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How HR Can Leverage AI for Effective Learning and Development

Written by:

Mark Stewart is the in-house Certified Public Accountant, an accomplished author and financial media specialist.

Reviewed by:

As a seasoned HR professional with over 20 years of experience, Keca is an expert in various aspects of Human Resources.

How HR Can Leverage AI for Effective Learning and Development

How HR Can Leverage AI for Effective Learning and Development

In the rapidly evolving world of human resources and learning & development (L&D), professionals are continuously seeking insights into how digital trends and artificial intelligence (AI) are shaping the future of their fields.

David James, a seasoned expert in L&D, shares his comprehensive views on the pivotal trends affecting digital learning, the instrumental role of AI in enhancing skills mapping, and the critical importance of aligning learning initiatives with organizational needs. Through an in-depth discussion, David illuminates the challenges and opportunities presented by digital learning platforms, the transformative potential of AI in closing skills gaps, and the strategic imperatives for HR professionals to foster a culture of continuous learning.

This interview delves into the nuances of L&D strategies, offering valuable perspectives for HR and L&D practitioners aiming to navigate the complexities of digital transformation and AI integration in their organizations.

Digital L&D Evolution and AI Impact on HR

HR – What are the key trends in digital learning for HR professionals, and how do you see AI shaping L&D within HR in the near future?

David – The most important thing is knowing that trends come and go. Often, we get seduced by the new and novel way of delivering content, and that’s failed for 25–30 years. Nothing sticks, and it doesn’t stick because we’re attracted to the ways of delivery and not to the impact that it could receive. So, the most important thing when looking at trends is asking, “How is this going to deliver the planned results that my organisation needs today?” That doesn’t mean engagement, either. Again, over 25–30 years, the trouble that online or digital learning has had is notoriously low engagement. That goes to the root of the real problem — L&D isn’t solving real problems.

We’re trying to provide learning. However, in the digital age we live in, there is better stuff available at our employees’ fingertips than we often provide inside our organisations. So that leads us to the trends. The most important trend is that we plan to make the impact that our organisations and employees need. The way that we do that is by analysis. It’s getting enough information to understand the problems, know that they are the problems, and, most importantly, understand those problems from the perspectives of the people we’re trying to influence.

Now, when we do this, we’ll find that we don’t rely on huge, top-down, one-size system implementations and programs because if we know the problems, we will know that that’s not the solution. But the problem is, in the absence of knowing, everything looks like a solution. So, we’ll go for AI, AR, and VR, or we’ll go for microlearning — everything looks like a plausible solution.

Going back, we need to understand the major requirements of our organisation. It could be small, like helping to prepare people for the job they’re expected to do today. It could be broader. There’s a larger industry trend around skills at the moment, and that’s because entire economies are struggling to develop the skills required for the economies to grow. That’s being keenly experienced in particular industries and, therefore, organisations. So, L&D needs to understand those skills gaps and then step up (not to provide more learning, but to help close those skills gaps). It will come as no surprise that it starts with analysis and understanding your organisation’s current level of capability and skills vs. what’s required — and then bridging that gap.

What I am seeing, and which I’m hugely encouraged by, is AI being used in skills mapping, not just inside organisations, but instantly benchmarking entire skill sets for job roles and functions across entire industries. With it, you can immediately see the expectations and proficiency levels in any discipline. In talking to industry figures in L&D, I’ve seen that this can help to do 90% of the work required on the analysis with a stakeholder to understand the skills required in a job, the proficiency levels, and the critical skills. That then kick starts the conversations around skills assessment. So, learning and development come into a conversation from a place of knowing, and then we can start planning with our initiatives to close those skills gaps.

AI is going to help us truly appreciate that less is more. If we look at the pre-AI era, we used to buy huge platforms full of content for every single situation that we could imagine, and that’s because we provided learning. We wanted to make sure that if we had 100,000 employees, our 10 million pieces of content must, by all logic, provide something for everybody. Now, where that falls is none of that content speaks to anybody’s job in your organisation, servicing your customers, addressing your processes, systems, technologies, or anything related to what your business does. It’s generic content, largely.

If, within seconds, we can provide people with guidance and support to do what they’re trying to do in the context of their organisation, then we don’t need those huge libraries of content that have always been a massive distraction. We are so close now. When we say we are so close, ChatGPT has been trained on an enormous amount of credible data that can help us with 95% of the situations that we provide to it. Imagine that’s your organisation’s IP. Imagine that plugged into your knowledge base, your documentation. Anytime that we engage experts in dialogue about how to do things at our organisation that also feeds that database, we are not far from creating bots that guide and support people to do exactly what they’re expected to do without the waste and the inefficiency around going through largely generic, off the shelf content, looking for small bits of gold that may or may not impact their work. This is potentially revolutionary and just around the corner for learning and development. The only thing holding us back is the speed at which vendors can provide it, and then the organisation’s security and IT teams recognise that that is secure enough for L&D to progress. 

Then, I believe L&D will be putting the guardrails up, like when playing ten-pin bowling. Those guardrails ensure that people far less skilled hit the pins and have more fun. Putting the guardrails up at work means that people hit the pins and achieve what they’re in the organisation to do until they gain confidence in their surroundings and their ability. That’s when the guardrails come down, and people can hit the pins with a more sophisticated approach to their work. That is where L&D integrates with the work and provides these notoriously small teams in learning and development with the tools they need to make the planned and meaningful impact they’re expected to make. I think we have to believe in that because we are too small, and we think that our impacts can’t be large enough unless we have these large-scale systems and programs that, through decades of experience, cannot lead to meaningful change or even much return on investment, if any at all.

Cultivating Learning Cultures

HR – How can HR lead in fostering continuous learning cultures at work?

David – We have to extend that ourselves. We don’t just want people to grow. We want a more capable workforce that’s going to stay with us and achieve what they want to within our organisation. What we’ve got to do for learning and development is step into their world and see what’s missing.

They’ve got vast libraries of content that don’t speak to the work that they do. We’ve told them that there’s no such thing as a job for life and career paths because the nature of work has changed, but we still expect them to learn continuously. You can skills map in seconds in your organisation, but the other side of that is career paths. So, if what you’re showing people is how to master their current role (which means they will also become more marketable to the outside world because it’s externally benchmarked), then you can point the way to adjacent roles (all the possible roles that they can have) as well.

Then, ensure your L&D provision helps people do what they’re expected to do or what they want to do concerning those roles. You’re providing them with not only direction but knowledge, know-how, and insights on how to be successful at your organisation, making sure that culture is connected to the technical aspect. 

After that, you deliver on the promise. So, what is that promise? If people prepare and prove themselves to be more capable, they’ll be given greater opportunities in your organisation. But here’s the big thing. There needs to be an understanding and trust between hiring managers and people within the organisation.

I’ve always found it tricky. A short while ago, I was talking to an HRD who said they have enormous turnover in their organisation, but they also disproportionately hire more people from the outside than inside. I said, “Are you not seeing that this is the same problem, that if people can’t see that they can get on, they’re going to use your organisation in the same way you think you’re using their labour?”

You need to invest to ensure that your people feel they’re being developed for future roles, not just for general development, and that hiring managers can trust that there is a deeper, richer talent pool within your organisation. Those who understand the culture are at an advantage over the people who don’t.

This is all the stuff that doesn’t happen in organisations. We need to stop talking about continuous learning for the purpose of learning — which is an endless walk in one direction — to one in which people are laser-focused on developing themselves to improve their prospects within our organisation because they trust that there will be those opportunities. L&D needs to look inside and understand the problem. What’s the map of our terrain, and how do we ensure that people’s development is focused on deepening our bench strength and improving their prospects?

It does need the buy-in and the belief that that’s what we want to do (grow our people so they feel they can improve their prospects). The interesting thing about that is that if you truly understand the problems you’re trying to fill in your organisation and you’re truly trying to empower your people so that they can improve, you’ll be looking for the most efficient way to do that. You won’t be looking for them to spend 8–10 hours on top of their job in order to grow. You’ll be looking at how you can bake as much development and growth into their job and then provide them with the most efficient ways of growing.

But when you don’t understand the problem, and they don’t understand where they’re going, then you want them to spend as much time as they possibly can to try to justify or show that they are doing something. I use this phrase that in the absence of knowing the problem, everything looks like a solution, so we’re just grasping.

Now, with the tools that we have available to us and with enough success stories to show the way, we can do this from the ground up, team by team or initiative by initiative, and we can educate our organisations in the art of what is possible. But if we’re waiting for permission, we’ll never get it because too many people like the way that it’s done right now. They like the time away from work to go on a course. They’re bought into the idea of sending someone on a course, and by osmosis, they’ll come back a better version of themselves somehow.

There’s this conspiracy of convenience, but we need to look at the history of our profession to see that in the last 25 years, unless training is manual or repeatable work and not knowledge work, the chances of it delivering results if it doesn’t reflect the workplace are almost zero. We need to reorientate to understand and solve real problems rather than create plausible arguments about one-size-fits-all solutions that we think will make a difference. But the only difference it makes is leaving our budgets a lot smaller and our credibility far lessened at the same time. However, we can and have to change from inside our profession.

Skills for L&D Careers

HR – What skills do you recommend for those entering L&D through HR?

David – I think that HR and L&D skills are slightly different. When I speak to HR people who have moved over into L&D, I find that they’re often more equipped because they consult with the business without thinking that there’s got to be a learning solution at the end. It benefits an HR person to truly understand the problem. Those skills are absolutely critical. When you transfer over to L&D, don’t be scared if it doesn’t look like a solution that you recognise at the end of it, but consult to understand what is going on in the organisation and seek the evidence so that you can validate and back up what you believe that to be.

Whether it’s skills, an approach, or data and evidence-based practice, it’s a solid foundation for HR and L&D. Without it, we’ll continue going ’round in circles, and, as I mentioned before, everything looks like a solution.

For learning and development, a product mindset (product management or product development) would really help because you’ll seek data to understand, take an iterative approach to partnering with rather than for the people that you’re seeking to influence, and then measure your product or its success based on what you learn in the analysis phase.

Data analytics will help, too. Again, it goes back to the very core. I would say that comfort and confidence around AI are the cherry on top of the cake. It is not the cake. If you understand the problem and you understand the employees, then you should seek the most efficient ways of helping them, and I think that AI tools can really help us do that.

Additional skills can also help. Organisational savvy will help HR and L&D as well so that we understand how to develop political capital in our organisations and know how to spend that wisely to get more resources to get the right stuff done. 

Effective L&D Content

HR – What are your tips for HR in creating impactful L&D content?

David – The inconvenient truth is that when you know what the problem is, the solution can be really small, thin, and agile, and it can be as simple as a process flow or a piece of simple instruction. When we don’t know what the problem is, we look for long, elaborate, engaging, interactive solutions to try to keep people to the end of something that they wouldn’t see the value in or stay to the end anyway.

The only thing I would say, and this builds on the work of Dr Richard Clark, is that the most important element of any learning content is that if it doesn’t replicate the working environment or experience, it must be almost identical. If it doesn’t, there is almost zero chance of transfer. It’s the near-far transfer theory that was published in 1985.

L&D Metrics

HR – What metrics are crucial for HR to measure L&D success?

David – The first is the average tenure in HR or the tenure of people in our organisations, especially those who seem to be leaving within six and twelve months of joining. This is a huge cost to the organisation, and whatever is causing it needs to be addressed or accepted. Many organisations find it hard to fully accept that speed-to-competence ratio (how long it takes for people to be up and running and achieve what they’re expected to do within any given organisation).

Internal mobility is another metric, especially vs. external hires. That speaks to the very purpose of the learning and development team. It’d be interesting to see how much L&D costs an organisation, both in terms of the staff it hires, the cost of its solutions, and how much it costs to remove people from their work to engage in learning solutions. It would be good to see how that equates to the savings of internal mobility vs. external hires. I bet that ratio is out of sync, and there should be questions about how successful a learning and development team is.

You could also have something around employee engagement, whether that be through engagement surveys inside an organisation or looking at your employees’ reviews on sites like Glassdoor. Whenever friends of mine have applied for a job and looked at Glassdoor, everything they ignored before accepting the job was said on Glassdoor. There is a lot more truth in there than organisations and even potential employees are willing to admit at any time. Those things there are really powerful.

Another important thing to look at is what we are doing with our top talent (those recognised as top performers in our organisation). When are they leaving us? Are they leaving us as top talent as they’re recognised? How many of them are staying in a job for over two years after being rated top talent? How many are at least on our talent bench? There are a lot of questions about whether talent is leaving, whether it’s in a role too long, and whether we are maximising those. 

Then, there are other things. Whenever stakeholders invite us to engage in more bespoke initiatives, our measures of success should be their KPIs, no question. If they aren’t their KPIs, I don’t think the right analysis level has been done, and then we get down to silly metrics like whether people showed up and stayed to the end.

Personal Growth in HR

HR – How do you approach your own development in the L&D and HR field?

David – It’s hugely important to me. My job is to understand what’s happening in L&D and its application in organisations. On LinkedIn, there’s signal and noise. I’m looking for the key themes there.

If we take something like generative AI (which we’ve all needed to pay attention to), I’m subscribed to ChatGPT Pro. I’m also watching people like Ross Stevenson and Donald Clark talking about AI, so that expands what I expect from it, and then I’m utilising the tool, actually rolling my sleeves up.

I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts to understand what’s going on in our profession. Then, I speak with practitioners to understand the gritty reality, and that is my job.

But what is important, and whether you want to call it a growth mindset, curiosity, or just an open mind, is that regardless of how I might be considered in the market, I will always profess to not knowing. I don’t know far less than I do know. Whenever you hear scientists or physicians being interviewed, they’ll say, “What do we not know about the universe? There is far more that we will never know.” I love the humility that comes with education. I will never know everything, but the more I speak to people and roll my sleeves up, the more I am optimistic about our profession. The more I’m willing to have my opinions and expertise challenged, the more useful I will be to my employer, to our profession as L&D, and everything else.

It’s good for your mental health to recognise you’ve done brilliantly to get this far and to leverage your strengths. Still, you need to have humility to know that you don’t know everything, that things are changing in our profession, and that it’s for the better or perhaps for us to tread carefully.