Impact! Creating the L&D Playbook for the Digital Age

Brandon Carson

Director of Learning at Delta Air Lines

Learning Objectives

The digital age has created a massive increase in the speed and complexity of business, fundamentally disrupting the workplace. As new technology is integrated, workers at all levels need to re-skill and navigate more complex systems and processes. The corporate learning function is in a unique position to lead the transformation required in workplace learning, but first, it must transform how it operates. In this session, Brandon walks through a new playbook for L&D in the digital age.

Key Takeaways:

  • Learn about the three forces of change that are transforming training

  • Take away practical ideas for how to formulate a new playbook for L&D

  • Gain a deeper understanding of how new technologies are altering the learning landscape for today’s (and tomorrow’s) worker

"We need to focus on designing and developing a learning ecosystem that aligns with the corporate values and how their workforce gets their job done."

Brandon Carson

Director of Learning at Delta Air Lines


Hi, all. It’s great to be here today. I’m Brandon Carson, the director of learning at Delta Airlines. My 25 year career in learning spans the tech industry as well as aviation. I lived in Silicon Valley for most of my life, but now, I reside in Atlanta and work for Delta.

A couple years ago, I wrote a book called Learning in the Age of Immediacy: Five Factors for How We Connect, Communicate, and Get Work Done. It focuses on the impact the digital age is having on business and L&D. Today’s discussion is an extension of the topics I cover in the book. The digital age has created a massive change in how we live and work. It is dramatically altering the construct of our societies. It has exponentially increased the speed and complexity of business, and is fundamentally transforming how we work.

In today’s discussion, I’m going to talk about the digital transformation that’s occurring, its impact on our businesses, and how I feel L&D should we imagine itself to better lead people development strategies for the digital age. I’ve also gathered together a document that I’m calling a playbook for corporate L&D for the digital age. I’m going to give you access to that playbook so we can collectively construct it and use it as we go forward in our learning strategies.

There are really three forces of change that are driving the digital age. The first is globalization. Global access to markets and talent has altered business operations. Supply chains have become much more efficient increasing volume and turnaround. Pre COVID-19, the worldwide interconnectedness of goods, services, capital, people, data, and ideas has produced undeniable benefits. But during the pandemic, we have seen the risks of interconnectedness into the public consciousness.

We first saw the shattering of factories in China affecting almost every business owner, with 72% of facilities that produce pharmaceutical ingredients located outside the US. We saw our ability to get medicine here in the US impacted severely. Globalization will be rethought for sure, but it’s doubtful the pandemic will be the end of globalization. We may have more debate and discussion over border walls decoupling from China, trade wars, populist, nationalism, and heightening of the tech competition that’s going on now between the US and China, but it’s probably certain that globalization is here to stay.

The second factor of the three that are driving the digital age is really around demographics. Multiple generations are working side by side in companies, creating a unique talent development challenge for many companies. In some works, there are even up to five generations that make up the workplace. In 2016, a third of the US workforce turned to age 50 or older. This represents about 115 million workers, and 10,000 of them are retiring every day. Again, when we look at the age of the pandemic, in some respects that we’re in now, we’ll have to see how this accelerates that brain drain from our companies, if you will.

The third force driving the digital age is technology. A more integrated global economy affects almost every business system, and reconfigured work processes influence how the work gets done. Almost every business is now evaluating their technology systems from back to front, seeking efficiency enhancements and optimization of internal processes. One key question is, how does COVID-19 affect corporate technology and its initiatives? We can see almost every country has been impacted by the virus, but all countries are at different stages with the pandemic.

The first notable impact in many companies on our IT orgs is due to the budget and resource challenges. Reducing budgets and allocating resources to focus on business continuity is more than likely the key focus for technology organizations now. That doesn’t necessarily preclude the need for IT to scale and quickly. We, at Delta, moved rapidly to support virtual collaboration tools during the pandemic. In over two months, Microsoft has seen over two years of technology adoption occur. So I would argue that work processes are being reconfigured quite rapidly, and many of those will stick as well.

I really love this quote from the McKinsey Global Institute, “The reality is the next five years will be more disruptive to corporate learning than the last fifty. Workplace automation, the exit of the baby boomers and the fight for talent and resources will be unlike any we have ever seen. We’re in the middle of the largest scale job transition since the Industrial Revolution.” According to McKinsey in this quote, 375 million workers are roughly 14% of the global workforce, mainly to switch jobs as digitization, automation, and AI disrupted the workplace. That means, business and L&D teams together really recognize that we are the architects of the future of work.

In partnership with [Unintelligible], we surveyed 400 L&D professionals and found out that 30% of organizations have a formal future of work plan, 31% have an informal plan, and only 13% have no plan in place. In this survey, 31% said they plan to add artificial intelligence and machine learning to personalize learning in the next few years. AI and machine learning can contextualize content for learners by providing recommendations based on their individual behavior and preferences. We also found in this survey that 18% of organizations plan to add VR, and 14% plan to add AR in the next few years. AR provides the opportunity for contextual learning, but we need to master new skills and user experience design within our learning organizations to really use this technology at scale.

We have been doing some work at Delta with VR in our division. The mechanics, the technical operations division has been leveraging AR. But when you consider the fact that we have to train folks on our employees on large aircraft, obviously, machinery around the aircraft, it’s really a challenge for us to get access to actual aircraft and a lot of the actual machinery we want to train on. So by leveraging VR and leveraging AR, we’re really able to build very experiential training programs that can simulate the aircraft and a lot of the machinery that we use around the aircraft and what we do. It really affords us the opportunity to bring more authentic training in an environment that’s okay for people to make mistakes in versus the real world if you really don’t want to make mistakes on $200 million airplanes during training. So it’s really a great blend of technology—VR and AR—both for experience with simulations, which is what we’re using them for.

100% of CEOs in this survey from Accenture in January of 2018—I believe there were over 700 CEOs in this survey—100% of them agree that technology will help improve worker capability. The majority of these CEOs are increasing their spending on intelligent technologies such as AI by 60% year over year. Global spending on artificial intelligence is rising, and really doesn’t even in this age of the pandemic, show signs of slowing down. Organizations are expected to continue their investments this year and next year in AI. But 32% of the CEOs that were in this survey are concerned about the availability of key skills as a threat to their business growth. There simply aren’t enough people with the skills businesses need, and that challenge is going to get harder. In spite of this, however, only 3% of those CEOs interviewed said that they were going to significantly increase their investment in training their people.

I think this is one of the biggest CEO gaps or one of the largest problems in some respects that we have in that if businesses keep integrating new technology, which require new capabilities, we’re going to have to invest more in the learning organization or employee training to make sure the workforce can meet the needs of the business as they integrate these technologies and formulate new strategies. This is where we, in L&D, have to start reconsidering our very structure, our very operating strategy, and work more closely with the executives and the folks in the business that are formulating these strategies, so that we can align the employee training to those investments that the businesses are making so that the workforce will be capable to deliver on those digital strategies. It’s a fundamental challenge. Key to that is to really work on preparing our workforces based on the 10 skills required for the future of work. This was published again by the World Economic Forum in 2018.

The basic question is, how do we, in L&D, begin to prepare our workforce to be able to successfully navigate the digital age, as these business investments in these business processes and systems change and evolve as rapidly as they are especially? Our challenge in L&D is if we move too slow in developing these skills in our people, we risk negatively impacting our businesses because our businesses need to stay ahead. If we move too fast, we risk confusing our workers, bringing around more chaos, and challenges with capabilities. So it’s really a fundamental challenge for us in learning to start constructing the playbook, if you will, that will enable the workplace and the workforce to have these capabilities in a way that doesn’t completely overwhelm them and shut them down.

When you factor in the impact that digital transformation is having on business, it’s really hard to defend L&D’s traditional pre digital age model. We really must reorient ourselves for the digital age. Some of the things we’re doing at Delta, I’ll share with you here, really taking the lens on how were things pre digital age, and what are we doing now.

So first, we looked at our training content. We decided we need to move away from focusing on just creating more and more content, and move towards more AI driven learning personalization. We have a pretty broad workforce, if you will, in our division—lots of different age in the demographic, lots of different age groups, lots of different tenure in the company. So it really behooves us to try to drive some personalization to the learning because everyone’s obviously on a different path of where they are right in their understanding and capability. So how do we harness and leverage technology to help drive that personalization in the training, instead of continuing to develop this really generic and formulaic training that meets everyone at a certain point and just makes assumptions about them?

On average, L&D organizations only allocate 8% of their staff time to curating content from existing information sources as well. We spend on L&D the majority of our time just creating more new content. Instead of adding more to the firehose, let’s think about how we can leverage more technology to really reduce that firehose, if you will. This is where we need to uplevel our skills in digital technologies. When you think about artificial intelligence, when you think about the cloud, when you think about data, and putting those three together to drive that personalization, that’s where you will get better learning and improved interventions. Once we identify what is a better learning activity for a specific outcome, then we leverage technology to make that activity more available, reliable, affordable, data rich, and personalized.

We can really start thinking differently about almost everything we do, and move away from being content factories to really driving more personalization through understanding the data and the technology, as well as deep deep information about a context our workers fulfill their tasks. We also need to move away from bad data or no data to be more informed by the data we gather. I don’t like to say that I’m data driven in our learning organization, but I do like to say our learning organization is data informed. The evidence gathered within learning environments really needs to improve in both quality and density.

Historically, when it didn’t matter that a low fraction of learners reached mastery of complex content, the evaluation of how learners were doing didn’t matter much either. Whoever was left were the ones meant to be left. Now that we can link business outcomes directly to workforce performance, we need accurate and frequent indications of where each performer is on that path to mastery where the issues are, so that we can intervene sooner before they get so far off that path to mastery that it’s too impossible for them to regain. This means our evidence gathering, which is really likely less and less about assessments, and more and more about data collected around practice, feedback, and interactions has to become more frequent and more accurately tied to what experts decide and do, which brings validity and reliability to what you’re training to.

We need to focus on designing and developing a learning ecosystem that aligns to the corporate values and how their workforce gets their job done. Learning environments and the evidence from them need to be more systematically designed for long term success. We should be repeatedly connecting with evidence, what top performers are deciding and doing. What does it really mean for experiences to be engaging, and how is that accomplished? Engaging experiences need to be high quality, convenient, and always adding value. High quality means it should provide rich, error free experiences and content. Convenient means it’s accessible anytime, anywhere on any device. Lastly, adding value means providing content that will help the learner succeed.

Technology enables this by being reliable, effective, and scalable. It collects and analyzes activity to determine how to continuously improve the learning experience. It must be responsive, relevant, and data enabled. The reason I say ecosystem here is because there’s not one tool that can do everything you need to do, you will have more than just the LMS in your ecosystem as you go forward.

We need to reorganize and rescale our teams. We need to take a stronger perspective and organizing our teams, and even where we sit in the corporate structure to align to the needs of the business as it applies to the changing work models and practices. We need to make sure our teams are focus on the right areas that provide the most impact, and move away from taking orders to having more of a focused perspective on what we need to do to improve performance. This is that old story of trying to move from the shared service order taking model or the cost center model, if you will, and repositioning ourselves in the enterprise to be more visible, but also show where impact really can help workplace performance.

We need to ensure learning teams, consistent learning professionals, and specialized skill sets required to build learning products that leverage technology and instructional integrity to truly change behavior. We need new roles on our teams around data analytics, AI expertise, user experience, and potentially software engineering.

This is really a call to action for all learning and development organizations as your enterprises move more aggressively into the digital age, and as more and more expectation is placed upon the workforce, there is one true guarantee over the next several years is that work will not get less complex, if anything, it’s going to get much more complex. Every worker at every level will be interacting and engaging with technology to get their job done. So truly, we are the ones in the organization, the L&D group, we are the ones that will be accountable and responsible for helping the workforce be able to execute on the strategy.

So what I’d like to do, I’ve started a document at this URL, and I do apologize for the OneDrive link. That’s kind of hard to decipher. Maybe you can take a photo of this, or if you email me, I can send you the link to it. But I’d really like you to join me and other learning industry colleagues as we collectively construct this playbook for corporate L&D for the digital age. I’ve put together some thinking that I have in this playbook. I’d like to see what you can contribute to the playbook. Even if you don’t contribute, if you just take something from it, that’s great as well. On that link, if you can copy that link, you can access the document, or again, like I said, just go ahead and email me at this email, and then I’ll give you a link to the playbook.

The idea here is that, collectively, we’ll work on this together and figure out the truth to our call to action is how do we reformulate L&D to prepare the workforce for the digital age. This is really a moment, unlike any other in the history of corporate learning, where we really need to rise to the occasion.

I really thank you for listening to me. I look forward to having more engagement with you. I know you can ask questions in this zoom. If you have any questions, please feel free. Feel free to email me. Again, I’ll connect you to the collective document we’re working on together for the playbook for L&D for the digital age. Thank you.

Get full Q/N Access

Sign up to Q/N with a few details to watch this presentation.

  • Hidden
  • Hidden