It is a novel moment in our global experience, one in which we have no history to guide us, no metaphors to help us know which direction to take. That is how Elliott Masie, chair of the Learning CONSORTIUM at the Elliott MASIE Center, described our current reality with the global pandemic.
In a live session for the Association for Talent Development’s Virtual Conference on Wednesday evening, Masie talked with attendees about what learning looks like and what we can expect it to look like in the future. He spoke not only of the pandemic but also of the 40 million US citizens out of work and the racial injustice plaguing the US.
During the Q&A, facilitated by Alexandria Clapp, ATD’s content manager for learning technologies and sciences, Masie several times shared a picture with the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Those were among the final words spoken by George Floyd, the black man who died while pinned to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Organizations need to face up to racial injustice, Masie said, noting, “How does it feel when we’re not seen as who we are?”
The Q&A shifted to explore inclusion and accessibility. Masie offered this food for thought: How can COVID-19 help us with global inclusion? He said that L&D professionals need to consider learner characteristics and language. For example, when an individual is learning in a language that is not their native tongue, they may have to read materials or play a video clip multiple times to fully grasp it.
Masie also spoke about the Lego of learning, blocks of learning that we can move around and rearrange into different patterns. So much of learning and knowledge, he continued, is not in the learning management system. It’s internal knowledge that may not even be within the L&D team, but rather, with co-workers. That’s why curation is so important.
Four stages of learning in a pandemic world
During his on-demand session “Learning in the Pandemic: Shifts, Disruptions, Empathy and Reskilling”—which attendees were encouraged to watch in advance of the live Q&A—Masie shared some of the observations he’s gleaned from speaking with other learning leaders. In response to the pandemic, Masie outlined four stages of corporate learning, beginning with stage 1, which he called the “Oh, crap!” stage.
During this period, employees and organizations were thrown for a loop as many employees almost instantaneously were required to work from home. Many did so without the necessary tools, with limited bandwidth and cramped quarters shared with other family members who were also working and learning from home. During this stage, as Masie explained, there was little formal learning happening.
Stage 2 presented the challenge and opportunity of learning how to adapt and adopt, doing things like modifying a multiday onboarding program to a two-hour online course. We weren’t able to do “excellent” during this stage, he pointed out.
Rather, we used existing tools to help maintain some degree of connection and connectivity. A “beginning level of readiness” occurred during this period, Masie said, acknowledging time shifts in which adults with children may have adapted their schedule to work early in the morning or late at night around tending and educating their children. It was during this time when we demanded no more webinars. Instead, employees yearned for support, access to expertise, and connection.
Apart from the current stages of a learning shift, Masie relayed during his live Q&A that he loves confusion and failure. How can we structure opportunities for failure to discover what happens if we don’t always get it right? And with developing a training course, he said, we don’t have to try to be perfect with it—rather, we need to be engaging.
Get playful, he encouraged. Add video rather than a PowerPoint presentation.
Masie said that during stage 3, ask: How can we create more optimized ways to support employees? He recounted his early days introducing e-learning to the world.
Today’s e does not stand for electronic but rather for emergency, evolving, and—most important—empathy. All of those are part of today’s learning.
L&D needs to be able to connect and acknowledge that learners and employees may be having a completely different experience, dealing with the uncertainly around the economy (another e) and health. The need for empathy was a point Masie hit upon on several times during the Q&A regarding the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice.
We don’t know what’s ahead in stage 4, and we don’t have an exact strategy, but Masie notes there are dimensions we can use to us get there. He described four levels of reboarding that will take place:
- Some individuals will be coming back to the physical workspace. Those employees will need to be instructed on new procedures, such as social distancing and wearing a mask.
- A second group of staff will be those who will continue to work from home. Part of the challenge will be retaining employees who enjoy the social element and camaraderie of working in the same physical space among colleagues. Will schedules need to be modified for the long term? Will the organization need to provide better equipment or tools, such as chairs with greater support?
- A third level of onboarding will take place with staff who will continue working for the organization but in a new capacity. Talent development may have to rewrite job descriptions, and new skills may be necessary.
- Finally, talent development will need to address the needs of people who have had their lives disrupted and who won’t be returning. How does the organization assist this group of individuals? One option, for example, is creating a badge to showcase their skills and knowledge.
Always have a second option
Masie and MASIE Productions produce Broadway musicals and theater. One participant asked about the connection between L&D and concerts: It’s important to integrate content, music, and engagement in both, Masie stated. Given the question about his multiple interests, Masie queried the audience: If you weren’t in L&D, what would you be doing? The answers ranged from photographer to food truck operator to meteorologist to world traveler. Now, more than ever, Masie urged attendees that they need a second path.
He said it is a period where there is no script, but there is nevertheless a story to be told. When we move forward, we must take the time to celebrate that we have adapted and survived the pandemic and all that is has wrought and brought.
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