L&D Professionals Are Our Heroes In The Future Of Work

The primary way L&D can make an impact in this age of automation and AI is by leading what either is now (or soon will be) a massive need for upskilling and reskilling.

At various times, different roles in an organization have the opportunity to step up and be heroes—whether by performing what they regularly do, but at a pivotal time, or going above and beyond to make a huge difference. Sometimes it is a key performer in sales; other times, it is a team in product development or engineering. Finance and HR sometimes can save the day too, such as when handling a crisis.

Learning and Development (L&D) professionals likewise have an opportunity to be heroes—because Training Matters. And it matters even more now and for the foreseeable future due to the impact of advanced automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics on the future of work, suggests a 2019 study from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). The study began with a survey of 1,700 organizations, nearly 500 of those employing more than 10,000 individuals. We also interviewed many HR and L&D leaders from top organizations to learn what practices for automation and AI are being used in their firms, and what they are piloting and planning to work on next.

Bridging the Gaps

The emergence of advanced automation, AI, robotics, etc., often is described as a fourth industrial revolution, on the same level of impact as previous advances such as the steam engine, electricity, computers, the Internet, and smartphones. While the benefits of advanced automation and AI seem clear enough, it is still early days in what will be a long journey, in part because of three significant gaps:

  • A workforce motivation gap
  • An HR readiness gap
  • An organizational capability gap

The workforce motivation gap arises due to both employees’ fears about the future of their jobs and their increased expectations that technologies at work match the automated, AI-enhanced experiences they are used to in their personal lives (think of Netflix and Amazon content recommendations or Alexa/Siri voice-enabled devices). A readiness gap arises in most HR departments due to lack of expertise, resulting in an inability to lead in purposefully moving the organization forward in its use of automation, AI, robotics, etc.

While L&D professionals have an important role to play in closing those two gaps, it is the organizational capability gap—in some cases, the biggest of the three—where they can truly step up and shine. There are certainly ways that trainers, coaches, instructional designers, and learning management system (LMS) specialists can leverage automation and AI to improve learning outcomes. Our study found that the most common today is the use of AI to better inform and automate learning content recommendations, but others that we’ll see increasingly more often include the use of chatbots for performance support, or the use of AI to improve coaching.

But the primary way L&D can make an impact in this age of automation and AI is by leading what either is now (or soon will be) a massive need for upskilling and reskilling. While organizations will vary in both timing and extent, our study found that a significant capability (skills, knowledge, etc.) gap, if not addressed, will result in slow growth, suboptimal use of human labor, and, in some cases, organizations being left behind entirely.

L&D professionals must seize this opportunity and partner with colleagues in strategic workforce planning, other areas of HR, and line-of-business leaders to assess their organization’s talent risk. This involves identifying future required skills; deconstructing jobs into component tasks; assessing which tasks are best performed by humans, automation, or a hybrid approach; and then developing and providing upskilling and reskilling programs where appropriate.

When we look back on the 2020s, we likely will find that the organizations that were the most productive and innovative— indeed, the ones that actually survived—were those with L&D professionals who stepped up and focused in this way on capability gaps and upskilling/ reskilling.

Tom Stone is a senior research analyst at the i4cp. He will present on this topic at the Training 2020 Conference & Expo in Orlando, FL, February 24, from 2:30-3:30 p.m.