In conversation with Dr. Aquil Busrai on the future of L&D

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Dr Aquil Busrai is a Gold Medallist from XLRI and has to his credit a Post Graduate Degree in Law, an Advanced Diploma in Training and Development and a PhD. A university Rank Holder he is the recipient of JM Kumarappa and Bharucha Gold Medals for academic excellence.

Dr Busrai has had 45 plus years’ experience in Industry. He has worked in various HR roles with Unilever in Kenya and India; Motorola in Asia Pacific countries; Shell in Malaysia and IBM in India. He is currently CEO of Aquil Busrai consulting. He is a Fellow of All India Management Association and Past National President of National HRD Network.

Dr Busrai is a keen student of non-verbal communication and is authoring a book on ‘Body Language’.  He is an ardent wild life enthusiast and a serious wild life photographer.

Q-You have had over 4 decades of global experience in Human Resources working with top brand companies like IBM Corporations, Shell Malaysia, Motorola and Unilever, and currently own HR advisory firm. How do you look at your Career journey today? 

I have been fortunate to have spent my career with some of the finest organizations Like Unilever, Motorola, Shell Malaysia and IBM. Amongst many common traits in these organization – I would like to highlight one in particular, that of emphasis and investment on developing Talent as a business imperatives.

All these organizations, like many other progressive ones, focused on continual learning for their talent and ensured that top management was closely involved in talent management. Consequently, they acquired and retained some of the finest talent and also became a source of leadership pipeline to other organizations. 

Having started my career in such organizations largely shaped my own strong belief in nurturing talent through careful selection and continual up gradation as an integral strategy of managing business. Without being immodest, I can recount many instances how this belief made significant impact in supporting business to grow. And in also making HR move away from mere support function to one that became an integral part of business results delivery and business success.

Q-According to you what are main challenges for L&D professionals today and what is the future of L&D?

In my opinion, L&D function should shed its self-image of being a specialist function. I mean this in earnest, because the mindset of being super specialty function has isolated L&D professionals from rapidly changing business realities and challenges. L&D professionals will need to genuinely understand Business, technology impacting its operation and also the lurking competition. 

Offering off-the-shelf training modules is passé. Customized and contemporary learning modules are what will make measurable impact on the business.  Calendar of training events specially ones based on tenure are also obsolete. This needs to be replaced by training contributions that are linked to the Roles that incumbent employees are moving into, essentially sharply customized.

Large part of L&D function will slowly get outsourced and the L&D professionals will need to embrace this concept and leverage it, rather than feel threatened by their diminishing jurisdiction. The number of training modules that are being churned out in the market and proclaimed as panacea needs to be viewed with a discerning eye and this is where effective L&D professionals will play a crucial role in making a choice between what the business needs and what the third parties offer.

The advent of technology in learning domain has been so rapid in recent times that often there are indistinctness in making the right choice for the organization. It is here that L&D professionals, who understand business and changing trends, will make significant impact. Their independent choice rather than opting for what is trending, will not only provide right training input but will also yield higher return on investment on training.

Q-Developing a learning culture is important for organizations to attract the top talent and retain them. What are the key essentials of a successful strategy to design and drive continuous learning in organizations?

It is amply evident that the new-generation talent is attracted to join and also stay with an organization that offers a line-of-sight to individual’s learning and growth. The fear of professional obsolescence is no more discussed in hushed tones. Rather it has become an open debate in campus and at re-unions.

Organizations that enjoyed advantages of brand image are amongst the earliest victims. Most of these entities have read the writings on the wall, well in time to shift their focus on projecting a learning culture within the organization rather than a brand to build career

However, a learning culture is not built overnight especially in those organizations that relied on training input for immediate gains – and succeeded in growing the business. They missed out the basic element of individual growth and instead focused on skill and functional training that enhanced business performance. Prized talent is intelligent enough today to discern what developmental input will add value to that individual as against what is beneficial only to the organization.

If the organization is genuinely interested in promoting individual growth, than it will become a beacon for right talent. The resultant cultural metamorphosis will transform the organization in a magical way and will lead it towards sustained path of attracting right talent, which will naturally grow the business. A virtuous cycle will be set in motion.

Design Thinking will play a crucial role in creating developmental offerings. These will need to simultaneously meet the needs of the organization as well as cater to individual aspirations. Not an easy task – unless the L&D professional has been savvy enough to have rightly comprehended business and is also connected with talent market.  But that’s where the challenge and the satisfaction lie.

Q-Gig economy and remote workforces are the future of work, how to design learning models for Gig workers and distributed workforce?

Gig Economy will create a completely distinctive challenge and scenario for L&D professionals – it will turn the entire L&D philosophy on its head.

L&D professionals pride themselves on providing input that will add value to the employees to contribute long term to the organization. Simultaneously keeping an eye on the byproduct- that of retaining such employees, by meeting their own developmental needs.

In the Gig economy there will be no need to retain employees for very long tenure, nor would they themselves aspire to remain with same organization for long. In such a circumstances L&D will need to get creative to ensure that the Gig workforce is trained enough to deliver on the task. This is easily said than done. Gig workforce is hired for the expertise they bring or their suitability for particular task – how would expenditure on their training be justified?

The answer lies in designing sharply focused training module that are directly related to the expected delivery by the Gig worker. There is a greater possibility that such modules will be designed to impart technical or skill training and very little behavioral or leadership training.

A thought may cross one’s mind whether it is at all prudent to invest in providing training to a transient workforce – a Chicken and Egg story. The answer lies in not withholding training and skill up gradation. As individuals grow the collective skill will also grow promoting overall better quality talent. At the same time one needs to be judicious enough to ensure that the training investment is amortized during the working duration of the Gig workforce.

Q-We live in digital age. In your opinion, what are the opportunities and challenges of digital learning?

Digital advancement has added a completely new dimension to Learning. Very quickly it has made the traditional learning methodology obsolete. Rapid reduction in cost of technology has accelerated its accessibility. But along with these positive developments, L&D function has been confronted with a situation to almost instantaneously decide on the content and also the mode of training the workforce.

Not an easy task, because the business context itself is shifting unexpectedly. L&D professionals are thus expected to provide a completely new suite of developmental input while simultaneously ensuring on-going contribution. This is akin to changing the Engine while the plane is flying! 

But then this is the business reality and the L&D function is expected to respond in an effective manner. A great opportunity to showcase their understanding of business plus availability of new technology and coalescing both to produce meaningful interventions that has positive and, often, immediate effect on the business.

“Because of the flurry of offerings in digital learning, some L&D professionals have got caught up with the ‘keep-up-with-Joneses’ syndrome. They see their peer organization adopt a new digital method or content and there is a sudden desire to acquire the same for their own organization – falsely assuming that the latest trend must essentially be beneficial”

The reality is however, often contrary. What works for one organization may be a misfit for another.

It is here that L&D professional’s sound knowledge of business that will provide a strategic edge. L&D practitioners will have to climb down from their perch and get fully familiar and involved with the business and how it is managed. Then and then only will they be in a position to provide appropriate solutions in the new digital world that may both be cost effective and also relevant.

Some organizations are building a huge collection of learning offerings through a library. In order to understand the efficacy of this approach, I studied two major organizations that had invested substantially in building this repertoire of digital learning modules. They widely socialized the collection – with pride and amidst accolades from fellow professionals.

A study of Utilization of these materials after 12 and 18 months revealed a disturbing trend – in one organization only 37% of employees had participated in using the training material available. In the other organization, utilization stood at 41%. While the number of employees enjoying the benefit may not be a reliable indication of the value of the collection – what was disquieting was that nearly 52% (and 49%) of subjects selected by the employees were of their personal interest that did not have much to do with improving their skill or knowledge for the job that they were commissioned. Some may argue that knowledge never goes waste but than in the context of business, every thousand spent must yield multiple-thousand benefit.

L&D practitioners with high level of discretion and judgment coupled with latest knowledge of available technology and its application will enjoy a place of pride in the organization and earn respect.

Q-What is Peer leaning? How to help your employees learn from each other?

Peer learning happens when there is an ambiance in the organization to openly share knowledge and also feedback. Organizations that have evolved a genuine learning culture will witness Peer Learning as an on-going process. The readiness to share, to nurture and mentor others, to celebrate success of peers are telltale signs where Peer Learning is prevalent.

Considering the benefits that accrue from Peer Learning, it is important that the practice is widely adapted at all levels in the organization – including senior leadership team.  Normal manifestations are evident in how new ideas are discussed and carried forward. How attendees participate in presentation by an individual, the manner in which they comment and offer suggestions. Invariably the atmosphere in such meetings is congenial yet very business-like. Constructive criticisms are not avoided. On the contrary, encouraged with alternative recommendations. Hierarchy plays no role in such deliberations. Knowledge and innovative thinking does.

In a leading IT organization, I introduced a “Learning Corner” in my HR team. We would meet every third Friday, 90 minutes before the close of the day. An external speaker and one or two HR team members presented something of value to the rest. It could be an HR Concept or researched best practice or even a book review. The discussions were always engrossing and animated. What we discovered was the younger team members found a platform to showcase their ideas and knowledge to more experienced ones.  The latter benefited equally significantly as they kept themselves updated with the latest – kind of Group Reverse Mentoring.

A cross-functional Task Force that is assigned to solve a live problem in the organization is an excellent example of Peer Learning. Like-minded peers generate ideas, which is debated, critiqued and re-shaped, resulting in a solution that is subjected to evaluation.

Peer learning makes Learning an enjoyable experience and a motivating one too.

Q-Evaluating L&D initiatives and its effectiveness is an important factor of successful learning strategy. In your opinion, how to measure the impact of your L&D programs on business outcomes?

There was a time when we would measure training activities by man-hours and participant percentage in training programmes – suddenly all that looks so irrelevant. Yet some organizations are focusing on RoI on Training Budget. While this may seem like an appropriate strategy, it often boomerangs because Training cost cannot be measured on Quarterly or Annual Returns; but on the medium term impact on business due to better-trained manpower.

Today, the Business is demanding accountability for the investment in L&D and rightly so. Benefits are measured not by numbers who participated or the money spent – instead focus is on measuring whether the L&D effort added value to business performance or not.

There is direct correlation between training imparted and improved revenue through better customer relation, improved quality, and better demand for product or services. Consumers are placing premium on customer-service and trained staff while buying a product. They are discerning enough to pay a slightly higher price where they feel they will get better service – all this boils down to how much attitudinal training, besides technical skill training has been imparted to employees. Every training initiative can, and should be, measured to determine whether there is adequate value for money spent.

Q-Any advice to L&D professionals?

It would be impertinent of me to offer advice to L&D experts but I would certainly like to emphasize that L&D function is going through its most challenging as well as exciting phase. The tectonic plates of Business are moving in conjunction with the change in Technology, at breakneck speed. This combination is getting business leaders concerned about their organization’s ability to cope, especially where talent is concerned. They are worried about remaining competitive.

The above scenario presents an inimitable opportunity to the L&D professionals to demonstrate their proficiency in partnering with business and making a perceptible difference. Business leaders are voracious for innovative, cotemporary and state of art solution in today’s business world. And L&D practitioners can satisfy that yearning.

In presenting a delectable Dish to the Business leaders, following Recipe may be helpful to an L&D professional:

  • Take a large helping of Knowledge about how the Business Functions
  • Mix it with equally large portion of comprehensive knowledge of state of art technology available in training and development
  • Add ample quantity of Cost Consciousness
  • Add a large pinch of Sensible and Pragmatic approach
  • Mix well and Execute immaculately
  • Keep scale ready to Measure the Impact
  • Serve with a smile when business most needs it
  • Seek Feedback for future improvement

Thank You Dr. Aquil!

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