Transformation through digitally enabled learning

The Sunday Mail

Dr Richard Munyanyi

There has been a debate about the learning and development (L&D) profession.

L&D practitioners suffer from an “identity crisis” as trainers, organizational developers, managers and learning strategists.

All of these roles overlap, but with distinct applications and knowledge, and trying to provide everything for everyone, they emerge with a disturbed self.

Thus, L&D practitioners are required to continually expand the self as an active reflective project, in a process of “endless merging” to integrate their multiple selves. Despite this identity crisis in which practitioners find themselves, the activity and demands of L&D have clearly evolved enormously over the last 40 years.

Training was part of the staff (HR was not invented) and over the years it became part of organizational development (OD), a separate function in the few organizations that went this route.

The DO in most European organizations died out in the 1970s and 1980s because it got a bad reputation for being disconnected from a company’s core business. OD, however, has since reappeared with new twists and terminology. What remains constant over the years in all of this is Learning, even e-Learning has a small ‘e’ and a capital ‘L’, so Learning is always Learning.

L&D, as I mentioned, occurs in a contested environment, where practitioners continually reconstruct their identities.

The shift towards knowledge work and a digital economy has placed a greater emphasis on learning, fueling the growth of a diverse set of practitioners, seeking to legitimize their abilities, as an emerging quasi-profession.

Researchers argue that training and development practitioners now, more than ever before, play a critical role in delivering what is now called a learning organization. A learning organization is “a place where employees excel in creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge”. Multinational organizations such as Google and Adobe come to mind when the discourse of a learning organization is unpacked.

A common denominator of learning organizations mentioned above is the issue of having an engaged workforce. Employee engagement is itself the result of a resilient workforce. Resilience simply means positive adaptation. Literature shows that resilient employees not only cope with challenges, but possess additional skills to successfully navigate workplace adversities.

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Resilience could therefore serve to build a pathway for developing engaged employees, in which workers can not only use their resources to face new challenges, but also find new ways to handle demanding situations in the workplace.

The triangulation of the three factors – resilience, learning organization and employee engagement – results in an agile organization, able to survive adversities such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

What is important in this whole discussion, however, is that learning and development practitioners play an important role in any positive organizational transformation.

So what are the key takeaways from the triangulation of resilience, the learning organization, and employee engagement.

  1. Human resources (HR) professionals should recognize and design practices to foster employee resilience
  2. There has been a paradigm shift, as over the years training and development professionals have focused primarily on increasing human capital knowledge, skills and competencies to gain competitive advantage at In today’s era of “flat globalization” and increasing competition, these strategies are no longer sufficient. L&D practitioners should therefore focus more on the company’s value chain, not on the individual.
  3. Management should focus less on reacting to adverse change and instead focus more on building resilience in its employees. L&D professionals and departments need to invest in building learning organizations to build employee resilience, in general, and to keep their employees engaged, in particular.

The question then is: what practical steps should training and development practitioners take to ensure that they are delivering learning organizations? The answer is simple. They need to move from order takers to influential business partners. This would be achieved through the creation of experiences and an agile learning and development ecosystem that enables a culture of continuous learning.

One area that training and development practitioners should quickly tap into when achieving organizational transformation is the infusion of technologies or information and communication technologies – especially cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning — across L&D programs to make L&D an exciting experience for everyone in the organization.

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Virtual reality

Virtual reality refers to computer technology that simulates reality using digital formats. Virtual reality creates realistic sounds and images and other sensations that place users in an imaginary environment. This technology takes learners into imaginary spaces surrounded by a deeply engaging environment. Virtual reality has shown great potential in teaching courses such as physics and astronomy. However, virtual reality requires expensive hardware and software such as Unity 3D, which makes it complicated and expensive to use. Nevertheless, the exploitation of this technology in training simulators has great potential in learning and development.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality technology converts artificial elements such as 3D artifacts, multimedia content or textual information into real-world images. This improves the interaction between the learner and the content. A good L&D practitioner can take online learners to planet Mars while they are in the comfort of their own home. Like virtual reality, augmented reality requires expensive software and 3D content, and development requires specialized knowledge. AR and VR are likely to change the way learners learn and teachers teach, as work is underway to marry the technologies to cheaper gadgets like mobile phones.

Artificial intelligence

AI is the intelligence manifested by machines and has been exploited in the development of intelligent tutoring systems where learning can be performed by a computer program. The machine can interact with the learner and solve his problems in real time. AI systems have the ability to identify areas where learners are struggling and hence the learner can focus more on their weaker areas.

These systems are interactive, so they have advantages over traditional linear pre-programmed e-learning courses. Although AI is a game-changer in online learning, it requires skilled programmers and expensive AI engines.

bigdata

Big data, in the context of e-learning systems (also called learning big data), “consists of sources of information (courses, modules, experiences, etc.) created by teachers, but especially data from learners throughout the educational process. This data is usually collected by the learning management system (LMS), social networks and multimedia. Big data also involves information produced by learners during their online training, for example, their assessment results, progress and social sharing.

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Using Big Data, e-learning experts can make informed decisions about learners in terms of where they need improvement, areas of focus and how the module can be refined for maximum learner benefit.

machine learning

It is a computer science that gives computers the ability to learn without being programmed. When used with the LMS, machine learning can offer personalized e-learning solutions based on the past performance of previous e-learning learners and enables efficient distribution of resources as online learners receive resources tailored to address their learning gaps.

Portable devices

Wearables are smart electronic devices that can be worn or implanted in the body. These can offer training programs regardless of time and space. Wearable devices have the potential to make online learning and training and development exciting and effective.

The cutting-edge technologies above are revolutionizing learning and development in general, and e-learning in particular.

The progression and advancement of digital tools ushers in an era where literacy will not be measured by one’s ability to read and write, but by one’s ability to harness ICT as decision support systems and drivers of social transformation. .

Learning and development for organizational transformation should therefore be based on the principles of collaboration, innovation, research, agility, inclusion and user-centricity. L&D command and control principles have no place in the contemporary world and should be thrown in the trash.

Dr. Richard Munyanyi is a learning and development specialist. He holds a PhD in Management Science from Durban University of Technology in South Africa, specializing in Public Administration. The opinions expressed in this article are his personal opinions on the subject.

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