Learning in a Hybrid Environment

By Lucinda Carney, CEO of Actus

Looking back on the year, do you feel as though you have learnt a lot or a little? It may not have been the sort of learning we anticipated or hoped for, but most of us have gained an abundance of new knowledge and skills over the past year that never would have made it into our development plan in 2019.

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Let’s consider the new words that have entered our daily vocabulary as a demonstration of this change. Furlough and viral load, for instance, alongside the new technological skills that many of us have mastered such as break-out rooms, polls and video backgrounds – each of which has become part of normal life. In a shift to remote working, people have been hungry for easy to access virtual information at their fingertips to help them morph and adjust to their new surroundings – and they want this type of learning to be more human rather than purely surfing the net.

During the two lockdowns we all wanted highly relevant information delivered to our devices exactly when we needed it. This meant that those who were providing it were having to pivot and create fresh content quickly, and within the moment.  Although many have commented that creativity has been hampered by remote working, there has undoubtedly been plenty of innovative content and learning created and delivered online. Attendance for our regular Actus webinars increased from an average of 25 people per session in 2019 to a high of 350 during the 2020 summer lockdown – and these numbers remain high as visitors keep returning after having realised that online learning isn’t always about dry knowledge transfer. Live webinars, for instance, that are delivered in the right format and make full use of the tools that technology has provided us with can transform remote learning into a social and enjoyable experience, enabling groups to chat and network while learning. Individuals like myself, are simply just-in-time curators with a sprinkling of creativity and perhaps a virtual presentation panache. This can emulate (although not replace) a face-to-face environment with distinct advantages due to the fact that remote learning is both time-efficient and cost effective.

But, how does this method fit with a more strategic approach to organisational learning? No Head of Learning and Development, however brilliant, would have foreseen the needs of 2020 in terms of learning requirements. Although, it is true there were, and still are, some glaring gaps in terms of certain key skillsets. Hybrid and remote working shone the spotlight firmly back on the good old elephant in the room – people management skills, or lack of them. How many times do we have to be reminded of the endemic underinvestment in the skills of line managers in the UK? Pre-COVID, we regularly read shocking statements which highlighted poor management and leadership in business. According to research by the department for Business Innovation and Skills, a lack of effective management costs the UK economy up to £19bn a year through lost productivity. Furthermore, research from the Chartered Management Institute reported that 71% of UK leaders believed that training for new managers could be improved or that training often didn’t happen at all. We have yet to see how this historic lack of investment in core people skills will have a long-term impact on the wellbeing and engagement levels of staff during 2021.

On a brighter note, many organisations are now recognising that the transactional management styles that may have sufficed in the days of the office are simply not adequate to keep remote workers motivated and productive. Now, more are committing investment to help improve the essential skills of people managers, especially since they have realised that this can be done without taking up too much time or having to purchase expensive offsite training courses. A major positive of this whole pandemic, in my opinion, is the fact that we have had the convergence of technology, circumstances and desire to learn and share knowledge in a completely different way.

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However, most of us are quite a long way from having an established learning culture, remote or otherwise although the pandemic has perhaps provided us with a kick start. When Actus recently asked a group of 150 managers and HR professionals whether they felt they had a learning culture in their organisation 80% responded ‘Not really’ or ‘In pockets’, suggesting there is still a way to go.

When we asked this same group of people to explain learning in their organisations, only 5% described it as a sophisticated 70/20/10 approach despite this being considered the panacea by many. Many described learning as a ‘tick-box’ compliance which is certainly a challenge for those in regulated industries whereby certain training needs to be completed annually, usually by e-learning. How can this approach be improved in 2021 or at least stop tarnishing the concept of learning as a whole?

Others noted that people are learning on the job but expect more formal development, or that they had lots of learning content but low uptake. There are many possible reasons for this that are definitely worth exploring. First of all, let’s remind ourselves of our underdeveloped line managers, if we develop their ability to act as coaches and mentors then we can have a multiplier effect in terms of developing the workforce or at least helping them to acknowledge or take responsibility for their own learning. In terms of underutilised course content – presumably e-learning catalogues. Many of us, myself included, cringe at the thought of e-learning as it reminds us of painful, dry content that abounded 20 years ago. With the technological developments available to us today, there really is no excuse for that style of content anymore.

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The pandemic has shown us that most people do want to learn, but on their terms. They don’t want to be talked at or to be forced to digest monotonous content for the sake of it. However, they do want to be engaged, to learn with others and to have support around their development. Learning for many people needs to be active and applicable rather than passive and if we harness technology with a little bit of imagination, this can be done. It seems that the pains of 2020 may have caused a bit of a revolution in our approach to remote learning and that can only be a good thing.

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