The New L&D Gameplan: How to Safeguard Against Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

learning and development webinar

During a panel discussion with Nick Howe, Chief Learning Officer at Area9 Lyceum, and Fernando Sanchez-Arias, Chief People Officer at CLICK Institute, we gathered valuable insight and actionable tips on how to navigate the future for L&D. Discussion points included what COVID-19 and all the disruption of the last few months means for L&D, why were so many of us less than prepared, and how can we deal with uncertainty better in the future?

Check out the transcript of the webinar below! The discussion here has been shortened/edited for clarity, so you might want to check out the on-demand recording of the full webinar here.

In regard to the real impact of COVID-19 on learning teams, what are you hearing as the key challenges that have been faced by L&D specifically now that there’s been some adaptations made?

Nick: So there’s a couple of major things I don’t think are going to come as a surprise to anybody. One was obviously the shut down of instructor led training and the knee jerk reaction to that. I don’t think we’ve ever faced anything like it.

Almost everything in L&D happens gradually. Um, that was almost overnight. You know, all ILT got shut off and I’ve spoken to a number of clients about that. You know, we often think of internal L&D departments who’ve got to deliver their training internally.

But I come from a technology background, where there’s a lot of customer education as well. And a lot of that historically has been exclusively instructor led training and revenue generating. And to have that turned off all overnight… Suddenly that’s a revenue stream that’s been eliminated from some organizations.

And the other part of that, of course, is just the general impact on businesses and the consequent impact on budgets. And the tightening of belts that go on. So at the time when suddenly L&D is faced with this massive challenge of almost reinventing how we do what we do, it wasn’t like “oh, and here’s a bunch of money to try and help you do that often.” It was the exact opposite, right? So, you know, if ever there was a double whammy, this is it.

Fernando: Yes, I think that following that line, Nick has mentioned two key dynamics. One is moving from instructor led training to a digital and virtual modality. The second one is how the changes in the economy and the dynamic of the different industries affect the budget that is allocated to L&D.

I have experienced this from two different perspectives. One is that the budget has migrated from instructor led face-to-face training to digital learning. So how will I be able to upskill my people in digital and technological training delivery?.

The other one is the social impact of productivity and wellness and wellbeing. So no matter where we work now, whether that be from our parent’s home or our summer cottage or our building apartment or house, that dynamic is also affecting the way we are feeling and our team results and the way we generate those results.

In terms of the budget migration, I will add that there has been a tendency to focus on technical skills and digital skills over soft skills and cognitive skills. 

So why has L&D been so challenged by this recent pivot?  

Nick: I think one of the obvious issues is that it’s a fundamentally different skillset, right? So you’ve got a bunch of trainers who are used to delivering face to face.

So you go from ILT, which is a very delivery centric modality to elearning, which is a very development centric modality. And so you can’t switch that overnight. The other thing which I don’t necessarily think people thought about enough is that even virtual ILT training delivery is a different skill than in person virtual delivery.

I went through that when I was CLO of Hitachi a few years ago. You just can’t take someone, even the best instructor in a classroom environment, and put them in front of the camera to teach. It is a different skill set, so there’s retraining needed there.

And then on the e-learning side, content delivery is not the same as teaching. Making PowerPoints and suddenly putting that on your intranet is not true e-learning. So I think, because things happened so quickly, people were forced to make changes, but it was not a simple change.

And we couldn’t expect them to be able to react as quickly as they were expected to because of the factors that I just laid out. 

Fernando: I have just learned the term “phygital,” which is a marketing term. It was created by a New York advertising firm to explain how physical, traditional marketing strategies could mix with digital marketing strategy. And then when I started to read about it and to learn about it, I said, this is perfect. This is just blended learning. 

This is the physical ILT versus the virtual, digital VLT and it’s a perfect term because, as Nick was saying, we were very capable masters of ILT, so face to face, physical learning.

Prior to COVID, many organizations were not seeing the digitization of learning as a “must” in the present. We were always seeing it as the future, even if we had already started down the path. And COVID-19 came like a slap in the face to say: “wake up, it’s now!”


So that is the challenge. We have had a lot of universities coming to us asking if we can help professors and researchers to be more engaging and connect with audiences online as schools are having that challenge, too. So I totally second the concern Nick raises that it’s not the same world and we need now to also become masters of the virtual environment.

We’ve heard that a lot of learning and development teams have had a significant uptick in the volume of training that’s being requested from them. Do you have any advice to leadership as to what they can do to help their training teams deal with this volume? 

Nick:  So I’ve been in L&D for 20 years now and I think it’s always been a challenge. I think, if you’re doing it right, the demand from the business always outstrips your capacity.

Because, at least in my experience, everything is a training problem until it isn’t. So it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the business. It’s always a training problem. I think one of the biggest skills that any L&D department can have is, well, two skills that are very complimentary.

One is the ability to prioritize, which is really a function of being close to the business. If you do not understand why this training is being asked for and why it matters, then you shouldn’t be in your job to begin with. But then the second one that compliments this is the ability to say no to the business, but do that in a way that isn’t going to burn any bridges.

I worked for a company that no longer exists called EDS. Back in the day, I was an IT person working the IT help desk. And we used to get calls to fix printers. Well, printers are a low priority thing, you know? Find another printer. It’s fine. 

Unless that printer happens to be on the loading dock. If that printer isn’t working, trucks don’t go out and deliveries don’t happen. So not every piece of it is the same. And it’s exactly the same for learning the ability to figure out exactly what is going on in the business and whether it’s a short term issue or a longterm issue, is it tactical or strategic? 

But, also, why does this matter? Is it, in fact, a training problem? And if so, where does it rank against all the priorities? I think regardless of COVID or anything else, those disciplines have to be at the core of any L&D function. Otherwise, you shouldn’t exist within the business. 

Fernando, do you have any strategies or advice for people on how they can go about prioritizing those projects? 

Fernando: One would be to create the content in a way that is required, the other is to connect that relevance with the set of skills that is required.

When we learn about design thinking, a lot of people see design thinking as something that is only for Agile scrum masters, developers, and IT people. But we use design thinking for everything for our business strategy, from conflict resolution to learning experience design. So when we look at learning processes, we know that we need to empathize.

And then once we have that empathy, we need to detect clearly, who is our learner? How does that learner require a new set of cognitive, affective, or psychomotor skills and why? And we can have a clear point of view on how to create a design and enterprise paradigm and so on.

So first is empathize, know your learners, and, once that’s clear, what is relevant for those learners? What are the skills needed and how is the experience of external customers being improved as a result?

The better we learn, the better we help our people learn. And if we work on that learning experience as learning leaders, we will have a direct impact on the associate experience and we will have a direct impact on the customer experience. 

Nick: I think, unfortunately, that many business leaders don’t know what they need. But they will often come to us as though they do. The number of times that I’ve had leaders come to me and say, “I want a three day course on this.”

And my answer, as politely as possible, is no, actually that isn’t what you need. So there’s classic consulting skills of diagnosing what the problem is. You can’t go to the doctor and say – “I want a hundred penicillin.” You go to them, and hopefully the doctor’s going to figure out what the problem is by doing some diagnosis. We have to do exactly the same thing. And that comes back to saying no. We’ve got to make sure that we’re treating the right problem.

Too often in L&D, it’s a knee jerk reaction, or we’re trying to be nice to people or we’re trying to be helpful and we give them what they want. But,  actually, what they need is not what they want. 

Fernando: I agree, Nick, when you say that you have to know how to say no. One of my colleagues in Home Depot would say to the VP or president of a division “I’ll write that on my list and then we’ll come back to you and see if it’s feasible.”

Whereas I was always inclined to just say yes. But my colleague was teaching me to say no. She’d say “Fernando, we have to say no to nine things so we can do one.”

agile learning project team

One of the things that we’re hearing a lot is how resource management has changed and how it’s getting more difficult to manage resources. What mistakes do you think are being made in resource management and what can learning leaders do to improve upon that?

Nick: Again, this is not a new problem.  Resource prioritization has always been an issue. I think one of the surprising things to me is that we do a relatively poor job of resource management. But it’s because there are so few tools, right?

If you look at the learning ecosystem, you’ve got learning management systems, you’ve got authoring tools, mentoring tools… There are very, very few tools that actually help L&D manage things like resource management.

At Hitachi, we had to build our own tool. I had a hundred people in my organization. We did a lot of training. I spent millions of dollars a year. I’m trying to do that resource management element on spreadsheets or just randomly.

It’s just not possible. So, you know, one question I would ask when it comes to resource management is do you know how you are spending resources? Do you know how your resources are allocated? What is your utilization? Is it economic? Is it costing you more money to build Course A versus Course B? Do you have those processes in place to even determine whether you should be doing this in the first place? 

So, step number one in resource management is to figure out, should we even be doing this? And, for me, in all of these considerations, there are three things. There is effectiveness, efficiency, and engagement. And I think too often these days we focus on engagement.

We make pretty training that is very enjoyable and very interactive.  But if it wasn’t effective, all you’ve done is just wasted the company’s money. Clearly we all need to make sure that what we do is engaging, but first and foremost, I think our job is to build capability, to execute the company strategy.

So step number one is don’t do anything that isn’t adding value to the business. Once we  have a mechanism in place to determine what value looks like, then we can look at, can we drive efficiency into that process and get better and better at what we’re doing.

And whilst we are doing all of that, make sure that we’re not actually upsetting learners in the process. We have to make sure that they are engaged and we are living by the employee value proposition. But that has got to be balanced with the efficiency and effectiveness of what we’re doing as well.

Fernando: Yes, I think one of the things that we have as a challenge is how we can be data driven decision makers, rather than thinking from our intuition. 

And the first step of design thinking, I repeat, is empathizing, knowing the audience, knowing the people you’re serving with your work. So if we don’t use data, if we are not data scientists in our job, we’re missing the bus. And the train will pass in front of us.

We will be ready with our luggage, with our coat and umbrella, but we will not catch the train. Or worse, we will catch the wrong train and we will be in the middle nowhere halfway through the journey. 

And that will be devastating from a financial perspective and operationally, and the learners will be frustrated and those who are smart will leave the organization. So, I believe that being a data scientist does not require you to have perfect logic, or be a critical thinker, or a mathematician, or physicist.

I am more into arts and thinking and the humanities side of the business. But I can still understand metrics. And if I don’t, I make sure that I have a team member who is smarter than I, who tells me what to do and how to read reports or how to organize the data in the right way.

So if you have a lot of practical, smart people who solve problems amazingly. And if you’re humble enough to listen to them, you will be leveraging that human capacity in a better way. Your resources. 

If you’re not driven in the way you handle and manage resources, using a business mindset, you are missing the train or getting on the wrong train. 

Nick: Our job is to build capability. I mean, ultimately, it’s to contribute to the business, to make more revenue and profit and drive client satisfaction and all that kind of stuff. But we are not logistics. We are not finance. We are not sales. We are L&D and our job is to help build capability. And so for me, the first and only question is, do you know whether you are doing that?

If you do not know whether, at the end of your training, people have actually accomplished what you set out to do, then stop what you are doing now. It’s like the post office. It doesn’t matter how many pieces of mail go through the sorting machine. If it doesn’t get to the house that it’s meant to go to, they are utterly failing. 

If I cannot get evidence that this initiative is actually working, then I have to question why I’m doing it. Because I might as well just be throwing things at a wall. It might be working. It might not. And I don’t think that’s a responsible position for a business leader to hold. So I would invest as much money in measurement as you do in developing training.

That’s almost heresy, right? We’ve got to spend the bulk of our money developing and delivering the training. And if we’ve got a bit left over, we’ll measure it. 

Fernando: It’s important that we can measure that they are learning, ensuring that you’re changing behavior. Ensuring that they are actually having an impact in the business. It’s very easy to waste perspective and miss the train again by simply measuring completion. 

People need to be learning, changing behaviour and improving performance. And if that change cannot be perceived by internal stakeholders, external customers, and team members, then we’re not doing our job.

What are your top three pieces of advice for learning leaders as they move into this new future? 

Nick: So number one is: focus on outcomes. Don’t focus on the content, focus on outcomes. And if you cannot sit down and write why you are doing this and how it links to some kind of business measure, then you’ve got a question while you’re doing it in the first place.

Number two is to do with measurement. Too often, I think we launch programs and either not even think about measurement or measurement is an absolute afterthought. And for the techies of you out there, just adding xAPI to something is not what I’m talking about.

Because those are all lagging indicators. The likelihood is you’re going to record a load of data and then never even look at it. What I’m talking about is from the very beginning, building into the design of the program an understanding of what you’re going to measure, how you’re going to measure it, and making sure you set aside resources to do that.

Number three gets back to something I said much earlier: content delivery is not training. We have more than 50 years of research into how people learn and what good learning looks like. And finally, there are tools that are beginning to come to market that incorporate cognitive science and other science directly into the tools that we use. 

I would argue that many of the authoring tools that are out there today just make it easier and easier for non-professionals to build bad training. So, to summarize, you do not need to be a data scientist. I don’t think you need to be a cognitive scientist.  But I do think you have to recognize it. 

Those things are fundamental to the future of our profession. And I would say as of 2020, one of your key gating criteria for new learning technology should be, does this tool help me get better at measuring the outcome of what we do and does it embrace what we know as a profession actually makes us better at doing our jobs? Does it help learners learn more quickly or perform better? And if the tools don’t do that, if the tools are just kind of Photoshop on steroids that  just lets you build pretty things, that is not learning and teaching.

Fernando: So the first one for me is consciousness. And I believe that if we’re more conscious of our role as learning leaders, if we’re more conscious as human beings with mindful decision making processes and ability to understand data and to be conscious of our purpose, our work as learning leaders would dramatically improve. 

Second is connection. I do firmly believe that you must be well connected with the right relationships inside the organizations you work with. And that could be within professional associations, chambers of commerce, learning research centres, think tanks, communities.. If you are not connected you will not really be at the edge. 

The second part of connection is within your own organization. You need to be connected with the financial guys, you need to reconnect with the CEO and the COO. You need to be connected with the Chief Marketing Officer and the Merchandising Officer. You need to be connected with the Chief Digital Officer. You need to be a partner. It’s not just about earning a seat any more, it’s about speaking up. You have a voice, so speak up. 

The final one is co-creating anything you’re going to be doing. As Nick said, if it’s not connected with a strategy, don’t do it. But if you’re going to do it, co-create it. Co-create with subject matter experts, with learners, audiences, and users. If it is a co-creation, it will always be better. 

This is not an advertisement. I don’t belong to the board of directors. I am not an investor. But I am a user and I have been a follower of Synapse. Synapse is a tool that can help you to have that involvement. Because it puts the customers, the subject matter experts, the learning designers and those who are going to be deploying the solution experience in the center.

Nick: There’s a new breed of technologies that are coming to market which I think are going to sustain L&D over the next 20 years. And that is helping people become much more self aware of the knowledge and skills they hold and of the misconceptions they hold, which will really unlock consciousness about how well we are able to cope with new and novel situations.

And that humility, to recognize that maybe not everything I believe today is in fact, the way the world works or is actually going to help me in this situation. I think unconscious incompetence is the biggest overlooked thing in L&D today. And has the biggest potential to massively improve the outcomes for learners. It’s the next frontier of where we need to go as an industry.

Fernando kindly shared some interesting reports that further speak to some of the discussion points that came up during the webinar. You can check them out below:

LinkedIn 2020 Workplace Learning Report
Udemy 2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report
OECD The Future of Education and Skills 2030

Check out our resources page for more insightful on-demand webinar recordings, ebooks, toolkits, and more.

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