How to prepare for the future?

Ruth Stuart suggests that L&D needs be asking some big questions to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

The future of learning and the role of the L&D professional will continue to evolve over time. Photo credit: Fotolia 
Organisations have experienced significant, and many would suggest unprecedented, change in recent years – partly in response to the banking crisis and uncertainty of the economic downturn, and more positively as a consequence of innovative technological development.
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And there’s no sign that the pace of change is slowing down as organisations are increasingly operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. Workplace trends suggest that the employment relationship will become increasingly fragmented and disparate, with older models of employment falling by the wayside.
Automation is predicted to replace or alter millions of jobs, and traditional expectations of a job or career path are beginning to shift. 
In this context we may be preparing people for jobs today, which won’t exist tomorrow. Indeed, some have noted that the knowledge we teach undergraduate students will become outdated by the time they’ve completed their studies.
With the total combined knowledge of the world said to be doubling each year, how can anyone keep up with organisational learning needs? And what does this evolving context mean for the L&D profession? 
Profession for the future
At the CIPD we’ve been exploring these wider trends and how they’re affecting the nature of work and the role of the HR and L&D profession. Through our Profession for the Future strategy we’re starting a programme of work that seeks to define what it will take for the HR and L&D profession of the future to meet its full potential championing better work and working lives – for the benefit of individuals, businesses, economies and society.
This work recognises that in order to drive sustainable business performance in a rapidly changing environment, the key is finding solutions which speak to the long-term needs of the organisation, and align to the needs of both business owners and employees.
It also recognises that organisational practices have a substantial impact on wider society (both good and bad), and the reach of HR and L&D practices can be substantial.
That dynamic requires new and enhanced capabilities within the HR and L&D profession most notably ethical competence and the need for greater ability to foster organisational and individual development. 
Building ethical competence
Much has been said recently about the need for L&D professionals to ensure that their strategy is aligned to the needs of the business. This commercial awareness is clearly a critical component for any L&D initiative.
But does this alone really speak to the inherent challenges of creating value for multiple stakeholders? And what happens when the needs of the business, conflict with the needs of the individual, or what’s ‘right’ if there’s a knock-on societal impact?
Should those needs relate to short-term requirements, or the long-term aims of the organisation? These questions bring us into the realm of ethical competence – how to make good decisions in the face of competing priorities and challenges.
We don’t need to look far to see the importance of ethics in organisation – from the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital scandal to Tesco, the decisions and actions taken in organisations can have far-reaching consequences. As the world of work continues to evolve, L&D professionals will increasingly need to tackle these questions and other ethical dilemmas. 
Ethics may seem far removed from the world of L&D, but actually, every decision we make has an ethical component. Ethics are in effect inescapable – each time we make a decision we use a particular ethical lens, informed by our context, our own world view, upbringing or life experiences.
So, for example, if you’re developing a new leadership development programme, the selection process you use for identifying candidates could be informed by a variety of ethical lenses.
A ‘merit’ perspective might lead you to select those who have been identified by business leaders as talented hard-workers, with high potential for future roles. But how do you know who is truly ‘talented’ and who has been selected based on an inherent bias in the system?
A ‘fairness’ perspective might tell you to select at random and give everyone in the organisation the opportunity attend the programme over time. But a ‘markets’ view might tell you that’s not practical – you should instead select those people who have the most in-demand skills in your organisation.
In answering these questions and reflecting on the decisions you make it becomes apparent that aligning L&D to the needs of the business alone isn’t necessarily enough – to make the right decisions for the future, L&D professionals need an underpinning of ethical competence in order to navigate challenging organisational dilemmas. 
Learning vs. development
There’s also another consideration which will significantly affect the capability of L&D professionals and connects back to a key trend in the wider environment. If knowledge is doubling then how do you keep ahead of the curve?
How do you decide what knowledge to share and how to do so? Or should you even be answering this question? Perhaps it’s impossible to keep on top of the knowledge and ‘learning’ your organisations requires. In this sense it might be the ‘development’ that counts. While ‘learning’ refers to knowledge gained, ‘development’ refers to your potential to learn.
To be a ‘developed’ person means having the curiosity, openness, flexibility and resilience to continually acquire, enhance and apply new knowledge, insights and behaviours. Through our Profession for the Future work we’re asking the question ‘is development more important than learning?’
Depending on your answer, it could mean that L&D teams should forget about teaching knowledge, and instead focus on enhancing development, while creating the enabling conditions for peer-to-peer sharing to flourish.
This approach does, however, imply a loss of control, the need for the L&D professional to be an enabler, rather than conductor. To be comfortable operating in an ambiguous environment where there is no training course book or schedule of events.
So, shifting to this model and creating the conditions for effective development does also mean tackling big questions, what is the purpose of L&D in this organisation and how can L&D contribute to sustainable business performance that benefits all?  
Looking ahead
Ultimately, the future of learning and the role of the L&D professional will continue to evolve over time. Increasingly we may see ethical competence rise to the fore in defining what it means to be a really effective professional, operating in an ambiguous environment.
And we may also see the balance of learning versus development shifting. In this context, best practice approaches will no longer cut it. An effective approach to L&D in a multinational may look completely different in a small organisation. However, what might be common is the intent of the decisions that you make, and the consistent need to create value for multiple stakeholder groups. 
While we can’t predict what the future will hold with 100 per cent certainty, we know L&D professionals will need to continue to develop and evolve their own skills and capabilities to truly achieve win-win outcomes for all. We’d love to hear your views on how we can achieve this together. 
About the author 
Ruth Stuart is lead consultant for Strategic Projects at the CIPD.


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