Thursday, 18 June 2020

The new role for L&D professionals in the new normal

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on organisational learning seems to have come in phases, seemingly coinciding with the generalised public response to the situation:

First - Working from home? What fun! It will only be for a couple of weeks.

Second - It's going to be longer than a couple of weeks. When can we get back to normal?

Third - Normal is never coming back. We'd better get used to this.

For L&D professionals, it went something like this:

First - Pause our programs for a couple of weeks. Just reschedule everything.

Second - Quick! Somebody open a Zoom account.

Third - We might never use these classrooms again. We'd better figure out a new way.

For independent learning professionals, the routine was a little different. First, we saw the wave of free webinars on 'normal' topics, as trainers figured this was a good way to keep clients 'warm' until things 'blew over'. Then, we saw the wave of free webinars promising to teach you how to run a webinar. The background noise on LinkedIn seems to have shifted again now as trainers and coaches figure that working online isn't that bad and they can probably reshape their delivery permanently. If we get classrooms back, that will be a nice luxury, but we can manage without them. If everyone else can work online, why can't we?

The public face of the L&D profession is centred around delivering training, however we're not talking about Training and Development, we're talking about Learning and Development. Training is what L&D professionals did when they had the luxury and convenience of training rooms and captive audiences. Training is what L&D professionals do when they're talking into a webcam. Notice that training rooms are not learning rooms. Training is what organisational managers expect L&D professionals to do, because it's an obviously visible thing to do. For the majority of organisations that have no idea how to measure learning, it's easy to measure training. You can count the hours that someone spends reading out PowerPoint slides, but can you measure the organisational impact of what the participants have learned? Too difficult. Too time consuming. We've got work to do.

This pandemic and its effect on working practices, organisational relationships, job security, stress and anxiety is an opportunity to readjust. Yes, yes, I know you've heard that before. Let's look at what it means for the role of a L&D professional.

First, the emphasis is on learning, not training. Learning takes place whether you're training or not. Learning will always take place. Humans are, if nothing else, learning machines. Aligning what they're learning with organisational goals, that's the trick. As I said in my book Change Magic, as a telecoms apprentice I learned how to falsify timesheets and conceal private mileage on the company van by disconnecting the speedometer cable. I don't think that's what my managers intended for me to learn, but that's the downside of apprenticeships - you get it all. Therefore, L&D professionals can do something far more useful than deliver training - they can measure learning. Everyday, practical, real-time learning. Problem solving. As I wrote in Change Magic, the people who are working at an organisation's external interfaces are innovating in every moment of every day. They are facing new situations, they are presented with new customer behaviours, they are problem solving months before the steering committees and focus groups and quality teams get involved. If the people on your front lines weren't innovating in every moment, your organisation would cease to function within weeks, such is the speed of change in customer behaviour. As a L&D professional, you can be capturing this learning, harnessing the power of real time innovation.

I once worked with the L&D team of a large services company which sold, amongst other things, holidays. They had one sales agent who outsold the rest of the team put together. When they looked carefully at what he was doing, he ran the sales script in a different sequence to everyone else. At first, it made no sense, but in the context of the customer environment, it made absolute sense. The L&D team were able to share that learning.

Second, When the pandemic's progress slows down and more people return to work, it won't simply be a matter of opening the doors and turning the heating back on. You will be dealing with mass trauma, grief, symptoms of PTSD, apathy, disengagement, fear, anxiety and stress. Getting people back into the workplace will be the biggest staff induction we've ever seen. Your staff will need time, and they will need space, and care, and the opportunity to share their stories.

The worst case scenario, once the pandemic is under control, is that people rush to forcibly impose the old normal, because that's their comfort zone. People are already queuing to get back into clothing stores. Pretending that everything is back to normal creates a greater disconnect between reality and fantasy, and that's destructive. If we forget the lessons of this crisis, we will be doomed to repeat them. The organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament protected themselves against the impact of the pandemic with an insurance policy. Since 2003, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) has purchased pandemic insurance at a cost of £1.5m per year, totalling around £25m. Money well spent? This year, it has claimed on that policy - £114m.

Prescience? Clairvoyance? Did they see it in the runes? No, they were adversely impacted by the SARS outbreak in 2003 and learned that pandemics are not a one-off event. COVID-19 will not be the last, and organisations who survive, adapt and learn will be in a stronger position next time.

L&D professionals have a valuable role - a new role - in capturing organisational learning. We can capture the stories, the pain, the healing, and integrate all of this learning into the fabric of the organisation. This is the legacy of the L&D profession.

When people used to come back into the office on a Monday morning, what was the first thing they did? They told stories of what they did at the weekend. Like hunters returning to the village, they told of their daring exploits in the garden centre, their triumphs with their new hedge trimmer, the adversities that they rose above as they conquered Sunday lunch at the in-laws. People don't tell those stories to pass the time, or avoid work. These stories are a necessary part of re-establishing the social group, the fabric which holds teams and workplaces together, the vital set of relationships which serve as the foundation for trust, teamwork, communication and, ultimately, productivity. If we deny people the time to share their stories now, we risk mass disengagement, a fundamental breakdown in workplace trust and potentially an economic impact that far exceeds that of the 'lockdown'.

People will come back into work questioning their priorities in life, their working practices, their commutes, their relationships, their identity. Some people can't wait to get back into the office, others never want to come back. Some commentators are saying that we haven't been working from home, we've been attempting to work remotely during a crisis. Certainly there are health and safety considerations. Families who have to take turns using the dining room as a conference venue, people suffering back pain as they crouch over a tiny laptop screen perched on a pile of books, the challenges of home schooling. Tiny laptops are great to take on the train and write a couple of emails. But working on that small screen and keyboard for 3 months, every day? Not everyone has the space at home for an office desk and large monitor. In fact, it's more likely that hardly anyone has that luxury. Managers are still trying, and struggling, to impose their old performance management systems.

We are standing on the edge of a systemic breakdown in trust. Without trust, you have no business. Perhaps the most important way that we rebuild trust is by listening. That doesn't mean that you'll have a couple of focus groups, nod sympathetically and then tick a box. It means that listening becomes the number one priority, every day, until that trust is restored.

Don't rush back into training. Invest time in capturing learning. This is the new role of the L&D professional.