The Critical Importance of Learning and Development in a Post-Pandemic Digital Age

The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis requires us to build a host of different skills and capabilities, including the ability of taking risks, staying open-minded and agile, learning from experiment and from each other, as well as learning from our failures.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is creating huge short-term uncertainties for all countries and communities around the world. This pandemic is likely to amplify the disruption of workplace and workforce capabilities that were already happening, due to an accelerated adoption of digital technology. In their new book, “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships (Bloomsbury 2020), authors Linda Cai and Chris Yates propose a drastically different approach to defining and building capabilities that will propel organizations to future success through a sharing mindset, purpose-driven action, and organizational practices.

The global COVID-19 crisis is impacting us daily from all angles—health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships, and more. In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings. Social distancing is causing many industries and companies to drastically rethink and pivot toward technologies previously under debate. Grocery stores and factories are already using robots to restock and operate, police are using drones to conduct contact tracing, and there will be many other examples in coming weeks. One of the most optimistic post-COVID-19 predictions is that more people will learn to work from home by leveraging remote conferencing technology, and many may question the need to resume previous levels of road traffic and air travel in order to help reverse climate change.

This pandemic is happening as we enter what often has been described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The power and influence that corporate institutions hold over wider society has reached new heights, as global brands and technological monopolies infiltrate every aspect of modern life. Many traditional organizations are unprepared for this new digital world, as they fail to recognize the extent of the changes that will be required to operate and compete:

  • The pace of change will accelerate, as will the disruption of traditional industries.
  • Traditional relationships built through the workplace, and civic organizations will be replaced by social media, employee advocacy, and dynamic online affiliations.
  • Traditional corporations will not be prepared to compete when the “old” ways of centralized power, top-down hierarchy, and command-and-control change.
  • There will be a call for greater transparency, speed of transformation, and a more acute need for ethics.

Post-COVID-19, we will see the impact of these changes amplified. Navigating the new landscape will require new cultural reflexes, habits, and capabilities.

The link between individual capability, culture (the way we do and talk about things), and organizational capability is taken by many experts to be the true engine that delivers sustainable competitive advantage. The premise is that the way a company organizes internally, including its people practices, is much harder for competitors to copy than pricing and marketing or capital. The key is to be deliberate about which capabilities a company invests in and develops to meet changing customer demand. It is also imperative to align processes—from recruitment to reward, from talent identification to continuous learning—all geared toward developing those differentiating capabilities.

Throughout my work leading digital transformation initiatives in major enterprise organizations, I have observed six cultural skills that represent the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in order to successfully navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These skills requirements have significant implications to Training professionals in particular since, in most organizations, CEOs look to internal training and talent teams to provide solutions for closing the gaps and enabling the desired culture.:

1. Risk acceptance/mitigation. This is the ability to understand and capture opportunities, not to use risk as an aversion technique.

2. Data-driven decision-making. Thanks to the Internet of Things, business increasingly is being disrupted by predictive analysis and data insights at an aggregated level. Our gut and experience are no longer enough.

3. Flexibility. Things change and so must we. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

4. Prioritization. We can’t do everything, so where should we focus attention?

5. Measurement and monitoring. We need to know the desired outcome, so we can monitor achievement.

6. Talent management. The right people with the right behaviors in the right roles.

It is important that the way we approach learning and capability development involves going back to basics and focusing on empathy and cultivating a sharing mindset. In the highly networked, more fluid organizations of today, leaders need new ways to communicate with employees—not just keeping a finger on the pulse of their organization but actually participating in an active distributed network. This requires high levels of self-awareness and interpersonal skills. It is very different from the traditional problem solver or the charismatic cheerleader stereotypes of leadership that often are taught today.

 In my new book with Chris Yates, “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power & Relationships (Bloomsbury, 2020), we propose a “Four D” process for organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:

  • Discover what is important from each individual to align on purpose.
  • Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organization competes.
  • Develop a plan to align the purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything is done.
  • Deploy “how we do things around here,” through the actions of every employee, every day.

Learning and Development will play an important role in helping to shape our future society. The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis requires us to build a host of different skills and capabilities, including the ability of taking risks, staying open-minded and agile, learning from experiment and from each other, as well as learning from our failures—even when we are also anxious and afraid or uncertain about the future. 

Changing behaviors and culture can be difficult to achieve and even harder to quantify, but it is of critical importance. Success requires the attention of the leadership team and a strong execution paradigm. Over time, new leadership styles and behaviors will enable a fast-sharing environment where stories are told and concepts shaped. By building successful, involved, ethical organizations that have empathy at their core, we will increase the chances of creating a better world for all of us.

Linda Jingfang Cai is the global head of Learning and Talent Development at Aon, and the co-author with Chris Yates of “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships” (Bloomsbury, 2020). She has decades of experience in HR strategy, organizational development, and change management through a range of roles in the UK (HSBC and Diageo), U.S. (State Farm), and Asia (Hay Group and McKinsey). Born in Shanghai and a Chinese native, Jingfang Cai completed an MBA at London Business School and now is based in Chicago.