Learning as Survival Strategy after COVID-19

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A pandemic like COVID-19 causes shock and awe, sometimes forcing us to make urgent decisions that may not be right in the long term. Right now, for some organizations, learning may not be top of the agenda, but it could well be the survival strategy as we prepare for the long haul to recovery.

Workplace Learning Is Changing, Like Always
On January 27, 2020, Michael B. Horn observed that companies could no longer afford to wait for the traditional system to supply the workers—the need was too acute and too urgent. They were struggling to find qualified candidates to fill 7 million positions. He cited the example of Amazon; it had announced a plan to upskill 100,000 employees over the next six years by spending as much as $700 million. When Amazon made that announcement in June 2019, the word COVID-19 did not exist. Three days after Horn published his article, the WHO declared the new coronavirus disease a global public health emergency. Two months later, the unemployment rate [1] in the US jumped to 14.7%, with the number of jobless crossing 23 million. Today, as most of the world remains locked down or starts taking the first shaky, fearful steps toward strange versions of normalcy, uncertainty remains the only certainty. Where is business headed? What role will Learning and Development (L&D) play in rebuilding a rebooted world?

Forget Learning, First Stay Alive
Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri, two senior members of INSEAD, point out that it is normal for organizations and leaders to switch to survival mode when there is an upheaval of a pandemic scale. Learning budgets are slashed and training programs are shelved. None can afford all that when the desperate need is “to secure operations and get the basics done.”

Some grim statistics portray the mauling of workplace learning by the virus. According to McKinsey Insights [2], “as of early March, roughly one-half of in-person programs through June 30, 2020, have been postponed or canceled in North America; in parts of Asia and Europe, the figure is closer to 100%.” Note that these figures pertain to in-person learning, and there was already a definite shift to digital and hybrid modes of learning before the virus locked the world down.

So, is it time to forget L&D? The INSEAD experts warn that such thinking is dangerous. COVID-19 is likely to leave the world huddled around the drawing board as business models get reworked and customers have to be rediscovered. Everyone will have a tight grip on the wallet and a wary eye on the horizon. However, once we finish picking up the pieces, we are sure to discover that survival will depend on learning.

Peshkam and Petriglieri say that learning will be the foundation of survival, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up:

As the world shifts to online work and businesses struggle to reinvent themselves, organizations need to learn what kinds of new products and services will appeal to their consumers and learn how to create them. Leaders must learn how to keep a distributed workforce focused, energized, and attuned to customers’ changing needs.

Time For Some New Learning
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has warned that “even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety, and depression will continue to affect people and communities.” How can a business function efficiently with and for people who are sad and afraid? Can learning help them cope better?

Learning happens in two ways. Most are familiar with cognitive learning, which is about learning and using information and skills to complete some task. What is more important in these times of fear and sorrow is socio-emotional learning. This is about how all of us think and feel about the new situation we are in, and how we manage those thoughts and feelings. This enables an organization to work together through crises to bring about transformative change—professional and personal.

Organizations can no longer look at Learning and Development as a dispensable appendage of HR, some sort of necessary expense. No longer can we spend billions to pump easily forgotten information into disinterested employees. Instead, organizations will need a lean team of fast, adaptable learners who can be efficient workers and empathetic team members. They will need to keep learning because the outcome of their efforts tomorrow will depend on what they learn today. It is the outcome that matters not the route (online, offline, hybrid) we take.

Mark Johnson cites [3] the example of Satya Nadella, who took over Microsoft when it was in trouble. One of the first things that the new leader did was to switch from a culture of know-it-alls to learn-it-alls. When we are up against a whole bunch of unknowns, we are essentially starting from knowing nothing at all. The only strategy to counter that is to commit the whole organization to learn it all.

Learning As A New Business Essential
When the father of economics, Adam Smith, spoke about the factors of production more than two centuries ago, he did not have to contend with technology, let alone a virus. How would he have reacted to the idea of working from home? He had recommended that countries should only produce goods in which they have an absolute advantage—those it can produce at a lower cost than another individual, business, or country. Today technology has blurred the borders of geography and knowledge, the new absolute advantage, does not need a physical transport mechanism. Would we want to fritter away that advantage by abandoning learning?

Yes, L&D will not be an activity but a deliberate strategy. Teaching and learning will happen not to fulfill a responsibility or to fetch a promotion. Learning will lend us the edge as we blaze new trails and discover new paths. We have to keep learning; we have to keep moving.

We have to keep learning; we have to keep moving.

I invited some members of my team to turn their attention from their monitors to the crystal ball. What happens to L&D now?

  • “Learning will become a performance-enabling initiative. Immediate, transparent applicability of single-focus, crisp interventions will be a major incentive for learners. Design and delivery will be more human-centric and forward-looking than ever before.”
  • “Training will become more sensitive.”
  • “We will need a tighter integration between learning, performance, rewards, and organizational goals.”
  • “We will need some sharper editing and curation to make quick, on-demand, need-based learning possible. There will be tighter integration between learning and workflow.”

At a time, when we are not even sure of the questions that lie ahead, those possibilities are energizing. Yes, the virus has laid us low. But we are determined to go beyond in all that we do. And step into the breach to help others.


[1] Current US Unemployment Rate Statistics and News

[2] Adapting workplace learning in the time of coronavirus

[3] To Build Strategy, Start with the Future

This blog was previously published on elearningindustry.com

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