The fragmented workforce

David D’Souza focuses on four challenges facing L&D professionals, and asks the experts for their views.

The ability to lift your head up and scan the horizon effectively has never been more crucial in business or life. Just about the only thing that has remained static over the last ten years is the ever- present challenge to describe the level of change without resorting to the words ‘paradigm shift.’ 
We live in a world where wealth, education and technology distribution have never been more pervasive in their impact. For all of the fascinating talk of democratisation of the workplace, we stand on the verge of an era that may well be dominated by a sliver of the workforce, in a fashion that could have severe societal ramifications, let alone ramifications for the profession.
We stand on the cusp of falling blindly into a sharing economy where the work is shared, but profits are not. Where some organisations shift towards flatter structures, but the wealth distribution outside of those organisations intensifies. Where the technology is more affordable that ever, yet is still inaccessible to many due to cost. An unplanned technocracy. A place where the workforce is fragmented rather than fluid, due to environmental factors that we knew were coming yet did little to guide. 
For the L&D practitioner there are, as ever, two key intertwined challenges — how do you navigate this landscape and how do you help others to? 
I’ve picked four key areas that I think may provide a challenge in the near future and asked for four practitioners and commentators for their views on what these potential changes mean for the profession. 
The buzz around the ability of technology to provide access to knowledge and networks has never been greater, yet the assumption that there is a generation coming through that will all be digital natives ignores two core and evident truths.
The first is that access to technology will invariably vary according to economic and social backgrounds and the second is that there are already groups in the workplace suffering from the result of a disparity of access and education. We talk about the ability to bring teams together seamlessly across international boundaries, but many international regions still lack adequate infrastructure to bring that sort of access to the masses. 
If the talent pool is becoming truly international, then what that means for individuals who are out of the technology loop in terms of a skills disadvantage is a genuine challenge for our profession’s focus on making the most of potential capability.
The impact on L&D
“We’re living in a world where not having access to the internet is almost unthinkable. What we used to assume was the purview of the young and of the technically minded is now part of everyday life for everyone. Many organisations are making the move towards digital access to their services and finding ways to integrate digital into their products. 
“As much as this is familiar for many, there are just as many who don’t have access to digital tools and are very unaware of how to live an online life. In L&D, we need to be careful that we don’t chastise those without digital or unwittingly create exclusive learning solutions because of this digital way of living. 
“In fact, I believe it’s incumbent on the L&D profession to set out to support the workforce with a range of learning options. If that means providing the same information in different ways, we need to have the adaptability to flex and build that capability.
“We also have the responsibility of considering how to upskill the workforce to enable them to live a digital life. Modern working means that we will all be using some sort of the technology in what we do. If we don’t provide people with the skills to use the technology, the attitude of ‘if we build it, they’ll come’ just isn’t acceptable.” 
Sukh Pabial, Head of Organisational Development at One Housing Group
There are a number of future scenarios around the world of work that are reasonable, but the predications around automation are some of the most interesting. They are trendy, variable in quality and may seem faddish, but if we put aside our desire to see ourselves as unique and irreplaceable resources they are all too believable. 
For every person who says ‘but they could never replace a person doing x’ there is normally a real world example of that replacement already progressing. The exceptions tend to be areas (such as social work) that require incredibly high levels of empathy — yet there aren’t that many roles that fall into that category.
Increasingly, the predictions about high levels of job automation aren’t coming from futurists, but from mainstream commentators and analysts, indeed the Bank of England’s Chief Economist has recently described 50 per cent of British jobs as being at risk of automation over the next two decades. 
The challenge is often framed in terms of ‘rise of the robots’, but the biggest challenge to the way we work is actually ‘machine learning’ providing opportunities to replace part of the roles (or entire roles) of knowledge workers. That strikes at the heart of some facets of the L&D space and also a group of workers that we have assumed would still be expanding.
What price our place in the knowledge economy when machines curate content better than we do? How do we avoid being overwhelmed as a profession and to be able to help others avoid being overwhelmed by the digital deluge too? While we are sleeping on it, there is an algorithm being refined in the background. The technology never sleeps. 
The impact on L&D
“Information is everywhere. If you use a smartphone, chances are you have notifications whirring every time you switch it on. A smartwatch means you are permanently, physically connected to a stream of data at the flick of a wrist.
These personal choices affect how we live our lives and, perhaps as importantly, how we make space to learn. With constant access to data, it has never been more important to develop the skills to be critical and discerning about what we receive —learning to be rounded, thinking corporate citizens depends on it.
“We’ve long known about the phenomena of tailored marketing — I skim search for a sofa on a whim and suddenly my Facebook stream is awash with furniture adverts — in this world, I am shown only what I appear to need to see.
“The internet ‘helpfully’ shows me choices and information based on what I already assert I need. Whether or not I really need a new sofa goes unquestioned. And so I begin to construct a bubble, a world view constructed mainly of my own stuff. Which is nice.…
“A world constructed of our own view doesn’t encourage thinking about or accounting for other opinions.… So the things that would indicate we have a high EQ — curiosity, empathy, tolerance — get squashed; or are at least under developed. When we bump into an alternative view, we don’t have the skills or the responses to deal with these effectively. We reject outright. It doesn’t fit with my world.
“Our society and work-life is complex. Our responses and ability to think critically for ourselves needs to match this complexity.
“At a basic level, if we want to work well together, our ability to think beyond our little bubbles and be curious about others, is vital. Do we have learning strategies in our organisations that support critical thinking? Do our leadership courses reflect the need to deal with differing information, be curious about differing viewpoints, and understand some of the positive implications of “difference?”
“In order to survive and thrive, I’d argue critical thinking has more value than many of the leadership/management models we advocate as useful.” 
Julie Drybrough, Managing Director at Fuchsia Blue 
The Gig Economy 
The Gig Economy is a wonderful term that makes lower employment security and stability sound sexy. It takes portfolio careers to a new level of appeal, yet essentially means shorter contingent contracts for a greater percentage of the workforce.
If you aren’t part of the stable base of an organisation then you are out there on your own, pitching for business. The positive slant and the opportunity is highlighted by Perry Timms below, but another way of framing the challenge is: how do you create an environment where there is support for people’s learning when they have only a passing relationship with the organisation and what does that mean for the ongoing skills capability within the economy? 
The impact on L&D 
“Instead of learning and development in the gig economy, this means more loving and discovering. There’s a different ticker set for the motion of learning for a freelancer. Yes, there may be industry standard certification needed if you’re a Python coder but generally, it’s more like being: fuelled by the love of self-mastery even if that’s working in indescribable roles with a portfolio of titles and a series of affiliations to shared working platforms, regular clients and occasional pop-up projects.
“If you don’t love the thought of being adept and brilliant in what you do, as a gigger, you’ll be an odd-job type scrapping for basic admin assignments, driven by the sense of discovery. There’s as much learning your way into your development plan as there is pre-determined skills or technical competency you need.
“Giggers ought to be fired by learning knowing their sense of value is in their agility to perform even the most under-defined activities and project roles. No learning ‘package’ will ever keep up with that. The irony is, L&D professionals themselves will be more like gig workers than corporate disciples.” 
Perry Timms, Director, People & Learning, at Media Zoo
Educational poverty 
The final challenge is a generational one, but caused by external forces. If you are currently working in L&D then it is unlikely you can look at a group of schoolchildren with confidence and understand the end product employers hope to end up with in terms of skill profile and disappointingly many employers still think of people as reaching an ‘end state’ in terms of skills. It is nearly impossible to understand what knowledge children should be acquiring now that will still be relevant in 20 years.
It is difficult for parents to judge how much time children should spend outdoors vs online or learning handwriting vs coding or playing with friends vs interacting online. The lack of understanding of how to balance and plan education against this context will potentially result in generations leaving education with immediately redundant skills.
What is already clear is that the requirement of organisations versus what the UK educational system provides is real and pronounced — we see this through the difficulties faced by graduates in finding employment at what they would regard as the right level. 
The impact on L&D
“With increasing fluidity in the world of work, the challenge for L&D must focus on identifying, assessing and developing the deeper underpinning skills and capabilities that are needed for the organisation.
“That may not sound new to the role of L&D, but the focus required will challenge many current practitioners. Whereas now L&D often use common frameworks for what skills and competencies are required, I expect there to be a shift towards more tailored ‘recipes’ looking more at collective group capabilities. This will be driven by increasing expectations of agility, the value of collaborative groups and the need to efficiently leverage the people resources that are available.
“Curiously, I believe this shift will also provide an effective model to support parts of the available workforce that may find their formal education and skills becoming less relevant. Principally because the development of skills and education itself create many direct and indirect opportunities to develop deeper capabilities. These range from the more obvious such as learning to learn and presentation skills to team working, data analysis and even leadership.”
David Goddin, Owner at Change Continuum
There is no doubt that your view of the above trends and their impact will be tempered by your level of optimism about human nature and also by your scepticism as to how effectively we can cast our gaze into the future and come up with anything even vaguely accurate.
What is clear is that there is something happening in these spaces and whether it is a dystopian future or a technology enabled burst of progression there will be a different way of working and a different way of supporting that working. 
There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with L&D ‘learning to speak the language of business’, but the world is bigger than any one organisation and commerciality is more than conversations. Our ability to stay ahead by looking at the trends which will impact businesses (rather than reacting to those that have already made an impact), will be key to not just staying relevant, but increasing relevance. 
Change is there to be harnessed and capitalised upon. If we just let it happen to us, we become victims, rather than champions, of the difference the profession can make. A change is gonna come, it’s up to us to decide what to make of it.  
About the author
David D’Souza is Head of London for the CIPD and a regular writer and speaker on increasing organisational and individual capability. You can find him on Twitter at @dds180 or via email at​


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *