Main menu


Transformation through digitally enabled learning

featured image

The Sunday Mail

Dr. Richard Munyanyi

THERE has been debate on the Learning and Development (L&D) profession.

L&D practitioners suffer an “identity crisis” of being trainers, organizational developers, managers and learning strategists.

All these are overlapping roles, but with distinct applications and knowledge, and in trying to provide all things to all people, they emerge with a disturbed self.

So, L&D practitioners are required to continually extend the self as an active reflexive project, in a process of “endless amalgamation” to integrate their multiple selves. Notwithstanding this identity crisis the practitioners find themselves in, L&D activity and demands have clearly evolved enormously over the last 40 years.

Training was part of personnel (HR had not been invented) and over the years, it became part of Organizational Development (OD), a separate function in those few organizations that went down that path.

OD in most European organizations disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s as it gained a bad reputation for being disconnected from a business’ core activities. OD, however, has since reappeared with some new twists and terminologies. What remains constant over the years in all this is Learning, even e-Learning has a small “e” and a capital letter “L”, thus Learning is still Learning.

L&D, as I mentioned, occurs in a contested environment, where practitioners continually reconstruct their identity.

The shift towards knowledge work and a digital economy has increased the emphasis on learning, fueling the growth of a diverse body of practitioners, seeking legitimacy for their capability, as an emerging quasi-profession.

Scholars argue that L&D practitioners now, more than ever before, play a critical role in delivering what is now known as a Learning Organisation. A learning organization is “a place where employees excel at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge”. Multinational organizations such as Google and Adobe come to mind when the discourse of a Learning Organizations is being unpacked.

One common denominator about the Learning Organizations mentioned above is the issue of having an engaged workforce. Employee engagement is itself a result of a resilient workforce. Resilience simply means positive adaptation. Literature shows that resilient employees not only cope through challenges but possess additional skills to successfully navigate through workplace adversities.

Resilience, thus, might serve to construct a pathway for developing engaged employees, wherein the workers can not only employ their resources to confront new challenges but also find new ways to handle the demanding situations at the workplace.

Triangulation of the three factors — resilience, Learning Organization and employee engagement — yields an agile organization, one that is capable of surviving through adversities such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

What is, however, important in all this discussion is that L&D practitioners play an important role in all positive organizational transformation.

So, what are the key takeaways from the triangulation of resilience, Learning Organization and employee engagement.

  1. Human Resource (HR) professionals must recognize and design practices for fostering employees’ resilience
  2. There has been a paradigm shift, whereas over the years, L&D professionals have mainly focused on augmenting human capital knowledge, skills and proficiencies to achieve competitive advantage in the current times of “flat-world globalization” and mounting competition, these strategies are no longer sufficient. L&D practitioners should, thus, focus more on the business value chain, not the individual.
  3. Management should focus less on reacting to the adverse changes and, instead, focus more on developing their employees’ resilience. L&D professionals and departments need to invest in building Learning Organizations to develop employee resilience, in general, and to keep their employees engaged, in particular.

The question that then emerges is: What practical steps should L&D practitioners take to ensure that they deliver learning organisations? The answer is straightforward. They must transform from being order takers to impactful business partners. This would be achieved through creating experiences and an agile learning and development ecosystem that enables a culture of continuous learning.

One area that L&D practitioners should quickly harness as they deliver organizational transformation is the infusion of technology or information and communication technologies – especially cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning — in L&D programs so as to make L&D an exciting experience for everyone in the organization.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality refers to computer technology that simulates reality by using digital formats. Virtual reality creates realistic sounds and images and other sensations that locate users in an imaginary environment. This technology takes learners to imaginary spaces surrounded by a deeply engaging environment. Virtual reality has shown great potential in teaching courses such as physics and astronomy. However, VR requires expensive hardware and software such as Unity 3D, which makes it complicated and expensive to use. Nevertheless, the harnessing of this technology into training simulators has great potential in L&D.

augmented reality

Augmented reality technology converts artificial features such as 3D artifacts, multimedia contents or text information into real-world images. This enhances the interaction between the learner and content. A good L&D practitioner can take online learners to the planet Mars while they are in the comfort of their home. Like VR, AR requires expensive 3D software and content, and the development requires specialist knowledge. AR and VR are likely to change the way learners learn and teachers teach as work is ongoing to marry the technologies to cheaper gadgets like mobile phones.

artificial intelligence

AI is the intelligence exhibited by machines and has been harnessed in developing intelligent tutoring systems where learning can be conducted by a computer program. The machine can interact with the learner and solve their problems in real-time. AI systems have the capability of identifying areas where learners have problems and, as a result, the learner can concentrate more on their weaker areas.

These systems are interactive, hence they have advantages over traditional linear pre-programmed e-Learning courses. Although AI is a game-changer in e-Learning, it requires skilled programmers and expensive AI engines.


Big data, in the context of e-Learning systems (also called big learning data), “consists of information sources (courses, modules, experiments, etc) created by teachers, but especially data coming from the learners throughout the education process”. This data is usually collected by the learning management system (LMS), social networks and multimedia. Big data also entails information produced by learners as they go through online training, for example, their assessment results, progress and social sharing.

Using big data, e-Learning experts can make informed decisions about learners in terms of where they need improvements, areas of interest and how the module can be fine-tuned for maximum benefit of the learner.

machine learning

This is a computer science that gives computers the ability to learn without being programmed. When used together with LMS, machine learning can offer customized e-Learning solutions based on previous e-Learning learners’ past performance and enables efficient distribution of resources as online learners receive resources that are tailor-made to address their learning gaps.

Wearable devices

Wearable devices are smart electronic devices that can be worn or implanted in the body. These can deliver training programs regardless of time and space. Wearable devices have the potential of making e-Learning and L&D exciting and effective.

The above cutting-edge technologies are revolutionizing learning and development in general, and e-Learning in particular.

The progression and advancement of digital tools is ushering in an era where literacy will not be measured by one’s ability to read and write, but by one’s ability to harness ICT as decision support systems and engines for social transformation.

Learning and development for organizational transformation should, thus, be premised on the principles of collaboration, innovation, research, agility, inclusion and user-centrism. Command and control L&D principles have no space in the contemporary world and should be thrown into the dustbin.

Dr. Richard Munyanyi is a learning and development specialist. He holds a PhD in Management Sciences from Durban University of Technology in South Africa specializing in Public Administration. The views expressed in this article are his personal views on the subject.