Today’s world could be described as somewhat chaotic, partly because of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and partly because of the enormous shifts that businesses across the UK- and indeed the globe- have had to make in response.
The pace of change has been terrific in the last two years, it has torn up good business plans and forced employers to adapt and pivot in ways never thought of before.
We characterise such an environment as V.U.C.A. V.U.C.A was a phrase originally coined by the American military to allow them to view the world in a certain way. It has become more prevalent over recent years and is an acronym for an environment dominated by:
- Volatility: where things change fast but not in a predictable trend or repeatable pattern.
- Uncertainty: where major “disruptive” changes occur frequently. In this environment, the past is not an accurate predictor of the future and identifying and preparing for “what will come next” is extremely difficult.
- Complexity: where there are numerous difficult-to-understand causes and mitigating factors involved in a problem.
- Ambiguity: the causes and the “who, what, where, when, how, and why” behind the things that are happening are unclear and hard to ascertain.
As a result, many organisations are working hard to establish what this means for them, and what they can do to minimise the impact of the V.U.C.A world on their business objectives.
However, the truth is that while V.U.C.A may be the latest buzzword, but this constant evolution is not really anything new. Businesses have been facing a bold, dramatic change in their specific industries for many years; the difference today is that it tends to be much more overt, tangible and extremely fast-paced.
The key to surviving in a V.U.C.A world is to think big, but not necessarily long term.
The challenge is that because of its very nature very little can be done to brace against the impact of a V.U.C.A world – its terms inherently describe unpredictability, making planning ahead difficult. The response, therefore, needs to be about changing mindsets and preparing your people to deal with change, rather than putting predefined plans in place to protect against it, and this is where L&D has an important role to play.
There are many areas in which L&D can support businesses and their employees to survive in the V.U.C.A world, but there are certain key areas that can offer maximum impact.
Many would argue that leadership has never been more important than it is today. In the face of fatigue and burnout, employees need to remain engaged in the overall vision of the business. They need inspiration, honesty and trust in their leaders.
In this instance, the role of L&D is to support leaders in developing the right skill set, mindset and tools to bring out the best in their employees. In a V.U.C.A world, leaders also need to be able to empower their managers and team leaders to be able to respond to challenges independently, while remaining in line with the overall vision for the organisation. As a result, the focus of power and responsibility needs to shift from the individual at the top to the levels below who can really lead or react to change. This means training and development for all levels of management. To become inspirational, rather than directorial, leaders need to develop skills in innovation, communication and influencing, so L&D teams need to create the right sort of material to focus on these skills.
Having the right staff in the right role, with the right skills, is certainly nothing new when it comes to building a successful business. However, in a V.U.C.A world, on top of these specific core skills, having broader business acumen allows employees to respond swiftly to changes. Clearly, this is only feasible if employees are not only competent in the necessary skills to start with but also have the capability and capacity to take on something new when required.
L&D’s role is to support a workforce to develop specific role-relevant competencies, but also to provide a broader, more general set of skills in line with the evolving needs of the business. Whether that is a greater understanding of the wider principles of the business, or greater knowledge of business strategy, more of the workforce needs more general skills to be able to adapt and use those innate skills elsewhere.
These include areas such as problem-solving skills, leadership, communication skills, and project management. These are skills that employees would benefit from at all stages of their career, regardless of their specific duties or external factors.
If there is anything that is likely to prompt stress responses in employees it’s volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity in their role. As a result of the V.U.C.A environment, caused by so many recent challenges, many organisations are seeing increasing levels of stress and mental ill-health in their workforce, as they strive to manage all the change being thrown at them.
While it’s important that the organisation as a whole works to address and mitigate this, there is an important role for L&D in developing programmes to focus on these specific areas, and equip employees with suitable tools and skills to manage some of these on their own.
The importance of organisational culture in a VUCA world
As well as personal development, resilience and competence, there are some bigger picture areas where L&D have a part to play, and these include the holistic approach the organisation takes towards instilling a company-wide culture.
The culture of an organisation transcends hierarchy or business silo which is often the focus of L&D teams. Creating development pathways within business units or promoting workers to managers has its rewards but for the true resilience, agility and empowerment needed to thrive in a V.U.C.A world, L&D teams must create a behaviour of learning.
The need for rapid skill development necessitates a system that supports this and for many employees, this is taking the form of self-directed learning. In a busy working week, finding time to participate in day-long seminars is rare and outdated, rather with many favouring bite-size education content, it is essential that L&D functions are prepared and equipped to support their learners in this way, allowing a learner-led approach that is vital in a V.U.C.A world.
Just as learners need to be proactive in their continued learning, L&D teams need to be ahead of the business curve in how it reacts and responds to witnessed or predicted changes. This doesn’t just mean creating new training programmes in response to learner needs, but rather the ability to use available business information to spot trends, make quick decisions, and reallocate resources were necessary in order to be an enabler for personal and organisational growth.
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