Strategising your organisation’s Learning and Development programs in extraordinary times

Strategising your organisation’s Learning and Development programs in extraordinary times

A year ago, Covid-19 and its impacts could not have been imagined. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, and careful planning, companies can better prepare for the year or two ahead.

Almost a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, the future seems extraordinarily uncertain. Even before Covid-19’s rapid and rampant spread, recent years had witnessed major disruption: cracks in the established global geopolitical balance, the Brexit schism in Europe, trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. At home, a new president struggling to sweep clean the heavy economic burdens of state capture.

In parallel, the exponential surge in digital technologies and scientific discoveries means that the pace of change is unrelenting. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that, in just a few years’ time, more than half the world’s workforce will require major retraining or upskilling. The WEF’s Future of Jobs report projects the displacement of 75 million workers across the world’s twenty largest economies. McKinsey estimates five times that number by the end of the decade, with nearly 10% of the global workforce doing jobs not yet thought of, triggered by the advancement of the Internet-of-Things technologies, autonomous or ‘co-bot’ machinery, and Artificial Intelligence.

All of this makes the need for resilient, upskilled talent crucial. How should companies react?

Nurturing your workforce is crucial for competitive advantage. In their latest worldwide survey of CEOs, PwC report that 74% are either ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the unsuitability of their workforces’ skills to meet current and future requirements. The figure is a slight improvement on last year’s survey, but the number stood at 53% in 2012, so the trend this past decade reflects a consistently escalating problem. Locally, the issue is particularly acute: 42% of South African CEOs expressed ‘extreme’ concern about the country’s availability of vital skills, compared to 32% globally.

All over the world, and in all sectors, CEOs identify this as a major threat to their company’s growth.

This shapes the importance of skills transformation and progression, with concomitant implications for companies’ talent strategies. What should Learning & Development (L&D) and Talent managers be doing to mitigate the problem, and to prepare their companies’ workforces for the new normal?

Start with the realisation that as the needs of business evolve, the requirements of training change. The structure, programs, and methods adopted in the past may no longer be suitable. What empowered employees ten years ago may now be redundant; what enabled talent as recently as five years ago may now be a basic requirement. Just as recruitment and retention strategies have shifted to align with the values and aspirations of younger generations entering the workplace, so too should the approach to training.

These are five key considerations for restructuring strategies and programs to meet the challenge:

1. Critically evaluate the company’s learning culture. An appropriate environment is crucial to foster a mindset of problem-solving, innovation, and high performance. Step up the value and appreciation attached to knowledge throughout the entire organisation by documenting specific learning objectives. These should be aligned to the company’s mission, and linked to the strategies and goals of business units or departments. Relevant, performance-oriented learning programs can then be formalised as part of individual employee and team goals and productivity measures. Fulfilment should be tracked, and achievements recognised in performance appraisals.

2. Make learning – and knowledge-sharing – a habit. One of the primary reasons many L&D programs deliver disappointing results is because they are scheduled only periodically, and are short-term or event-based. Harvard Business Review contrasted the enormous education and training spend by US companies in 2015, some $356 billion, with its poor return on investment measured in terms of organisational performance. It attributed this, in summary, to the propensity of people to default back to the familiar, “to soon revert to their old ways of doing things.” Learnings and insights need to be transferred from courses and programs into each day’s work. Most of us know this from personal experience: if new skills aren’t used, practiced and habituated, they’re soon forgotten.

Gathering knowledge doesn’t stop there; it must be applied towards an objective. Which needs to fit within the business’s processes and challenges. For example, employees attending a course on using data visualisation tools such as Tableau should be in a position to use the application immediately, at their desks, ongoing, as part of their performance. Talent managers must synchronise programs tightly with the requirements of the broader organisation, and check in regularly that new tools, new technologies, software or applications are being installed and systemised in close parallel to the training in their use. 

This loops back to the organisation’s L&D planning.

3. Take stock, identify, and prioritise. It’s vital to identify, in advance, areas for upskilling which correlate with the company’s goals. Think about surviving through the likely recessionary period in the short-term. Plan, also, for requirements during the recovery period, and beyond – a 5-10 year vision of what the company will need to be both resilient and future-proofed for legacy.
Evaluate the current talent pool. What and where are the skills gaps? What skills are redundant? Is digital transformation diligently, measurably, being progressed?
Use metrics and data to strip out subjectivity – and keep measuring to monitor and track improvement.

4. Maintain L&D and training budgets. Now is, actually, an opportune time to invest. On an individual level, multiple studies show that an effective countermeasure against people’s uncertainty is to actively pursue new avenues. And from a company perspective it’s interesting to consider the parallels in different spheres, for example in marketing. Evidence indicates that market leaders grow advertising spend in recessions, to gain market share opportunistically. In the same way, enhancing employees’ skills in difficult times steadies the ship now, and readies the company for significant competitive advantage when trading conditions improve. Delaying training investment translates only to delayed improvement, whereas earlier upskilling creates an available, primed strategic lever.

5. Collaborate. Seek out partnerships that make sense for your company and in your industry. Linking with educational institutions, for instance, can provide an invaluable mentoring, measurement and qualification role which may be burdensome to implement directly by the company.


In general, tailor your approach for the nuances and complexities of your company. Flexibility is key. The surge in virtual teams and remote work forced upon businesses by Covid-19 has raised awareness and understanding that employee performance and workstreams can be accomplished in newer, varied organisational architectures. The same holds true for L&D. Be open to different modes of learning, cater for courses across technical and softer skills, and allow for individual goal-setting.

Through all of this runs the river of trust. There’s a correlation between autonomy, accountability, and happiness. But here’s the catch: the company’s culture needs to be appropriately attuned. When goal-setting, stretch performance incentives and behavioural expectations are consistently communicated and sit comfortably within a defined corporate mission, the vast majority of employees will indeed strive to deliver.

If a company’s resilience can be likened to a muscle, its strength and agility resides in the muscle’s fibres – its people. Building their skills hones their potential for performance improvement, in turn deepening corporate resilience and productivity.

Doing better work leads to better outcomes. In all spheres of life, today, we need things to be better.