Nupur Todi, Ed.M., Harvard University; Head Learning and Leadership Development, Providence India
“I never teach my pupils;
I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
— Albert Einstein
Workplace learning has evolved at a slow pace up to now, but it will look very different in the years to come. There must be a fundamental transformation in how we think about lifelong learning and skill development, for individuals, organizations, and whole economies to avoid being left behind. In this section, I will explore how changing demographics, AI, and automation are transforming the way we learn. I will also highlight some of the best practices and tools that I have come across in my search for excellence.
With the advent of digital natives in the workforce, there is no longer a pressing need for the traditional “parent-child” approach to training employees, in which companies prescribe what their employees must learn to progress. Now more companies are using an “adult-to-adult” approach, allowing their employees to choose what, when, and how they learn. Even the employees anticipate taking full responsibility for their learning and development in the future and wanted their business leaders and organizations to play a supporting and enabling role.
Technology is already exerting an outsized influence in business learning, and it will continue to do so in the future. Thanks to Covid-19, most classroom learning has already been converted to a digital format, and there has been a dramatic uptake for e-learning courses.
The pandemic has not only forced these changes but also dramatically increased the acceptance of such tools as the “new normal way of learning.” However, this does not mean that the future of learning will be completely tech-based. On the contrary, I believe we will see more and more tech-enabled learning, in which technology serves up the content but other learning methods amplify the human connections.
One useful way to think about strategies for learning leadership is to use what I call the “5Es,” which I adapted from Josh Bersin’s 4E Model of Leadership Development (I added the additional E to make the system more relevant to lifelong and tech-enabled learning).
The 5E Model includes the following elements: Evaluation, Education, Experience, Exposure, and Enrichment. These elements can be applied to a continuous approach to learning that enables individuals, managers, and organizations to identify the most appropriate learning tools for their needs.
Evaluation. As we move toward a skill-based workforce, it is imperative to assess skills that reach beyond personality, motivation, and cognitive ability. The pandemic has made us realize our lack of skills in working virtually and adapting to new methods of work in disruption. This makes it even more essential to understand the skills and knowledge gaps vis-à-vis the critical roles or the new operating model required in the organization. Fortunately, AI is changing skills assessment from a simple multiple-choice questionnaire to individuals working through a real-life scenario while AI evaluates their behavior and decisions. For example, if you are assessing the skill of a call center agent, a skills-assessment AI program has the agent engage in a conversation with a simulated customer who is discontent with the product. The AI talks like a real customer, and the agent tries to follow the company’s prescribed process, solving the problem if possible and remaining polite and kind throughout the interaction. Such a simulation yields deep insights into the agent’s experience, motivation, and competence, and it can help HR, as well as both the manager and the agent, understand the skill gaps the agent will need to close in order to perform the job effectively.
Education. This element of the model consists of formal learning experiences: in-person or virtual workshops, executive education, and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Face-to face sessions should typically focus on building human connections and having the students learn from each other, while virtual sessions are more suitable for presenting particular facts and concepts. Unfortunately, I see a lack of understanding of this difference among many learning designers and organizations. Given the paucity of time, as well as humans’ ever decreasing attention spans, it is critical to utilize all in-person time for the most effective purposes.
In May 2019, I was part of a signature “High Performance Leadership” program at IMD, a Swiss management school. The program involved pre-work assignments, readings, in-person sessions, follow-up individual virtual coaching, and concept nuggets. The six day in-person sessions were divided into large plenary sessions of no more than ninety minutes. They were used for disseminating the foundational concepts and framework of the program, allowed the participants to share their insights, and offering advice from experts. In all, the in-person sessions constituted 30% of the program’s time; the remainder was spent on small-group coaching focused on reflection and application. The faculty and the coaches created a safe environment in which the participants could be honest and vulnerable. Over the course of those six days, I forged life-long connections and learned immensely from the rich experiences of others. Experience. Humans learn best from experiences. The goal of leadership development is action, not knowledge. Thus, organizations need to create structured, hands-on situations that individuals can learn from by applying their newly acquired skills and ideas. Such situations might include on-the-job experiences, global immersions, stretch roles, rotation assignments, secondments, action-learning projects, and volunteering. Many organizations, however, focus instead on providing experiences that enable a targeted application of their employees’ skills, minimizing the role of the unknown and the unexpected. Their reasons are understandable, but what happens when something like the pandemic hits us? How ready is our workforce to navigate the uncertainty of a drastically changed work environment? The sudden transformation caused by Covid-19 demonstrates the lack of preparedness in all employees, who need to be able to adapt quickly to new ways of working in our uncertain future. To create a future-ready workforce, organizations must teach their employees how to apply their competencies to new and different work situations—the “adaptive application” of skills.
In recent leadership development work in India, I used action-learning projects to help the program’s participants build their confidence and capability for navigating uncertainty. The objective of the project was to replicate future situations, still keep it real to create pressure to perform. The participants designed their own projects based on their interests, including agriculture, healthcare, and education for girls, among others. Drawing on commonalities in their chosen fields, I divided them into small groups and instructed them to create one solution for their combined aims. Their success was assessed according to (1) the solution’s relevance to their sponsor’s current business and its potential to generate new ideas or profit; and (2) the extent to which the solution, tailored for India, could be scaled and replicated globally.
The projects exposed the participants to some of the many different regions and populations of India. This novelty perplexed and challenged them, and they were forced to adopt a new mindset in which there were, initially, no right or wrong answers. Though they lacked expert knowledge in the fields they had chosen, their passions motivated them to forge new partnerships, both within and beyond their organization. After nine months of experimentation and learning, they piloted their solutions in collaboration with state governments and other entities. Many participants fondly reflected on their journeys afterward and declared that they felt new confidence in their ability to manage ambiguous and uncertain situations.
Exposure. Humans are social animals; we construct knowledge through interactions, seeking out others who know more than we do or have different perspectives in order to learn. It’s important to tap into such wisdom through formal or informal interactions, including those with coaches, mentors, peers, and networking forums. Exposure is no longer an optional element when designing a leadership development program—organizations are dependent on individuals cross-pollinating with people working in different functions and businesses. I believe this trend is becoming even more important today, when Learning & Development (L&D) budgets have taken a hit and employees feel a powerful need to share, learn, and collaborate, so as to emerge even stronger from the pandemic.
Thanks to social media and the internet, it is becoming easier and easier to find a mentor or coach from anywhere in the world, connect virtually, and receive real-time guidance for immediate problems. AI bots like Replika, Butterfly.ai, and Coach Amanda are also infiltrating the workplace, promising to change the way companies provide mentoring and coaching. These applications analyze individuals’ past performance data and employee surveys, and then listen to voice cues to support thousands of workers. When employees work remotely, these AI mentors can provide more frequent and targeted feedback than would be possible from human mentors. In the words of an article from the website Chief Learning Officer, as millennial and GenZ workers often desire “smaller and more frequent opportunities to learn and receive feedback, these AI tools could fill an increasingly important role in the corporate learning landscape.”
Enrichment. Offering curated learning content in the form of readings, podcasts, and videos can help your employees augment their understanding of multiple topics according to their own paces and preferences. The curation is important: without guidance, the internet is like a buffet with unlimited choices—there are a few great dishes, but the rest vary in quality. Learners seeking information and training on their own can easily become overwhelmed, a phenomenon that has led companies like Edcast and Degreed to use AI and machine-learning to provide guidance for individuals and organizations. They ensure that only the highest-quality, most relevant and contextual content is presented to you, based on your individual preferences and needs. Professors Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas call this form of 21st-century guidance the “Personal Learning Cloud” (PLC). The systems have offered L&D departments a way to provide personalized and continuous learning experiences for all of their companies’ employees, often at short notice.
One can see from these elements that we now view effective learning as a lifelong, personalized, adaptable, socialized, connected experience—a far cry from the old one-size-fits-all approach. To create a future ready workforce, “The next decade will challenge us to reinvent learning for this new kind of distributed, dynamic, and ultimately more creative workforce. It will also inspire us to re-envision the tools, practices, and standards of assessment for infinite pathways that tomorrow’s learners and workers will pioneer to create their uniquely meaningful lives.”
Learn more about the Center for Asia Leadership’s programmes in strategic foresight and adaptive leadership here at bit.ly/lead-asia.
“The Future of Work and Learning in the Age of the 4th IR,” by Desire2Learn.
“Empowering People in a Hybrid Workforce,” Capita People Solutions. https://www.capita.com/sites/g/files/nginej146/files/2019-10/Human_To_Hybrid.pdf.
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