Date: 09/06/21 | Duration: 00:27:02

In the face of the global pandemic, learning professionals have had to adjust swiftly to sweeping changes to how people work and connect and critically rethink learning delivery. However, a high level of uncertainty remains about what the future holds, with just 18% of organisations expecting learning strategy, investment, and resourcing to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, David Hayden, Digital Learning Portfolio Manager at the CIPD and Stella Collins, Co-Founder and Chief Learning officer at Stellar Labs, as we explore how learning practice adapted to overcome pandemic-induced challenges and to seize the opportunity for rethinking learning, to better fulfil the requirements of changing organisations.


Stella Collins MSc FITOL is co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at Stellar Labs, one of the Brain Ladies and the author of ‘Neuroscience for Learning and Development’. She has a clear understanding of the challenges faced by organisations in upskilling and reskilling their people, especially with digital change being so high on the agenda.

Stella and her team pragmatically apply principles from neuroscience and psychology to consult, design and build practical performance focused solutions with measurable ROI. She has trained thousands of learning professionals in brain-friendly principles over more than 20 years in L&D. |

Book: Neuroscience for Learning and Development -

Course: 6th July - ‘Transform your learning culture’ -

Nigel Cassidy: With the world of work turned upside down how can we make sure that on the job learning meets the needs of the business and its people? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.

So classroom and most face-to-face learning had to go out of the window and necessity has been the mother of invention in L&D; digital tools have been deployed piping training to wherever our people are. But what do we do next other than mutter something about hybrid learning. Well for this podcast we thought we’d ask two experienced learning specialists to share what they have learned on how to reimagine, reinvent and deliver what your organisation needs now.

With us firstly a learning scientist, though as she likes to say not in a white coat and safety goggles kind of way, she's all about applying science-based learning to business performance, the co-founder of Stellar Labs, Stella Collins, hello.

Stella Collins: Hello.

NC: And from the home team David Hayden, the CIPD’s Digital Learning Portfolio Manager who's been a contributor to published research on all this. Hello David.

David Hayden: Hello.

NC: Well let’s start with where we are with David, thanks to the pandemic. I wonder if you could just summarise for us quickly how L&D practice has had to pivot? How is it typically managing to deliver?

DH: A number of organisations have reacted in a very similar way, so they were able to take a pause, able to look at what digital options were open to them, a number of organisations tried to lift and shift their traditional face-to-face offering and put that into a series of virtual classrooms. However very quickly people realised that you couldn’t actually do that, move a five day course into the equivalent number of virtual learning classrooms, something had to give. So over the course of the year we saw a lot of people really adapt and reframe how they put their learning content out there. And I think it’s also important to mention as well not every single organisation followed the same path and in some organisations they still had an element of face-to-face for their organisation.

NC: Because of course people are working face-to-face with the public or doing crucial work with technology or something so it’s such a mixed picture isn't it?

DH: Absolutely is, absolutely is.

NC: So Stella let’s turn to you what is your sense of how we’re managing?

SC: I think people have managed incredibly well mostly. I think at the start there was a lot of panic and everything on LinkedIn and Twitter was all about how do I do virtual learning? I think people have adapted incredibly well. Some people are now doing really great virtual learning but I think they were the ones who were well-equipped beforehand, they'd already been experimenting or using it regularly. I think there's still quite a lot of people who are struggling with the online platforms, struggling to kind of make things really engaging for people, so there's a lot of content delivery which isn't learning, it’s just content. So I think there's a real, like David said really, there's a real mix and a blend and like you say David there are some organisations, one of our clients they're a factory, they're a manufacturing organisation, they still do face-to-face learning because they’re still working on the factory floor. But we’ve got other clients who everything’s gone digital now and one of our programmes we’re going to run is a leadership programme and we’re going to deliver that digitally which I think most people haven’t done before so it’s going to be really interesting to see how that actually pans out in reality when it’s implemented.

NC: Yes I mean slightly ironic in a way because one of the things that’s important to leadership is forging those relationships with every individual in your team and of course that's very difficult. David you did this big Learning and Skills at Work report with Accenture, can we drill down a bit more into some of your findings in that?

DH: Absolutely. So we had over 1,000 respondents and one of the things we noticed that in a third of the organisations they had budgets or resources cut which was another added layer of challenge on top of the fact that there was a pandemic. We also noticed the number of organisations where learning and development staff were furloughed which again proves another layer of complexity, how do you adapt to your organisation changes when you've got less people? So we saw a number of organisations through that. And we saw, as you would expect, that dramatic towards the use of learning technologies. However the bulk of that tended to be the use of virtual classrooms as opposed to some of the broader examples of digital technology you have there.

NC: Yes because a lot of this digital learning has been around, hasn’t it David, the platforms have been there, in some cases organisations have been reluctant to use them. It’s like what a lot of people have said about COVID in other ways, it’s kind of brought ten years of revolution in ten months?

DH: Absolutely. So some of the wider resources that are out there, so short videos, podcasts, interactive PDFs, are all things that are starting to grab the excitement and creativity and innovation of learning and development teams and they are starting to be used but yeah the main bulk was, we did see in the research, take up of virtual classrooms.

NC: Now Stella I'm beginning to blanch when I hear about PDFs and webinars and all that, how good are we at monitoring how effective this training is, particularly where it’s moved to a digital platform?

SC: I don't think we’re anywhere near as good as we can be, and as good as we could be, and I think that's one of the things we really need to start doing is really measuring what works. We know that some things about digital are really valuable, I think it’s much more democratising, everybody can have a voice in digital, if it’s a good digital platform. But also there are some challenges around attention, around people feeling really tired with a lot of online stuff. It does use your brain in a different way to genuine face-to-face connection and our brains have not evolved as quickly as COVID has evolved. So I think there's big changes coming but I think what we need to start doing is measuring really what does work and by measuring what does work then we can actually create the best blend that is going to work. That's some research we’re doing at the moment with the University of Antwerp is looking at what’s a really good blend and what is it that can support a learning journey for learners both from their own side but also what can managers and mentors and peers do to support them and use that data to support the learning journey and find out what is effective, what is turning things into real world application.

NC: Okay well we’ll delve a little more deeply into how we can start doing that in a minute but before we do that let me go back to David Hayden and again perhaps from the work you've done on the Learning and Skills at Work survey and other CIPD work, what would you say about how you begin to assess the effectiveness of what you’re delivering?

DH: If you’re in an organisation with a catalogue of learning programmes you can go on you've got to ask yourselves when were those programmes designed? So if those programmes were designed five years ago and learning and development teams are offering those programmes maybe month in/month out or three or four times a year those programmes were designed in a time when an organisation was very, very different. So if you've got a product manual of training courses then I suggest that's not quite in line with where the business is today or where it needs to be tomorrow. So really do we understand what our people skills are? How that marries up with the people skills needed for today and tomorrow, and then start shortening that gap. Really how does any learning offering align with the organisation’s key performance indicators? So everything that learning and development does there will be someone in that organisation responsible for a key performance indicator around that. So we’ve got to get closer to those people and really make sure we are sharing the same messages they are. That's where we've got to start.

SC: Totally agree with David there, however we’ve just been working with a really interesting company who recognise that key performance indicators are important but they’re also actually talking about things that aren’t key performance indicators, what can they measure in terms of people relationships, in terms of just their relationships with their customers. And they’ve been really interesting about saying we don't only want to measure KPIs we want to see, hear and feel different behaviours which are slightly harder to measure but they’re really focused on that and I'm really curious to see how are they going to measure it? That's part of the question we’re doing at the moment, and what’s going to be the long-term impact of that, rather than just the standard key performance indicators.

NC: So if I've got this right Stella what you’re saying is that the evidence, the data, that you’re gathering, really has to go right to the heart of what the training is for and it starts with the management’s requirements and it’s only later that you actually devise the detail? 

SC: I don't think it necessarily starts with management requirement, it might actually start with people on the shop floor or wherever it is we’re working. I really think we need a learning revolution, I don't think learning should come from above, I think learning should come from everywhere in the organisation. It needs to come top down, bottom up, and from the sides.

NC: Well what you say is very convincing but there might be organisations who haven’t quite cottoned on to that, so how do you get that message over to management that in the longer term, in terms of happy, contented, productive staff that stay a decent length of time they need to adapt and understand that?

SC: I think that comes to really looking at the learning culture in the organisation and what’s the culture in the organisation, it’s beyond the learning culture, are you allowing your people to show initiative, to be innovative, to come up with good ideas and take those ideas forward, or are you a very hierarchical, top down, organisation that doesn’t? And I think the more we can support everybody in the organisation and say, look I really need to learn this because I'm the one who's doing this job, I know what I need to learn, and rather than then taking months and months and months for L&D to come up with something maybe they can find ways for themselves to actually do that learning. And I think for that the key skill we really, really need is the skill of learning to learn, because so many of us don't actually know how we learn. There's lots of myths and all kinds of fairy stories out there about learning and I think if we could teach people the skill of learning that would actually help us upskill on all the other skills, it’s like the foundation skill.

DH: And to build on that, so not only learning about learning, which is fundamental to the job we are doing but also learning more about the tools we have got at our disposal. So for instance if someone says, yeah I evaluate our products using Kirkpatrick, for instance and there are other models available, but Kirkpatrick tends to be a popular one, do we really understand what Kirkpatrick said in the 1950s, where it came from, ((Catsell?)) in 1948? And then how have the Kirkpatrick Foundation evolved over the past 50/70 years and what are they saying now? Because giving a happy sheet out or a quiz at the end of an online session isn't measuring in terms of what the organisation needs or what we need as professionals to say, actually I am making a difference with my learning and development provision in this organisation. So we need to learn about learning absolutely as Stella says but learn really what the author’s said about the tools we think we are using.

SC: I just think it’s really important, you know, that Kirkpatrick yes it’s a useful model but there's many more models that are much more focused on the doing. How can we tell that people can take action in the workplace, so Will Thalheimer’s model for instance really looks at, you know, can people make decisions at work as opposed to have they learned whatever it was they were supposed to learn, but can they use that learning? And I think there are better models now available I think, Brinkerhoff is another one, which is focused on the doing. And that's what learning’s about, learning’s about something to do.

NC: David budgets are being cut you mentioned earlier that people are having to effectively do more with less, and the crisis is forcing learning and development to prioritise isn't it and in some ways that's a good thing isn't it? 

DH: Yes, so it can very much be. So one of the things I noticed prior to the pandemic is those organisations that saw their budget cut year-on-year were actually doing more innovative things with less money and the less resource that they had.  And it gives us an opportunity to actually be more creative. Some of the things we saw before the pandemic, those organisations that had very, very healthy and growing budgets were less likely to adapt some of their traditional systems. So it can be viewed as a positive thing.

NC: So Stella when you’re called in to help a company improve the performance of their learning tell us the kind of problems that you work on people. Is it about fully understanding and using these complex tools that we mentioned earlier or people’s problems with learning and development more fundamental?

SC: That's a big question! I think it’s about first understanding where the organisation is and where they want to go and where their people are and where they want to go, so really understanding that kind of culture organisationally and the learning culture, because everybody has a learning culture, sometimes it’s a great one and sometimes it’s an ineffective one but everybody has one. And from there you need to start understanding what is it the people want, what is it they need to be able to do? Who's involved in the learning process because if you’re learning something you can get so much support from your managers but I think peer learning, peer-to-peer learning is something that's been somewhat neglected and I think that is one of those innovative ones that you were talking about David that organisations who haven’t got money are using peer-to-peer learning and that's how we always learned from the start.

NC: Stella how do you do that when people are primarily online or working remotely or say they come into the office but not on the same day, so how do you get that peer learning going?

SC: So yeah a little bit harder when it’s not face-to-face but there's no reason why we can't have…so one of things we do in our organisation we have something called ‘brain time’, once a month one of us, and everybody in the organisation has to take a turn, one of us shares something with the rest of the team, teaches something else in the rest of the team. Sometimes it’s something really practical, sometimes it’s something a little bit more philosophical or principled-based. So that's one thing you can do. But you can also make sure you’re using the tools that are there, use Teams or whatever, Slack, whatever it is you’re using in your organisation, create the Wiki, create that user-generated content that is usually what people find useful themselves and if they can share that with their colleagues it becomes useful across the organisation. So again it’s about not having learning come from the top but actually having learning spreading throughout the organisation and enabling people to feel confident and share that learning, share what it is they're doing and how they do it.

NC: Well let’s talk better future delivery and of course invariably, as we've been hearing that means tech. I wonder what we can learn from the use of digital tools and e-learning platforms, you've mentioned one or two of them, since the pandemic. I was struck, David, by a finding in your latest Learning Skills at Work report that the shift hasn’t necessarily been to the more advanced tools with the most potential?

DH: For the second year running the report highlighted that tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality, are nowhere near as popular as tools such as virtual classrooms for instance. And there is a huge set-up cost for those kind of tools. Again it’s really important not to go out and buy the tool just for the sake of buying the tool but make sure there's a recognised business need for that. I've seen things like virtual reality and augmented reality work really, really well in places like fast food restaurants, in places like the mining industry, and where there's complex production, so where you’re stopping the system that's really, really expensive but you can use that kind of technology to really home in and develop people’s skills so you’re not stopping the real world work, you’re actually using those technologies for the benefit but the numbers are relatively small overall.

SC: And I think part of that is because they’re a) very expensive and b) they do have to be really, really well designed otherwise they become less than useless. So I think the challenge for organisations with smaller budgets they just can't afford to do the R and AR, but we’re for instance playing with a tool at the moment called, which it’s an online platform but it allows you to feel a bit embodied again because in you've got like a little avatar that can move around and you can go into different rooms, you can take people into breakout rooms, literally, and you can have four breakout rooms and you actually, you're not physically moving, the visual imagery of your avatar moving actually gives you a connection that is very different to most of our virtual classroom-based stuff which means you’re sitting there for a few hours, I mean I always try and include in virtual classrooms some element of people getting up to stand up to do something if they can, but I think that technology, we’re not exploring all the options, we’re kind of going down the, well VR can do it really well and it can but it’s expensive, but there are lots of other really useful tools out there that we could be starting to embrace.

NC: So David we’re trying bringing this together, how do you start doing that? What’s the process of actually upgrading what you do?

DH: So it comes back to that point you challenged me on earlier, being really, really clear about what it is the organisation needs and L&D’s role within that. Then being really, really clear about what the learners need. So it’s no good going off and buying something that isn't a good fit with your organisation and with your learners. And really thinking around what’s the trajectory for that piece of kit because you don't want to be ending up buying something that's going to end up like MySpace or Bebo or something like that, what’s going to go out of favour or out of updates in a few years. So really kind of make sure whatever it is you’re looking for really ties in with the organisation need and the learning need and can be accessible to people at a time they need it.

NC: And of course there will be organisations where they won't be able to afford that. There was this somewhat worrisome finding that only 18% of organisations surveyed think that their investment and resourcing will go back to what it was before the pandemic, so I wondered Stella in the face of that what would be on your check list for learning and development managers to kind of get the most bangs for your buck?

SC: I think use the tools that are already there, that you've already got, you know, if you go digging around in your system you've probably got all sorts of tools you probably haven’t been harnessing or using as well as you could; investigate the tools that are free to use or very cheap to use, and there's plenty of them; and I would say be really curious, talk to other people, what are they doing, maybe there's ways you can collaborate to use tools together. So really think more broadly rather than just the big LMS tools that are sold to us at learning tech for instance, there's all sorts of other things. You can create chat bots quite easily, you can create apps that support learning quite easily without them being very expensive. So I think it’s looking at what are the smaller things you can do. Even mobile phone technology, messaging, there's some people who actually create whole courses through messaging, which are very good if there's very little money around.

NC: It’s very reassuring you've actually started going through some of the key findings in the Learning and Skills report, and the first one you've covered there, embracing digital innovation and of course David you can start small can't you and experiment before scaling up?

DH: Absolutely and if you look at any piece of advice around this that is exactly the one key consistent piece of advice, start small. And also what I would say is don't be afraid of harnessing the skills and knowledge of the people that you've got within your organisation because there's bound to be people who in their own time, invest lots of time, effort and energy in keeping themselves digitally up to date.

NC: There was something else in your findings here which, I'm going to ask Stella about it, talks about agreeing the role of line managers in the L&D context, is that not clear what the line managers are supposed to do?

SC: I think that's one of the biggest challenges. I've been in L&D for 20-odd years and every single year somebody says, but it’s line managers they’re the ones. And I feel really sorry for line managers, they’re really squashed, they’ve got loads and loads of different things to do and they don't know that much about learning so they don't necessarily know how to support a learner. One of the things I think is really valuable and we in L&D can do is support line managers. So for instance somebody goes on a course or they do a piece of digital learning and we give the line manager some questions to ask them, you know, what would be really good feedback questions to ask this person after they’ve been on this course? And make it easy for line managers because at the moment we just say, yes, yes after a course you have to give them feedback, or you have to ask them questions. And they’re like, I haven’t got time and I don't know what to do. Give people checklists, make it really, really easy for them, and support the line manager in supporting the learning, or use the system to do it is the other way to do that as well.

DH: And also with that in terms of the time we do spend in learning and development with line managers to what degree are we developing them to be great people developers themselves? We tend to have line managers together and we tend to throw things at them that they may never, ever use and generic in virtually every single line manager or leadership course, let’s actually take some time to say, look part of your role as line manager is to be a great people developer and here’s some tips how to do it.

NC: Fantastic. Well you've been through many of the findings there, certainly the last one you've already alluded to, be evidence-based, define your desired outcomes, engage key stakeholders, gather evidence and measure the learning impact.

SC: Can people do the job they need to do? But again that can be measured because it might be measured by, you know, the number of customers they serve, the number of customers who say they’re happy, it could be any number of things but it’s about measuring what people do, not what they thought about the training, not what they thought about the lunch, but what are they actually doing when they get back to work. And you can't measure that immediately they get back after a training programme or a learning event, it’s got to be once they’ve had time to implement what they’re learning and to practice it and get feedback and really embed it as part of their normal behaviour.

NC: Brilliant. Worth just saying here if you have enjoyed this podcast make sure you check out our previous one, still very much current, we’ve alluded to some of these issues about post-pandemic digital fatigue, how to set healthy boundaries on home working. I did just want to run past you what I was seeing from the CEO of WeWork, Sandeep Mathrani, who suggested there is an easy way for companies to spot their most engaged employees, he says, they’re the ones who want to come back to the office at least two thirds of the time. And I know Apple among many other companies have had a big row internally about this, but Sandeep Mathrani says, those who are least engaged are those who are most comfortable working from home. Is he right David? It’s a controversial thing to say.

DH: The things that come to mind as I hear that are things like presenteeism, things like some resistance to change, listening to employees and kind of really understanding how to implement a hybrid working system. Yeah, kind of lots of things I'm afraid I can't agree to what Sandeep has said there at all.

SC: And I think for me it comes down to trust doesn’t it? If you've got people who are, you know, they enjoy their job, they’re trusted to do their job, I don't think it comes down to whether you want to go back into the office. Maybe they’ve got many, many other commitments and actually they can work much better from home because they haven’t got to spend two or four hours commuting a day.

NC: So does it say more about him? Is it really a sign you’re a snowflake if you’re a bit nervous of going back to the office?

SC: No absolutely. And I think everyone is a bit nervous because it’s a big change, we’ve got used to working like this and I think we have to accept that people will feel, you know, we’ve been bombarded with information about how dangerous it is in the office, how dangerous it is outside, I think people will feel nervous because it’s another change and change always comes with a feeling of anxiety. 

NC: Well it’s been great having you both so a big thank you to our dynamic duo, Stella Collins and David Hayden. Talking points like this every month so do subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and never miss an edition. But thank you for listening, until next time from me and all of us at the CIPD it’s goodbye.


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