The UK is facing a serious skills gap. Although it may seem like an issue that’s discussed fairly regularly, in the current climate of the Covid-19 pandemic it’s one that is becoming more pronounced than it has been for decades.
Take the furlough scheme for example – a vital scheme that has enabled many businesses to continue functioning during the pandemic. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the extension until the end of Q1 2021 earlier this year and, while this is clearly a positive move by Government, come March 2021 it means there is likely to be a substantial portion of the UK workforce who have been on furlough for an entire year. This will have a severe impact on employee learning, career development and, as a result, the widening skills gap across the UK.
It’s therefore important that businesses are utilising the most effective learning and development techniques available to ensure both the currently active and furloughed workforce continue on their professional development journeys.
In light of this it is worrying that many businesses are still adopting the Victorian learning model of rote and recall, by which employees are given a set of important facts, asked to memorise them and their level of understanding is then assessed by how much they recall.
There are instances where this is a perfectly acceptable form of learning – if you look at childhood literacy, how else would children learn the alphabet without rote and recall? The same can be said for the times-tables or the periodic table. What’s vital is that businesses realise that recall isn’t the only element of learning, and like the examples above, it’s the application of the facts and the ability to interpret them in every day scenarios that is most critical. After all, while there is a clear link between memory and intelligence, the ability to recall what you’ve been taught is just one indicator of a successful learning experience.
In truth, if employees can recall the information given to them during cyber security training, for example, but three weeks later are the cause of a data breach, then the learning process was completely redundant. The approach also doesn’t support the agility modern businesses need to survive. You can’t expect employees to remember and act on knowledge acquired through rote and recall for 20 years or more and the content of the module may be completely irrelevant one year on.
In a world that innovates at such a rapid rate, skills have a shelf-life and the Victorian learning model doesn’t react to that fact. In that sense, the outdated Victorian rote and recall model means many companies are failing to fully engage employees in their professional development and achieving limited value from L&D programmes.
Active participants, not passive listeners
So how should businesses be viewing L&D? I tend to agree with Katharina Wittgens, business psychologist and managing director at Innovationbubble, who believes that learning should be less like a school textbook and more like a travel guide.
Think about the inherent excitement you feel in the build-up to a holiday, the endless possibilities of attractions you can visit, places you can eat and drink and unexpected highlights you might stumble across while exploring. Now consider how that excitement would diminish if you were instead given an itinerary of places you had to visit, when you had to visit them and didn’t have the freedom to explore the destination yourself. You’d certainly become disenfranchised with the experience and may even question the worth of going away at all as you’d become a passive traveller, rather than actively enjoying the experience. The same is true of learning.
Instead of telling employees they’re going to learn X, Y and Z, businesses should be encouraging employees to explore the subject at hand like they would a city they’ve never visited before. Give the learner the freedom to find out what’s around this corner or behind this door to acquire knowledge that resonates with them. Curiosity is key to learning and is inherent in us all, so provide employees with the learning map and let them explore it in a way that suits their needs. Allow them to be an active participant in their own learning and development, rather than a passive bystander.
The learning revolution
To create active participants and provide employers with a ‘learning map’ for learners to explore, it’s imperative that businesses step away from traditional learning techniques and embrace the full potential of digital learning.
In a classroom setting, the employees are reliant on the instructor and their experience, while the differing capabilities of each team member isn’t taken into consideration. If you’re focusing on cyber security for example, you’re likely to lose the interest of those who are already proficient in the area or have been through the module previously. Similarly, less experienced members of the team will feel left behind if content is pitched at too high a level to speak directly to more confident colleagues. Experience isn’t the only factor at play either – introverts are much less likely to take part in discussions within the classroom or could be overshadowed by extroverts and therefore not get as much out of the session.
It comes back to the travel guide idea and the importance of allowing employees to choose their own path. Providing them with a suite of digital learning modules which they can engage with at their own pace will cause them to lean in and explore what’s available. Team members can take the time to focus on the areas they know they need to strengthen their knowledge base without spending an hour or more in a classroom setting re-treading old ground just to tick a box. That time would be much better spent adding value to the business or developing a new skill they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access.
This approach, although causing employees to tackle learning as a solo entity, will also drive discussion and knowledge sharing. Once curiosity is piqued and the workforce is engaged, colleagues focusing on similar areas of learning will naturally discuss interesting areas of focus, recreating classroom debates in a much more natural setting.
Out with the old
As 2020 comes to a close, now is the time for businesses to be considering how to revamp their approach to workplace learning. The Victorian model of rote and recall is no longer fit for purpose on its own, especially within the current context of the global pandemic. Of course, now more than ever budgets are coming under extreme pressure but this approach doesn’t need to break the bank. Businesses can curate existing and free content for certain topics. This frees up budget for the creation of ‘travel guide’ style learning experiences that empower employees to take control of their own learning. It might require a little more trust, but giving them the hunger to learn will ultimately deliver a stronger return on investment. It’s this type of approach that will help to future-proof your company and the workforce, by providing them with the digital tools they need to succeed, acquire new skills and truly thrive in the L&D process.