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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2019-08-28 12:01

Cathryn Barnard



As businesses embark on company-wide digital transformation, the sense of urgency grows around how best to identify and develop both the digital and human...


Technology is transforming the way we do business. The commercial race is on to integrate workplace technologies that improve efficiency and create greater competitor advantage. As businesses embark on company-wide digital transformation, the sense of urgency grows around how best to identify and develop both the digital and human skills, as well as the culture, that will be required for success in the 21st Century.    


In parallel, employee behaviour is changing. As consumers, we’re becoming much more discerning - we expect more transparency and a higher level of service than we’ve settled for in the past. These expectations spill over into the workplace - after several decades of employer-led labour markets, skilled workers increasingly demand work experiences that fulfil their career learning and developmental goals. According to Jim Clifton and Jim Harter, in their 2019 book, It’s the Manager, "Gallup [has] discovered that the No.1 reason people change jobs is ’career growth opportunities’." 

To thrive commercially and sustainably in the 21st Century, it’s clear the prevailing approach to organisational L&D needs a fundamental reboot.     


To help better understand both the challenge and opportunity for L&D professionals, we chatted with our associate Paul Jocelyn. Paul previously headed up global capability and learning for one of the UK’s largest retailers. He’s worked through both a rapid-growth period of globalisation, and a period of significant consolidation and organisational and cultural ’reset’.  

This experience has given Paul some fascinating first-hand insights, and we found the exchange with him incredibly pertinent...  

1.    Paul, share with us why - and how - the current mainstream approach to organisational L&D needs to change.   

I think in many ways the corporate approach to L&D is a relic from the industrial era of work.   

If we reflect on what used to create value and differentiation for a business, it was the efficiency of the ’make and sell model’. The aim was standardisation and control - with people as interchangeable parts of the system. The role of ’training’ was to build the individual skills required to complete particular tasks ’to spec’, and to ensure consistency of application.   

I think this mindset still prevails for many leaders, so we see the ongoing focus on ’learning content’, standardised programmes, compliance and competency frameworks.   

The differentiators for a successful and sustainable business are very different in the digital era, where disruption and speed are the new normal. This presents a completely new opportunity for corporate L&D - to help develop and lead adaptable, connected organisations, that are comfortable with this complexity. This requires a huge (and exciting!) shift in both mindset and skill-set.   

2.    A recent benchmarking report by Towards Maturity cited that "fewer than 20% of L&D teams are achieving on goals linked to culture and agility". Why do you think this is?   

I don’t think this is a surprise - as it’s not what L&D have been asked to do by their organisations! In many organisations the L&D function remains stuck as an ’order taker’, focused on designing and delivering ’interventions’ to support business initiatives.   

Again, this drives an over-focus firstly on ’content’, secondly on ’content placement’, and thirdly on ’attention-tracking’, in order to demonstrate L&D’s value.   

There’s a tremendous untapped opportunity for L&D to lead in the areas that are now important and difficult in a modern business - ideas like ’culture’ and ’agility’ are both excellent examples.   

3.    What, in your opinion, is the primary reason that L&D teams are held back?   

I think the bureaucratic force remains strong in many organisations! This culture continues to drive the expectation of ’L&D’ as a ’management control’ function, often just reacting to problems and projects as requested.  

I also see challenges with the breakdown of the traditional OD > HR > L&D structure and cycle of accountabilities and responsibilities in many organisations. This can leave L&D unsure of its place in the decision-making process.   

I believe that confidence plays a huge part - there’s a clear unmet need to redefine the strategic role and priority of learning with the organisation (beyond ’training’), and this can be complex and nuanced. There are many L&D teams whose current skills are built on training ’delivery’ course design, so it’s understandable they may need to look outside for help with new questions, including defining strategy and building business cases.   

4.    What one thing could L&D teams start doing, right now, to shift approach to workplace learning?   

I’d say ’re-balance your approach’ - start somewhere!   

Consider how you might start to put a small percentage of your time and effort into developing the key characteristics of learning organisations, alongside managing and developing learning and training programmes.   

For instance: 

·       How can you provide opportunities for people to share and learn from existing experience and expertise in the organisation? 

·       How might you identify solutions and thinking from one area of the organisation, that could be connected to another area or team with similar challenges

·       What opportunities could be facilitated for people to gain new experiences - for example in another team or business area? 

·       How might L&D amplify and accelerate communities - that help to solve problems and / or share good practice?   

Finally, I’d suggest, how might L&D lead on opportunities to help people and teams to ask new questions and look at new possibilities - outside of the ’way that we do things around here’ approach?   

This is key for me - I believe the future role of L&D is to ensure the whole organisation is future-ready. What an incredibly exciting opportunity!


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Recruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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