Corporate learning and closing the knowing-doing gap

Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio via

COVID-19 has indeed exposed the existing vulnerabilities of the world, but it also shed light on innovative ways of doing things that need to be mainstreamed. In a post COVID era-if we can even say that- we can only try to understand what changes in our lives and the way we do business are there to stay and what changes need to be integrated and mainstreamed- one of those relates to managing education.

As part of the Business Forum hosted by the AUC School of Business Forum last month, one of the roundtables was about the future of corporate learning and development. The session tackled the local and global trends in corporate learning and development as well as the challenges faced by human resources professionals trying to find innovative solutions for business continuity while maintaining the well-being of their staff. The discussion addressed the firm-level challenges that emerged in the current phase and the role of university-based executive education in providing alternative solutions. The roundtable was moderated by Ghada Howaidy, associate dean for executive education and founder of the Women on Boards Observatory at the AUC School of Business.

Global and local trends in corporate learning

As the workforce continues to evolve, the needed training for re-skilling and up-skilling employees also change and become more sophisticated and specific to match the requirements of a nonstop progressive job market. This also creates a different reality for business schools and training providers. As Tom Ryan, an independent consultant from the UK points out, training providers need to focus on demand-driven training solutions that is based on clients’ needs and not what they want the client to have. Organizations are increasingly looking for providers who will help them to fill in the knowing-doing gap rather than those providing academic solutions. Another trend he explains, is the expansion of the modes of training delivery beyond face-to-face training to include live virtual, blended and self directed programs. This creates new opportunities for both clients and business schools.

Mirroring Ryan’s remarks on the global trends of corporate learning, Mohamed Kesseba, senior director of programs at the AUC School of Business Executive Education, explains the findings of the research conducted by AUC for UNICON (the global consortium for university based executive education) on the learning and development landscape in Egypt. The foremost finding of the study is related to closing the theory practice gap. Organizations want experiential education that is relevant to their industry, the local market and also tailored to their needs. The second finding concerns the key topics that they want to cover in their training which are mainly: leadership, digital transformation, innovation, agility and finance. The third finding is about the modes of training delivery where they want to move from virtual training, that was predominant in the past two years, to hybrid or blended formats.

Bringing in an employer perspective, Emad Nasr, chair of human resources (talent management) committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and human resources director at Lecico Egypt, states some of the factors hindering the advancement of the learning and development function in organizations. Financial challenges, COVID-19 and lack of investment in employees’ wellbeing to reduce companies’ costs are among these factors. He also adds that companies need to empower their employees with a new set of skills to cope with the new world. “With the very fast pace of change there are always new set of skills that you need to acquire that are totally different from the ones we used to receive in the past. Even the typical set of soft skills that companies used to deliver to their employees [are becoming obsolete]. We have [now] a different new set more related to the digital world with its new needs,” Nasr explains.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of bridging the gap between companies’ and employees’ needs and what training providers have to offer. There is a huge gap in the local market and among various industries that requires to be filled. Indeed, this calls for more organized efforts and collaboration between different training providers, business schools and other intermediaries to create tailored, workable and innovative training solutions.

Employees need a personalized learning experience

The more personalized and engaging the learning experience is, the more the commitment of employees to their life-long learning goals, the higher their retention and the greater the return on investment (ROI) within their organizations. Elaborating on this point, George Sedky, chief human resource officer at Ghabbour Group Egypt, describes his company’s initiative that started three years ago of implementing a cultural change program inside his organization. The program entails designing and implementing learning and development programs customized to each level of the organization. The first program was directed to the executives where it included an “executive coaching program” that is based on several rounds of psychometric and behavioral assessments for executives to accurately determine their training and coaching needs. The exercise was also done with middle managers moving to first line managers and so on. At each level of the organization and across different departments, assessments and tailored trainings were designed and implemented.

“Starting from upwards and going down the message was very clear: development is not an option. In order to succeed, be promoted, and have a career path in the organization you have to develop. We are providing you with the opportunities, please go and grasp [them],” Sedky added.

Along the same line of thought, Hanan Moselhy, human resources director at Hassan Allam Properties, shares her insights regarding the importance of Training Needs Assessment (TNA) in identifying companies’ needs and how training providers should focus on them irrelevant of what workshops they offer off the shelf. “For me this is where things can start moving. Listening and reading between the lines of this TNA bit by bit can help us progress,” she comments. “I just hope for the TNA to become the platform for discussion with training providers in absolute,” she adds.

How do we leverage the capability of online training?

Organizations are increasingly moving beyond focusing on instruction as the primary mode of learning to creating learning experiences that integrate closely with work issues so that the learner can apply the knowledge gained immediately in his workplace. Given the flexible nature of online training, where employees are probably not taking time away from their workplaces, this can be done easily and efficiently. In an online training, employees can apply the knowledge gained directly to their job and come back to the instructor with feedback.

So blended programs coupled with action learning maximizes the benefit from online training. “The best solution to enrich online training is offline activities,” Nasr reinforces the idea of adopting blended trainings. He also adds that enriching online experiences can be done through using smart applications and exploring ‘gamenars’ (playing games as part of the training) to make online sessions more engaging.

Sedky also highlights the importance of using simulations and innovative solutions in training programs to create highly memorable and impactful learning experiences for employees on one hand and to break the rut of the online training -where people stay for hours in front of a computer screen- on the other. He also sees the future in blended training that brings in the benefits of both offline and online training.

It is the golden age of corporate-higher education partnerships

The increased need for individual employees to re-skill and build the breadth and depth of their capabilities to prepare for the future of work necessitates strategic partnerships with higher education institutions. Ryan mentions that close partnerships between business schools and companies gives the former a better understanding of the needs of potential learners and enables them to identify more opportunities of cooperation. “The closer the interaction is, the more you understand what the client needs, and what the business school can do,” he explains.

Building on the results of the research conducted by AUC, Kesseba reinforces the same point of the necessity of establishing partnerships between companies and training providers. He explains that companies are fed up with getting off-the-shelf training just to check out more items on a training calendar. In fact, they require a profound relationship with providers that is based on a deep understanding of the learning and development needs of employees.

“I do not want to be talking about a training calendar, I want to be talking about learning needs that directly impact the business growth and the change that we are going into,” says Moselhy confirming the significance of the TNA and the teaming up of stakeholders in the learning and development landscape.”

Ryan calls for collaboration between training providers and with other stakeholders, aggregators and business schools for meeting clients’ needs. “Training providers need to move away from what I describe as a producer mentality: ‘Here is what we do, do you want to buy this?’… to actually talking to clients and saying ‘what do you need? What [pieces] we can deliver? Let’s be clear about what pieces we can’t deliver, but also let us recommend to you. We don’t do this but actually we got a very good experience of somebody else who does something else’,” he explains.

Sedky of Ghabour Group Egypt concludes that the main task of the learning and development function in an organization is to enhance human capital, which directly reflects on its performance of businesses and places it with a competitive advantage over their competitors if managed efficiently. Thus, organizations need to use their human capital as a strategic resource for business growth. Having said that, corporate learning professionals need to align their learning strategy and metrics to the transformation and growth objectives of their organization, maximining ROI.

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