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L&D in the New Normal: Challenges, Roles and Opportunities

In recent years, learning and development has shifted towards a more learner-centric perspective. It is less concerned with how to plan, run and evaluate training courses and impose them on employees. Instead, the major preoccupation is understanding how people learn and knowing what the best environment is in which they will learn. These considerations dictate their role to L&D professionals. This puts the focus primarily on workplace learning where it has been estimated that 70 per cent of learning takes place, embracing the concepts of ‘learning in-the-flow of work’ and self-directed learning. But more attention is also being paid to remote learning, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic. The emphasis is increasingly on various forms of digital learning to support these activities.

What challenges are L&D facing currently?

The major issues facing L&D are the needs to:

  • Ensure that L&D policy and practice supports the achievement of the organization’s strategic objectives. The need is for L&D to be aligned to the business and deliver a tangible impact on organizational and individual performance.
  • Shift away from a focus on running formal training courses to the promotion of workplace learning and the provision of help and guidance to line managers in carrying out their responsibilities for learning and development in their departments. This is by no means straightforward. The subtleties of workplace learning and the problems of getting line managers involved and ensuring they have the skills they need such as coaching are less obvious. Considerable powers of influence and persuasion are required on the part of L&D specialists.
  • Encourage and support self-directed learning. Again, a less obvious requirement than the delivery of learning events but nevertheless important.
  • Extend the use of digital learning. This means possessing expertise in selecting and developing the technology and fitting it into a blended learning programme.
  • Responding to the challenges following the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the shift to home working.

The role of the L&D professional is changing. Training managers of the past were almost exclusively engaged in providing formal courses or supervising formal training programmes and it is still an important activity. But new style learning and development professionals no longer spend most if not all of their time delivering face-to-face training events or supervising training. Instead, they are increasingly involved in providing some form of digitalized learning and, importantly, encouraging workplace learning. The trend is for their role to become that of an internal consultant rather than an old-fashioned trainer. They advise on performance issues related to people and promote workplace and social learning. They are more concerned with facilitating learning than with delivering learning. Facilitating learning means guiding line managers on how to get learning done in their departments, encouraging and supporting self-directed learning, curating learning content and providing bite-sized training content which can be accessed by employees on their smartphones. Key aspects of the changing role of L&D professionals are examined below.

The role of L&D professionals in workplace learning

Although most learning may occur in the workplace this does not absolve L&D from any responsibility for its effectiveness; quite the opposite. L&D has to be much more closely involved in what is going on than it was when it lived in a remote learning centre delivering formal courses. This is a facilitation process and by no means as clear cut as planning and delivering learning events. It is probably the most difficult task facing L&D professionals.

What L&D professionals have to do is to encourage line managers to be fully involved in improving the quality of learning in their departments, advise them on how to set about it and provide coaching as required on how to do so. L&D professionals can advise on learning arrangements, for example, the provision of onboarding (induction) training, skills training, mentoring or buddying. They can provide online learning material to support learning in the flow of work.

The role of L&D professionals in facilitating self-directed learning

In self-directed learning individuals take charge of the learning process. They identify their learning needs, decide on their learning objectives, locate the resources needed for learning, initiate learning programmes and finally evaluate their learning. By definition, L&D professionals are not directly involved in delivering the learning but they do have a role to play in providing encouragement and advice, helping people ‘to learn to learn’ and in curation - advising on the learning material available and enabling it to be accessed online.

The role of L&D professionals in digital learning

L&D professionals establish which forms of digital learning should be adopted, select and operate learning platforms, create e-learning content, and oversee the application of digital learning as part of a blended learning approach with particular relevance to self-directed learning.

The role of L&D professionals in performance consulting

Performance consulting consists of identifying or responding to a business or corporate need, analysing the nature and reasons for the need and deciding how a learning and development initiative could satisfy it. This may mean facilitating workplace learning or planning and implementing a formal learning event or programme. The ultimate purpose is to connect behaviour with corporate or business results in order to engage employees and encourage them to develop the capabilities and carry out the activities that will achieve that purpose. To be effective as performance consultants L&D professionals need to possess business acumen and know the key factors that affect organizational performance and how these factors impinge on the performance expected from individual employees and on the skills they need.

As technology evolves and work patterns shift, the role of the L&D practitioner is likely to adapt and fluctuate. In the new world of work, L&D will need to focus on self-directed learning, making the most of the digital tools at their disposal and improving employee performance.

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