Written by Matt Gilbert, strategy director at Fenturi

The skills gap in the UK is growing. It’s easy to let this knowledge fade into the background given the current climate, but the Covid-19 pandemic is actually one of the key reasons it’s becoming more pronounced than it has been in modern times.

Even the furlough scheme is set to cause the gap to widen. Last month the Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the scheme until March 2021 which will mean at that point a substantial portion of the UK’s workforce will have been out of work for a full year. There’s no doubt this will have a significant impact on employee development and therefore the skills gap as a whole.

Now is the time for businesses to utilise the most effective learning and development techniques at their disposal to ensure currently active and furloughed staff continue their professional development.

Rote & recall

It’s therefore worrying that so many UK businesses still rely on the Victorian learning model of rote and recall which sees employees memorise facts before their level of understanding is assessed solely by their ability to recall them.

There are instances where this is a perfectly acceptable form of learning – take learning the alphabet, multiplication tables or the periodic table. However, it’s key that companies realise that recall isn’t the only element of learning, and like the examples above, it’s the application of the facts and the ability to interpret them in every day scenarios that is most critical.

In truth, if employees can recall the information given to them during cyber security training, for example, but three weeks later are the cause of a data breach, then the learning process wasn’t successful. The approach also doesn’t support the agility modern businesses need to survive. While some may expect employees to remember and act on knowledge acquired for the rest of their career, content may be completely irrelevant one year on. In a world that innovates at such a rapid rate, skills have a shelf-life and the Victorian learning model doesn’t react to that fact. In that sense, the outdated Victorian rote and recall model means many companies are failing to fully engage employees in their professional development and achieving limited value from L&D programmes.

Driving activate participation

Exactly how business should view L&D is up for debate, but I agree with Katharina Wittgens, business psychologist and managing director at Innovationbubble, who believes that learning should be less like a school textbook and more like a travel guide.

Think about the inherent excitement you feel in the build-up to a holiday, the endless possibilities of attractions you can visit and the unexpected highlights you might stumble across while exploring. Now consider how that excitement would diminish if you were instead given an itinerary of places you had to visit and didn’t have the freedom to explore the destination yourself. You’d certainly become disenfranchised with the experience and may even question the worth of holidaying at all as you’d become a passive traveller, rather than actively enjoying the experience. The same is true of learning.

Instead of telling employees they’re going to learn X, Y and Z, businesses should encourage employees to explore the subject at hand like they would a city they’ve never visited before. Give the learner the freedom to find out what’s around this corner to acquire knowledge that resonates with them. Curiosity is key to learning and is inherent in us all, so provide employees with the learning map and let them explore it in a way that suits their needs. Allow them to be an active participant in their own development, rather than a passive bystander.

Changing the perception of learning

To create active participants, businesses should step away from traditional learning techniques and embrace the full potential of digital learning. In a classroom setting, employees are reliant on instructors and their experience, while the differing capabilities of each team member isn’t taken into consideration. If you’re focusing on cyber security for example, you’re likely to lose the interest of those who are already proficient in the area or have been through the module previously. Similarly, less experienced members of the team will feel left behind if content is pitched at too high a level.

It comes back to the travel guide idea and the importance of allowing employees to choose their own path. Providing them with a suite of digital learning modules to engage with at their own pace will cause them to lean in and explore what’s available. Team members can take the time to focus on areas they need to strengthen without spending an hour or more in a classroom re-treading old ground just to tick a box. That time would be much better spent adding value to the business or developing a new skill they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access.

This approach will also drive discussion and knowledge sharing. Once curiosity is piqued and the workforce is engaged, colleagues focusing on similar areas of learning will naturally discuss interesting content, recreating classroom debates in a much more natural setting.

In with the new

In 2020 the Victorian rote and recall model isn’t fit for purpose as a stand-alone approach to learning. Of course, now more than ever budgets are coming under extreme pressure but this approach doesn’t need to break the bank. Businesses can curate existing and free content for certain topics. This frees up budget for the creation of ‘travel guide’ style learning experiences that empower employees to take control of their own learning. It might require a little more trust, but giving them the hunger to learn will ultimately deliver a stronger return on investment. It’s this type of approach that will help to future-proof your company and the workforce, by providing them with the digital tools they need to succeed, acquire new skills and truly thrive in the L&D process.