In 2019, if you’d asked organisations whether “global pandemic” was on their risk register, the likelihood is that, for the majority, the answer is likely to have been “no”. Or, if they had, the likelihood of it happening may have been so low as not consume a significant amount of attention.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, and continues to be, much talked about in the press and online. But let’s take a closer look at the impact it’s had on the training sector and the role organisational resilience has had, using the International Consortium of Organizational Resilience’s Model for Increasing Organizational Resilience as a reference. The model is comprised of three dimensions (the outer ring), nine strategies (the inner ring) and 16 behaviours (the centre circle).
Through the eyes of NEBOSH and some of its Learning Partners from the Middle East, we’ll discuss various experiences of the challenges, opportunities and learnings that have taken place.
An Immediate Shift
The abrupt cessation of in-person training and assessments due to lockdowns had a significant impact on organisational activities. It was a worrying and challenging time for organisations, which facilitated a significant amount of face-to-face contact.
Fawz Salah, Training Manager at Samara Training Services, says “We operate in Oman and Iraq. The series of lockdowns there made it impossible to plan classroom training programmes, which at that point was our main mode of training delivery. The economic impact of the pandemic added another dimension to our challenges as there was a sudden drop in demand for training programmes due to cost cutting exercises and large numbers of workers being laid off.”
A Quick Response
The solution for many organisations was to rapidly priortise and scale their technology solutions. NEBOSH had been working on a project to utilise technology – and latest-thinking methodologies – in its assessments for some time but the pandemic meant that this project became high priority, and nearly all of its workforce came together to work on this transformation.
Online/e-learning and distance learning is not a new thing but the pandemic fast-tracked its growth – the global e-learning market is predicted to reach $370bn by 20261, up from $101bn in 2019.
Manikandan Gobinath is Chairman of GreenWorld Group which delivers training in Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE. He elaborates: “Given the abruptness of the Covid situation, trainers and administrations were unprepared for the required transition and were forced to build on emergency remote learning systems almost immediately. At Green World the concept of virtual/remote learning had already completed the nascent stage during 2019 before the onset of COVID and it paved a way to the next level.”
For others, the transition to online was a little slower. Some learners prefer face-to-face learning and organisations had built their business model around expertise in this mode of study. Dr Arshid Mahmood Ali is Associate Professor at King Abdulaziz University in KSA. He explains: “The substantial decrease in centre activity left us with no other option, other than to seek NEBOSH accreditation to offer online/distance learning. After great efforts to ensure and implement all of NEBOSH’s rules and regulations, our centre was accredited to conduct the aforementioned mode of study.”
Both King Abdulaziz University and Samara Training Services consider cost as a key factor in their offering to potential learners, and this was also considered in their activities to adapt their delivery, as Fawz Salah explains: “We also reconsidered our training fees to match the reality of the economic crisis.”
How do these online solutions look in real-life? There are a wide range of options but the priority for NEBOSH was that learners continued to gain qualifications via high-quality learning, whatever format that learning took. Of the three Learning Partners mentioned in this article, remote delivery and support could include:
- Live interactive sessions with trainers
- Pre-recorded training sessions
• 24/7 online support
- The use of Zoom/Blackboard
- Online resource library
NEBOSH’s own solution was the introduction of a robust online assessment platform so that people could safely participate in controlled digital assessments, and ultimately gain a qualification, no matter where they were in the world. Again, a scalable platform was required – at the time the impact of the pandemic was unknown, and the system needed to be flexible, so whether there were 10 learners or 10,000 learners, they would all have the same experience.
Using the Model for Increasing Organizational Resilience as a reference, it’s clear that some strategies and behaviours played a more prominent role than others in the industry’s pandemic response.
The immediacy of the pandemic’s impacts meant that managing change was key – as with many models, not one strategy or approach stands alone, but are closely interlinked with others. Managing rapid and effective change required effective leadership and a clear, shared vision by NEBOSH and its employees, as well as with its Learning Partners and their employees and learners.
Key to the success of any change is communication. In times of crisis, accurate information is crucial to help make good decisions and sharing this with one another was key for NEBOSH’s community of colleagues, Learning Partners, learners, and other stakeholders (or as the model would suggest, tangible evidence of a strategic focus on a shared vision, information sharing and collaborative behaviours).
Benefits and Challenges
Of course, introducing new solutions to anything, at scale, in a short time frame is not without its challenges. Yet, the swift change to the training and learning landscape has realised a huge number of benefits that are here to stay. Fawz Salah, Dr Arshid Mahmood Ali and Manikandan Gobinath all cite flexibility, scalability and a wider market as some of the common benefits – more learners can access training and assessment, whenever they need to, around commitments such as work or family. Materials and resources can be continuously updated, easily and at lower cost, giving learners access to huge libraries of information, on the go.
“an Open University study found that distance learning courses produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions”
What’s more, learners and organisations have been especially positive about this global shift in the approach to training; NEBOSH Learning Partners report positive reviews and recommendations to their learner’s colleagues and managers. There is also a significant environmental benefit too – a 2005 Open University study2 found that distance learning courses used nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions.
A downside of the reliance on technology was that for some areas of the Middle East, the lack of infrastructure, i.e. internet availability, strength and speed, can be a barrier and “our Iraqi learners also faced problems due to power cuts” says Fawz Salah.
The person themselves can also be a barrier to success. Not because they want to be, but because sometimes they prefer a different learning style. Dr Ali outlines a few of the challenges digital learning presents:
- Can be a more isolated way of learning
- Demands enhanced time management skills
- Requires more time to explain and complete the whole course
- Lack of social interaction, which is an established to tool to polish one’s learning
With the right technology and approach, some of these challenges can be overcome. For example, facilitated networking and access to tutors to overcome isolation and enable interaction. Time management skills vary from person to person, but they are an essential skill for an aspiring professional – trying different techniques in your learning can be a great way to polish this skill. Where learners did have infrastructure issues, NEBOSH and its Learning Partners worked together to offer flexibility to any affected learners.
Manikandan Gobinath says: “The pandemic gave an opportunity for a different way of thinking. The new and improved versions of assessment methodologies have helped us to explore new horizons of instilling the culture of workplace occupational safety across corporatesa and individuals alike. Most corporates have now included the new norm of training as part of their training matrix, where in an increased requirement of company-wide training requirements has seen an upward trend in virtual learning.” Manikandan’s observation is backed up by research that LinkedIn3 carried out in early 2021 which found that 79% of Learning and Development professionals expected to spend more on online learning.
What Does the Future Look Like?
A return to face-to-face learning will happen BUT learners will have the choice to choose how they study. For those that choose remote learning, the quality and quantity is greater. For training organisations, their infrastructure is now such that their technology enables them to adapt and scale activities at pace – not just in a crisis situation, as with COVID, but to capitalise on any other future opportunity that may arise.
As Fawz Salah puts it: “There was much resistance and scepticism prior to the pandemic, however, I feel like this has changed forever due to the opportunities and benefits presented with online learning. In the short future, demand is going to be even higher for training generally (and e-learning specifically) due to the unemployment and job searchers in pursuit of a better skillset, which is something we are prepared for.”
Manikandan Gobinath concludes: “There is always a need to evolve and adapt to the changing situation and the only way this can be ascertained is by bringing about a change that gives potential learners a feel-good factor.”
Lessons for our Profession
Notwithstanding the huge and saddening personal impacts of the pandemic, there are opportunities for us as people and organisations to learn and to grow. Benchmarking our organisations against the resilience model can highlight the strengths we were able to draw upon, as well as those areas where further development is required.
Behaviour is key to this model – it’s at the centre for a reason and there are 16 desirable behaviours that contribute towards resilience. It’s important therefore, to look outside of a simply organisational approach and consider personal (human) resilience too. Resilience is not a yes/no concept – organisations and people can move up and down a scale at any moment.
With human factors in particular, resilience is complex but not always treated as such by organisations. A person is not resilient to asbestos, for example, so their organisation provides the appropriate PPE and establishes safe working practices. So why should we expect workers to be resilient to other factors without providing the appropriate support and tools? Gallup’s 2021 State of the Global Workplace4 shows that the MENA region has work to do on developing mental health and wellbeing amongst workers – feelings of worry, stress, anger and sadness were all above the global average.
The British Psychological Society provides another model for us to think about – the Skills Based Model of Personal Resilience, published in early 2021. By considering this, organisations can put in place practical support to help their people and ensure they are able to cope with whatever challenges the pandemic may yet bring (and any other challenges or opportunities of the future).
COVID 19 has presented our profession and industry with a catalyst for change. The outcome and lasting impacts of this pandemic are still unclear but, by using what we have learnt, we can adapt and overcome, whatever the future may hold. “Always foresee unpredicted circumstances and be prepared to cope with both the un-expected and/or unseen challenges.” Dr Arshid Mahmood Ali