The Future Has Already Begun

A collaboration between the IITD, DCU Business School, Trainers’ Learning Skillnet and Skillnet Ireland has seen the production of this vital piece of research conducted over 12 months by Professor David Collings and Dr John McMackin. Published here is an edited version of the key take-aways from the report, of which the full version can be downloaded HERE. This article first appeared in the IITD quarterly member magazine.


By Prof David Collings & Dr John McMackin



There is little doubt that workforce development and lifelong learning should be at the core of understanding and meeting the future skills requirements of Irish industry. This will form the heart of economic and social stability over the coming decades. And charged with developing an adaptable model of training excellence to deliver this agenda will be the learning and development (L&D) profession. This is a challenging ask for the L&D profession, and to date, there has been a dearth of evidence-based guidance for those seeking to meet this challenge.  



However, the reality is that in the current environment, L&D leaders do not have the luxury of devoting their resources or attention exclusively to concerns about the future. Many are already under considerable pressure to meet current skills needs, with organisations facing difficulty sourcing talent not only in critical areas such as engineering, information technology (IT), and finance but also for operational and manual roles.



This research was motivated by a recognition of the need to improve preparedness for the future of work in organisations. For example, some 54% of respondents to a recent Deloitte survey acknowledge that they don't yet have the programmes in place to enable the skills of the future. Worryingly, IBEC’s 2019 HR trends survey confirmed that only 15% of respondents ranked reskilling their working force in their top five HR priorities. While this is perhaps understandable given current pressures, these figures nevertheless are cause for concern. This is especially true in light of the findings in this report that many of the changes often referred to as the ‘future of work’ are, in reality, already happening and having a significant impact. In the words of the Economist Intelligence Unit “The lack of engagement between policymakers, industry, educational specialists and other stakeholders that must inform… [the impact of AI and robotics on employment] is therefore alarming”.



The current environment presents a unique opportunity for L&D to play a leadership role by spearheading organisations’ strategic response to the changing future of work. A key challenge for L&D leaders in this regard is managing the tension between meeting current skills requirements and enabling the workforce of the future. Our research aims to support L&D leaders and professionals in meeting these challenges by providing evidence-based guidance on what is happening and how they can respond.


We set out to explore the role of the L&D function in enabling the workforce of the future with the following questions guiding us:




What changes in the future of work are affecting L&D, and what is the likely impact?

What implications have these shifts for the future of the L&D function structurally and in terms of its relationship to other HR Centers of Excellence (COEs)?

What capabilities are needed by L&D professionals and functions to deliver on the skill requirements of the future of work?

What are the key gaps relative to current L&D capability?

Who are the key stakeholders who need to be aligned?

How should we measure the effectiveness of L&D?



Research methods

Following a thorough literature review, we collected data for this study in three ways.


  • Three focus groups with key stakeholders nationally in Ireland with 16 participants. The objective of these focus groups was to understand the policy and institutional context of the future of work in Ireland and how key national stakeholder groups were thinking about and preparing for the future of work. The three focus groups were:
  • Professional bodies representatives
  • Policy and government representatives
  • Educational and employers representatives


  • 45 in-depth semi-structured interviews with L&D professionals, HR leaders and business leaders in 19 organisations globally. We aimed to build a deep understanding of how organisations are preparing for the future of work and the particular L&D initiatives they are developing and deploying to future proof their workforces. We conducted interviews in sectors as diverse as apparel, the creative sector, food and beverage, logistics, pharmaceutical, professional services, technology, and telecoms. These organisations are headquartered in a number of countries including Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA. Our interviews included CEOs, COOs, CHROs, VPs, Directors and Regional Directors, as well as L&D and HR leads. The interviews were conducted with individuals based in Ireland, Germany, Slovenia, and the USA and many interviewees had global or regional remits.


  • An online survey of IITD members (L&D and HR professionals in Ireland) with 251 responses from with the key intention to validate our initial qualitative findings.




Our findings provided a rich insight into how organisations in general and the L&D profession specifically are preparing for the future of work and identified some rich examples of practice that are very much leading edge in this regard.



The future is happening now, but organisations are slow to adapt

Our empirical data confirmed trends that were evident in the wider literature published on the future of work. Specifically, digitisation, AI and robotics are already having a significant impact on work in many sectors and this trend is expected to increase in pace and intensity in the near term. While predictions vary there seems little doubt that most, if not all, jobs will be affected to some degree, with low skill manual work particularly vulnerable to permanent replacement. While online platforms underpin interesting developments often described as the gig economy, this does not emerge as a core response to the future of work in our study.


Perhaps the most telling finding from the research was how ill-prepared most organisations are for the future of work. Indeed, only four in 10 respondents said that preparing for the future of work was a high or top priority for their organisation and only 30% of respondents were confident of their ability to meet future skills needs. This is a real concern as it is apparent that the future of work is happening now, as opposed to some distant potential scenario. We find real cause for concern that the terminology of the future of work, combined with ongoing pressure to deliver current skills, may be leading many L&D practitioners to delay engaging fully with these critical and current developments. Indeed, the tension between ‘keeping the lights on’ in terms of delivering on short-term business needs, while keeping a watchful eye on the future, was a real challenge for L&D professionals in our research.



The importance of focus and direction


We did, of course, see examples of organisations that were more strategically and deliberately planning for the future of work. Those organisations shared a common characteristic that can be described as a “north star”. We define this as a clear understanding of what they want the outcome of their future of work engagement to be. For instance, one insurance organisation’s response to the future of work response is framed in terms of their commitment to sustainability, and this underpins their commitment to sustaining employment by reskilling the current workforce as changes unfold. This in turn generates positive commitment to the change agenda from their workforce. Another firm in the logistics sector sees automation as a means of creating capacity for employees to improve the customer experience, with the digitisation effort there very much focused on excelling on that critical business objective. Having a north star provides clear direction for organisations’ efforts to enable the workforce of the future.



Establish a skills baseline and future skill needs

Having established their north star, the next priority for many organisations in our study was establishing the skills baseline in their organisations. This reflects a recognition that as work evolves in the future, there is a requirement to shift perspective from a focus on jobs to a focus on skills within organisations. Establishing a skills baseline represents a valuable way of understanding the current capability within the organisation as a means of benchmarking readiness for changing skills requirements coming down the line. Having established this baseline, we saw a number of organisations actively mapping how jobs were likely to evolve in terms of being either automated or augmented by technology and what this meant for skills requirement. For example, an insurance company’s pilot study had identified 15% of jobs at risk from automation with a further 50% being augmented by technology in a five to 10-year window in one region. This brought into focus how automation is shifting skills requirements in that organisation and has formed the basis of their future of work strategy.



The evolution of L&D


We found clear evidence of the changing expectations and demands on the L&D function. Obviously, the shifting nature of skills was one key driver in this regard. However, we also found that an increasing range of employee entry points for many organisations, as employers turn to external hiring for experience and skills in areas such as digital and data analytics not previously available in their organisations, was shifting the demands on L&D. A key example of the impact of this is the emergence of more individualised learning pathways, enabled by increasingly sophisticated learning management systems. We also saw greater use of online learning platforms such as Linkedin Learning as a means of meeting skills needs. Online learning appeared to be particularly valuable in delivering mandatory training in areas such as risk, compliance and induction.


Reflecting the increasing level and pace of change in organisations, the need to adapt and develop new skills at all career stages is also driving a shift towards lifelong learning, and a greater focus on learning in the flow of work. Our research pointed to examples of experiential learning programmes that involve talented employees spending substantial blocks of time away from their core roles, in locations that may span both national borders and the boundaries of the organisation. Obviously, such programmes are usually targeted at people in, or marked out for, relatively senior roles in these organisations. However, such programmes also create tensions between the short-term costs to local units and business lines, where key individuals may be absent from their core roles for extended periods, and the longer-term benefits to the wider organisation.

Adapting to these changes poses challenges not only for employers but also for institutions in the learning and education sectors, as developments such as micro credentials and digital badges threaten to disrupt traditional accreditation models.



The new L&D professional


The level of change happening in work, and related changes in how L&D are being delivered, has significant implications for the skills needed by L&D professionals and teams; expectations of L&D professionals are changing. Our data point to clear growth in the perceived importance of relatively new skills areas such as digital, data analytics and online content development and curation, as well as business and sectoral expertise. However, this growth is not matched by any evident decline in demand for more traditional L&D skills. This means that L&D leaders face important strategic choices about structure and specialisation within their teams, reflecting what L&D skills they feel are core/non-core to their teams. Alignment of the capabilities of the L&D team with the priorities of the business will be a key step in enabling the workforce of the future.



Measuring success and impact


In terms of measurement of the return on investment (ROI) of L&D, in aggregate professionals in this study rate their processes as unsophisticated and ineffective. Over six in 10 respondents rated their approach to measuring ROI as very basic or somewhat basic, while only four in 10 rated the effectiveness of such measures as effective or better. This leads us to conclude that L&D teams continue to struggle with the measuring of the ROI of their investment of L&D. However, we did find some examples of good practice in terms of measuring ROI, including one linking senior leadership development programmes to significant projects within the organisation with real business impact. However, on balance we conclude that the holy grail of systematic measurement of the business impact of L&D appears to be as elusive as ever.



Paving a way forward

In drawing together the insights from our findings, we recommend a six-step process for responding to the future of work.


  1. Establish your north star and communicate it. Key to any strategy around enabling the workforce of the future is having a clear direction for same and ensuring that all stakeholder have a shared understanding of what that north star is.
  2. Establish a skills baseline. The journey to the north star can only begin when the organisation has an evidence-based analysis of the current skills baseline in the organisation. For most organisations this will involve some investment and a dedicated project.
  3. Assess the impact of work changes on your workforce. Having established your baseline skills, it is important to understand how changes in the nature of work is likely to impact on skills demand. In other words, what jobs in the organisation will be displaced and/or by augmented by technology. What will this mean for future skills requirements?
  4. Align L&D team and resources. There is little doubt that the traditional model of L&D will be significantly challenged by the changing nature of work. L&D leaders will need to establish the capabilities required by their team and structure the function in a way which can meet the emerging requirements of their organisations.
  5. Plan and implement. At this stage planning the process, resources and milestones to track progress towards the future vision of L&D is required. This will require time, resources and a focus on project and change management.
  6. Assess and refresh. In moving L&D up the value chain in organisations, effectively measuring the ROI of investments in L&D is key. Such measures combined with ongoing feedback should form the basis for continuous improvement in L&D offerings.




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