‘Covid has made employers accept online training and qualifications’

Online training set to remain a big part of the picture after the pandemic ends

‘With so much business being conducted via video, people are keen to present a polished performance.’ Photograph: iStock

The past 14 months have been a bumpy ride for some segments of the learning and development (L&D) sector. Collective revenues at top-flight international business schools fell by a third, while a market commentary from McKinsey puts the figure for cancelled in-person training in Europe as high as 100 per cent in some markets.

The pandemic has not treated all providers equally. After the initial crisis, when large volumes of training were cancelled or postponed, those that could quickly migrated online. Those that couldn’t saw their businesses collapse.

But there have also been big winners during the crisis. Tech-led learning providers, already operating large-scale digital platforms, experienced an exponential rise in demand as successive lockdowns spiked the numbers registering to improve their qualifications or to reskill.

The Open University saw more than two million people sign up for its free courses in 2020 compared with just under 600,000 in 2019. Registrations at leading online provider Udemy jumped more than 400 per cent, while the Swedish-based training company Hyper Island may have taken a 60 per cent hit on its face-to-face programmes in Europe, but demand for its online leadership development programmes trebled.


"The digitisation of L&D has played a central role in enabling the workforce to work through Covid and in a post-Covid world. The second key trend is the increasing role of technology in the delivery of learning," says David Collings, professor of human resource management at DCU Business School.

“Technology had already been identified as central to the shift towards more individualised learning paths, but it has become even more central in organisations’ responses to Covid where content could only be delivered remotely for many.

“There is also an increasing recognition of the value of the short, ‘bite-size’ pieces of learning accessible though these platforms, meaning individuals can tap into learning when they have even a short window.

“Almost all organisations track engagement with these online learning platforms and, at the most basic level, it’s simply a means of tracking employee activity. However, more progressive organisations are using this data to identify trends in learning needs.”

Accelerated process

Andrew Crisp, founder of research consultancy Carrington Crisp, which specialises in business education, says the pandemic has not caused the changes in training and professional development, but it has accelerated them.

“The newer entrants into the training market have been far faster with technology,” he says. “They also understand the need for accredited courses that mean something in a corporate context better than some of the more traditional providers.”

One of the trends Carrington has noticed is a move away from master’s degrees and MBAs, to what he describes as “stackable” qualifications where people can build their competencies bit by bit with employer-relevant certification at each stage.

“The tipping point was that Covid made employers accept online training and qualifications in a way they hadn’t before,” he adds. “They’ve recognised how valuable online is over the last 12 months and that most importantly it’s delivering good results, as good as a face to face.

“The last year saw a major spending freeze, but a big bounce-back is being predicted because employers’ main concern now is have they got the skills they need for the future? Future workforces will have to be so much more digitally savvy and, while these skills are coming through in younger people, they don’t exist across the current workforce.”

Mary Harrison, co-founder of Optimum, has been in the corporate training business for 30 years. She says Covid changed the landscape overnight.

“By late March 2020, planned training schedules for the remainder of the year were cancelled and we had to rethink how our business would survive and operate, and that has continued to evolve throughout the crisis,” she says.

“We also had to respond to our clients’ changing needs as they needed help transitioning to remote working, addressing short-term crisis issues and more recently how to prepare for the future of work.

“We do not envisage a return to face to face for the foreseeable future. However, without it, training may lose the benefits of developing networks and shared learning, so there will be a need to bridge the gap between face to face and the virtual offering.”

‘Getting results’

With more than a century of training under its belt, global training company Dale Carnegie used the pandemic hiatus to train and certify its trainers to teach online. Among them was Walter Bradley, the company's Irish managing director.

“Carnegie went digital about 10 years ago and certification was on my to-do list because I felt blended learning was the way of the future,” he says. “My last in-person course finished in early March 2020. Then everything stopped. We made the necessary tweaks to move our courses online and beefed up our technology to do so, and have found that people are happy with online and we’re getting the results.”

Bradley estimates that training volumes recovered to about 60 per cent of their pre-Covid levels by the end of last year. The course most in demand has been making high-impact presentations. “With so much business being conducted via video, people are keen to present a polished performance,” he says.

“We have clients who haven’t been able to travel so they’ve ended up selling via zoom. That’s something you need to do well if you don’t want to send your customers to sleep.”