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L&D: A bunch of trainers or developing the future workforce?

Paul Lambert
PA Consulting Group
HR Zone
22 April 2008

Paul Lambert examines some of the key factors shaping the workforce, the implications for how a workforce learns and how learning and development (L&D) can address these issues.

The context
With the turn of the 21st century, there have been fundamental changes in the nature of work and the ways in which people are working. We see the rise of knowledge workers (estimated at over 45% of the UK workforce) and knowledge work, covering everything from hi-tech software developers to investment bankers. For such workers, their skills and knowledge is the fundamental ingredient of their work. Alongside this we see the growth of flexible working patterns, part-time work and 'on the road, online' work lifestyles (with the ubiquitous Blackberry in hand).

What are the major factors shaping the nature of work and the learning needs of the workforce?
The move towards a service-based economy, where 45% of people can now be described as knowledge workers, is creating a need for continuous knowledge development and the development of professional networks.

Such workers tend to learn in 'bite size chunks', want to connect into their professional groups and learn on the job. Within this, expectations of working patterns and lifestyles are changing. The so called 'Generation Y' typically look for more of a work-life balance, anticipate having more than one career during their working life and want the opportunity to take time out for career breaks and sabbaticals.

The UK Government has responded with a focus on its skill agenda as well as drives to increase university participation from the current level of 43% to 50% by 2010, and initiatives to accredit businesses to provide qualifications. Alongside this, new technologies, including collaborative technologies, social networking and learning management systems are enabling learning to be delivered in new ways.

How should L&D respond to these factors?
L&D is being asked new questions. Traditionally L&D departments have been transactional support functions that supply a range of courses that are satisfy requests for support from the business. However, the business is increasingly looking for learning support that fits the requirements of knowledge workers – embedded in day-to-day activity, supporting development of professional networks and ultimately ensuring that the business has the knowledge and skills to deliver the business plan.

How does L&D respond?
Critically, a strategic capability focus involves learning that is driven by the future needs of the business with learning methods that are increasingly job / experience-based and technology enabled.

How does your organisation make the shift to developing this future workforce? From our experience, there are four key steps for success. These steps are illustrated by a case study of the work that we did with a major energy company for their 3,500-strong IT workforce.

Step 1. Map strategy to capability
The IT function contained 3,500 people serving a customer base of 90,000 people. Customer service was perceived to be poor and there were concerns about whether the IT function had the necessary people capability to deliver future strategic objectives of the business. Therefore to re-address this, the company started by setting out strategic plans and mapping this to the current people capability (roles and skills) in the IT function.

Against this, they could plot the current capacity (people) within the IT function together with the level competence (skills) against these. This enabled them to gain a clear picture on the relative capability in the organisation and where there were key gaps in the skills of the IT workforce.

Step 2. Establish business ownership
Traditionally the business owned budgets and strategy but the capability and skills required to deliver them had been considered as an afterthought. The energy company therefore established a 'capability owner group', including senior operational staff from the business for each of the key areas of capability, who set targets for development of each of the areas of capability and worked with L&D to build integrated support for development of IT professionals in each of these areas of capability. This changed the role of L&D to one in which they were responsible for facilitating the process and recommending solutions to fill skills gaps, as well as meshing together the processes in an end-to-end solution.

Step 3. Manage capability development as an end-to-end process
In any organisation there are, broadly, three business processes that need to be integrated for effective development of people capability: business planning of capability (people and skills), learning and development management, and individual assessment and development. In our experience, it is rare that organisations manage these as an end-to-end process. The energy firm achieved a significant degree of integration of all three processes – ensuring that senior leaders translated the business plans into the capability (people and skills) required and L&D worked with the business to ensure the required capability development occurred. This was all then measured, tracked and reported back to the business leadership.

Step 4. Pick the right learning approaches
There are a number of broad approaches that can be adopted in organisations. The approach varies depending on the degree to which learning is embedded in day-to-day work activity versus being delivered by a central learning function through learning events and activities; and the degree to which learning is dictated centrally by business priorities, or is self-directed by learners dependant on their needs around personal performance improvement and career development

A shift towards building 'strategic capability' typically involves a greater focus on learning that is more embedded in business activity. For instance, the energy firm shifted towards learning that included development of six sigma skills (to enable IT process improvement), accreditation of knowledge and skills for a new service delivery model (ITIL), development of professional networks inside and outside the firm and support for IT career development.

Significant changes in work and the workforce require L&D to become a partner with the business in developing the future skills and knowledge of its workforce. Providing a useful suite of development programmes is no longer enough.

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