The Learning & Development Podcast: L&D Lockdown (Again) With Eva Adam, Alice Collier-Niblett and Sean Cooper

February 2, 2021

Written by Kiren Kahlon

United Nations Lockdown

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The Learning & Development podcast is hosted by our Chief Learning Officer David James. Featuring L&D leaders from across the globe, each conversation focuses on hot topics in the profession. This transcript is from the conversation between David, Eva Adam, Alice Collier-Niblett and Sean Cooper, where they share their experiences of what’s happening in their teams, how they’re preparing for what comes next and their hopes for the future.

Listen to episode 62 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David James: Welcome to the Learning & Development podcast. I’m David James from Looop, and in a special lockdown again episode, I’m joined by Alice Collier-Niblett. Hello, Alice.

Alice Collier-Niblett: Hello, David.

David: Eva Adam. Hello, Eva.

Eva Adam: Hello, David.

David: And Sean Cooper. Hello, Sean.

Sean Cooper: Hi, David.

David: Welcome to you too. Now, I think we’d all prefer not to be in this situation, therefore having this conversation, but things have taken a dire turn for the worse in terms of the pandemic and its effect on lives and livelihoods. It does seem like an important conversation to be having because, certainly, I believe the role of L&D is likely to be critical in what comes next for organisations. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

I’ll come to each of you, in turn, to kick things off but, Alice, if I can start with you, what’s the current status of your organisation, say, for example, what you’re happy to divulge, in terms of is it a reduced operation, is it all hands on deck, perhaps working from home, some folks at home, some on site? How active is your L&D team in this lockdown?

Alice: We are pretty much all hands on deck at the moment. I’ve introduced myself, I suppose. I’m in people development at Monzo. We are I guess quite in a lucky position that feels full steam ahead for us. Obviously, during last year, we had some issues where we had to go through furlough and things like that which really wasn’t a good experience for us.

From the people development perspective, we were sidetracked a little bit from some of our key capabilities in things we were trying to build, because we wanted to support the business through that time, people going through redundancies and stuff like that. I guess, in a sense, that slowed us down, but coming out the other side of it now, it feels like things are starting to pick up again, we’re able to replan, refocus and just get back into the swing of things. Things are really full steam ahead and our team are working really hard from home at the moment.

David: Brilliant, that’s good to hear. Eva, from your side, what’s the status within the organisation? What kind of operations are running, and more specifically, how active is your L&D team during this lockdown?

Eva: To be honest, I worked for Philip Morris International as a learning design lead. I have got a bit of an unusual story because I actually started with the organisation in lockdown. We always joke about that I haven’t actually met any of my colleagues in real life yet. It probably shows as well the fact that they were able to onboard me in a fully digital way. The team has been fantastic with how they take into these new circumstances. That’s true for the whole organisation.

For us, yes, things have changed, the way we work has changed, but in terms of the business, and especially the L&D team, we’re primarily digital anyway. It doesn’t feel like we lost out on a lot of things, probably quite the opposite. It accelerated a lot of things that we’ve been campaigning for a long time and really brought that on as a priority. It’s been really interesting to see that.

David: It is quite incredible that you mentioned that, Eva. Of course, there are going to be quite a few people. It’s been a year, hasn’t it, the best part of the year since we’ve been in lockdown. It’s going to be an experience that many share. Also, on top of that, what you’ve just said there, I have heard that a lot of L&D teams have seen this as an opportunity and have accelerated what their aspirations have been for their function.

I remember, Robb Sayers on the podcast said it feels as if they’ve accelerated 10 years in 10 months, which I think can only be a good thing if we pull some positivity out of what is quite a dreadful experience for all. Sean, finally to you, what’s the current status for you, and how active is your L&D team in this lockdown?

Sean: I think I’ve had a very similar experience to Eva. I joined during lockdown in August last year, so I’m yet to see a bricks and mortar building, which is always interesting. It’s been a fantastic experience joining. I think what I’ve noticed certainly within the five months that I’ve been within the business is nothing’s really changed. The company is still operating with their workforce. They implemented very much a flexible approach to working pretty much from March onwards when the first lockdown hit.

Given the nature of the business that I work for, being in the power industry, there’s obviously a lot of critical workers that they have to keep in plants. They really adapted to that very, very quickly to make sure that those people were safe, 100% COVID secure, but the rest of the operations weren’t impacted. Equipment was sent out very quickly and the infrastructure was put up in place very, very swiftly as well.

From a people development point of view, from an L&D standpoint, it’s all systems go. You mentioned that 10 months in 10 years, and that’s definitely been the case. I was brought on to specifically look at that blended digital approach to learning to keep that traction moving. They’d already started to implement so much in that space, moving from your traditional classroom approaches to webinars and digital resources. We are probably busier than ever, and I only see us getting busier as time progresses.

David: Again, that’s good to hear. I think that for so many, in the early stages of lockdown last March, it was almost deemed as if this is a holding pattern and we’ll just hold off until we can go back to normal. If that was L&D, it was a case of, “Let’s put our programmes on hold and operate.” Many operations or organisations may have thought something similar because this is pretty unprecedented.

To hear from all three of you that your operations are seeking to, I suppose not simply maintain, but the very nature of business is that you’ve got to grow. It’s good to hear. Now, Eva, this has been, and I think it’s important to acknowledge, a tiring and sometimes a demoralising time for many individuals. How’s morale in your team and organisation, and are you and your leaders doing anything to maintain positivity?

Eva: I think it all started with recognising that this is very unusual, no one has the answers, no one really knows how to do this right. I think it gave the team a lot of headspace for experimenting and figuring out, “Well, what is it that works for us?” Even to the point of really encouraging individuals to look at it and say, “Well, how do you work best? What hours work for you? What days work for you? When are you most productive?”

I think having those conversations really, really helped some people. I’m not going to lie, I think we all miss certain elements, that face-to-face connection, but I think that’s also what it brought with it. It makes you realise that when we do spend time together and when we come together, what’s that time best used for? It really challenged the idea of maybe if we just sit next to each other in the office and we’re not really talking to each other, it’s probably not necessary to be there.

There are certain creative elements and brainstorming chats and little 5-10 minute conversations by the coffee machine that were really all missing out on and we’ve got to be a lot more intentional about them. I think we treat it as a playground, to be honest, and we’re just trying lots of different things and looking at it like curious scientists and going, “Well, let’s see if that works, and see if that works for the team.”

We’re a very honest and transparent team anyway, and I’m glad we could keep that. Even though we’re in line, we’re very honest if something works, we’re very honest if something doesn’t quite work for us, and we’re happy to keep working on that and figuring out what will be the best. It’s nice to see that that’s something that’s happening within the whole organisation. We have a lot of regular communication from the senior leaders and having that coming through I think really helps people to not feel alone. It just gives that sense of shared experience.

People Want to Feel Valued and Working Towards a Unified Purpose. That’s More Important Now Than Ever Before

David: That’s good, the way you feel. You’ve got people seeing this as a way of experimenting and challenging perhaps what wasn’t working before. I think we’ve all worked in organisations where there’s a meetings culture and you’re just thinking, “Why are we going to this again?” But as an opportunity to challenge what has been accepted, practiced throughout entire organisations can only be a positive. It sounds as if it’s something that’s been welcomed at Philip Morris, Eva. What about you, Sean, have you experienced that people either in your team or your organisation have been affected morale wise and is there anything special that you and your leaders are doing to maintain positivity?

Sean: Yes. I think from a team point of view, coming in and taking over a team in these times, there was an element of nervousness from my part about how do I keep these guys inspired and motivated when I can’t even meet them and engage with them face-to-face? What I’ve been really blown away with is that actually, we’ve got such a tight bond for eight, nine people that have never actually met each other physically face-to-face because we’re quite a new team. We were actually only brought together during the pandemic. As an L&D team, my individual function — We never actually got together.

We’ve really just made a real conscious effort to carve out time for team building and bonding to keep our morale high. We have a regular social catch up once a week. We make the time to have the three o’clock brews and the sharing of gifts on teams. The things that keep us motivated. Then, similarly, what we are doing is using this opportunity to look at how we can push the boundaries and break some of the traditional mindset of what things should be. Going to webinars, it doesn’t have to be just reading off a PowerPoint. How do you experiment with some of the tools and the technologies that are available? How do you prop that up with the right digital resources so that you actually can get the most out of that session?

The team have been phenomenal. They’re just dealing with these changes, these challenges on a daily basis and just constantly trying to adapt and make it better. They’ve had to do this really quickly. A lot of the programmes that we implemented this year and– Last year, sorry, were initially supposed to be bricks and mortar. They’ve had to change and think on their feet. It’s been really great to see that.

The other thing that’s really stood out is from a company point of view. How much investment in time the wider business and senior leadership team have put into wellbeing. There’s dedicated wellbeing pages and dedicated well-being resources, and there’s flexible working policies, there’s that opportunity to work around your life, your childcare. It just makes life easier for everybody. One of the things that I’ve really tried to encourage my team to do is accept that you will have down days. But when you have those to speak about it and be open. We all do. I think that’s really helping.

David: Yes, that’s good. Again, really positive to be acknowledging this as well because this is tough times for organisations. They’re feeling the squeeze. You could see that perhaps organisations with lesser scruples would be putting that squeeze on individuals and saying, “Look, these are tough times for all of us but if you want to stay here then you’re going to have to continue to deliver.” It seems as if there’s — What I’ve heard so far, there is empathy. Quite rightly so, because we are going to come out the other side of this. People are going to feel as if they want to move roles. If they feel as if they’ve been treated well then that’s going to be a lure as well. Alice, what about from your side in Monzo? How’s morale within your team in the organisation and have the leaders done anything in particular, to maintain positivity?

Alice: Yes. I think lots of similar things to what Eva and Sean said. It’s different. The meeting fatigue is very real. We’re trying to, as a whole organisation, manage that because I think, obviously, where we’re fully remote you end up putting loads and loads of meetings in. You’d end up with days and days of just back-to-back meetings. So we’re looking at things like how do you– If you’re setting up a meeting, how can you have a really clear agenda? What do you want to get out of that? Stick to 25 minutes or 55 minutes, rather than a full hour or half an hour. Keeping Fridays clear so you can actually get some stuff done. 

Reducing. It feels like this time around with the lockdown that it feels more emotionally stressful, I think we’re we’ve been in it for so long, so now we’re just at the point where we just had enough. It feels like things are really really tightened. In the world, not just in the UK, really in general. We’ve been doing a lot of great stuff in our space team, in particular. They’ve been amazing in putting in exercise classes, and meditation, it’s really helpful that that is there. We have mental health forums to talk about how you’re feeling and share it with other people.

I really think at this moment in time, communication is definitely key. Even Sean mentioned that as well. Just giving people a really clear purpose and understanding their value. David, what you just said as well. It’s just people want to feel valued. People want to feel we’re all working towards a unified purpose. I think that’s more important now than ever. I think it’s important to come from leadership as well. Just keep communicating. Tell the people what it is we’re trying to achieve as a business and help people to remain driven and motivated. I think that really helps.

Listen to episode 62 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David: Yes. It’s all really important stuff. It’s the human stuff, isn’t it, which makes a huge difference. Sean, if I can come to you, then. There seems to be, hopefully now, some light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccination programmes being rolled out in many countries. Hopefully, the current lockdown, whilst tough, has a time limit. What are your L&D priorities between now and as restrictions lift? Can you see those changing in the coming weeks as well? I’ll caveat that with as much as you can and wish to divulge.

Sean: Yes. I think from an L&D point of view, very much, it’s that creation of blended learning is very much the push that we’re going for within our business. I don’t think the ending up of these restrictions is going to change that. We’re very much going down that approach. That’s the way that we want to move as a business and an organisation to give our colleagues the flexibility to learn as and when they need to and give them that chance. When we do use the classroom, or the instructor-led sessions, that they’re there to add real value on purpose.

If I look at the key priorities I’ve got over the short and medium-term at the moment, it is about that transformation into a much more digital-first culture. Create and insert some learning in a much more robust way, but then making sure that we have the right human interactions with it because we’re a big– I personally am a big believer in having that right blend. I know we spoke about it the last time we chatted. That’s very much what we’re driving ahead with.

I think the most exciting thing is the change that we’re doing to how we onboard people. One of the biggest projects that I’m working on at the moment is completely changing that onboarding experience and bringing it forward from not just day one in the building but right from the office stage so that we’re engaging with new colleagues from the minute they accept the job.

We keep that constant engagement going virtually and then it continues through to day one right through to day X when you decide that you’re ready to move on. That’s going to be really exciting to see that’s come to fruition during the restrictions, but then how that’s going to grow once we get outside of the restrictions. We can add in that peer-to-peer network and that management support and that engagement from that human is just going to be immense.

David: Fabulous. What a great time to do that now, whilst you haven’t got the pressure, I suppose, of bringing on lots of people. You can build something, trial it. By the time you are– Well, I’m making an assumption here that there’s not a lot of hiring going on just generally. Again, looking to create that great experience because we are realising, as we’ve just discussed in the last round of responses, that people really truly matter. I think that’s certainly a worthy one. Alice, what about you and your team at Monzo? What are the L&D priorities that you’re happy to divulge that you’ll be focusing on between now and as restrictions lift?

Alice: It’s interesting because I can tell you what we’re focusing on now but when you say when restrictions lift, when is that actually going to happen? It’s really difficult. Things change all the time. For us now, our priorities are really trying to stay aligned with the business goals, with business needs. Just try and make sure that we’re building the right people. Just making sure we’re aligned with that. One of the things is manager skills. Just making sure that your managers are equipped to do all those things I’ve just mentioned in the last question. Keeping people motivated and valued in the communication space. I feel that’s really important right now. That’s one of our main priorities.

I guess the difference now compared to earlier on in the pandemic is– Nothing feels a shock to me. I think every time we get government announcements, we’ve learned to adapt, and we’ve learned to change. I think that second that we get that announcement of, okay, we’ve got to go get out vaccines so we can move back into the offices, I think L&D teams will probably be more able to say, “Okay, right now, let’s get into gear. What are the things that people really need to know now when they get back into the office?” I think it does feel like we might be able to manage that change a little bit.

I think for us personally, although within our team, it feels like we’re at a point where we’re coming out the other side of all of that more reactive training that we were doing to the pandemic and really focusing we’re building up our OKRs, so our objectives, key results, goal-setting thinking about the key capabilities. Then I think what we’ve learned throughout the last 12 months is, how we can then just start executing those really quickly. Some of the things that we can start to do to knock down those quick wins and how can we start to move the dial. We’re looking at how we can do that but regularly checking in, making sure we’re working on the right things, being reactive. Especially when it comes to our customers as well,  that’s the key thing for us.

We have a group of people in our L&D team that look at purely our customer facing stuff. Then they need to be aware as and when we have government announcements and we move into different stages,what does that do for our customers? I think that will mean maybe we need to refresh on things like if our customers are traveling, again, what does that mean for the types of queries we’ll get and stuff like that? Just trying to stay aware and think about how things are changing and try to adapt to it.

This Has Been a Great Opportunity For L&D to Look at What We Need to Impact and Whether We are Having That Impact

David: I think you’ve highlighted a key point to this which is, the restrictions aren’t going to all immediately lift and I think that’s been stated. There’s going to be some restrictions at certain times because it still seems a million years away that people are going to be congregating in lifts at the bottom of high-rise buildings. It just doesn’t seem as if that’s going to happen any time soon, does it?

You mentioned about traveling and there’s not just the restrictions lifted within organisations. It’s the restrictions lifted that means that our consumers, our clients, our customers, are changing their habits as well. It’s very obvious it’s all interlinked but it’s very difficult to unpick and then relate one set of lifted restrictions will equate to X. As you said there, we’ve all got to maintain that ability to adapt and flex and respond to the changing circumstances. What about you, Eva. What are the L&D priorities you’re happy to share between now and as restrictions begin to lift?

Eva: It was interesting I was just reflecting on what Alice was saying. Something that was really I think unique for our organisation, because we’re a huge company, we have about 80,000 people working for us around the globe. It was really interesting that probably for the first time, we’re going through a shared global experience. That in itself is very unique. For us, there was a sense of awareness about how this is going through the world and keeping that awareness that you might be in your third lockdown, while your colleague might only be going into their second one.

How can we support each other through really being empathetic and being able to step into each other’s shoes? I think what’s really interesting with our L&D team is that we’re not in this headspace where we’re holding our breath for this to end because I don’t think you can do that. You see that with companies, if they haven’t gone through an acceptance and adapting to this, then they’re probably not doing so well anymore because it’s just too long and it’s too significant for it to allow you to not change anything.

One of the things that we really challenged ourselves on is not just turning classroom into digital, which I think we’ve all seen a lot of people ended up doing, but looking at, well, what does digital now bring that we couldn’t do in the classroom? What are the advantages of digital and how can we challenge our digital products and make them even better? Look at things like are they flexible, are they accessible to everyone? Do they really provide a step-change? So that they do stand on their own as a good digital product. That’s something that is a real priority, it’s not just about making it accessible for everyone, but also connecting it to the business.

Looking at where are we moving the needle? What does it do? We have a whole separate person now that looks at data and analytics and just really getting to the bottom of those products and looking at what they actually bring and how can we be really learner-centric? That’s what’s really high in our agenda. There’s also a lovely sense of connectedness in the organisation, so looking at how does that relate to talent acquisition? How does that relate to our consumers? It’s really, really interesting to look at it as a whole. Almost that shared experience allows us to look at the company as a shared experience. We just find it really exciting. 

David: That is really exciting to be down there at the track of having your own data analytics people in learning & development or HR. It’s the very bedrock of digital. To be challenging the widely held assumptions around the value of face-to-face, regardless of what it is you’re trying to achieve, being the most powerful I think is something that we’ve all got to come to terms with.

I think that this has been a great opportunity for L&D in that regard that if our favorite mechanism is eliminated, what is it that we need to do in order to truly understand what it is that we need to impact and whether we are having that impact? I think that I’m hoping that will be the legacy but I’ll invite you to yours a little later in the conversation. It leads me on nicely to my next question. Alice, if I can come to you because it’s one thing for us to talk about what we are doing in L&D but I’d like to ask, are employees at your organisation actively engaging in your L&D efforts? How have expectations and engagement changed in recent months?

Alice: Yes, I’d have to say that they have definitely engaged them. I think we were very lucky at the start of the pandemic that we had just introduced Looop. Then the pandemic hit. That was a positive that came out because everyone was forced to think, “Oh gosh this is our only outlet for training at the moment.” So we definitely  had that engagement and I think people have found that it’s enabled them to reach further. 

What was great when I joined the organisation, which was just over a year ago now, is that people were running training sessions themselves. It was great, people already were actively doing that. I think what they found is that they could move this to Looop and then found that their reach went further out to the business, so they were able to get that content out to other people. They didn’t have really enough time to have the sessions and that was really good. I think the one thing that I really noticed was I wanted to help people to do this in the right way. So not just the lift and shift and like, “Okay, well, what was face-to-face now should go digital.” No, that’s not really the case, we need to be more thoughtful about how we do that.

I also wanted to not be a blocker to them. I wanted to make it easy for people to be able to do that and embrace it. That meant a good needs analysis making that clear, it meant what does good training look like? How do you review it? How do you iterate it? People have been really engaged in that, which is great. Obviously, it has been a journey but it is getting better. I’m a real believer that you’ll get the engagement if you’re talking about things that people care about and you’re making things relevant.

Listen to episode 62 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

If we’re talking about how this has changed in recent months, it’s just that we’ve had to change nothing more than anything in terms of what stuff we are putting out there. What are people going through, what challenges are people having? That’s how we try to get the engagement. I’m not saying that we’ll put something out there and everyone comes to it, we know that’s just not what always happens. So we’ve had to think about other things with more of a marketing strategy being about how do we get the influential people in the business to take notice of this and go to where people are and then where are people talking about this stuff? Go to the time of needs and end up thinking about that, thinking smarter about how we push that content out there. We have been getting the engagement but we’ve had to do a lot of thinking about how we get it. 

David: It’s so important that many of the mistakes made by L&D in the past is assuming that if initiatives fall flat, especially digital or online initiatives, then it’s likely that it’s because the employee doesn’t understand it, rather than what we’ve had to hold a mirror up to and be critical of is that in order for us to get meaningful engagement and, therefore, to influence the way that people work, you have to address something that they really do care about and if they don’t care about it right now, then they need to recognise the value in it. Going back to a point you made earlier, Alice, we’re all going through a shared experience, and because things are changing and adapting, we do have an opportunity to share with people, solutions and tools that help them through this period of adaptation.

Alice: Actually, and to add to that bit, Eva said about data analytics and having someone in your team that’s actually dedicated to do that. I really think that that is something that all L&D teams should think about, because that data will show us if we are having that impact and if the things we’re doing are working. Even if you just start with we’re getting the hits on it, that tells you something. If you’re not getting the hits in it, then why is it not solving the problem, are you not putting it in the right place? That can tell you so much. Definitely, I think personally, we’ve been talking about that towards the end of this pandemic.

Engagement and Activity in the L&D Space is Actually Growing Rather Than Shrinking

David: Fabulous. Of course, it doesn’t just tell you where the stuff works. It helps you to recognise the stuff that really needs to be worked on as well, so that you can track whether you’re making the progress. Again, some of the formative elements of evaluation. I’ll come to you, Eva. If I can ask whether you’ve seen that your L&D efforts have been meeting the expectations and getting the engagement with employees over recent months?

Eva: Yes. It’s been a really, really interesting experience. One of the things that the team managed to achieve, and this was just a couple of weeks before I joined, is just the speed of digital, isn’t it? Then in a couple of weeks time, when everything happened, they were able to pull together resources that are really useful for people. We’ve seen, again, because of this shared experience, it was really easy to relate to what people are going through and pick up on what is it that they might need at this time? We’ve seen huge engagements on that part.

Also the duality of how can L&D provide both that performance support where I’m helping you to give you the best circumstances, resources, tools, whatever you need to be really good at your job, and also the other side of L&D, which is, I think a lot of times when companies talk about L&D as a benefit, this is what they mean, if you just want to just learn something new, if you just want to improve a skill that may not relate directly to your role, but how can we give a chance for people to do that? One of the things that we’ve done, and being an international organisation for a lot of people, this directly relates to their role, but we’ve also seen huge uptake in learning new languages.

David: Oh.

Eva: We actually made language learning available to all of our employees. That has seen such an uptake, and it’s actually one of the most visited articles on our learning platform. It’s just that, how do we satisfy both and how do we do both really well, rather than creating a bit of a mishmash of people enjoying it, and we hope it’s useful, rather than saying, this is purely for enjoyment and this is purely for you to to benefit from learning something new, and that sense of mastery you can get from it. This actually will help you to be really good at your role. That was really interesting to see that the team was working on both sides of those things and really making sure that they differentiated and they do those things really well.

David: Yes, that’s really important. If you’ve, again, continued the experiment or approach to see what’s going to gain you traction and what the interest of your employees in your sizable workforce that you have there as well. Sean, what about from your side? Have employees changed their expectations and the way that they’re engaging in recent months?

Sean: Yes. What’s been really interested in the last few months I’ve been here is that the engagement and the activity in the L&D space is actually growing rather than shrinking. It’s both from a digital side, but also an instructor-led side as well. Despite the fact that everything is over webinar, and virtual, people are still wanting to actively engage with that content just as much as our digital content that we’re creating. What’s really interesting is the way that we’ve adapted and started to think about actually curating the right playlists for the right time.

It’s been mentioned a few times around that meaningful content. I think Alice and Eva both mentioned it. At the right time, what we’re doing now is working with operations to curate the right stuff that we surface. We’re looking at how we can have the right performance conversations from a leadership level and working with my counterpart in the leadership team, where we curated a number of different playlists that could support our leadership population with relevant content that can help them with those conversations at the right time, rather than just bringing them traditionally into a classroom and bombarding them with information, they can dip in and out of it as they see fit.

Likewise, with the shift to remote and home working, giving them the tools to actually do a bit of self reflection and look at some of these things that can help them out in that space, but also, how the management and leadership population can guide our people. People are actively engaging with that side of things. What we’re also seeing is, we’re getting increased demand for people wanting that conversation-based learning with one of my learning specialists. We’ve got a number of programmes that are up and running, that we’re started running around the August time, that are actually fully booked from now until mid-June time.

Every time we launch a new programme, we’re seeing that they’re constantly getting that engagement and the bookings in. I think it’s because it’s relevant to people at the moment. It’s the stuff they want to do. There’s a lot of things that we’re doing in the management space, but there’s also a lot of stuff we’re doing in the well being and mental health space, where we’re using subject matter experts and third party content providers to actually come in and talk about that. We’re getting like 50, 60 people wanting to book onto a course at a time and it’s there. People want it and the new requests that are coming in are very relevant to what we’re doing now. A lot of it’s around change, mindset, all of that great stuff.

Lockdown Has Given us the Chance to Really Experiment, Try New Things and Harness the Power of Digital

David: Fabulous. Again, it seems as if you’ve said, you’ve taken this as an opportunity to try new stuff and test the appetite of folks, which again, you’re only going to learn from. Which leads me quite nicely on to my next question. Eva, how have the lockdowns and the changing working circumstances changed your L&D practice and that of your team?

Eva: The answer is going to be, it hasn’t changed, to be honest. I think it’s just throughout my practice, and every company I’ve worked at, I’ve operated in the same way, it almost feels like the role have caught up to this. I think just listening to Sean, what I really enjoyed about these circumstances is there’s a sense of value that they brought back about human conversation. It almost prevents us from over engineering when we’re in a room together. I often felt like that with classroom sessions, that they are over engineered.

My test usually, for whether I should have a classroom-based thing or a conversation-based thing is, is there a specific reason why that specific person is in that room? If the answer is not there, I always challenge myself that, yes, there shouldn’t be a classroom session. Just the value of bringing the people together around the table to have a conversation, to share perspective and to share their different experiences, I really think it’s really opened their eyes to the value of that and how much people crave that and how much people need that. That’s also something that happened in the parallel also with digital.

In terms of L&D practice, again, just to bring it back to the question, I genuinely don’t think it has changed. It probably just challenged us to make it even better. It probably gave us more data, it probably gave us more accessibility to really be able to observe behaviour and gain some human insights about how people react to these digital products. As a team, even if you just look at what the team is like, and the roles we have, we have someone that specialises in game design, we have someone that specialises in digital design, we have a whole studio of graphic designers and animators, and then we have a person that does marketing and data and analytics.

You look at them and then you go, where are your trainers and your facilitators and we don’t have them. That’s how we work as L&D. I think it just gave us the playground, gave us the chance to really experiment, to try things and to prove what we’ve already known for years that this works. People like to learn this way and you can achieve things that are important for the business this way.

David: Wonderful. It seems to me that it’s been validation that you’ve been on the right path. As you’ve said, the roles that you have, whether it’s the data person, whether it’s the digital person, whether it’s marketing, and all the different digital content that you have, including games, that you set up in the right way. I think that if the house has maintained its position during these testing times, then you’ve built it on solid foundations. I think that’s a testament to you and your team there at Philip Morris. What about you, Sean? How have the lockdowns and changes in working circumstances changed your L&D practice and that of your team?

Sean: I think it’s probably a tough one to answer how it’s changed because we’ve come together quite as a new team during lockdown. I think that what it’s done is just probably reinforcing the methodologies that we’re trying to implement more than anything else. I don’t think it’s changed the end goal of my team or the wider L&D function that I’m part of. I think that if anything it’s just expediated and sped up that process. I think one of the things, certainly, that I’m looking at post lockdown, and I think it’s been referenced a few times, is how do we leverage the marketing side of it a little bit more?

It’s something that all of my team have recognised is so important as part of L&D, and I’m really envious of Eva for having a data analyst because that for me, is the next piece of how do we really get under the skin of how much impact our learning is having. I think it’s less about what’s changed during this but more about actually where we now take it to the next step because I think that it has just cemented the ways of working now. It’s about adding on to that and making it even better than what I think we’ve carved out during this time.

David: Yes, brilliant. Alice, what about from your side? Has this challenged or confirmed the approaches and your practice in L&D?

Alice: Yes, it’s definitely confirmed it, which was nice. I think it was, like I said at the start, was a way for us to just be thrust into this way of working that was like, “Okay, I’ve been telling you about how we can be more reactive with digital and we have no choice now.” We need to try and solve this problem and you’ve got to move fast. That was really good. We’ve definitely learned some lessons along the way as well, but we’ve been working on various different needs in the business and we’ve adapted and grown as that’s happened.

We’re at a stage right now where we feel we’ve learned so much, we’ve got to put it all into one place. I guess just surface those lessons. I don’t want this to sound like an oxymoron as in– but I want us to build consistency in terms of this is what our principles are, this is what our beliefs are. Then also I don’t want us to say stagnant, I want us to continue to learn and continue to put this into practice and actually say, “Well, for this particular learning in this population, this didn’t work. So what I tried was this and it had this impact and that comes back to this data piece, where it needs to be learning and understanding the impact we’re having.” I guess that’s how things are changing.

Listen to episode 62 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

Another thing I guess I found is I was a big advocate before around harness– I still am — around harnessing internal talent and making sure that we’re sharing that knowledge as much as we can. If we have a learning need, I think one of the first questions I would ask was, well, who’s the expert in the business here? I still stand by that, I still think that’s a really great way to approach things, but at the same time, I think over this period I’ve found that if we want to move at speed, what great resources are out there that we could utilise? But when we do want to bring in an external resource, what’s the things around that? And I’ve tried to help us to think about, “Well, if we’re doing the right needs analysis at the beginning, then we can bring something external in that we know will be really focused on solving that problem and then how do we integrate from there and how do we build on that?” It’s similar to a lot of the things that we believed in previously but I guess in executing it and being under the different circumstances and the pressure of what this need is for, we’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think that’s been really interesting.

David: Yes, that fine line between what is technical that can be addressed remiss of context and what is culturally nuanced? To what extent do you need to blend and address within that? There are some things that just work. I always think back to Stephen Covey’s big rocks. It doesn’t matter which organisation you work in, the big rock system works but what within your organisation and its systems can you layer on top of that to make it easier and relevant especially in the language in which that may be communicated to bosses and stakeholders? I have a final question and, Sean, if I can come to you first, what do you think will happen to L&D in the coming months and years, and what do you hope happens?

Sean: I think that we will still continue to see the digital trend growing. I think it’s been needed for a while and I think that will continue. I think I’m hoping that, to Alice’s point about leveraging the SMEs that are out there in the business, I hope we start to see that more and more because there’s so much talent out there that not necessarily the L&D function are always the experts, so let’s leverage those people out there that are.

I have a suspicion, I think what will happen when restrictions end is we will see an influx of people wanting classrooms again because I think people will be craving that element of human interaction. I think for me, it’s about how we stick to our goals and our morals that we know there’s a place for it, but we need to use it at the right time so it doesn’t become back to the point that Eva mentioned around over-engineered sessions for the sake of sessions, that actually we stick to that mindset of we’re using that face-to-face human element for the right reasons to have the right conversations to put the context into what it might mean in a role-specific scenario.

I do think that the digital revolution will continue, but I also think we will see that face-to-face comes back or the requests for it come back, certainly. I think it’s important for us all to just stick to our mindset of, “Yes, we know it’s right but right at the right time, not just right for the sake of it.”

David: Yes, I agree with you. A phrase that pops out to me– Certainly, a word that popped out to me is let’s not do what we know will be popular, let’s stick to our guns and do what we believe because we are a profession after all, not necessarily just those order takers. How do we get that balance so we’re having the right conversations about the impact that we want to have are not about the credit we can gain from simply scheduling and delivering programmes? I think very wise, Sean. Alice, what do you think will happen to L&D in the coming months and years, and what do you hope happens? 

Alice: Yes, I agree with Sean. I think there will be definitely a want to get back into the classroom. I think I’m all for it. I’m definitely really excited to get back into classrooms and panel discussions and talk to people and share an experience, I’m really excited for that. And there’s a time in the place for it, so I hope that we’re able to transition into that space of, “We can start to do this again, but is it right now? By the way, is this the best technique to use?” Yes, I definitely agree with that.

I think one of the– I guess the L&D flags for me as we’ve gone through this whole process is where digital has come out on top because everyone’s thinking this is great, I can get stuff out there. People have been rushing to get it into a digital form, but it’s like, “Stop, don’t move everything to digital, evaluate what works in its current form, if that is a classroom or however you might want to do it.” Is it working? If it’s not working, let’s look at digital and let’s look at how we can use digital to improve it. It’s just about understanding how we can make the right decisions and find the right solutions and I really hope that as we move into the new world we can just take those practices with us and embrace a time of needs again. 

David: I think it’s a good acid test, isn’t it? To challenge ourselves and ask, does it work? Then assess that against the outcomes that we want. I think that there probably wasn’t enough of that before, but I think it’s very valid now as we’ve moved from let’s translate this to digital perhaps with questioning, but perhaps without fully understanding different formats. Let’s not just rebound and say, “Let’s, translate that back without a full assessment of, will it work, does it work, and what’s the right medium?” I think, again, very wise. Eva, if I can ask you to round us off with this, what do you think will happen to L&D in the coming months and years and what do you hope happens?

Eva: I think there’s probably a slight difference in what I think will happen and what I hope will happen. I think, unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of this and I’m sure we all have, where digital has been used to imitate classroom sessions. I think any sessions where people say, “Oh, we’ve now gone digital,” but really what you’re looking at is they were just looking for digital tools that do the same as what their face-to-face thing was.

I think, unfortunately, all of those sessions will just go back to classroom because the purpose wasn’t rethinking or redesigning. Really, bringing those magnifying glasses in, and it was almost just like, “This is what I deliver. I used sticky notes in the classroom, so now I need the virtual whiteboard that has sticky notes on it.” That for me is not digital design. I’m probably going to make a few people angry about that, but I’m genuinely a big believer in that, that’s not a standalone digital product.

What I do hope happens is that we get out of this entertainer, shopkeeper role that a lot of times, traditional L&D has, and we’ve got to keep this career scientist mindset where we look at a problem and we go, “We have no idea what causes that problem.” There might be seven, eight things that are the issues here, and L&D can address three of those. Let’s put a solution and see what happens to the original problem. See what happened to those solutions, and if we haven’t solved the problem, then we go again, and it doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right solution. It doesn’t mean it didn’t address a certain issue, but their issue might not be the one that’s causing the problem.

I think just that type of mindset, it just allows you to experiment. I think just to be able to view digital, webinars, face-to-face, and everything, just as a tool that will get you to achieve what you need to achieve. I think that’s what we’re missing sometimes in L&D. We get so focused on the tools that we’re using and it becomes about the tool, and that’s my slight worry as well with this digital revolution that we’re seeing, that it’s digital for the sake of it. You see people using VR and AR for like, “No, there’s no genuine purpose behind it. It’s just we want to give you this tool.”

I think we just have to make conscious choices of why we’re picking those tools and making sure that face-to-face is a choice, and there’s a reason why we’re choosing that. Digital is a choice, and there’s a reason why we’re choosing that. That’s where I would really like to see our profession get to.

David: Yes, I think again, very, very, very wise. What I’m taking from that is that we need to find solutions to our problems, not problems for our solutions that we’ve already bought and that we’ve already invested in. Thank you, everybody, for being involved and for sharing so generously your insights. This has been a valuable conversation. It’s been a terrible situation for many, less than ideal for all of us, but with our endeavor in Learning & Development, I know that we can make, and as you’ve shared and are already doing, make the difference that’s making the difference, and we’ll continue to do so. If I can thank you, first, Alice, thank you very much for being involved.

Alice: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

David: Lovely. Thank you. Thank you, Eva.

Eva: Thank you, David, and thank you, Alice and Sean.

David: Thank you, Sean.

Sean: Thank you very much, David, and thank you, guys. It has been really a pleasure.

David: Wonderful. Thank you for listening. Until next time, goodbye for now.

Listen to episode 62 of the Learning & Development podcast here or book a free demo to get started with a digital learning strategy that works.

About the Guests

Eva Adam

Eva Adam is Learning Design Lead at Philip Morris International providing innovative solutions that help the company to achieve its strategic objectives. Eva leverages digital solutions and Experience Design to achieve real business results and successfully brings employees and stakeholders along with digital transformation.

Connect with Eva on LinkedIn.

Alice Collier-Niblett

Alice is a thoroughly modern L&D professional with a background of leading with digital solutions and bringing her team and organisation along with her. Previously at ASOS and now with Monzo, Alice is a member of a team that operates in a way that is leading-edge and aspirational for many: Data-driven, performance-focused and agile.

Connect with Alice on LinkedIn.

Sean Cooper

Sean is Learning Demand Design & Delivery Manager at Drax Group, having previously been L&D Manager at Jet2. He is a forward-thinking, outcome-focused L&D leader who uses data, experimentation, Agile principles and digital-first solutions to affect the way the work is done and desired results. In recognition of this, he and his team at Jet2 achieved the Silver Award at the Learning Tech Awards.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn.

Connect with David on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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