Business management

The professional’s guide to learning and development in lockdown

Expert Q&A with Nigel Spencer, a professor at Queen Mary University of London.

Has lockdown and the pandemic exposed skills gaps within firms?

“Professionals generally have a preference for tasks. They are often ‘completer-finishers’, task-driven, and enjoy the technical mastery of their profession. But one interesting thing from Covid-19 is, it has made us think more about teams and client relationships.

“Surveys over the past few months show clients want professionals to pick up the phone more, and connect on a more personal level. How do you encourage lawyers and professionals to think about and build personal connections, rather than just formal ones, during a transaction or whatever it may be? How do you make a connection that leads to an ongoing relationship, so they see you as that adviser to come back to?

“Covid-19 has made us think about extending skill sets such as delegation, team motivation, or supervising and creating a great product. With teams scattered everywhere, the need for these skills is greater. How do you maintain the connection with the team? How do you make sure that your instructions are clear? You haven’t got the learning from the water cooler conversations, from sharing a room with someone in the office where you hear how the senior person does a phone call, or where you can ask an informal question. How does that casual mentoring and coaching happen?

People want more ‘just-in-time’ learning because their jobs are changing and the skills need changing more often. Therefore, you need to offer more bite-sized learning

Nigel Spencer
Professor, education innovation and professional practice, school of law, Queen Mary University of London

“It leads us to think about training gaps and the adult learning model, where 70% should be on the job, 20% should be learning from others, and 10% should be formal training courses. If a large proportion of learning is on the job, and observing and learning from others, the current Covid situation where everyone is scattered, poses a challenge. We can begin to think about what skill sets senior managers need to have as they work with the trainees and the junior consultants, if that’s still going to be an effective way of producing good work.

“If you’re supervising the team and managing and mentoring and coaching, again, how are you having the check-ins? When people are new to a firm, or they’re trainees and haven’t established their networks yet, how do you integrate them, making sure they know what good looks like? There is a massive role here for mentoring, buddy pairing, setting up those networks and informal relationships, so new people feel comfortable asking about what they don’t know. It’s almost creating that psychological safety where it’s okay to ask the question.”

How has the pandemic accelerated approaches to learning and development?

“Some shifts were happening already. Career paths are changing; it’s much less linear now and more lattice-like. And that implies that the skill sets, and what learning and development teams need to provide for firms, are getting broader.

“Covid has accelerated the learning functions need to look broader. With lockdown, there’s a trend for more blended, more virtual approaches. That was happening anyway, partly because consolidation in the industry had meant you had to scale learning around the organisation much more. How you do that cost-effectively is an enormous challenge, with learning budgets falling over the past 10 years.

“People also want more ‘just-in-time’ learning because their jobs are changing, and the job needs, and the skills need changing more often. Therefore, you need to offer more bite-sized learning. The shift to more blended learning helps with this.

“So [I recommend] a learning methodology of little and often, where you have a bit of a bite-sized skill-building session, then you might have a break. Then you might have another one. So people get the chance to learn, apply, learn, apply, which I think is, by far, the best approach to reduce the learning-decay curve. You go to a training course, and you’ve forgotten 80% of it quite quickly. With Covid-19, we’ve almost gone back to that more bite-sized approach where you give people a chance to reflect and apply in between.”

How has the pandemic forced firms to think more strategically and question how those behaviours meet client needs?

“Understanding how the learning and development team links into what’s going on with clients is essential. That was one reason why, when I was in firms, I tried to create little learning opportunities where the clients were involved, such as a client-learning forum.

“It’s one way for young lawyers to go out and apply their learning by running a four-week project looking at a strategy problem with a client, so it’s a good value-added offer to the client. But it also helped link my learning function into what was going on with the clients because I had to talk with lots of partners about what would and wouldn’t work for clients. And this goes back to how closely you align the learning strategy with the business strategy, to make it as relevant as possible because that’s one massive question that I still think needs attention. It’s not just about having a seat at the top table as the head of learning, but which parts of the firm you link to.

“Many firms do client feedback exercises, but does that data go back to the learning function so that they can focus on what the clients are telling them and develop the key skills?

“Some of the innovation functions that firms have now are looking at the far future and thinking, what types of services are we going to offer clients from the firm in the next three to five years? Now that must be a great conversation to lead learning into because then you’ll strategically build the capability. You’ll be thinking: if the leading partners and the board want us to develop X, Y and Z as a service, how do we upskill people so that the firm can deliver on that in the next six, 12, 18 months?

“Learning functions need to work more closely with the business development teams or with the innovation function and think about what services the firm will offer. Good firms realise that and think about what they need to do in the future, and then upskill people towards that. I think that integration could be stronger.”

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