Old and new trade-offs in L&D

By Filippo Romanini, Learning and Development Director, Barilla Group

Filippo Romanini, Learning and Development Director, Barilla Group

The world of learning is being heavily stormed by digitalisation. We L&D practitioners are reshaping our role and services thanks to the availability of new tools and data.

I see four main trade-offs we have to solve when deciding on how to allocate effort, budget and resources.

Skills and Competencies

In this article, I will refer to skills as “ownership of a specific know-how” and competences as “awareness and ownership of the reason why”, regardless of hard and soft categories. In this sense, skills reify through action while competencies enable the action itself. Both need to be reinforced and they require a diversity of approaches and methodologies. 

Skills are something that can be built “on-the-go”: they’re situated in specific situations, in a specific “when”. Learning experiences designed for “when I need it where I need it” look adequate, leveraging digital technologies.

Besides, the importance of new skills in a fast-changing environment is growing and the pace of the change is a challenge to traditional learning approaches. Legitimately, there is a lot to do in digitalising this part of the offer so in these years lots of money and effort are dedicated to this.

On the other hand, competencies require a uniquely human activity: reflection, either individual or social, possibly social if the competence is about any relationship-based behaviour. Digital learning technologies may support only a small part of the process if any. The importance of competences in a complex world is also growing if we wish to grab or anticipate the sense of what’s happening and act upon it.

Commoditisation and Premiumisation

More and more L&D role is evaluated as a service for the business. This shifts KPIs from quantity and quality to impact, from efficiency to effectiveness.

"Besides, the importance of new skills in a fast-changing environment is growing and the pace of the change is a challenge to traditional learning approaches"

Skills are necessary but pretty commoditised: they will hardly help the company lead in the marketplace but will help employees be efficient. By the way, I think that jobs that require a strong level of reskilling and upskilling could be likely outsourced.

Competences instead help people make choices, understanding the why and deriving the most appropriate what. These are keys to be leaders rather than followers.

Skill and competences also highlight the conflict between a current and future situation: how much are we investing in short term results and on long term impact?  

People and machines

Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have rapidly offered strong support to decision making. This is also profoundly impacting the L&D world.

Philosopher Benasayag says that “humans are stories, not profiles”, and indeed we’re both. We can rely upon profiles to identify the status of current skills thanks to assessments and tests but we know that the same knowledge in the hands of one individual is not producing the same effect as in the hands of another one. So, how much can we rely on algorithms to predict learning paths based on past and current know-how? Are we respecting the call to D&I in our approaches?

Even more complex is the approach to an individual’s assessment on competences. Assessments are in fact based on averages and regressions: statistics are not telling us the truth about every single case, but it offers only a probability. Is it enough to tag people and their (learning) future?

Individuals and Organisation

I often say “People perform tasks, organisation and teams achieve results”: company success is not predictable based on the sum of skills and competencies of all employees. There is an intangible meta-competence that lies in the organisation – and I’m not talking about organisational charts or power allocation. 

Individual development can be accomplished in solitude: a low level of reflection is required, no socialisation is needed. More, companies may wish to (or must) have the “best-in-class” leaders or functional employees, even though this effort might result in a very small impact on business results.

Organisational development cannot be achieved in solitude: group learning, social reflection and contextualisation are must-haves. This is when we learn the art of conflict resolution and how to moderate our own ego when we learn how to mediate between personal and organisational objectives when we get aware that the team is more powerful than individuals (sorry to go against the “super-hero” syndrome that many of us often have!).

All these dimensions are particularly critical in the transition period we’re living in.

We can start from a very simple high-level qualitative self-assessment: where does my Company stand? and where should my Company be? Data in L&D hands can easily help us answer the first question, while the second one requires a Company decision being tied to the business (and people) strategy. Nevertheless, none of the board members has enough understanding of the change L&D is going through to indicate how to allocate resources and effort.

We L&D practitioners cannot just wait for a direction, we are called to offer our personal recommendation using intelligence and wisdom, not just running after buzzwords. Let’s get the chance to lead the change!

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