While watching some recent World War II documentaries, I was fascinated to see the chess match not only between the leaders of the Allied and Axis powers but between field generals, admirals and other commanders beneath them. Much like the WWII commanders, chief learning officers and other learning leaders are having to draw up and modify battle plans to position their organizations to win against the coronavirus.
Besides the fact that our opponent is imperceptible, it is the speed of change that makes the challenge particularly vexing. As recently as the first part of March, some public figures were downplaying the impact of the virus. By the mid-July, jobless claims in the U.S. have soared to more than 50 million, and that number continues to grow. Today, as many small businesses find themselves on the brink of financial insolvency, we are beginning to reopen the economy.
From a learning and development perspective, the impacts of workplace transitions are numerous. These include, to name a few, addressing implications of mass teleworking shifts; devising smart classroom instruction conversions and avoiding virtual instruction fails; fulfilling vast cross-training needs associated with job role changes and reboarding; and producing more and better learning with reduced resources.
So, what are talent development leaders doing to not only address current challenges, but to ready their organizations for our “next normal”?
The “next normal”
With more than 50 hospitals in the western U.S., Providence St. Joseph Health found itself at ground zero, having treated the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. PSJH is a leader in the response to the pandemic, operating some of the largest clinical trials in the country for drug therapies and antibody testing.
PSJH CLO Darci Hall said that while COVID-19 hasn’t affected their thinking and strategy around learning, it has fostered innovation and speed to implementation. “What COVID-19 has done is help to expedite decision-making and ability to drive more innovative solutions in a much quicker fashion as we are reacting to the virus,” she said. ”We have been talking about digital learning for years — and in a very traditional organization like ours, this has given us the ability to implement nontraditional learning in a quicker way.”
TriCore Reference Laboratories, New Mexico’s largest medical laboratory, has been on the forefront of COVID-19 testing for the state. Jillian Gonzales, manager of workforce education and engagement, indicated there is an ongoing shift to the next normal. “We are pivoting to provide all of our usual classes, training and programs to virtual live or prerecorded offerings,” she said. “We also have to develop strategies to support our many SMEs who present content in many of our classes and programs.”
Thor Flosason, senior director of global learning & development at The Kellogg Co., has seen a similar change. Their transition efforts in recent years to more virtual and online learning solutions have helped ready the company for many challenges in these times. “It is pushing us to do more of what we have already started, move quickly and figure out how we can support our leaders and employees in the best way possible to acquire new skills, while paying close attention to their emotional health and wellbeing,” Flosason said.
Addressing new challenges
In our responses to COVID-19, challenges abound in supporting how learning gets done. Adoption of remote collaboration and productivity tools becomes a key consideration. Project priorities continue to evolve. Budgets are cut and employees are furloughed or laid off.
Every business faces unique obstacles based on their industry, offerings, financial well-being and culture. For Hall, it was “the move to mobile and distributed (learning) in a highly regulated/contract/unionized organization. Implementing change and innovation can be difficult when your organization is typically risk-averse.”
Flosason said, “Not knowing what to expect in a post-coronavirus world and how we can truly prepare for that today. There are so many unknowns. How will organizations change their ways of working, policies and how they conduct their business?
“Another hurdle is the whole change-management piece of this,” Flosason continued. “Many people have a hard time with being 100 percent virtual from a learning and productivity standpoint. This includes proficiency with technology and being comfortable with establishing and maintaining important relationships remotely.”
What’s proven effective?
So far, these learning leaders have seen success in a variety of methods and approaches to facing COVID-19 head-on. Gonzales stressed the importance of keeping things simple for urgent needs.
“Not getting stuck in perfection,” she said. “Categorizing to-do’s based on triage learning and needs, projects that can still be maintained, and being proactive to what future learning needs will be.”
Hall added, “getting out to the ‘field’ and learning how our workforce works, learning about our organizational goals, so we can design truly valued added learning and development solutions because we understand the work and the workforce.”
One of the brightest spots in all this is how the learning profession has become a lynchpin in a successful response — smoothing transitions, meeting new upskilling requirements and providing for both organizational and human needs.
The amount of sharing, listening, teaching, mentoring and — above all — helping has been unparalleled. This has been evidenced by cooperation among competitors, courses being provided at no cost and sharing forums for the good of the learning community. Standing up and sharing one’s best ideas with others, while being willing to sit down and learn from others who may have a different idea or a better approach — in these times, we’re witnessing it all.
Insights for our next steps
Looking forward, we will need to figure out how to best continue into uncharted territory. Hall shared a number of suggestions.
“Get to know your organizational needs and the organizational readiness,” she said. “Build strategic relationships with the ‘influencers’ in your organization to help support and drive the learning and development vision. Be bold and challenge your team to think big and broader on how learning should look in the future to support your workforce.”
Gonzales emphasized the importance of idea sharing, both internally and externally.
“Reach out to L&D leaders and groups outside of your organization,” she said. “Maintain those connections to share resources and lessons learned while also being a support system. Provide microlearning content to your HR and communications departments. Partner with them to support the organization.”
Flosason knows that he must focus on the here and now as well as plan ahead: “We will learn from successes and failures and then be better equipped to support and provide learning in a dramatically different environment.”
He stresses understanding and embracing the very important role learning leaders play in managing through the crisis and beyond. “It’s almost like we are resetting everything, how we operate, how we collaborate and how we add value to our organizations. It’s a huge responsibility and we must use this opportunity to help lead the way. We must innovate like never before; this is not about converting learning solutions from one solution to a different solution. This calls for a complete recontextualization of learning. I think learning leaders are up for the challenge.”
With the phased reopening of the economy, undoubtedly there will be new challenges ahead. In this dynamically changing environment, learning leaders on the front lines are now battle-tested and well-positioned to keep their organizations healthy and to prevail in this fight against COVID-19.