The DNA of Work

How is your organisation embracing the future of skills development?

June 06, 2023 Season 1 Episode 48
The DNA of Work
How is your organisation embracing the future of skills development?
Show Notes Transcript

The way we acquire the skills we need is changing - accelerated by the pandemic and the ready availability of guidance and knowledge on social media and through Google searches and YouTube videos. People want to teach themselves and choose the methods that suit them, rather than having their organisation dictate what they should learn. Furthermore everyone seems time starved when it comes to most activities, particularly training, so whatever they do really needs to be specific to their needs and be actionable now.

For the skills that are more difficult to refine through YouTube and quick Google searches, people are turning to VR and augmented reality, to the metaverse and other immersive experiences like business simulations, where we can try things out in a safe way, without the usual embarrassment of the dreaded role play.

Here's a quick overview of the topics in this episode:

  • Making learning actionable (04:57)
  • VR and augmented reality (11:08)
  • Business simulations (17:18)
  • Blended learning approaches (21:02)


Courses (for details / dates please contact AWA Institute Lead Natalia Savitcaia )

AWA Host: Karen Plum


  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate, AWA 
  • Anne Balle, Senior Associate, AWA 
  • Philippa Hale, Senior Associate, AWA 

 AWA Guest details: 


Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

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00:00:00 Karen Plum

Hello there. Have you thought about how many people are doing jobs that just didn't exist when they were born or went to school? The way we get the skills we need is changing - with a move to more experiential learning where you have immersive, realistic experiences and where you learn from your peers just as much as from the experts. 

So why are we heading this way and why do these experiences have such an impact? Let's find out. 

00:00:28 INTRO: Welcome to AWA’s Podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that every one is unique. 

We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the T-shirt, and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work. 

00:00:51 Karen Plum

The way we acquire our skills at work has been changing over many years, but as with so many things, the pandemic has accelerated that change, and now requires us to be smarter about how we equip people, or indeed how they equip themselves with the skills and the experiences that will make a real difference to their job success. 

There are many people who seem to be clinging to the belief that it's best to have people in the office to observe their senior colleagues and how they work, in order to learn how to do the job. 

Other people continue to send people on training courses where you have to, kind of, turn up in person and maybe the most you can hope for is that people remember some of what they learned for a while, but in all likelihood, they're probably going to forget most of it within a week or two. 

So given the hybrid world that we're now in, I want to see how organizations are adapting their approach to equipping people with the skills that they need to do their work, not just in a remote or a virtual way, but how they learn about their roles and what's required of them.

So to look at this, I have with me three Senior AWA Associates. All of them work with clients to deliver change and help to equip people with the skills that they need. They are Lisa Whited from the US, Anne Balle from Denmark, and Philippa Hale from the UK. Welcome ladies!

00:02:18 Philippa Hale


00:02:19 Anne Balle

Thanks for having us. 

00:02:21 Karen Plum

So let's get started. And as we often do, let's go back to basics. So we relied on face-to-face training courses for decades. Why do we need to change? Lisa, why do you think? 

00:02:31 Lisa Whited

I mean the world, the world's changed so much. So, you know, it's funny, you just said that to go back into the office, to see the seniors, to learn how to do the job, I mean that reminded me of saying, well, you know, you need to know how a buggy whip works! It's such an old way of thinking. We don't have horse drawn carriages, why do I need to learn that - I need to know how a self-driving car works. 

I mean so, it's just the world has evolved, it's changed. How we learn continues to evolve and change, and we as humans want to evolve and change and grow and develop. So we need to match how we teach people to where we are today. 

One of my all-time favorite Professors at MIT, Seymour Papert, he said, this is back in 2000, he said we've got to think, how are we going to teach people today to do work that we can't even envision in the future? And that mindset is something we just have to continue to lean into. 

00:03:37 Karen Plum

Yeah, but I guess as I hinted in the introduction, those in-person training courses where you went for a day, or for a few days or a week, were they really that effective? Philippa, what's been your experience? 

00:03:52 Philippa Hale

I have seen some incredibly effective face to face courses and those have been when groups of people have come together to learn more generic leadership ways of operating, ways of being, rather than learning practical skills, learning from each other from colleagues and people being there because they want to be there and enthusiastic about contributing, not because it's something they've been told to do and it's being ticked off somebody's box. 

00:04:23 Karen Plum

Right, but this is something that I chose to do and everybody else chose to be there. So there's a different motivation isn't there? 

00:04:30 Philippa Hale

There is and there's very often a special venue - it might be at a Business School, it might be in a corporate venue, which is appreciated and adds value. I mean, we ourselves at AWA have had some tremendous learning experience by going to visit client premises for example and see the impact of work that's been done with a particular client and heard their feedback. That inspires us all to look at projects in new ways and we get insights from each other. 

00:04:57 Anne Balle

I would say one of the things that I experienced and this has probably been the case all the time - but people are really busy, like people’s workloads, what's happening? And that means that when people want to prioritize, when people prioritize time to do some sort of course or something, there just needs to be something very actionable that connects very specifically to people's own specific problems or tasks at work.

Where we have the best kind of courses is when people can come in and they can get takeaways that they can apply on specific stuff they're working on tomorrow and next week - immediate actions and takeaways and not just leveraging the knowledge that the teacher or the instructor has or the consultant, but also leveraging the experience in the room. 

We've got, you know expert peers together - a bunch of interested, engaged group of people. If we can leverage that and they can actually share experiences, share input, share inspiration, that also makes that learning so much richer. And it also makes for a good experience, which is more difficult when we're doing it virtually. It's more difficult to keep that energy than when we're physically in the room. So not just thinking about what are the takeaways and the learnings that we can apply, but also is this a good experience? Do I feel energized? I'm not falling asleep and looking at the time. 

00:06:28 Karen Plum

Certainly my comments weren't to imply that being face to face was a bad thing. I think it's just the nature of obligatory training courses that people were often sent on, where they were sent to, you know, attend for five days and sort of open their brains and have stuff poured in, that they were then supposed to do something with when they got back to the office, and I think very often the experience was that people got back to the office, had no opportunity to implement what they'd learned. 

But I guess the other thing is about value for money, for organizations. Training budgets are often the first things to get cut if we're trying to save money. 

00:07:11 Lisa Whited

One of the things that Anne just said is being able to apply it immediately - what you've learned. The other thing is micro learning. You know, I'm a big fan of micro everything, frankly, micro groups, micro learning. Last night I took a course and I was so excited to take it online. It was 2 hours and I did pay for - but it was my own choice to do that. And what caught my attention a couple of weeks ago when it popped up in my feed is “AI is not going to take your job, but somebody who uses AI will”.

And it was focused on change management and it was brilliant. So well done, a mini skills course at a time I could do. You talked about the energy and this is what's so important. The energy of facilitating a session where people are engaged and we can talk to each other and learn and apply with a very skilled facilitator and I think that in itself is a skill that we need to be sharing more and modeling what that looks like. 

Because even before the pandemic, facilitation of meetings was just like, nobody pays attention to that and people hate meetings because of it. I just think there's so much we can be doing much smarter, much more efficient and we got to lean into that. 

00:08:33 Philippa Hale

You mentioned value for money and this is a huge area the learning and development community has wrestled with forever. Is how do you demonstrate the value that has been delivered because the brain is a very complex organ and the learning process and the emotional engagement process and the acquisition and retention of knowledge, whether that's explicit or tacit is hugely complicated. And the delivering value can happen sometimes many days, weeks, months down the line. It's certainly not going to be represented in a happy sheet at the end of a workshop. 

So my experience of learning that delivers value has been, certainly over the last few years when we've been moving much more towards the use of learning platforms and not just learning being received but also contributing learning back. So social learning asynchronous and synchronous, so a topic gets launched on an interactive learning platform and people can engage with it at their own time. They can say, hey, I saw this great YouTube clip that's relevant to that. 

I mean, a great and very simple example in our case has been the use of Microsoft Whiteboard. Immediately caught people's interest and people have started experimenting, sharing those experiences. It's a very practical skill, and it's also changed some aspects of how we structure some of our workshops. 

I digress, your question was about return on investment. I think the metrics that we use are moving towards how often people engage with these tools and how many views - we're shifting towards similar metrics to some social media platforms. 

Is that reliable in terms of knowledge that's applied back in the organization? Does it tally with, for example, how much more business have we won, or how much more engaged people are at work? How much happier they are with their leaders? Much happier leaders are with their team’s performance, those sort of metrics. It's a tricky one. 

00:10:47 Karen Plum

Yes, absolutely. So I'm interested in what sort of things you're working on in terms of delivering learning, skills, support, all of those sorts of things. I'd like to start with Lisa - I know you've been very interested in the increasing use of VR and augmented reality. 

00:11:08 Lisa Whited

This got my attention at least two years ago, I think PwC put out a report and this like listen to this, this just blew me away. So using VR, virtual reality, VR learners were four times faster to train than in a classroom; they were 275% more confident to apply skills learned after training, with VR training versus traditional classroom; and 3.75 times more emotionally connected to content than classroom learners, than in person; four times more focused than their e-learning peers, so thinking about the e-learning platform. So why this is (and in your in your show notes, let's make sure we share these little YouTube, there's like a 2-minute video about it) of why they were and it makes sense. 

How awkward do people feel, role-playing in front of others, right? It's very uncomfortable, so when I can do VR in the safety of my own home or my own space in the office but private, I can try it. I mean, it's so cool - we're not talking just learning about hard skills, which this is also used for, but soft skills. It makes total sense that you can interact with the VR and the avatar and get feedback. I think it's freaking awesome. And then there's also metaverse for learning, I mean, what can that do? Why wouldn't we? 

Alright, so I mentioned Seymour Papert. In 2000, he came to the state of Maine where I live and at the time you know classrooms K through 12, they did not use any laptops or anything. He was the guy, along with our Governor at the time to get laptops used in classrooms and iPads for learning and at that time imagine that, you know, 23 years ago in a rural state, he stepped in and said, look, it's like would you, I wish I could remember how he said it, but something like a pile of pencils like would you dump out a pile of pencils and say to the kids, OK, everybody gets one and it was the same. It's just another tool for learning. 

At the time, laptops were just another tool for learning, and that's where we're at today. We gotta just be always looking ahead. How are we going to learn? What can we do differently? I'm totally high on this. I'm totally into it. I think it's better than any drug I can imagine. I am excited about what this AI and Metaverse and VR can do for us, yeah! 

00:13:38 Karen Plum

Yeah, I think we've all been in those workshops either on the delivery end or the receiving end where the words role play are spoken and everybody goes, oh, hate role play. 

00:13:48 Lisa Whited

Yeah, eye roll! Eye roll for the role play!

00:13:50 Karen Plum

But you know it's the idea or the, you know, the experience of doing something for the first time in a safe way rather than doing it with the client or the customer or whatever it is. Do you really want that to be the first time you've ever tried it and yet when you've got a sea of faces watching you do it, it's intimidating and you're gonna screw up and feel awful and you know it's not a great experience for anybody. So having those sort of more private places to do this stuff has got to be beneficial, I think. 

00:14:27 Anne Balle

On the other hand, it is a lot of fun asking Brits to role play in a workshop like I do really get my kicks from that sometimes, even though it doesn't, it's not particularly 

00:14:28 Karen Plum

You're an evil person!! Do Danes like doing role play then? 

00:14:47 Anne Balle

No, no, they don't like that either. 

Also, off the back of what Lisa said like we need to unlearn everything we knew before about how to learn stuff. Like, let's start from complete scratch and really question when we do things, why are we doing things? So for example, one thing that I like to think about is if I'm bringing people together at the same time, be it virtual or face to face, why are they there together?

So they're not there to receive information all at the same time - there are a million other ways to do that. When you have people together in a room or virtually at the same time, that's actually extremely valuable - that synchronicity. So why do we have that? What do we want to get out of it? 

So again, that's not for them to sit and listen to me for an hour. We can do that in another way. We can send them a video or send them a transcript or give them something to read that they can do in their own time. When we get people together, what works is again, you know, the sharing of experiences, the talking about yourself and your own context and applying the stuff that you have learnt to that context. Helping each other solve problems, that's where you really get something rich out of that. 

Where is the real value in connecting? And use it in that way and then we can give people stuff to do and in their own time. And that could be, you know, videos or it could be stuff they can read. But I also find that one thing that people really like to have is if we can take all the theory and all the knowledge we have and then translate it into quite simple tools that people can use and apply in their daily work, like all the time, thinking about - how could I change to take all this knowledge and transform it into a tool that can help people do what they need to do. Because then again it becomes something that's very applicable and usable, not something theoretical and high level, but something I can use to actually solve the problems that I'm working on tomorrow and next week and I can share it with people. 

00:16:53 Karen Plum

So if we're going to bring people together, let's not waste it by just dumping stuff on them and expecting them to retain it and do something with it. It's a nice intro to the business simulations that you run, Phillipa, because those are really highly immersive, that's the whole thing, isn't it? Involving people in a particular scenario or situation. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

00:17:18 Philippa Hale

Yes, totally. I mean drawing on everything that’s been said so far about when you bring people together, there needs to be a very clear purpose, and that is not receiving information from a subject matter expert, but living and breathing situations and solving problems together; and also getting emotional support from people, the non-intellectual side of being together. 

I've been running business simulations for the last 20 plus years and they were regarded as something incredibly innovative when they came out, and actually I think they still have the wow factor. They are opportunities for people to get together and work together on a business situation, at a slight distance from their day-to-day, but it's close enough for them to be able to feel safe, to make mistakes and it was what Lisa and Anne were saying earlier. If you've got an environment where you can try something out before going live in front of a client or colleagues, then that's incredibly powerful.

And then you add a fun factor. So for example, the gaming works simulations that we're using at the moment, there's the Apollo 13 mission, which of course everybody has heard of and is legendary. Superlative examples of leadership, cross team collaboration, silo busting, continual process improvement, honest, open conversations. Those are the sorts of things that get experienced in these simulations and people have roles and things to do, but it's not role-playing. You're putting them under a slight time pressure, but then you're introducing great ways of working.

So a plan-do-review loop is introduced and the day is organized like that. There are four stages to the simulation and each of those has got a time for planning, when the group has to work out how it's gonna do what it's gonna do; a time for doing; and a time for reviewing. Now how many teams, or how many organizations, have a plan-do-review embedded in their way of thinking? Normally it's do do do. 

00:19:23 Karen Plum

Yeah, do it faster. Do it faster. 

00:19:25 Philippa Hale

And ever faster. So the structure of the simulation itself brings in some great work practices which transfer very well. And what you do during the review sessions, is you ask people to think about what they've just experienced and the way they've acted. Did they get angry? Did they get upset? Did they miss things? Did they prepare well enough? Are there any parallels with what's going on back in their real world? 

And it feels safe at that point to say, you know what? There actually is. You know, we don't, we don't stop and review our processes. People are frustrated and tired with the way things are being done but they're resigned to it. They don't, you know, they've given up trying to make changes. 

So in the simulation, in the round that then follows - so well, in our next planning session, let's change the process and see how it works, see what the improvements are. And you get that physical, felt experience of something going wrong and then it going better as a result of what you've actually done. And I think that that is so powerful. 

00:20:32 Karen Plum

Business simulations are one way of doing things. VR, metaverse, something else, before we get there, we have slightly less technologically sophisticated alternatives, which are also quite successful and powerful, like a blend of some video content with some in-person albeit virtual, working together type sessions. That's something that we're doing in one of our change management courses - Anne. 

00:21:02 Anne Balle

Absolutely. We put together a course on workplace change management that I'm quite excited about. And one of the things that I like about using the blended learning approach to this is you know, I always feel like when we have workshops or courses or whatever, we just never have enough time with people. And that's because we want to give them so much information. It's like I just want these people to know everything that I know. Now! They need to know now!

And how can I do that cause I can’t, but again, you know basically what we've done is we've - as you know, because you guys have all been part of that - but basically just downloaded everything we had on our brain in the form of a bunch of videos with all the knowledge that we'd like to give people about workplace change. They can watch it, listen to it at their own, you know, when they feel like it, at their own pace, in their own time or not, if they don't want to.

But it's there, it's optional. You can get it if you want to. The content is there, you can listen to it while you're gardening or doing the laundry or whatever. And then again when we then do get these cohorts together, so we have a number of cohort sessions where we get people together, the focus there is again on peer learning. It's on connecting the stuff that people might have learned in the videos to the specific issues that they're working on. And we know when we work with people within real estate, within workplace, they ask us constantly - what are the others doing? What are the others struggling with? And that's what they want to know. 

So we give them a place where they can connect with each other. They can find out, oh, we're not the only one struggling with this. Oh, get inspiration from the way others are doing it and again connecting it specifically to their context, talking about their problems, solving their problems with other peers. 

We're still there. It's not like we left the room or anything, so we're still there to basically have a big meeting of experts, working specifically on solving their specific problems so that they can go out after that session and then straight away they can do some stuff that they couldn't do before and they can do their work better because at the end of the day that's what a lot of people wanna do. They just wanna really generate value in their work and we help them to shine. 

00:23:21 Karen Plum

And I think that's the difference between what we're doing these days and what we used to do 10, 20 years ago. We would run the course to give them all of the information, but then they had to join the dots afterwards. They had to figure out how to deploy that knowledge and skill and when they got back to the office, nobody else was interested or there was too much organizational politics that got in the way of them being able to do this crazy clever thing that they had just learned about. 

And so back to our discussion about value for money. There probably wasn't value for money cause it would have awakened a desire to do something and then had it squashed. 

00:24:00 Anne Balle

Exactly. And imagine being basically in a course or I'd rather call it a meeting, where you have, let's say, 12, 16 participants all from a workplace background, all experts from different types of knowledge, from different types of organization. You've also got your change, workplace experts, consultants there, because we're there to run the course. We're all working on your specific problem, your specific challenge. You know that's really giving people something, especially because we know that those challenges resonate that the others are having the same challenges. So we can really learn in a way that's energizing and most of all, I guess relevant. 

00:24:41 Lisa Whited

The other thing that Anne said too, that just clicked for me is the pedagogy of adult learners. You know, thinking about - it's one of the things you just talked about - our brains as we age, we all know sorry ladies, we all know this - it's hard to keep it stuck in there! And so the real important part of what you learn that's again back to the micro comment, and learning it, applying it, trying it, you know, these short bursts and getting a chance. 

That's why, you know, in our change management course, we have really short quizzes after short learning pieces, cause it's still in your brain. And I also want to share cause I was just talking to my neighbor this past weekend and he's just graduated college, so a young person, and he was talking about the learning, he said you know, the absolute best learning I had was the experiential learning in the University.

So he said yeah, you know, I did all the courses and all, but it was those trips abroad and a week on Wall Street, you know these immersive learning experiences, he said that's what really stuck with me. I just love that because I'm thinking as an older person that that’s sort of where I'm at, but honestly, I think it's age agnostic, perhaps. It's just how we are wired for learning. 

00:25:58 Karen Plum

Yes, and our educational requirements are for the acquisition and retention and replay of facts and logical thinking or whatever it is. But the things that are really going to contribute to our life and the way we perform in our roles, whether that's work or somewhere else, is about those lived experiences. And how they landed with us. 

00:26:20 Philippa Hale

I think the sequence of learning activities that seems to work best for us within AWA is input of content, however that's done, but often driven by oneself and reaching out to colleagues. Also going online, those sorts of things; then having the opportunity to observe, let's say, a workshop or a meeting and being a participant; then having the opportunity to co-facilitate - so being given certain responsibilities for some parts of that session; and then so confidence is building, depth and breadth of experience is building. And at the point when, say a project director deems that you're ready, then to give you that opportunity to facilitate an end-to-end session; and then finally having responsibility for building that session end-to-end because that's another set of skills. 

And so I'm thinking that individual learning events are not really the useful focus. It's that learning path, the continuing professional development learning path, which I think is a more useful focus and for individuals to be aware that that gradual increase of knowledge and responsibility and overlaying of experiences is really important. And then getting to the point where you can share those experience with others, is the next step. 

00:27:40 Karen Plum

Yes, it’s a big old virtuous circle, isn't it? 

Well, it's a really exciting topic - so many different ways people can immerse themselves into the subjects that interest them or that are vital for their roles. Many ways to explore and refine your skills before you're doing it for real in front of those customers or colleagues. 

So I'd like to thank Anne, Lisa and Philippa for sharing your thoughts and experiences, it's been great to hear from you. 

00:28:04 Anne Balle

Thanks for having us, Karen. 

00:28:06 Philippa Hale

Thank you very much. 

00:28:08 Lisa Whited

Thanks, Karen. Always a pleasure. 

00:28:10 Karen Plum

And that's it for this episode. If you'd like more information about the courses we discussed, there are details on our website,, and I'll put some links in our show notes. I hope we've given you some food for thought. 

00:28:27 CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website, Thank you so much for listening. See you next time. Goodbye!