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Lessons of the past, learnings for the future

As the world continues to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, I’ve been reflecting on what the learning sector should be doing to weather future storms. Whilst we’ve not experienced a global health emergency of this kind in recent memory, as a sector I believe we should draw upon other experiences over the last three decades.

Economic recovery

Back in 1997, when we founded KnowledgePoint, the UK was emerging from an economic slump. We saw a change in government in 1997 and by the early 2000s the unemployment rate was halved, with Britain on its way to economic recovery. With this improved market confidence, companies were now in recovery mode too, investing in training and employee development whilst still looking to contain costs.

According to research from the Department of Work & Pensions, training increased steadily between 1994 and 2002. Just under one in five employees received training in 1994 and this rose to nearly one in three between 2001 and 2003. This increase in training meant an increase in demand for learning content to support delivery.

With an increased focus on employee development, we saw a need for high quality, consistent materials which could be delivered just in time. More training meant more last-minute requests which lead to increased class numbers and more updates to learning content. With economic and environmental factors at play, companies no longer wanted to follow traditional print models, holding stocks of materials in large warehouses and certainly wanted to minimise the costly waste of out of date versions of materials which would then have to be pulped at the end of the learning cycle.

We created a new market place for learning companies built around on-demand printing and close working relationships with logistics partners. This gave the learning industry flexibility, guaranteed quality and materials to support the learning process, wherever and whenever it took place.


One of the most catastrophic disasters in modern times occurred on September 11, 2001. The United States suffered an unprecedented loss of life, and the world was irrevocably changed by the events and in the aftermath. According to research by Jack Kondrasuk in the Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, “a survey conducted by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) after 9/11 showed a distinct shift to distance learning (by intra- and internet and videoconferencing); training was much more likely to be conducted on the employer’s premises and not requiring travel by airplane to a distant city.”

As a business, we were shaken by the events which unfolded on that September day in 2001. The learning sector shifted towards a blend of face-to-face and virtual delivery. In the move to “virtual” the sector didn’t really have the tools available. PDF became the mode du jour, but did not really provide a satisfactory experience for instructors and learners alike. We soon reverted to type.

Recessionary change

It is fair to say many employers reduce spend on training during an economic downturn, just as they cut back on investment and other more ‘discretionary’ items of spending. This was definitely true during the economic downturn of 2008-9.

Some companies moved their training functions in-house, designing and developing training programmes to meet their needs more closely.

We saw companies investing in learner management systems and moves towards the use of e-learning. For many employers, they felt they could continue their commitment to improving workforce skills, even when they had reduced their overall spend. But it felt as though we were doing all of this without really learning from the seismic events of 2001.

Gen X, Y and Z…

Workforces today comprise four generations working alongside each other, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (Gen Y/Generation Y) and Generation Z. For reasons of health, economy, and more, many are delaying retirement, yet new generations join the workforce.

Organisations today employ team members who clearly remember the days of black and white television and fixed point, rotary phones, alongside those who’ve never known a world without the internet or email. Research from Florida Institute of Technology suggests there are some distinct generational preferences in learning style. Our workforces have a mix of people most comfortable with instructor-led learning with those expecting bite-size digital-learning. Generational differences are not hard science, they are broad generalisations, but what we can be sure of is that there are a range of preferred learning styles and expectations in play.

An ageing population and later retirement both point to the fact that individuals will have to cope with more changes, including a number of careers, during the course of a working life. In fact, the idea of a job for life disappeared some time ago. There are few organisations where employees count their time served in decades. In fact, the corporate lifer is a rare breed. Self-employment and other insecure employment, which extends beyond just the gig economy, is increasing.

In the last year, we saw Generation Z enter the workforce, bringing with them new expectations from employers and from learning. They’re not asking for a job for life but they want to know that the job is more than just filling in time. They are open to returning to an employer more than once. They want to be given the chance to learn on the job, keeping skills up to date as well as helping them advance through the business.

The new normal in the age of COVID-19

It is a widely held truth that training has always been deemed important for prosperity. The spread of automation and AI are set to displace some jobs, and lead to the creation of some careers we can’t predict today. These are coupled with a widely predicted deep and lengthy recession on the back of a global pandemic. Yet, the speed of change is accelerating, as is the need for investment in skills.

So, what can we learn from the last twenty years? How can we make sure we learn from experiences of the past to address the needs of the future?

  1. Prepare for continuity of learning in an age of lifelong learning. It was almost as if we pressed pause on learning and training when coronavirus first hit and hadn’t really learnt from the past. As we’ve seen in the last twenty years, external factors have had a significant impact on the learning market. If we learn from the last few months and the twenty years before them, we’ll be better prepared for the future.
  2. The existence of multiple generations and multiple learning styles in the work-place, as well as multiple careers, requires a blended approach to learning. This means combining traditional approaches with more modern, digitally-enabled training delivery methods.
  3. Technology, automation and AI are here to stay. Let’s use them in the right way to support the learning process – to drive operational efficiencies and to enhance the learning experience.

As a business we will continue to adapt and evolve so learning can continue. We already use AI and automation in the delivery of learning materials. We use technology to deliver digitised content, yet we know some employers and learners still want print-based materials but delivered in a way which takes environmental factors into account. We will consider ways to further integrate with other parts of the learning ecosystem. We will keep learning, keep moving forward so we can continue to support our customers in delivering the right learning to the right person, at the right time.

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