the organization.”

Pandemic or not, a key factor in workforce training and leadership development is measuring its success in terms of employee performance. Workhuman®’s continuous performance management solution, Conversations®, can help organizations assess the efficacy of learning and development programs by engaging with employees on their professional progress.

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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