Technological advances and other societal trends often impact how employees work and learn, and the COVID-19 pandemic has both amplified and hastened these effects for the near- to medium-term future. In the field of learning and development (L&D), insights drawn from the literature, as well as from leaders and practitioners in the Singapore Public Service, suggest that four such trends will have a significant impact on the culture and landscape of work, and in turn on L&D practice, for some time to come. While these trends may not be new, the pandemic has changed their trajectory in ways that warrant consideration and action today.
Four Trends Impacting the Learning and Development Landscape
The first trend is that innovative and disruptive business models will be a common and pervasive part of the general economic landscape. Organisations are looking outside of themselves and even outside of their industry to support their business. By maintaining critical functions ‘buy(ing)’ or ‘build(ing)’, they can then ‘borrow’ or ‘bot’1 other capabilities so that their core remains lean, and the organisation stays agile. Examples of this trend include ridesharing/hailing apps like Grab/Uber: these platform-driven companies tap on gig workers as their main employee base. Another example is Airbnb: a networked, community-based organisation that helps its participating members organise its saleable resources.
The pandemic has further accelerated this shift as organisations look to “[using] fresh strategic framing and [creating] organisational structures that promote agility”, and “collaborating with...start-ups and...expertise around the world” to survive and thrive in its aftermath.2 Identifying and developing the critical capabilities for a transformed organisation requires strategic capabilities, and we propose that L&D teams need to support their executive management beyond the typical purview of L&D work in the past.
The second trend is that the nature of work is changing dramatically in a very short time. Technology is driving labour markets towards greater levels of informality, where gig workers often have fewer protections, and where there is increasing demand for non-routine cognitive and interpersonal skills.3 One source suggests that two-thirds of employees in high-performing firms will shift “from static roles and processes to dynamic, multidisciplinary, outcome-focused reconfigurable teams” by 2024.4 COVID-19 seems to have further exacerbated and accelerated these trends. A McKinsey report suggests that the pandemic has required some 12% to 25% more workers to switch occupations due to these role shifts. The greatest impact appears to be in advanced economies in which workers face greater gaps in skill requirements as high-wage jobs grow at the expense of middle- and low-wage jobs.5 It is tempting for L&D teams to focus upon the near-term needs of their organisations. However, given these trends, developing and readying employees for an exit could mean the difference between an efficient, effective organisation with a good brand reputation and a dysfunctional one.
An important implication of these first two trends is that the workforce itself will be more fragmented than ever before: in addition to purely demographic (e.g., age) differences, the proportion of traditional full-time employees is likely to be reduced. Instead, interns, trainees/apprentices, part-time workers, employees on flexible schedules, short-term or project-based contract staff, and even community members, are all likely to become significant components of our workforce. The Public Service will not be immune to these shifts. Such changes impose the challenge of supporting a diverse range of workers in their L&D needs and in developing and maintaining a workforce that functions coherently as one organisation.
Such changes impose the challenge of supporting a diverse range of workers in their L&D needs and in developing and maintaining a workforce that functions coherently as one organisation.
BLURRING LINES BETWEEN PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE
Third, researchers and experts see a blurring of lines between the personal and professional spheres. Many individuals within organisations are now unafraid of voicing differing views and opinions about what they value and stand for. There are also internal and external expectations for organisations to take a stance on socio-political issues as well as expectations on senior leaders to know how to navigate and guide staff on what the organisation values (e.g., how the organisation views gender representation, data transparency, or climate change and environmental issues). Research also shows that an organisation’s support for certain social movements, which is often associated with their staff or leaders’ support for specific causes, can enhance their public image and that of their products and services.6 L&D has a role in helping workers at every level pick up the competencies needed to negotiate this new, complex, and potentially fraught landscape.
A fourth trend is that learning is becoming a central piece of career and organisational development, moved by the same technological forces that shape how business is being conducted.7 With online platforms, deeper personalisation and better user experience becoming commonplace in daily life, it is unsurprising that learners expect the same conveniences from their learning experiences as well. Private sector learning providers are increasingly streamlining their platforms and offerings, while data-driven machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are offering new opportunities to identify, predict and support the needs of learners. Learning and development in the public sector must keep up with these technological advances.
Most L&D teams are only beginning to reap the benefits of these new opportunities. Here, the pandemic has been an accelerator, prompting a rapid rise in digital adoption rates along with increased leadership focus on capability development to help staff manage disruption and adapt to new organisational needs.8, 9
But the playing field is not level, even in the public sector: resource-rich agencies with enough critical mass can invest heavily in these areas, while smaller agencies that run on leaner budgets are forced to make tough trade-offs between keeping operations afloat and supporting L&D efforts. Because these efforts are increasingly recognised as being crucial for the sustainability and longevity of organisations, L&D teams are pressed to seek out solutions for their organisations. These solutions are likely to differ greatly between organisations, but because of this pressure, L&D teams are at risk of being trapped in a ‘firefighting’ stance of reacting to ever-changing organisational learning and development demands, instead of approaching their agency’s needs in a strategic and forward-looking manner.
Given these intersecting trends, it is critical for L&D leaders, practitioners and teams within public sector agencies to take stock of and define the role that they can play in shaping the future of their organisations. L&D teams could look first to their own development, experimenting on and among themselves with the approaches they hope to apply more broadly in their organisations, tapping on the wider L&D community for support, and striving to be on the leading edge of strategic decision-making in their own organisations. Organisational leaders must also complete the equation by supporting and allying with their L&D teams so that their agencies can be well-prepared in light of emerging shifts.
Shaping the Future: Four Key Steps
With these four trends and their challenges
in mind, a community of L&D leaders
and practitioners in Singapore10 have
discussed and proposed several ways in
which L&D teams in the Public Service
should respond, broadly focusing on
four key steps:
STEP 1: Establish a Strategic Voice in the Organisation
The L&D community was united in its assessment that L&D teams need to exercise a strategic ‘voice’ to influence organisational strategy. To wield this voice with authority, L&D teams must be familiar with and well-informed about the organisation’s existing workforce capacity. They must be able to distinguish potential bright spots ripe for capacity building from those where ‘borrowing or botting’ strategies are more fitting. They must keep abreast of advances and trends in learning that might accelerate capacity development in their organisation. With a well-honed understanding of current and emerging organisational challenges and opportunities, L&D teams will be better able to offer a view of organisational strategy through the lens of current and potential capabilities.
As with almost every facet of a contemporary organisation, the ability to influence organisational strategy, especially when there are competing demands and considerations, will depend substantially on the quality of data and data analysis that is at hand. Data about current workforce profile and capacity, potential returns on capacity development investment, and an understanding of organisational needs are all examples of factors that could determine organisational strategy and direction if properly considered by L&D teams. However, this means that L&D teams must grow their current data collection, management and analytics abilities, and perhaps even do so ahead of the rest of their organisation.
L&D teams need to exercise a strategic ‘voice’ to influence organisational strategy…through the lens of current and potential capabilities.
STEP 2: Champion the Human: People and Talent
While talent development has always been a key driver of organisational strategy, the fact is that the worker-employer relationship has changed, as the key trends above indicate. L&D teams must champion the human in the system: continually remind their organisations that employees should be valued and invested in, beyond their immediate utility to the organisation.
The concept of ‘stewardship of the whole person’ resonates strongly with the L&D community. This is the idea that L&D teams are bestowed the privilege of supporting the development of employees beyond the needs of their current vocation, and should equip them with the necessary competencies to navigate the future successfully and be resilient in the face of change. It is recognising that employees have the potential to contribute their talents to benefit the wider community and economy, and organisations should develop their human resources with this in mind, regardless of their current or potential tenure with their current organisation. Organisations that fail to see themselves as corporate citizens of the society they operate in and structure themselves in a way that allows for skilled workers to permeate in and out easily, run the risk of devaluing their brand and being seen as a less desirable employer.
Employees have the potential to contribute their talents to benefit the wider community and economy.
STEP 3: Nurture a Healthy Organisational L&D Culture
Leaders at every level play a significant role in setting the organisational context and culture of learning.11 L&D teams must continually draw their top leadership’s attention to L&D priorities, and gain their active support for a visible and well-articulated organisational L&D culture. L&D teams should also work with line leaders across the organisation to secure their buy-in and commitment, as these are hugely influential in communicating and implementing organisational L&D policies and programmes on the ground.
The L&D community in particular felt that there should be a review of the metrics currently used to measure learning activities and their influence in shaping L&D culture. There should be a shift from simplistic, less pertinent metrics—such as training satisfaction or training hours—towards more strategically meaningful measures, such as whether workers have received training in areas that did not exist a given number of years before. Furthermore, performance indicators meant to track learning should not inadvertently discourage favourable behaviours such as experimentation and learning from failure.
There should be a shift from simplistic, less pertinent metrics towards more strategically meaningful measures.
STEP 4: Redefine What Learning Looks Like in Organisations
For organisations to benefit from the advancements and developments in the L&D field, L&D teams must continuously challenge existing practices and introduce new learning ideas and practices. Most fundamental of all is the question of what learning is or should be.
The L&D community identified three ways in which the concept of ‘learning’ needed to be expanded upon:
(a) Beyond the traditional understanding of ‘learning’ as what is gained through formal training, organisations need to understand that the more significant part of learning actually takes place in the flow of work. Furthermore, because of the diversity of work that employees need to take on, centrally planned cohort-based learning may become increasingly unwieldy; self-directed individually-customised learning could prove the better approach. We must also acknowledge that there are social aspects that help individuals learn and retain knowledge and skills. Creating a learning environment is therefore not only about access to training, but also about cultivating healthy learning behaviours and habits, and providing encouragement and support to apply learning.
(b) Beyond the traditional understanding that learning is an individual endeavour to develop individual capacity, organisations should recognise that team learning to develop team and/or organisational capacity is equally, if not more, important. As organisations increasingly rely on teams to carry out strategies and operational tasks, team learning is a “key mechanism by which learning organisations can become strategically and operationally adaptive and responsive”.12
(c) Beyond the traditional understanding that each organisation is responsible for identifying and attending to its own learning needs and is reliant on itself to do so, organisations should also look to identify collective learning needs of the wider industry or ecosystem and develop their employees to meet those needs. Despite the risks and difficulties of doing so, expanding learning beyond the confines of the organisation is one of the few ways in which an organisation can keep abreast of future-oriented and far-reaching trends. This is especially true in the Public Service, where the nature of challenges is such that they cut across organisational boundaries. Partnerships among L&D teams within a shared ecosystem will be essential in creating and sustaining inter-organisational learning that can take the form, as discussed above, not just of training programmes but of collaborative projects, work exchanges, and other formats.
Expanding learning beyond the confines of the organisation is one of the few ways in which an organisation can keep abreast of future-oriented and far-reaching trends.
The ideas presented here imply significant shifts in how L&D is perceived and structured in public sector organisations today. Whereas L&D teams have tended to be very lean and operational in most agencies, this article suggests that the L&D function of the future would be most effective when integrated well with what are typically considered human resources (e.g., recruitment and deployment) and organisation development functions. With L&D becoming a central pillar for the sustainability and growth of an organisation, a well-supported and strategic L&D team will be instrumental in helping to shepherd organisations through a complex and fast-changing future.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Iva Aminuddin heads the Learning Futures Group at the Civil Service College. She has 15 years of experience in learning and organisational change, and helped to pioneer serious games for the Public Service.
Wan Chng is Lead L&D Specialist at the Learning Futures Group, Civil Service College. She has contributed to the curriculum for training public service leaders and now focuses on developing in-house evaluation capacity.
Vera Lim is Senior L&D Specialist at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College. Her research interests include the Future of Learning, Team Learning/Coaching as well as data-driven organisational development strategies.
- ‘Build, buy, borrow, and bot’ is a phrase that has become popular in the HR field within the last 3 years. One example of its usage and meaning can be found here: https://www.howardgray.net/2018/12/21/build-buy-borrow-or/.
- Ong Pang Thye and Yap Kwong Weng, “Reimagining a Post-COVID World with Agility and Resilience”, KPMG Insights 19, May 2020, accessed August 31, 2021, https://home.kpmg/sg/en/home/insights/2020/05/thriving-in-a-post-covid-19-world.html.
- World Bank Group, “The Changing Nature of Work”, 2019, accessed August 31, 2021, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/816281518818814423/pdf/2019-WDR-Report.pdf.
- Holly Muscolino et al., “IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Future of Work 2020 Predictions”, International Data Corporation, October, 2019.
- Susan Lund et al., “The Future of Work after COVID-19”, McKinsey Global Institute, February 2021, accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/ the-future-of-work-after-covid-19.
- Gia Nardini et al., “Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed”, Journal of Consumer Psychology 31, no. 1 (2021): 112–145, accessed August 31, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1002/jcpy.1201.
- One report suggests that by 2022, a third of major companies will offer agile, dynamic, and AI-driven learning pathways as primary approaches to career development and succession planning. See Note 4.
- Lizzie Crowley, “What’s Happened to L&D during the COVID-19 Pandemic and What Does It Mean for the Future? Share Your Views”, CIPD Community, January 15, 2021, accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.cipd.co.uk/Community/blogs/b/policy_at_work/posts/what-s-happened-to-l-d-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-and-what-does-it-mean-for-the-future-share-your-views#gref.
- Elizabeth Howlett, “Has Covid-19 Sparked an L&D Revolution?” People Management, June 4, 2020, accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/long-reads/articles/covid-19-caused-learning-development-revolution#gref.
- The authors engaged with 20 expert practitioners and authorities in the L&D field identified as forward-thinking and open-minded. These ranged from Directors to CEOs from the Public Service, private sector, NGOs, institutes of higher learning, and forums. Subsequently, the authors engaged another group of 16 Public Service L&D practitioners in positions of leadership and influence over both senior management and the working level to discuss and validate the insights and conclusions drawn from the first engagement. These ranged from Directors to Senior Directors across different sectors.
- Matthew Smith, “Building a Learning Culture That Drives Business Forward”, The McKinsey Podcast, April 16, 2021, accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-accelerate/our-insights/building-a-learning-culture-that-drives-business-forward.
- Amy C. Edmondson et al., “Three Perspectives on Team Learning: Outcome Improvement, Task Mastery, and Group Process”, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, December 11, 2006, accessed August 31, 2021, https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/three-perspectives-on-team-learning-outcome-improvement-task-mastery-and-group-process.