Learning in the 21st Century: How the Digital Transformation Impacts Corporate Training

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The digital age has created a massive increase in the speed and complexity of business, fundamentally disrupting the workplace. As new technology is integrated, workers at all levels are needing to upskill much faster and navigate more complex systems and processes. The corporate learning function is in a unique position to lead the transformation required in performance, but first it must transform itself.

I had the opportunity to talk with an industry expert to find out more about the future of learning in the workplace. Brandon Carson is Director of Learning at Delta Air Lines, and author of the book « Learning in the Age of Immediacy: 5 Factors for How We Connect, Communicate, and Get Work Done. »  

The Disruption of the “Digital Transformation” 

Carson believes that the digital transformation is about more than technology. It is driven by three factors:

  1. Globalization. Carson states that global access to markets and talent has completely altered the fundamentals of business operations. Supply chains have had to become more efficient increasing volume and turnaround. Consumer expectations have shifted, overwhelmingly affecting product design, services, and manufacturing. Technology has driven market expansion capabilities increasing competition exponentially. Wealth has spread quicker than at anytime in human history, driving consumption.
  2. Demographics. Multiple generations (up to five by 2020) will be working side-by-side in companies, creating a unique talent development challenge. In 2016, a third of the US workforce turned age 50 or older. This represents about 115 million workers. As they start to move out of the workforce, a labor shortage is expected along with a skills shortage, Carson said. And over 10,000 people are retiring every day in the US.
  3. Technology. A more integrated global economy affects almost every business system, and reconfigured work processes influence how the work gets done. Almost every business is now evaluating their technology systems from back to front, seeking efficiency enhancements and optimization of internal processes. Carson explains that “at Delta, we’re undergoing a massive transformation in our IT, including a transformation of all of our human resources (HR) systems.” He continues, “How do we integrate new technology into our infrastructure without disrupting the business?

“It’s not just about technology; it’s about businesses completely reinventing themselves while still trying to operate”

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These three factors, forming what Carson calls the digital transformation, are unfolding at extraordinary speed. According to Carson, the Industrial Revolution and other transformations affected work, but they happened at a slower pace, over a generation or two. The digital transformation, on the other hand, is happening much more quickly than any other work-based advancement.

“The next five years for Learning and Development will be much more disruptive and much more change oriented than the last fifty”

The challenge for businesses now is that they must continually reinvent themselves at an unprecedented speed. They must meet the pace of globalization and technology all the while addressing the demographic shift occurring.

What Is the Solution? 

For Brandon Carson the solution lies in people. “One of the best investments you’ll make right now and over the next several years is in people.” 

Embracing the Learning Organization

Discover how adopting a culture of learning will increase employee engagement.


Carson explains that ‘‘to close the growing skills gap, businesses must attract the right talents to the organization and have them skilled appropriately.” But the role of Learning and Development will not be limited to just skilling talent: 

“We’re coming to an inflection point with talent acquisition. We have to start thinking differently and look internally more often”

We need to “put mechanisms in place so that we can identify people inside our organization and develop them to take on new roles.”

For people already working for a company to grow and learn, L&D and HR should try to construct work environments to help advance that sharing of knowledge.

Upskilling Your Workforce

Are your people strong enough to compete?

I want to find out

Most people learn the majority of what they need to know to accomplish their goals from one another. In that sense, co-workers need to be working in an environment hospitable to peer-to-peer learning, allowing them to upskill each other

Carson believes that “more than just creating more training courses and putting them out there, we need to foster a culture of learning.” 

“The main challenge is not about technology; it’s about culture” 

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Carson supports the idea that the best tool available to foster a learning culture is the collaboration of small teams. Not only do businesses need to create a true culture of learning, they need to create a culture “hospitable to smaller teams working together to share information and knowledge.”

Carson offered an example. ‘‘At Amazon, there is a two medium pizza rule. Try to make sure the team is not larger than the number of people that can consume two medium pizzas. This will foster for more collaboration and transparency.’’ 

Businesses should also consider the tools needed to support these smaller teams. ‘‘Consider social utilities that promote and advance collaboration and help communication and getting work done.’’ Tools should foster the learning culture necessary to adapt to this unprecedented acceleration of the pace of business

The Role of Learning and Development 

The role of L&D will need to adapt to accompany and lead all these changes. 

For Carson, “there will always be a need for a formal structured learning operation.” He continues, ‘‘what exists today will persist in some form or another, especially for companies like Delta that have crucial operational imperatives. Thousands of flights are going out each day that need to go out on time and meet our customers’ expectations, yet also support the safest airline in the industry.”

However, Carson posits that “we’re being asked to do more, we must look beyond just our silo in learning.” 

L&D will take on what can be an orchestrator role between different lines of business to make sure that learning is built into every system from the beginning. Learning can lead the transformation of business through upskilling of the workforce and the promotion of collaborative learning, thus fostering the learning organization model.

“As L&D, we are close to the workforce and we understand their needs. We also need to understand the needs of the business. L&D is in a good place to help bring both together” 

According to Carson, ‘‘L&D can play an instrumental role in ensuring the business transformation results in a culture of learning, and helps the business to adapt and follow the rapid changes brought on by the digital age.’’

Carson concludes that ‘‘this position comes with great responsibility. At stake is future-proofing of the workforce. To succeed, L&D must have a mindset shift in order to lead the global transformation of business.’’