ADVO Group Interviews Valerie Nichols, Executive Consultant, Hemsley Fraser


Learning specialist Hemsley Fraser recently identified what it calls “the top business challenges” that the talent and training profession needs to address, after questioning 200 practitioners, across both public and private sectors. The survey builds upon the company’s previous research last year, which also indicated dealing with change as a top challenge. In our latest interview, we gain a fascinating insight into the findings of the study with Valerie Nichols, Executive Consultant at Hemsley Fraser.

Are there any challenges on the list that strike you as being particularly important, or of a greater priority?

Dealing with change and developing leaders. Technology, global connectivity and the sheer scale and complexity of the organisations that we can now create pose unprecedented leadership challenges. Leaders should be asking themselves: am I equipped to lead into the unknown? Meeting this need will be a key area for development in the future. You have to adapt your leadership practices and recruit and develop employees with the right traits and the right mindset for success to remain competitive today.

One of the challenges was identified as ‘dealing with change’. Organisations are facing a vast array of challenges today, but do you think there is one area or aspect to this that is changing faster than any other?

There was general consensus that both the number of changes occurring and the speed with which these changes are appearing is increasing. Change has become the new ‘normal’ state… Those organisations that are anxiously waiting for ‘change’ to be over so they can stabilise again need to realise that it’s not going to happen. Ongoing change remains a fact of life in many organisations. Leaders are recognising the importance of getting the most from their teams and have made the connection that investment in talent development is key to realising untapped potential and remaining agile.

These dramatic and rapid changes primarily stem from technological breakthroughs, increased globalization, and hypercompetition, all of which are driving successful organizations to search for ways to increase productivity and innovation, improve convenience and responsiveness for their customers, and aggressively manage costs. This, in turn , is fundamentally changing the relationship between organizations and their employees. Employees who not only have key skills, but who have mastered the ability to continuously learn and develop new skills are increasingly in demand and constitute a critical success factor. In order to retain these employees and successfully cope with a continuous environment of change, studies show that organizations need to focus on providing developmental and career opportunities for those key employees and on developing skilled managers who are able to foster that talent.

Do you think any of the identified challenges are particularly applicable to the current moment in time or do you think all of the challenges will continue to be applicable, to some degree at least, for a long period to come?

Most of the challenges identified are likely to continue to be applicable, to some degree at least, for a long period to come. However, the challenge ‘delivering bite-sized learning’ is one that may be a product of the circumstances L&D teams find themselves in now. We are moving from a state where, in the past, time was not under so much focus and learners where more used to a ‘chalk and talk’ style of learning delivery (having been through the school and university systems which predominantly used this approach). Today’s people are time poor and used to experiences that capture their interest quickly and entertain them during the learning. One factor driving this challenge is reflected by recent research that finds a significant reduction over the past decade in a learner’s ability to concentrate for an extended period. While different studies cite different attention spans, there is general agreement about the reduction. This suggests that course design should incorporate information processing insights to facilitate learning. Helping learners relate new concepts to information they already know, demonstrating the connections between different ideas and providing visual support, all facilitate learning new information. Remaining mindful of the strengths and limitations of the brain provides the designer with an optimal framework for effective learning.

Which of the challenges do you think could be most easily accomplished by L&D professionals?

Conveniently, ‘delivering bite-sized learning’, plus ‘engaging learners’. The former challenge is one that is very much in the control of learning leaders, who should be engaging closely with managers and learners to ensure they understand what a great learning experience looks and feels like to their internal customers.

The study questioned workers across both public and private sectors. Do you think some of the challenges are likely to be more applicable to one sector rather than another, or are the challenges equally applicable for both groups?

Most apply to both. One element of the challenge ‘serving global, virtual or geographically dispersed diverse populations’ (that of global) tends to apply more strongly to the private sector, but even this challenge applies to both sectors. While it is certainly true that there are limited numbers of public sector organizations that operate on a global basis, the challenges of serving populations that are geographically dispersed are common in both sectors. Managers are increasingly concerned with the amount of time people are absent from the workplace while learning, whether that time is actually spent in the classroom or traveling to a face-to-face session. Anyone who has tried to cross London or Paris or Los Angeles during a workday can understand the need to find solutions to limit travel demands.

Are there any challenges that aren’t on the current list but you think might appear on the list in the future due to certain trends only emerging now?

Consumers are rapidly becoming accustomed to increasingly personalized services as successful companies learn to map their websites, products, and services to data about individual potential customers. In the same way, learning and development professionals can expect increasing demands for personalized development experiences that will meet the individual needs of each learner. This may take the form of the delivery mechanism used (think of BYOD) as well as of content that is delivered in increasingly small bites that are customized to the learner’s interest and proficiency in a given area. Organizations that want to leverage their employees’ interest in personal development and that want to provide learning in the most efficient and cost-effective way are beginning to demand similar solutions.