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From Surviving to Thriving: Building Capabilities for the New Normal


Wed Jun 17 2020

From Surviving to Thriving: Building Capabilities for the New Normal

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As governments around the world ease lockdown restrictions and businesses make tentative steps to reopen, one thing has become clear: We are not going back to normal. Instead of a quick recovery, the foreseeable future is decidedly murky, with as many possible plot twists that any Hollywood screenwriter may aspire to.

We’re now in the dance phase of Tomas Pueyo’s Hammer and Dance scenario, where the hammer of the coronavirus transmission suppression is followed by a dance period, where transmission is managed and contained until the long-term solution of a vaccine is found.


In front of 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 methods of coping with the present realities. Looking at the longer-term, organizations and individuals will need to build systematic capabilities to guide ourselves and help us make wise decisions so that we can thrive and not just survive.

Workplace Learning Will Never Be the Same

With the science of the coronavirus maturing at a rapid clip, and public health agencies continuing to update recommendations for safe workplaces, business continues to be disrupted by a threat 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 already feel like relics of times past (only three months ago).

These ongoing disruptions present particular challenges for workplace learning and talent development. The disruption to business models makes it difficult to 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 meaningful in-person learning experiences.

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 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 it.

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 communities. These include training that targets workplace health and safety protocols as well as new compliance policies that account for remote work. Also included in the category 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 in this category 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.

The second category, capabilities, is targeted at making 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.

Using Purpose as Your North Star for Learning

As Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella says, “You’ve got to have at the core of your existence your sense of purpose and mission.” Purpose creates alignment between businesses’ success and meaningful outcomes for the communities and societies they operate in. And it establishes the reason for building key survival skills that protect workers, customers, and communities while cultivating the capabilities that help companies, their stakeholders, and communities thrive in the future.

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