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5 ways the pandemic has changed professional and staff development forever

Like so many other things, learning at work has morphed to meet the times. This Deloitte exec says the evolution is a net positive.

5 ways the pandemic has changed professional and staff development forever
[Photo: Cottonbro/Pexles]
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With the back-to-school season in full swing, students and teachers alike are dealing with the challenges of remote learning. But they’re not the only ones. Employees—of all kinds, across all industries—are, too. With both the traditional classroom and the traditional conference room off-limits, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the status quo for all types of education. 

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Still, even as corporate learning and professional development are harder to administer and access today, they are no less important. If anything, they’re more important. Given how many people are out of work, and how many jobs and industries are in need of radical transformation, relearning and reskilling are critical. Organizational talent programs, too, must be refocused and fine-tuned for the future. 

At Deloitte, we know that our people—their talent, knowledge, and experience—are our most valuable asset. As a result, we invest a lot of time, energy, and resources in professional development. However, since the pandemic made its way around the world, we have been forced to adapt. Consequently, we have been reassessing and redefining our tools, methods, practices, and priorities for learning. 

This has manifested in myriad ways. When in-person learning was disrupted, we replaced it not just with virtual learning—that is, dispersed co-learners accessing live lessons or seminars through technology—but with on-demand, self-paced digital learning, too. For our existing learning assets, as well as the ones we had to create on short notice, keeping abreast of the latest, most innovative, and most user-friendly tools and technologies became critical. 

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Now, months into this pandemic, much still remains uncertain. But at Deloitte, there’s one thing we know for sure: While we’re eager to return to the classroom, or conference room, one day—and plan to as soon as it’s safe—we should leave the hyper-structured, one-size-fits-all model of professional learning and development behind. 

Instead, as we go forward, we must continue learning from the shifts that have taken place and adapting our organizations accordingly. Here are five that we’ve observed—along with corresponding actions organizations can take now to encourage and enable this new era of professional development. 

Learning as an event Learning in the flow of work

Professional learning used to take place at a dedicated event: a workshop, seminar, or training. Now it’s increasingly happening in the flow of work. We know that experience-based, bite-size, “just-in-time” learning is more effective than traditional classroom instruction. It makes sense, after all, that the skills we pick up on the job—when we actually need them for success—stick with us more than the ones we learn about abstractly in the classroom. So in everything we do at work, we need to ensure we’re offering our employees opportunities to learn.

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An immediate step you can take: As employees continue working remotely from different locations and time zones, organizations should personalize professional development with solutions that fit their individual learning styles and needs. And they should do so while embedding mechanisms for everyday learning into future roles. 

At Deloitte, we achieve this through on-the-job coaching and amplify it through Cura, an online platform that curates personalized development and knowledge for all of our employees—on their own schedules. 

Technical skills first → Capabilities first

With each passing day, learning and professional development become about more than just gaining technical skills, which are always changing—especially as technology advances. Now it’s about fostering and nurturing the capabilities needed to adapt and thrive in a fast-changing workplace and world. It’s about equipping employees with the skills they need to track down relevant information, apply previous knowledge, and work within and lead diverse teams. After all, these are the building blocks of more technical skills.  

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An immediate step you can take: Organizations should determine which capabilities and skills employees need to succeed, not just today but in a post-COVID-19 world—from tech savviness, inclusive leadership, and analytics, to curiosity, resilience, and emotional intelligence—and then incorporate them into information and form learning opportunities.  

Digital learning as a supplement → Integrated digital, virtual, and in-person learning

Until recently, digital learning—often on-demand, individual, peer-less, and perhaps even instructor-less—has mostly served as a technical, content-sharing supplement to in-person learning, where the focus was on collaboration, storytelling, and impact. Now, digital has become one of three learning modalities. More learning is taking place online, not just through virtual learning settings, which seek to replicate the classroom through technology, but also through digital learning settings.

An immediate step you can take: As digital learning becomes as important as in-person and virtual learning, organizations should be sure to diversify delivery methods and embed the best of the other learning modalities into all digital offerings, too. They should also collaborate to develop new learning for common areas of focus to maximize innovation and investment. 

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Technology to enable learning administration → Technology to enable learning in the flow of work

Where we used to turn to technology to help administer professional training and development—from registering for and recording completion of training sessions to sharing training videos to distributing surveys—we’ve now moved to leveraging technology for all parts of the learning process. Several months into the pandemic, it might seem like we’ve maximized the available technological tools and digital modes. But rather than get complacent, we ought to be expanding our tool box of high-impact, low-contact learning experiences and increasing the user adoption of the existing tools.

An immediate step you can take: To continue building out professional development programs, organizations should at a minimum accelerate the adoption of virtual learning tools. But to stay ahead of the curve, we should proactively invest in new tools and technologies as they roll out, and leverage shared resources to increase the speed, agility, and quality with which they are implemented. 

Structured development → Self-directed and personalized development 

As we increasingly do our jobs at whatever pace and place that feel most comfortable, today’s workforce should be empowered to direct their own professional development. Learning teams should increase the flexibility of and access to personalized, on-demand learning experiences. Even—and, perhaps, especially—for technical skills, more emphasis should be put on self-experimentation than traditional observation of more senior professionals. 

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An immediate step you can take: Across all levels of an organization, leaders must develop and communicate an intuitive user experience that makes it easy for learners to know where to find the tools they need—be they videos, manuals, or self-assessments. 

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that learning—at school and at work—will never be the same. Already, it’s more digital and individualized, less fixed and face-to-face. And while it may be tempting to fight these changes and instead hope for a return to normalcy, the truth is that things were already trending this way. 

This doesn’t mean we’ll be abandoning our commitment to lifelong learning, or our investments in signature in-person programming like Deloitte University. Far from it: We believe that face-to-face learning may become even more important as professionals decide not to go back into offices. Still, we’ve seen the benefits—to our productivity, our development, and our bottom line—of a more balanced mix among learning modalities. And that’s something we won’t unlearn. 

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Because while the pandemic may have accelerated the transition, a more customized and agile learning experience was always in our future. And it was always in our best interest. If we build the adaptive learning programs that fit it, we won’t just better adjust our businesses to our new reality—we’ll make sure our people are prepared for it, too.  


Michele Parmelee is deputy CEO and chief people and purpose officer for Deloitte Global.