Comment: pandemic delivers defence training jolt

The pressures of the pandemic have driven a much needed rethink in the way that the defence sector approaches training write Dr Simon Harwood, Director of Defence and Security at Cranfield University and Rachel Kay, Learning Consultant & Client Management Director at  Capita

defence training

Training has long been known in defence circles as ‘first to be deployed, but last to be considered’: vast investments are made into capital, but training in how to make the best of equipment is a relative afterthought.

There has always been a nagging sense that training for defence professionals is ‘disconnected’, one-off spurts of activity followed by an inevitable dissipation

Workplace learning as a whole has needed a jolt of change for some time, to make sure there’s connection between individual aspirations and organisational goals. The pandemic looks to be providing that opportunity.

There has always been a nagging sense that training for defence professionals is ‘disconnected’, one-off spurts of activity followed by an inevitable dissipation and drift of the learning under the everyday pressure of workplace responsibilities; a situation where the Learning and Development (L&D) team can sometimes feel more like event planners than focused on the strategic contribution with measurable outcomes.

Some progressive organisations in the armed forces have built learning cultures which confer strategic value. But many more still see learning as an overhead to be cut, a lever for compliance and a badge of skills – and where’s the impact?

The pandemic has shown us the opportunity, strategic value and need for L&D to be put onto boardroom agendas. Workplace learning should be a continuous mechanism with connected parts: outcomes-based and leading to change in working lives that can be seen and felt by both individuals taking part and the organisation around them. Organisations have had to be agile like never before and this agility only springs from employees with the right capabilities including, critical thinking, learning agility and a growth mindset.

defence training
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The pandemic has accelerated some existing trends that will allow the outcomes model to become dominant, overcoming some of the barriers involved with tracking and assessing training impact. That includes the rise of remote working and learning; the familiarity with micro-learning online; and with greater use of data analysis of work roles and performance. Employee learning in some organisations was already integrated into the ‘flow of work’ but over the last year, this has become the reality for almost all organisations and employees. Rapid adaptation and learning agility have become the have become the hallmarks for those that have stepped up to the mark and others are rapidly trying to learn the lessons from these pathfinders. There is also a burning platform for defence organisations to be thinking ahead in terms of the capabilities and skills that will be needed to meet the ‘future of work’ challenges.

Digital environments will be fundamental to taking an outcomes-focused approach. They allow for more tailored emulations and simulations of actual workplace situations for immersive, richer learning experiences. Better understanding of the nature and parameters of work roles means data analysis can be used for assessment and to provide support tools in real-time. Rather than based on single events and courses, learning can take place in flexible forms through on-demand content in micro or longer forms to suit work routines. Learners as consumers with ownership over their choices and ability to dip in and out of different packages of external and in the workplace education.

Focusing on outcomes is also a way to address one of the major barriers to effective L&D – making sure employees care about what they are learning about. When there is transparency and attention to the results of training there can be a virtuous circle of employees who are aware of the impact on them personally, of improved capability, a better experience at work, more possibilities for career progression and so a greater commitment and personal investment into learning. The approach makes for a culture of learning – where people are conscious and capable ‘learners’ – and make a habit of sharing their knowledge with people around them.

More defence sector professionals are having more than one career – want to or need to. In the armed forces there is now active encouragement for personnel who left after their 30s to return in their 50s, bringing their experience alongside new knowledge and skills they’ve picked up in business.

Transforming learning needs sympathetic handling, making sure monitoring is non-intrusive and data is only used for insight and support

As a model, anything that involves monitoring performance and behaviours can start to look like a ‘Big Brother’ initiative. So transforming learning needs sympathetic handling, making sure monitoring is non-intrusive and data is only used for insight and support. Again, learners benefit most when they are allowed to behave more like consumers, choosing to benefit from opportunities, when and how. But there is a citizenship dimension in learning too. The sense of collective effort – the difference that individuals make as part of a team, as well as the overall impact of organisations – is an important part of the story.

The emphasis on digital environments and work-based learning shouldn’t replace the need for time away from desks, space for reflection, peer-to-peer sharing of experiences and networking. In the development of any L&D programme, there needs to be honesty about where the value is really coming from: is the formal learning incidental to what’s going to come from being away from desks, meeting people with different backgrounds and ideas?

The pandemic recovery period has become filled with organisations and sector bodies talking about the opportunity for change, making a fresh start. But genuine change can only be realised by people with new and different mindsets and capabilities.

Professionals need to be helped in ways that encourage them to give more of themselves when they are learning; for that to happen, organisations need to make a new commitment to linking learning to outcomes.

Dr Simon Harwood, Director of Defence and Security, Cranfield University, www.cranfield.ac.uk; and Rachel Kay, Learning Consultant & Client Management Director, Capita, www.capita.com