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Facing Economic Slowdown with Nimble Learning

Learning is still not the top priority for many C-level executives. This becomes once more evident at times of impending economic slowdown or even downturn. Seeking their salvation in cost savings usually leaves an immediate impact on initiatives that support learning. Yet it is precisely in these times that organizations need to prepare and be ready to respond nimbly to the challenges ahead. Investing in learning is one of the most effective things leaders can do to support employees, the organization and society in these turbulent times. In fact, a lack of consistent investment in learning, both in good times and bad, is one of the reasons why companies fail.

This is the time to invest in human-capital

Globally, confidence in the economy and businesses is declining, with some in fear of a global recession, which is also being reflected in the morale of executives and employees. Yet, according to many experts, the recession feared today is different from the previous ones. Unlike those, key fundamentals of the economy now appear stronger, including the dynamics of the labour market; according to Lisa Shalett, "the labour market is not only tight, as defined by the unemployment rate, but also shows a record number of new job openings relative to potential applicants.".

Instead of cutting budgets, executives should focus on deploying a nimble workforce through upskilling, to respond to the challenges of an increasingly fast-changing world. This permanent focus on learning also supports staff wellbeing in times of potential recession.

Executives who continue to invest in employees, even if not through expensive training, see employee morale bolstered and their increased connection to the organization. An employer who can offer growth opportunities and perspective will also seem more attractive to young, ambitious talent.

It is not just the pressure of the recession that makes employees anxious about their future: the skills that used to offer them lifelong prospects are starting to appear irrelevant, under the pressure of increasing digitalization. This puts even more pressure not only on employees' wellbeing, but also on organizational performance and society in general.

A holistic approach to learning

The above challenges put pressure on the efforts made by L&D practitioners to respond to problems that are now emerging. However, this problem-focused approach will always be lagging behind. A forward-looking strategic and holistic approach, focusing on opportunities for growth, cannot be the responsibility of L&D staff alone. It should be a shared vision from the executive team to grow from continuous learning and improvement, a supported effort and investment from everyone in the ecosystem. Therefore, learning should not be a cost but an investment in the future.

A culture of learning can sometimes be achieved with very simple initiatives and does not require expensive training or programmes. Simple adjustments that focus on teamwork, respect and understanding often lay the seeds for a new culture. For instance, introducing the “Why Question” in (performance) interviews, when giving assignments, changing strategies or practices, etc. can make a huge difference in the short term.

Purposefullly asking the “Why Question” should become a habit which leads to gaining mutual understanding about why change (i.e. learning) is important for the employee, the organization and possibly even society. It seems simple, yet asking why is still seen as a negative and even leadership-undermining question in many organizations and cultures. Yet the many conversations I have had with international leaders who launched this initiative show that results were quickly achieved and benefited everyone in the learning ecosystem.

Innovation to support lean learning ecosystems

Besides changes in teamwork to support learning culture, other, often low-cost technological innovations, can also contribute to knowledge sharing, engagement and the organization's learning culture.

At a time when the intelligent symbiosis between humans and machines is becoming increasingly simple, learning also takes on a new dimension. Making learning 'lean' from an abundance of data and innovation ensures that it can take place when needed and that it is applicable to the job. The switch from time-consuming and expensive training, as we often encountered in onboarding and up-skilling, to learning in the “Moment of Need” not only enables lean learning but increases productivity and significantly reduces the risk of errors.

A simple and inexpensive implementation of technology that has been on the rise in recent years is microlearning. These easy-to-implement applications often use gamification, possibly coupled with confidence-based learning methods and AI, to support individual learning paths and personalized coaching. An approach Andrew Stotter-Brooks, Vice President of Learning and Development Etihad Aviation Group, applied with great success during another challenging period that caused the massive downturn in the aviation industry in 2020.

Continuous improvement to learning strategies

In my new book Learning Ecosystems, I discuss not only a learning culture-based engagement supported by forward-looking competencies, but I also delve into innovations that often still seem futuristic such as VR, AR, spatial computing, digital twins, haptic sensing and the promise the metaverse (eduverse) holds for learning ecosystems. These are already firmly established among young people and even in sectors like healthcare, as Rafael J. Grossmann also points out. More so, as a pioneer in terms of deploying these innovations in surgery and for training purposes, he also sees benefits in using these innovations to make healthcare staff more ethical and to provide safe, compassionate care.

However, innovations like the ones Grossmann cites are often not the starting point of a learning ecosystem; they require in-depth preparation that looks at opportunities and added value for all stakeholders of the learning ecosystem. When this is not done together with a holistic analysis of the digital landscape, the implementations could not achieve the desired results.

In summary, there are 3 frequently recurring causes why innovative learning often fails within an organization;

  • No C-level engagement and thus no priority for organizational growth with a people-centric approach
  • No in-depth discovery of future-proof opportunities and too much focus on solving problems with a short horizon
  • Not involving all stakeholders in the discovery phase, resulting in too little support for those affected by the transition.

Therefore, if organizations want to grow nimble and sustainable, even in times of declining growth and a looming recession, they need to put learning strategies on the executive team's agenda. They need to invest in opportunities that support a learning culture, with engaged and inquisitive employees. By doing so, they will not only be more resilient in challenging times but also come out stronger.

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