(Hint: It’s Not AI.)
In a post-pandemic world, companies undoubtedly will turn increasingly to advanced technologies — artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and automation — to accelerate growth and improve profit margins. Such an arms race, however, will not be sustainable as even the latest technology will eventually become commoditized. Instead, the true point of differentiation will be well-educated human capital deployed dynamically to tackle challenges so complex that AI and automation will come up short.
To be clear, technology will be the foundation of digital transformation. As two experts from the World Bank wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Increases in efficiency brought about by digital technology can help businesses expand. Digital platforms can create entirely new occupations and jobs.” Yet that opportunity will not be realized unless people are well-educated, not only when it comes to job-specific technical competencies, but also in 21st century skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, as well as character traits of leadership, ethics, citizenship, and grit.
Based on conversations I’m having with business leaders across multiple industries, and even what I see in our own company, I believe the key to future success — through this decade and beyond — lies in learning engineering. Essentially, that means offering the right learning opportunities to build relevant skills and ensuring that people take advantage of learning and development (L&D). As a chief learning officer (CLO) told me recently, “The pandemic has exposed the fact that L&D is not a ‘nice to have’; it is a ‘need to have.’”
Given the high stakes of having a well-prepared, agile workforce, CLOs are gaining prominence as C-suite leaders understand the importance of creating a learning culture. The stakes are too high to get this wrong. As Korn Ferry, a leading global talent and organization consulting firm, stated: “Whether a company succeeds post-COVID will depend greatly on having the right people, with the right skills, aligned to the work that needs to be done. And all of that starts with a clear view of what their most important capabilities should be going forward.”
Today’s Training Challenges
Although education — efficient, effective, and personalized — will unlock future potential, the fact is many companies have had to reduce the most critical training offerings during the pandemic, whether because of costs or the failure of e-learning “experiments.” Now, many face shortfalls in skills and competency across their workforce.
In addition, with organizations pressured to do more with fewer people, training can be viewed as time away from work — unacceptable when so much needs to be done. As a result, instead of “sharpening the saw,” managers and employees keep laboring without honing their capabilities.
Another challenge is that employees who have been furloughed may have lapsed certifications in critical areas that will impact how and when they can resume their duties. As an executive of a major airline asked me recently, “How do we avoid turmoil, when everyone comes back to work?”
As if that weren’t enough, the post-pandemic workforce will be different, most likely adopting a hybrid working model. As BCG observed, leaders will need to “prepare for and optimize the hybrid working models of tomorrow, in which fully in-person and remote work will be two ends of a fluid spectrum of options…. Hybrid work models, done right, will allow organizations to better recruit talent, achieve innovation, and create value for all stakeholders.”
Given these dynamics, organizations cannot languish in past thinking that as long as some kind of training happens, learning will somehow occur. Simply bringing people together, virtually or in person, will not suffice for the challenges of digital transformation and ongoing evolution. Companies must forge and shape the competency of their workforce — deliberately, purposefully, and strategically.
Focusing on the Problems
While training is imperative, budgets are not limitless. Many companies are operating in a resource-constrained environment. To make the most of their training resources, business leaders need to devote more effort to defining the problems and challenges. As Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
Jumping to solutions too quickly can be costly and wasteful, especially given that more than $300 billion is spent globally on corporate training and education each year and much of it is widely considered ineffective. Clearly, companies can’t merely default to what they’ve always done. In the post-pandemic world, just because large-group training and workshops can resume doesn’t mean they should. So much of that training typically entails large expenditures for travel, lodging, and meals and beverages, without investing sufficiently in learning engineering.
In the same way, it’s easy to become distracted by the promises of what virtual reality (VR) and AI can do. Pursuing technology in education for the sake of technology guarantees a waste of resources. Personalized, efficient online training can be paired with on-the-job coaching and feedback. This is far more cost-efficient and satisfying than investing in a VR simulator that is used 10 times a year.
Large organizations like the American Heart Association, which certifies millions of professionals every year in life saving skills and procedures, have invested and conducted research for years in next-generation, continuous learning tools and digital and blended platforms that have been widely used for more than 15 years.
Simulation is, of course, a vital part of high-stakes training, such as for astronauts, pilots, nuclear power plant operators, and medical professionals, whose jobs carry life-or-death consequences. Yet long before they enter a simulated environment, they must possess the essential knowledge and skills that enables them to make the best use of this training technology.
Optimizing Human Capital
Companies readily understand the value of process engineering and rely on best practices and standard operating procedures from production to logistics. Knowledge-based companies, in particular, spend thousands of dollars per employee on customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and similar tools. Yet, it seems ironic that these companies invest comparatively little to ensure that employee training is effective and efficient.
Talent is the most important part of the toolbox, not simply a cog in a technology-powered machine. It’s time to take a learning engineering approach to optimize human capital.
The change must come from the top, or organizations will not change. As companies begin to assess their plans for a post-pandemic world, L&D will be crucial for establishing a competitive advantage. The steps that are taken now in education will lead to a brighter future for the organizations that invest in their talent.