From Surviving to Thriving: Building Capabilities for the New Normal
June 11, 2020
As governments around the world ease lockdown restrictions and businesses make tentative steps to re-open, one thing has become clear: we are not going back to normal. Instead of a predictable, step-by-step recovery, the foreseeable future is decidedly murky – with as many possible plot twists as any Hollywood screenwriter might aspire to.
We’re now in the Dance phase of Tomas Pueyo’s Hammer and Dance scenario, where the Hammer of coronavirus transmission suppression is followed by the Dance, a period where transmission is managed and contained until the long-term solution of a vaccine is found.
Before us lies a period of instability and experimentation as we collectively establish new norms for how we live our lives and conduct business.
Before us lies a period of instability and experimentation as we collectively establish new norms for how we live our lives and conduct business. In our personal and professional lives, we have all discovered new skills to cope with the present realities. At the same time, we have seen a renewed emphasis on issues of trust, safety, and well-being as we move from a state of isolation to reconnect with our workplaces and communities.
Looking towards the longer term, organizations and individuals will need to build capabilities that connect these specific, short-term concerns to values that define workplace cultures. For example, safety as a skill may involve cleaning, physical distancing, and mask protocols. When safety is incorporated as a value, the scope is much broader and guides everything an organization does, and includes not just physical, but also psychological, safety at work.
Values also reach beyond the individual and the workplace to guide how organizations connect with communities. At a time when we are collectively asked to do better, skills and capabilities can align to drive change so that we all can thrive, and not just survive.
Workplace Learning Will Never Be the Same
With the science of coronavirus maturing at a rapid clip, and public health agencies continuing to update recommendations for safe workplaces, business continues to be fundamentally disrupted by a phenomenon that nobody saw coming. Particularly whiplash-inducing is the realization that the places and ways we work are now health hazards. Spaces and workplace cultures – intentionally designed to inspire collaboration and innovation – have been rendered obsolete by remote work.
Spaces and workplace cultures – intentionally designed to inspire collaboration and innovation – have been rendered obsolete by remote work.
Ongoing disruptions to the ways we work together present particular challenges for workplace learning and talent development. The unpredictability of how we will do business in the future makes it difficult to precisely determine which skills and talent sets will be needed to recover and grow. Remote work practices and concerns about workplace and travel safety make it impossible to plan in-person learning experiences. Indeed, many of the staples of in-person training — social gatherings, windowless rooms, group learning activities, travel, and shared food — have now become not just obsolete, but may also be harmful. Meaningful learning is based on the premise of psychological safety and that can’t be achieved in a state of fear.
Learning Is More Important than Ever
Now is not the time to cut back on training. While it may be tempting to scale back and wait until things settle down, the ongoing nature of the pandemic, combined with the unpredictability of the surrounding economic and social contexts, means that more learning will be needed to meet the needs of the present and develop the organizational capabilities needed to make a better future. McKinsey recommends using training budgets to leverage workplace learning as a key strategic lever to adapt and grow. Their recommendation is to increase the resilience of the learning ecosystem by embracing digital experiences and making online learning platforms more accessible to those who need them.
The ongoing nature of the pandemic means that more learning will be needed to meet the needs of the present and develop the organizational capabilities needed to make a better future.
Skills to Survive and Capabilities to Thrive
Still, the question remains about how to prioritize what types of learning are needed when the future is so unpredictable. While organizations vary by needs and circumstances, learning initiatives appear to cluster into two categories: survival skills needed to cope with an ever-changing present and capabilities needed to adapt, innovate, and grow.
Survival skills include the essential knowledge and skills organizations need to stay in business and manage risk to customers, workers, and the community.
Survival skills include the essential knowledge and skills organizations need to stay in business and manage risk to customers, workers, and the community. These include training that targets workplace health and safety protocols as well as new compliance policies that account for remote work. Also included here are sustainable learning experiences that help remote workers work better together with essential training on tools and distributed collaboration. The final broad set of skills focus on wellness, stress management, and work-life balance. These skills can often be built using a mix of self-directed learning, webinars, video conferences, and documents and manuals.
Capabilities aim to make organizations as a whole more resilient, adaptable, and innovative.
Conversely, capabilities aim to make organizations as a whole more resilient, adaptable, and innovative. The capability approach has been employed by organizations dealing with deep disruption to business models, for example, digital transformation (now a reality for most organizations, whether planned for or not). Under this model, organizations seek to build dynamic capabilities that align with organizational purpose and drive innovation and business growth. Capabilities include complex problem solving, creativity, adaptability, leadership, and customer experience. Since capability building requires organization-wide alignment on purpose and context, more intensive modalities may be required. In the era of distributed work, these include collaborative learning, role play, augmented and virtual reality, and learning communities.
A Holistic Approach to Learning at Work
While skill development targets current needs and capability development looks at the longer term, in practice, both approaches are needed and they can be mutually reinforcing. In the context of distributed work, survival skills may be needed to enable capability development. For example, it may be difficult to build capabilities around collaboration in the absence of technical skills and protocols around video conferencing meetings.
In other instances, individual skill development may surface the need to cultivate organizational capabilities that endure into the future. Individual training for stress management might inspire the strategic cultivation of resilience as an organizational capability.
Aligning Learning with Values
Short-term tactics of skill development and longer-term strategies of capability development can converge to express and reinforce a company’s values. Commitment to the safety, well-being, and growth of employees, customers, and communities span the two categories. Individual skills in stress management, for example, can carry over to strategic capabilities for customer-centricity. Companies who embrace integrity as a value can create alignment between training and outcomes, as individual skills and organizational capabilities are enhanced to ensure remote interactions with customers and stakeholders are at least as high-quality as in-person.
Short-term tactics of skill development and longer-term strategies of capability development can converge to express and reinforce a company’s values.
In times when circumstances and context are constantly changing, this alignment creates a sense of purpose-driven learning for individuals and organizations alike to better understand “why you do what you do, and to what end do you do it.” New mindsets, knowledge, skills, and capabilities can help us all reach beyond ourselves to realize a stronger, better world.
Join NovoEd and CEMEX for our upcoming webinar on June 24, Purpose-Driven Leaders: Leadership Development for Business Transformation. You will learn about how CEMEX created CONNECT, a holistic online leadership development program for new managers worldwide. This program not only cultivates leadership capabilities that embody and advance a company’s purpose, but also measures impact in terms of personal wellbeing and professional growth.
Rishad Tobaccowala discussed his new book, Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, and stories from his career as former Global Strategist and Chief Growth Officer of Publicis Groupe in this Book Club recording.
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Learning is important to the success of an organization and should be baked into the workplace culture for ongoing development and advancement. Research backs up the importance of continually developing a wide range of skills for a more creative, agile, and satisfying learning journey.