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Strategic L&D can guide the future workforce


Our research set out to understand how organisations were preparing their workforces for the future of work with a particular focus on the role of learning and development. While many organisations recognised the potential disruption of the future of work, few felt well prepared in terms of the skills of their workforces. Many of the challenges we identified were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, we identified seven key factors which were reflective of a more mature approach to preparing the workforce of the future and which we expect will best equip the workforces in those organisations.

As the pandemic diminishes, forward-looking businesses must prepare staff for the future of work, say David Collings and John McMackin.

What’s new

Discussions on the future of work have become ubiquitous in recent months but generally focus on the impact of technological developments, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, on how work is done as well as changing approaches to employment such as the gig economy. 

Our research is particularly interested in the role that the learning and development function could play in preparing workforces for the future at an organisational level. 

Although our research began in 2019, it continued though the early months of the pandemic providing an insight into how organisations were thinking about skills and the future of work prior to and through those early months.

Our insights are based on focus groups with key educational, public policy and industry stakeholders as well as in-depth interviews in 21 organisations across six countries and a survey of over 250 L&D professionals. 


Key findings

Perhaps the starkest finding from our study was how under-prepared the vast majority of organisations were for the future of work. Only 30% of respondents were confident in their ability to meet future skills needs in their organisations.

This was in part explained by the finding that fewer than four in 10 of those respondents identified preparing for the future of work as a high or top priority for their organisations. 

Dealing with the short-term skills needs arising from the pandemic occupied much of the resources available, leaving teams without time to prepare for the future.  

There are some indicators that the appreciation of L&D and skills development has increased in the context of the pandemic. For example, LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report found that the percentage of L&D professionals who reported that they had a place at the executive table increased to 63% in March 2021 from only 24% in 2020.

Building key skills and capabilities was also identified as the number one priority of 68% of HR professionals in Gartner’s 2021 HR priorities study.

These indicators are positive, as research on previous recessions confirms that organisations that invested in L&D prior to recessions were better equipped for post recessional recovery. However, the short-term focus of current investment in L&D remains a concern with only 32% of respondents to Gartner’s study identifying the future of work as a priority. 

Organisations with a mature approach to L&D in the context of the future of work were guided overall by the following key principles.


Identify a North Star to guide L&D decisions

There were key differences between firms that had a clear line of sight on how technology and other factors were driving strategy versus others who were simply reacting to the impact of these drivers.  

Organisations most prepared to respond to the changing world of work were guided by a North Star that provided direction and a centre of gravity for enabling the workforce of the future. 

For example, global pharmaceutical company Novartis’ mission is to evolve to a data-driven business to re-imagine medicine to improve and extend people’s lives.  Guided by this mission, they developed five strategic priorities with a clear L&D plan to support each of them. 


Establish a skills baseline

A number of organisations have invested significant resources in developing inventories of workforce skills and capabilities. These inventories proved valuable in identifying skills gaps more quickly and taking action to fill skills deficits when the pandemic struck. They also identified underutilised or unknown capabilities in the workforce. 

Such inventories are complex and costly to undertake so we recommend that organisations think about piloting such initiatives in key units or departments as a starting point. 


Align L&D efforts with strategic priorities

Historically, learning needs analysis was largely focused on skills gaps identified by looking at past skills requirements. However, preparing for the future of work requires a longer term perceptive.  

For example, one insurance firm partnered with an external provider to map expected changes in jobs owing to technology and other changes in a 10-year window.

They identified 15% of jobs they predicted would be eliminated by technology and a further 50% that would be augmented by technology in that time.

This provided a clear roadmap for how the organisation should design its L&D programmes for the coming years. It proved particularly valuable as the organisation responded to COVID-19 in terms of identifying how reskilling could enable the redeployment of colleagues in business units which were hit hardest by
the pandemic.


Ensure that the L&D team has the right skills and resources

An unequivocal finding from our research was that the skills and capabilities required by L&D professionals have been significantly reshaped. 

Those L&D professionals perceived as most impactful are true internal consultants with strong credibility and a clear understanding of business strategy. We saw an increasing emphasis on data and analytical skills as priority skills areas for L&D professionals.  


Ensure L&D accommodates evolving conditions

Our data points to a clear evolution in terms of how learning is being delivered. The 70:20:10 model (70% of learning on the job, 20% via coaching and mentoring; 10% via formal learning events), which emphasises learning in the flow of work as core to development, seemed to have become the mainstream approach. 

In contrast to an emphasis on longer learning programmes in the past, we saw an increasing emphasis on learning that is ‘just in time, just enough and just for me,’ providing the knowledge and skills that employees need in a timely and accessible way, an objective which was greatly enabled by technology. 


Create individualised learning pathways

Our research points to a shift away from a limited number of development pathways through an organisations. Such pathways are effective where people enter organisations with a relatively standard baseline of skills and follow standard career paths. 

However, with the growing diversity of hiring pathways and individuals joining firms at different levels with different core skills and experience levels, organisations are increasingly focused on helping employees understand what their skills gaps are and then curating a learning pathway to fill those needs. 

A digital fitness app developed by PwC is a good example of a tool which helps employees to identify those gaps and suggest some development to close their skills gaps. 


Stay agile and adapt training over time

The ability of L&D to be flexible and responsive to business needs has become particularly significant in responding to COVID-19: effective L&D teams adapted quickly to ensure employees had the capacities to work at home. 

Organisations reported a very quick shift to the requirement for content to support employees in managing their health and wellbeing and work life balance, as those became major priorities. 


From research to reality

Our research showed that while many organisations recognised the challenges that the future of work would create from a skills perspective, few were strategically planning for those challenges. Most were struggling to meet current skills requirements, challenged in part by tight resources. 

The pandemic has highlighted the limitations of such a short-term focus, and we know from research on previous recessions the value that investment in L&D can have in terms of preparing for recovery when conditions improve.

Our research points to some of the key steps that organisations that are further along the journey of enabling the workforce for the future have followed in developing their strategies. 

Following all these steps will require significant resources and commitment but piloting initiatives in key units or parts of an organisation may provide a point of departure for the journey towards enabling the workforce of the future. 

For L&D professionals supporting a business case for the value of such programmes, data analytics and storytelling concerning the impact of such pilots can provide the basis for a case for further strategic investment in L&D. 


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.