Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended business operations, I've been hearing from employers across the country who are concerned about ensuring that their learning and development operations continue.
Many had plans for in-person learning programs, but had to quickly adjust to the new world of virtual learning since millions of people are working from home and aren't traveling. Businesses are also aware that workers are having a difficult time as they try to balance family responsibilities with getting their jobs done. Managers question how to make time in workers' schedules for reskilling and upskilling.
A survey of corporate learning leaders by IE University asked them what they were planning to do if in-person learning doesn't resume this year. Many said that they were going to cancel programs. While temporarily setting aside development programs may seem like an enticing option, it's a terrible idea. It will take new skills to transform businesses so they can persist through this time - not just technological skills, but also skills like creativity, adaptability, communication and emotional intelligence.
These were once referred to as "soft skills." But because they're increasingly central to today's operations, I call them power skills. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are taking over more of the traditional "hard skills," but these power skills are uniquely human.
As McKinsey & Company wrote recently, "Now is the time for companies to double down on their learning budgets and commit to reskilling. Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions."
But how can companies best develop this muscle while most of their workforce is remote? They can't simply take their original L&D plans and move them online. These programs need to be redesigned for the virtual environment. The lack of expertise in how to do this is causing the same problems that schools and universities are seeing.
The good news is that if you follow the right formula, remote online learning can work beautifully - in fact, far better than traditional instructor-led lectures and courses.
In writing our book The Expertise Economy, my co-author David Blake and I explored the science of learning and how people best learn new skills. We found what's proven to work for businesses.
The formula for effective remote online learning
Online learning is not about putting lectures online and keeping people isolated. Instead, The best model for designing engaging online learning is where you actually engage people in the learning process through peer-to-peer interaction and facilitated online group discussions. I've used this design methodology for virtual learning in the past, and also experienced as a learner myself when doing virtual components of my master's program.
An engaging virtual experience begins with a cohort of peers who are looking to learn the same skill. The program is set duration (for example, four weeks) and employees are given three to four hours per week to commit to the program, most of it asynchronous.
First, the participants are given online curated content to consume on their own time. This helps set the context for the skills they will be building. The curated content can include content such as videos, books, articles, podcasts, TED Talks and more. Next, participants are given an assignment and told to come up with a real-life situation in which they would need to use the skill.
For example, in a Conscious Business program I facilitated, a cohort was learning how to engage in authentic communication. The participants were asked to think of a difficult conversation they wanted to have at work but were avoiding. Then, they were given several short videos to watch, in which an expert discussed how to tackle difficult conversations.
[Related: Debunking the 4 Myths of Online Learning]
Next comes the second assignment. Using what you just learned, practice the skill -- either by doing it in a real work situation (in this case, having a difficult conversation) or through role playing with another member of the cohort.
Then comes the group session. This is the one time a week where you'll need to mesh multiple schedules for a joint Zoom call led by a facilitator. Members of the cohort get together, share their experiences, explain where things went well, or not so well, for each of them, and offer each other feedback. They help each other see how to improve their work. Through this, the participants gain insights from their peers and build relationships with them.
Finally, each takes time to reflect on what they learned so they can do better.
Then, the process repeats. The participants do "knowledge checks" on their own -- rewatching videos or whichever learning resources they like best. Consulting in-house experts in these skills is also a powerful way to learn. That's why it's so important to have a "career marketplace," an online resource that helps your employees find colleagues who have expertise in the skill. They practice, have a feedback session, and reflect again. Soon, they become experts in the skill. An internal career marketplace can also help you find internal projects and stretch assignments where you can apply your new skills.
[Related: How to Manage Teams When Working Remotely]
The Learning Loop
This process is so powerful because it accomplishes all four parts of the "Learning Loop."
Numerous studies have found that when people sit through lectures or only watch online courses, they forget much of what they learned. To develop real expertise, people need to engage in a cyclical process: gain knowledge; practice; get trusted feedback; reflect.
As I've helped companies across the world establish learning models based on this process, I've seen expertise increase in numerous areas, and skill gaps close.
There's also another benefit. No matter what skill your employees are learning, everyone gains from the experience of listening and sharing thoughtful, constructive feedback. This process builds empathy and emotional intelligence -- something all organizations can use more of.
As businesses face an uncertain world, the one thing they can count on is the collective potential of the workforce. By helping employees build their skills through remote online learning in a way that's proven to work, today's organizations go a long way toward building a stronger future.
Kelly Palmer is Chief Learning Officer at Degreed and co-author of The Expertise Economy: How the smartest companies use learning to engage, compete, and succeed.