VUCA challenges and opportunities for people development

"VUCA" is the acronym used to describe today's global business environment. Rather than being a warty thing on your foot that'll go away with treatment,  VUCA is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 13 July 2017
VUCA challenges and opportunities for people development

To some people, VUCA is nasty, inconvenient and painful - but it won't go away with, or without, treatment. It's a fact of life that we must all cope with. VUCA affects L&D both overtly and covertly. For instance, its influence includes changes in communications technology - such as social media.

These are facilitating remote and virtual working, allowing organizations to compete more effectively and aggressively in global markets. This puts more pressure on L&D professionals to make the most effective and efficient use of workers' skills and talents. They must ensure that all workers are engaged in pursuing their organization's objectives, and that they are willing to develop their knowledge and skills in order to perform better.

VUCA knowledge and skills

In turn, L&D professionals need to know about things such as the 70:20:10 framework, MOOCs, and a host of other concepts that weren't part of their remit even 10 years ago. They now need skills as facilitators, coaches, mentors, and curators, as well as being able to demonstrate more "traditional" L&D skills. There's help at hand for those who feel that they need to find their way through this potentially confusing cornucopia. It is Eileen Arney's new book, "Learning for Organizational Development: How to Design, Deliver and Evaluate Effective L&D." Arney, former assistant director of National Police Training in the U.K. and now director of masters programs at the Open University Business School, sets out how to design, deliver and evaluate effective L&D programs. She explores the role of L&D in talent nurturing, showing how to drive retention and attraction, as well as how to support line managers in the development of their people. Arney also focuses on developing leadership and management capability, using facilitation skills, implementing coaching and mentoring, and evaluating L&D in a knowledge economy. And she adds some "final thoughts" on issues such as digital technology, meeting business needs, and preparing for the future.

More than a training department

Successfully "doing L&D" within the context of VUCA is challenging enough but into that mix has come rapid changes in digital technology.  Richard Lowe, director of Hewlett Rand, says, "In today's ever more competitive business and cost-conscious environment, L&D- in all sectors of the economy - must demonstrate meaningful learning interventions that deliver real tangible value. So, L&D must become even more 'commercial,' with each intervention delivering benefits."

VUCA interventions and outcomes

Lowe believes that these interventions must be shown to achieve one or more of the following outcomes:
  • Financial - in terms of cost savings and/or sales.
  • Service - for the customer, patient or service user.
  • Efficiency - in terms of process or systems.
  • Effectiveness - developing "know how."
  • Innovation - in products, services and/or technology.
  • Risk - in terms of compliance/regulation.

"L&D's core purpose remains the same - to enable employees to grow and develop their capabilities to meet the organization's vision, mission and strategic imperatives," he says. "What's changed, in recent years, is that we have a diversification of technologies that empower us further to transfer knowledge, train skills and embed behavioral outcomes. This has led to diversification in L&D - largely driven by digital learning technologies -providing a range of careers in digital and creative design. "Yet, while the digital learning industry is producing a vast quantity of content, how do we know it's what learners truly want and need? Is it delivering on the key commercial outcomes? Is it making a difference to both learners and organizational performance? "The works of Kolb, Honey & Mumford and Kirkpatrick are even more relevant today than they were 20 years ago. L&D must continue to conduct proper analysis, tailor learner design to meet both the needs of the learner and organization, deliver appropriate interventions using relevant methods, and ensure a robust evaluation strategy to demonstrate a return."

Have a look at Mind Tools' learning resource, Managing in a VUCA World, for a powerful approach to help your people to cope well with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Applied learning, feedback and honesty

Kathryn Horton of Turning Factor says, "We're experiencing a need for more bite-sized, action learning. Today, there's less room for mere theoretical understanding - unless it's clearly backed up by the practical application.   "L&D professionals need to be empathetic but honest, real and firm. We don't know what we don't know, and we continue to see issues where the full reality of a situation isn't communicated to an individual - hence, they have no idea that they're causing the problem. "We strongly believe in giving candid feedback - recognizing that, to develop, the journey isn't always an easy one. It's important for people to understand that, through the many problems, issues and challenges they have, they must brilliantly and carefully craft themselves. "We're also seeing more focus on behavioral work. I believe that this will be focused on more in companies - particularly around health and safety." In offering advice to organizations on how to cope in a VUCA world, Horton advocates that every board should include an HR specialist. She says, "These are the figureheads for the L&D area."  

Process, control - and people

Horton adds, "We still see many business plans and strategies that fail to include any element of people development. This seems crazy, as it's the performance of the organization's people that will drive the strategy to success.  "Too many existing organizational leaders focus on process and control. They miss the importance of people in driving the whole process."

About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

You may also be interested in…

Content Spotlight: Kirkpatrick's Model

Four levels of training evaluation.

September 2023

Read More

What is Performance Support?

How learning at the moment of need can help drive performance in your organization.

August 2023

Read More

Prioritizing Well-being in Today's Hyper-Connected Workplace

Chris Coladonato, Founder of Connection Catalyst, discusses the key steps you need to take to protect your people’s mental health and well-being in today’s ‘always on’ work environments.

August 2023

Read More