Many business leaders will have heard the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) used to describe the current political climate.

It’s recently become the acronym du jour, and its implications are on everyone’s mind. As a result, many organisations are working hard to establish what this means for them, and what they can do to minimise the impact of the VUCA world on their business objectives.

However, the truth is that while VUCA may be the latest buzzword, this constant evolution is not really anything new. Businesses have been facing bold, dramatic change in their specific industries for many years; the difference today is that it tends to be much more overt, tangible and fast paced.

Because people and organisations are able to share their new ideas much more freely, this is requiring a new level of dynamism from companies in order to keep up with the competition. In the past, organisations had less awareness of what others in their industry were doing, and arguably felt less impetus to change their own behaviours as a result. Today this is just not possible, and it has resulted in a constant battle for superiority amongst brands, that is propelling change at an exponential rate.

The key to surviving in a VUCA world is to think big, but not necessarily long term

The challenge is that because of their very nature very little can be done to brace against the impact of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – these are terms that inherently describe unpredictability, making planning ahead difficult. The response to a VUCA world, therefore, needs to be about changing mindsets and preparing people to deal with change, rather than putting predefined plans in place to protect against it, and this is where L&D has an important role to play.

There are many areas in which L&D can offer a helping hand to enable businesses and their employees to survive in the VUCA world, but there are certain key areas that businesses should aim to focus on for maximum impact.

Leadership

There are many who would argue that leadership has never been more important than it is today. Employees are weary from constant change and additional pressure being placed on them, and in this environment, it is easy for individuals to lose faith in the overall vision of the business and disengage.

Employees need to feel inspired to action, and often this will come down to the leaders they are following – do these leaders show faith and commitment to the goals of the business? Do they communicate this effectively and explain why? Do they work with employees to ensure they have the right tools and support to enable to very best performance? If the answer is no to even one of these questions, productivity and performance will inevitably decline, especially when things become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

L&D’s role in this instance is to support leaders in developing the right skillset, mindset and toolset to bring out the best in their employees, just as it has been for a long time. However, in a VUCA world leaders need to enable and empower their people to respond to challenges independently, while remaining in line with the vision of the business. As a result, the dynamic now needs to change towards one where leaders aspire to become inspirational to those they lead, rather than directorial. Developing skills in innovation, inspirational leadership, and influencing will all be key to achieve this.

Professional Competence

Having the right staff in role, with the most appropriate skills, is certainly nothing new when it comes to building a successful business. However, in a VUCA world, this becomes even more critical as employees are expected to respond to swift changes without hesitation. This is clearly not feasible if employees are not competent in the necessary skills to start with, and will then be further challenged when asked to take on something new on top.

L&D’s role in mitigating this issue is twofold – to support staff in achieving true competence in their current role, but also to provide proactive support to up-skill individuals in line with the evolving needs of the business.

The challenge of trying to plan ahead and assess upcoming requirements is inherently difficult, but this should not be used as an excuse not to do anything at all. While precise skills training may not be possible until a change has taken effect, there are numerous other areas L&D can offer added value to employees.

These include areas such as problem-solving skills, leadership, communication skills, and project management. All of these are areas that employees would benefit from at all stages of their career, regardless of the external factors, but become all the more important when facing uncertainty in their role, organisation or industry.

Personal Resilience

If there is anything that is likely to prompt stress responses in employees it’s volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity in their role. As a result of the VUCA environment, many organisations are seeing increasing levels of stress and mental ill-health in their workforce, as they strive to manage all the change being thrown at them.

While it’s important that the organisation as a whole works to address and mitigate this, there is an important role for L&D in developing programmes to focus on these areas, and equip employees with suitable tools and skills to manage some of this on their own.

Growing numbers of companies are coming to recognise the importance of providing support to their workforce to provide them with the resources to take care of themselves, for the benefit of the business as well as the individual. Programmes in mental toughness and resilience are particularly popular at the moment, but even ‘old-school’ topics such as time management, and influencing skills can be vital tools to help employees cope when facing uncertainty in their role.

The importance of organisational culture in a VUCA world

As highlighted above, personal development, resilience and competence are now more important than ever to face the challenges of a constantly changing environment. However, there are some additional areas where L&D will have a part to play, and these include the overarching approach the organisation takes towards learning and development:

Self-directed learning

As people are being required to update their skills and alter the way they work on a more frequent basis, most do not have the luxury of waiting for the L&D function to sign them up for a course, and then take time away from work to attend it.

The need for rapid skill development has necessitated a route that supports this, and for many employees this is taking the form of self-directed learning. It is, therefore, essential that L&D functions are prepared and equipped to support their learners in this way, allowing a dynamic approach to learning that is vital in a VUCA world.

Agile working

Just as learners need to be dynamic in their personal efficacy when it comes to their learning, L&D also needs to be agile in how it responds to the changes being witnessed in the business.

This agility doesn’t just end at being able to provide new training programmes in response to learner needs, it also includes the ability to use data to make quick decisions, reorganise where necessary for optimal functioning, and being able to respond rapidly to new developments across the business. If this isn’t occurring then L&D may be viewed as a suppressant of growth, rather than an enabler.

Tuned to business needs

In order to function at optimal levels, all departments need to work closely together and be available to support the others where necessary.

From an L&D perspective this is rarely the case; it is still common for L&D to work in silo, but this is far from ideal. To respond effectively and swiftly to the changes being seen across many industries, L&D needs to be proactive in its approach, and that requires a well-tuned insight into what is happening across the organisation. This in turn requires cross-departmental working, and effective communication to allow quick decision making and implementation when rapid change is needed.

The key to surviving in a VUCA world is to think big, but not necessarily long term – for most businesses the overarching objective won’t change for a long time, whether this is to be to be the number one company in your sector, or to grow the revenue to X per cent. But what will change is the things that happen in between.

These interim changes might change how you achieve an objective, or how long it is going to take, and that is what needs to be considered. Adapting your L&D function to be prepared for these roadblocks and alternative paths, and being able to navigate these with confidence and competence, is what will ensure long term success.

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