“It can’t solve every problem, but its potential to improve our lives is profound,” CEO of Google Sundar Pichai wrote in a recent post outlining Google’s principles for AI, the technology impacting every sector in the global economy. Out on a farm, away from our everyday AI-powered conveniences of ride-sharing apps and voice assistants, AI is transforming how farmers grow our food. Last year, tractor maker John Deere acquired Blue River Technology, a startup that makes smart farm machines. Its see-and-spray technology relies on computer vision to see every plant and decide the best treatment for each – if it spots a weed, it sprays pesticide. Plants get fertilizer.
Irrespective of the industry, companies have to keep pace with fast-changing technology across fields like advanced computing, data and robotics, to stay competitive. John Deere is looking at AI and IoT to create smarter, automated solutions. McDonald’s digital upgrades are leading to a more personalized, efficient customer experience. Walmart is using machine learning to improve the experience for shoppers. As they transform, every company needs a workforce of agile learners who can constantly develop new tech competencies.
Companies we partner with on our enterprise platform, all have the same overarching goal – they want to equip their employees at scale, with the future skills they need to succeed. And, they want every function on board. Because technology has become a business core competency. A salesperson at John Deere has to understand the product’s AI capabilities to convince his farmer customer. I see this as an opportunity on the business side to spot and nurture talent that can understand emerging technologies and envision the game-changing business solutions possible.
In a recent study we did with over 750 L&D decision makers and learners – Learning and Development from Both Sides of the Table – a key takeaway was the growing importance of L&D as a strategic partner influencing business outcomes. L&D budgets are on the rise – nearly seven out of 10 learning leaders reported an increase in the number of employees they are supporting, which also means more accountability to drive impact.
From my conversations with L&D leaders and results from the study, I’d like to share insights on what L&D teams that have a seat at the business table are doing to deliver results:
Bring in bold ideas, but keep the human touch
As they wield greater influence with business, L&D leaders have the mandate to innovate with development programs that drive impact. They are doing this with forward-thinking ideas and by building a culture of continual learning. They are introducing new learning credentials and content from the most reputable institutions. They are leveraging tech tools and platforms to provide on-demand, quality learning at scale. Learning leaders are also looking at cutting-edge formats using virtual/augmented reality to improve training, design thinking to reimagine learning experiences and gamification to motivate learners. They are harnessing AI and big data to make more informed decisions and analyze learning outcomes. However, based on our experience, the most effective workplace learning approach is one which combines technology with thoughtful human collaboration and curation of content – one size does not fit all, since no two learners are the same.
Content is king: Make your program relevant for learners
Corporate learning programs often miss the mark when employees can’t apply the learning to their jobs. 49% of employees told us content relevance mattered most to them. The stakes are even higher when the survival of a company depends on upskilling its workforce. With a seat at the table, L&D leaders can map the right business needs to the right skills and content. They are consequently able to show employees how the content in the program is linked both to their jobs and the organization’s business objectives. Data analysts in a bank, for example, would be motivated to get on the learning path of a data scientist for the chance to drive more impactful business decisions and significantly boost their prospects within the company.
Broad objectives like building a culture of self learning alone don’t motivate learners. L&D teams that hit the mark create custom learning plans that directly benefit employees and deliver the right business outcomes. Alongside curating in-depth, relevant content, they also help employees find the right level of proficiency – too easy and they won’t need the course, too hard and they might not do it.
Jammed schedules? Design a program that fits in
L&D is privy not just to the business imperatives, but also the roadblocks that can slow down a workforce development program. Boosting quality and relevance alone won’t ensure participation if you don’t create a program that is flexible, which employees can weave into their busy schedules.
When L&D decision makers are trusted advisors to business, they can influence and design programs that gets to the root of the problem - creating a program that actually works for employees. Besides valuable credentials, employees want a better mobile experience. They count on getting information when and where they want, not at a set time and place. They increasingly want to learn in small pockets of time and bite-sized increments. Millenials, who account for 46% of the Indian workforce are always connected on their smartphones – in India, we see 54% of our learners on mobile. When L&D leaders give their people the best learning experience, and one that works for them, they meet with the best results.
Answer employees’ ‘Can I learn?’ and ‘Do I want to learn?’ questions
In my experience employees come into a workforce development program with two questions on their mind – ‘Can I learn?’ and ‘Do I want to learn?’ They want to know the kind of skills and capabilities they need to add, the right courses and learning path. Many of them may not have learnt online, and wonder if they can do this successfully. We see L&D teams already answering the ‘Can I learn’ questions. However, as companies transition from 100% offline learning to 30-65% online learning, they sometimes miss the employee’s unspoken Do I want to learn? question – how do I find the motivation to spend my free time learning? L&D leaders with a voice convert business leaders into ambassadors for the program. They start by championing the cause of learning right from the top. When the CEO tells employees why it is critical to upskill, or when leaders show employees that they are investing in them, they feel motivated to learn.
When L&D leaders take a seat at the business table, they have the opportunity to drive learning experiences that impact every aspect of the business. The great news is, they have an ally on their side – the employee. Both employees (77%) and L&D leaders (78%) agree that learning and development is a shared responsibility. The give and take is what advances individual careers and helps organizations thrive. From where they stand, L&D leaders are the best placed to find the sweet spot where this happens.
The author is director- India and APAC at Coursera.