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Learning and Development Trapped by Radical Uncertainty

s the whole approach to people development going to radically change, as a result of the upheavals caused by the pandemic? Will the future involve more home-based, internet resourced working practices? Will the looming recession hit organisations so hard that training and development budgets disappear, along with the personnel to manage them? Will future development needs demand a new focus, requiring new content and new design?

The truthful answer to all those questions is ‘We don’t know’. We can’t with certainty predict how things will be in the future and in a volatile world, with change pounding us from all directions, we have to accept that we live in an age of radical uncertainty:to coin a term explained in more depth by Mervyn King and John Kay in their recent book on the subject (Bridge Street Press 2020). It’s not an age that will end with the demise of the virus threat but it’s the way it is from now on.

Radical uncertainty means that the future is impossible to predict with any certainty. Therefore, we may not be able to answer the questions posed at the beginning of this article. Radical uncertainty has all those ingredients that anyone engaged in both leadership and learning and development know so well, namely ambiguity, rapid unceasing change, complex connections where one part influences many others, unpredictable behaviour, wicked problems that don’t have a clear solution and won’t go away, and the sudden appearance of new hurdles to overcome.

Add to that the immediate virus-driven upheaval on people, work, the economy, international relations and our current plans for the future and the challenges to L&D reach new heights. But let’s not do what so many politicians seem intent on doing and pretend we have the answers so that we become trapped in futures that do not materialise. There are no seven key actions to get us out of where we are. There is no single route-way to a clear future, we all have to learn to ‘feel’ our way through.

There are, however, some pointers that can’t be ignored and could be helpful:

1. Cost of development activities

2. Access to dispersed user groups

3. Quality of learning

4. Core Skills needed for the future

The cost of L&D will become even more critical in the aftermath of Corvid-19 as the world faces the economic fallout. Now is the time to explore how to get even better value for money from L&D providers. We must strive to find less expensive ways of purchasing development programmes that not only offer quality learning experiences but also provide context-relevant learning.

Working from home, less time in an office, together with the need to save money will almost certainly mean that face-to-face development events continue the decline of the past decade or so. The growth and strength of the online learning technology with flexibility of engagement and unlimited geographical and temporal access is most likely to become the dominant channel of the future (unless you, reader, knows otherwise).

Online learning has increased in both popularity and availability, building well before Corvid-19 and mushrooming as a consequence. However it is clear from the growing volume of criticism that much of it, exciting as it is, is pandering to superficial, disposable knowledge acquisition graphically termed drive-by learningby Prof. Jon Wergin his latest book on Deep Learning in a Disorientating World (CUP 2020). Although there is a place for surface learning, there is a growing danger that deeper learning that leads to changes in the way people view themselves, how they fulfil their roles and how they behave in complex, uncertain contexts, is being pushed out altogether. Much of this depth of learning was traditionally the domain of face to face courses facilitated by people trained to enable this level of engagement. The future will require new approaches to online design to ensure that it too can provide the challenges learners need to make fundamental changes to themselves and their approaches to their roles and work. These approaches need to take account of our increased understanding of how learning takes place through the stages of an adult’s professional life - self regulation, transformative learning, cognitive dissonance, neuroplasticity, metacognition and brain functioning.

What are the core skills for the future? In the area of leadership development these are changing. Because approaches to leadership need to vary with context and with contexts that are constantly changing, so core skills need to be more flexible. The need for agile thinking and behaving is already recognised as key, not just for leaders but for everybody in work. This has become a core skill that neuroscientists are discovering does not come without effort from within the normal functioning brain. Identifying more core skills that have a keyhole whatever context we are in is increasing important. Then learning designers have the added task of helping learners develop these, perhaps through the channel of online learning

There already a dizzying array of online development programmes out there not least in the realm of leadership development. However, it can be a mammoth task sorting out the ones that are reasonably priced, offer quality learning experiences, are flexible in the way they can be used, give learners a level of control over what they study, and focus on the new generation of key core skills and knowledge. In addition ,they are based on strong scholarship from a team with a range of expertise in learning technology, learning design, leadership and leadership development

In your explorations I hope you will give some time to investigate the new Leadership Is …Series from Leap Professional. This is our online learning platform.

It certainly meets the criteria outlined in this article plus has the backing of a team of experts from the fields of leadership development, learning design, learning technology and organisational leadership. Sample it at www.leapprofessional.com