Learning in the time of COVID
By Allison Doyle, Assistant Commissioner, ATO
Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors — African proverb
COVID-19 has presented learning professionals and learners with unprecedented opportunity. Throughout the pandemic, organisations and senior leaders have increasingly come to recognise workplace learning as a driver for business outcomes, people engagement and workforce capability. According to a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87% of executives said they were experiencing significant skills gaps or expected to experience them within a few years. Fewer than half of these executives indicated they had a clear sense of how to address this problem.
For those people who are willing to upskill and reskill this represents an abundance of opportunity. The role of learning and development teams and functions, therefore, is to take the learning to the workforce, so people can access it in a way that is meaningful for them. Let’s take the example of ‘learning to become a more effective leader’. One learner may undertake post-graduate studies while another attends a short residential course at a leading business school, another watches a few five-minute videos and reflects on their performance in a journal and still another shadows a mentor for a couple of days. Any one of these approaches could spark the breakthrough learning and behavioural change that accelerates performance and leadership ability. The question then becomes: How are APS agencies supporting learners to access the high quality, high impact learning experiences, tailored to individual needs?
COVID-19 also enables the democratisation of learning like never before. The assumption that content is relevant to cohorts of individuals organised by level is flawed. Current APS role or level is not commensurate with intelligence, ability to grasp complex subject matter or aspiration and potential, so the idea that there are different learning experiences based solely on APS level is one that should be continually challenged. As learning experiences can be delivered to almost limitless audiences though virtual technology and pre-recorded content, we can ask: Why shouldn’t a talented emerging leader be able to attend a strategic thinking course with SES? In fact, might this not create a richer learning environment for all involved? Learning that transcends APS levels, geographical location and indeed physical space will be a key focus in attracting, developing and retaining top talent in Government.
A further opportunity accelerated by COVID-19 has been experimentation with learning methods. Virtual and hybrid learning, while a feature of future-focused learning for some time now, have proliferated the learning ecosystem. The option to combine the best of virtual, hybrid, face to face, synchronous and asynchronous learning will mean learning becomes far more inclusive and accessible to the workforce. Many people have commented to me that the opportunity to learn where they are, rather than having to travel away from caring needs, families and workplaces to access high quality learning, has meant they are not falling behind in opportunities to build capability. Many have mentioned that virtual learning for long chunks of time in front of a screen is not for them, so it is the opportunity to pursue more flexible learning experiences which offer greater choice, to cater for work/life priorities and personal learning preference, that will see greater proportions of our workforce proactively and autonomously lifting their professional capability. We can now think less about the learning mode, and more about ensuring the key elements for successful learning — instruction, immersion, introspection — for the basis of our learning design conversations.
Finally, COVID-19 has required us to think more about learning, performance, wellbeing and sustainability. In the context of a workforce experiencing technological disruption, fiscal challenges, socio-environmental crises and, of course, the pandemic, we need creative ways to equip our people and especially our leaders. Many have responded to increasing demands by pushing harder and working longer hours (often from our homes), which inevitably leaves us depleted — mentally, physically and emotionally. We need to mindfully and intentionally re-energise our workforce by moving from getting more out of people to investing more in supporting them to bring their best and most productive selves to work to perform their roles. While the APS has been excellent at building the knowledge, skills and competencies, we may be overlooking the opportunity to support our people to build and sustain our capacity, which would in turn see greater levels of engagement with higher levels of sustainability. It may be time to enhance learning impact with a greater focus on ‘leading self’, health and wellness and the neuroscience of habits and behaviour in our learning and leadership offerings.
COVID-19 has disrupted conventional notions of the what, when, where, why and how of learning for the better, accelerating innovation and posing transformative challenges. The opportunity to reap the rewards of learning that is more rapid, accessible, connected and high impact is one for the APS to harness, before we slip back into a business as usual model of learning.