Lori Niles-Hofmann is a senior learning strategist with over 20 years of L&D experience across many industries, including international banking, management consulting, and marketing. Her specialization is large-scale digital learning transformations and she is passionate about helping companies navigate through the ambiguity of change. She is the author of Data-Driven Learning Design, How to Decode Learner Digital Body Language. 


January 13, 2020

Q&A with Lori Niles Hoffman: Bridging the Widening Skill Gap with Learning & Development

2020 Workplace Trends in Learning and Development

The future brings new and complex consumer demands. Fulfilling these demands requires a broader set of skills and abilities in the workforce. The 2020 CGS Emerging Workplace Learning Trends Survey gathered the views of more than 600 U.S. employees. They work in retail, hospitality, banking and telecommunications. The results show their opinions on how training and development affects career growth.

We discussed the survey results with thought leader, Lori Niles-Hofman, who talked about the findings and their implications for enterprise learning and development in organizations. As a senior learning strategist, Niles-Hofman has extensive learning and development experience across several industries. Her experience includes international banking, management consulting and marketing. She specializes in driving large-scale transformation through digital learning and helps companies work through change management. She has led several successful education technology implementations using data-based methods and strategic frameworks.


The 2020 CGS L&D Leaders’ Budget & Strategy Survey indicated that addressing the learning and skills gap is the number one issue that companies were budgeting for.  What do you think contributes to this skill gap? And how are companies addressing this issue heading into 2020?

We've always had a skill gap so that's not a new thing. The thing that has changed, though is the lifespan of skills. According to research by the World Economic Forum, new skills used to last (be relevant for) about seven years. Now they only last about three to five years. And that's a very big change.

From my observation, one of the main reasons for this is that we are more connected than ever. Ideas spread so much more quickly than they did in the 50s, 60s, 70s or the 80s. Because of that, there's a constant demand to remain competitive. You no longer need to be competitive in just your own market, you must be competitive in a diverse global market. Because of this, the skills gap is increasing along with the number of skills that people are expected to have. For example, even to get an average learning experience right, it is expected that you consult, write content and be able to code in a rapid authoring tool and leverage APIs or an LRS. It's just crazy what we're expecting of people!

I see these as some of the main drivers of the widening skills gap.

In response to your questions about new trends in how companies are dealing with this issue heading into 2020, I’d say the biggest trend is that a growing number of companies are approaching the long term “hire-to-retire” model. And this makes me happy. These companies are not relying on the gig economy. They have realized that they need to hire for learnability in order to build an agile workforce, and that relying on the gig economy means they will have to compete on price, location and various other factors. So that’s a definite shift in strategy.  


The survey shows that 58% of companies are now investing in upskilling to safeguard against industry disruptions like AI, automation and robotics. Do you think that certain industries are getting hit harder or will all industries be impacted in some way eventually?

That’s a good question! I think all industries are going to be impacted by AI and automation and it’s simply a question of when. We have already started seeing the impact of these technologies in industries like robotics, manufacturing and retail. But now we are seeing it in everything from banking to pharmacology. At this point, it’s simply being driven from the desire for companies to be more efficient. So it’s just a question of when and to what degree these technologies will disrupt business as usual.


There are still about 42% of companies that aren’t planning on upskilling and retraining employees to counter automation. Do you think they run the risk of getting caught off guard, or is it alright for them to take their time?

I don’t think that it’s okay for them to take their time on this. The first reason is that they run the risk of losing employees if they fear automation coming. Your top talent is going to leave first. If you think that AI and automation are possibilities in your industry, your top talent will upskill on their own and move on. That is a big deal.

Secondly, I know that L&D isn’t always reactive. And that is probably one of the biggest critiques that people have about us. We are slow and unable to respond to business needs quickly enough. This is where we can see the light of the train coming down the tunnel heading towards us. So we have a really big opportunity to be proactive for our business here. We need to get ahead of things to understand the skills matrix and the needs of our organizations even before the organization is fully on that journey. But we should be seeking this opportunity ourselves.


What do you think L&D leaders should be budgeting for as they prepare for 2020?

I think they need to be budgeting for new technology to enable effective delivery. I would also say that they should be looking at their competitors. They should have an RSS feed, or something along the lines of Twitter, to know intimately what their competitors are doing with automation. Because even if they aren't sitting at the product development table or at with the C-suite, they're hyper-aware of the changes in their industry. They need to ensure they’re not thrust upon them, and that they're already speaking the language and understanding the themes that are emerging.

From a budget perspective, I’d also say that teams need to look at how they are upskilling their own L&D people. Because L&D has also been disrupted, and the skills that they need are rapidly changing. We often neglect ourselves, so this is a really good time to get those things in order so that it doesn’t become a case of “the shoemaker’s children not having shoes”.

Did you expect to see about 46% of the survey respondents say that they are spending more on developing technical skills rather than soft skills? Also, what role do skills like empathy and critical thinking have in the advent of automation?

Am I surprised to see it? No. Do I think it's the right thing? No.

I'm not surprised by it because it’s really hard to build content successfully for soft skills. While for technical skills, it’s quite easy. With technical skills, you know that there's an outcome a person can achieve, like insert widget A into spot B. So it’s very easy for L&D to build content for that. These skills are scalable, repeatable and you can evaluate them quite easily. I'm not saying any of that goes away. That's still going to happen and we'll still have technical training. But the fact is that automation is going to take away a lot of those things, and we have to do better at what robots don't do well - things like ethics and empathy.

A good example is a driverless car. You may well say that the driverless car is going to eliminate a lot of transportation roles such as truck drivers. Yes, but then there's a whole other spectrum of jobs that are going to open up around ethics and empathy. For example, we can program the car so that the machine can make a decision in nanoseconds as to whether it should hit the wall, a passenger, a dog or the human crossing the road – does it protect the pedestrian or the passenger or the dog?

That's just one example where we really have to think things through to match the type of society we are going to live in. So, that's the place where we need to do better and think about how we get people into a better state for our organizations. Because, if we let the robots run the world, that isn't going to be a very good place for any of us.

Communication is going to be very critical. Just think of how we text online and how we use our phones. There’s a whole language with emotions, emoticons and other things that we've had to learn. Those skills are going to become increasingly important as there's more automation. So, I think we're off-balance as an industry right now.


The survey also shows that about 39% of respondents are either considering or have budgeted to explore AR (augmented reality) in learning. Have you experienced use cases for AR and learning?

Yes, I think there are some really interesting cases. I can't disclose company names, but I can talk about what the industry is doing in general.

One of the cases that really impacted me was a VR (virtual reality) for someone involved in a bank robbery. I thought it added the human element more than any video that was just a passive server tour. I observed that some people going through the exercise became very emotional about it, even though they understood psychologically that this was a staged exercise that was playing out in virtual reality. This was a very effective way to run people through those scenarios.

Another one I witnessed was an exercise in empathy for first-line responders in an emergency room. So these are people who work with other people, either during a mental health crisis or some other emergency or moment of grief. In the exercise, you get to experience the consequences of what it's like to talk to that person or interact with that person. This was so much more real because you were immersed in it, and you saw the reactions of the distressed person while you're looking around the room. For instance, in the case of the person who was in mental distress, you had to stand in the room to see if there was anything with which they could self-harm. It was also very effective.

I've also seen a number of cases in manufacturing companies, directed at people working in a factory floor or something like that. I've seen a cool one that was designed to train people to perform welding underwater. You obviously don't want that person learning that skill while they're scuba diving. That was a really effective one too.

So those are some of the good ones I saw. I’ve also seen some not-so-good ones. I don't know if you want to hear about those. But, some of the not-so-good ones are the ones where you really didn't need augmented reality, like for basic customer interactions. I mean, they're still effective, but I think you could just bring somebody into a storeroom floor for an afternoon and be able to achieve the same result. Whether it's an Infographic or a course, you always have to choose the right media.

Why do you think about the fact that 60% of survey respondents are not thinking about AR in L&D right now?

L&D departments right now are being challenged to do so many different things, and this is just yet another skill gap that they definitely don't have within their team right now. Companies don't even have somebody like a videographer on their team. So, the idea of being able to do augmented reality can be astounding.

Maybe what we need to think about in L&D is how quick we can realistically expect the industry to go. Personally, it's not moving as fast as I would like it to. I think what's going to happen though, is that you're going to start seeing some more rapid automation tools to help develop this type of content very well and efficiently. Soon we'll start to see some of the price points go down and we'll need to upskill. Because, as I said, we need people to learn how to actually develop storyboards for this type of stuff. I absolutely don't shun the people who haven't done this. I don't think they're backward. I just think it's still early in the industry, and they're probably concerned about other things.


What is your view of L&D and rapid authoring tools?

I have an unpopular opinion on this. I think we've relied too much on them and now technology dictates content. In a lot of your typical e-learning modules, it’s all “click next to continue”. This drives me bonkers, because when I go to the New York Times or any other news website, there's not a “click next to continue” anywhere. The page is designed completely differently. But we force content to fit into that box.

It's only this year that rapid authoring tools allow the ability to scroll. You could also add a scroll before if you knew how to hack it in. So, while there are lot of good tools out there that let you do things quickly, there's also room for improvement. It's like giving somebody the keys to a Ferrari, but they don't necessarily have to know how to change the gearshift.

I see some of these rapid authoring tools do things like drag and drop in games, and pretty much everything you could possibly want, but without thinking about good design. These tools rely on tricks and tropes. Rapid automation tools need to reexamine how they've been designed and what they’re being used for. Don't get me wrong, it’s quite likely that the average L&D professional does not know how to code in HTML, nor should they have to. I've seen excellent courses designed in Squarespace, which is not a rapid authoring tool. It is a blog tool, so it is a very different experience. And the amount of metrics and data you could get out of that is more than you could ever get from a SCORM package. So that's interesting.

How can we realign employees to enable them with critical thinking and soft skills? How is it possible for a lifelong trucker to apply critical thinking into something else?

What we see is that the company employing the trucker will want to do it in the most cost-effective way, which is not necessarily going to be the best possible way. Those soft skills do not get acquired through a “click next to continue” module, and maybe not even through a well-designed one. These are long and hard challenges that take a lot of effort and investment to resolve. And they’re growing.

People in these roles are not disposable. They still have many years left to contribute. It's just about finding the right path for them.  

Lori Niles-Hofmann is a senior learning strategist with over 20 years of L&D experience across many industries, including international banking, management consulting, and marketing. Her specialization is large-scale digital learning transformations and she is passionate about helping companies navigate through the ambiguity of change. She is the author of Data-Driven Learning Design, How to Decode Learner Digital Body Language. 


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