Emerging from the Pandemic: A New Perspective on Learning and Sensemaking

September 29, 2020 by Gordon Ferrier

The world is slowly coming out of the first phase of the pandemic that started in China towards the end of 2019 and spread to almost every other country in a matter of months. That emergence is halting in places, prompting periodic remarks about a “second wave” even before the first has ended. Economies have been battered, and businesses will need time to rebuild but time is in short supply. Whilst we still have to learn almost everything there is to know about how the pandemic started, how it spread, and what allowed some countries to handle it much better than others did, it seems that responding to the crisis will require unprecedented measures to bring about the changes needed. Public finance practitioners and those involved in training and learning are deeply involved in bringing about these changes. But before we can even start doing that, we have to think about what kind of future we are facing.

Whatever that future turns out to be, it has become increasingly clear that it will not be any semblance of a return to the pre-pandemic normality. Writing in The Sunday Times on 23 August 2020, Peter Evans summarized “the great coronavirus acceleration” as having “crunched years of behavioral change and tech disruption into months”, classing it as a “challenge for leaders”. Examples abound across virtually every sector of the economy. In education, providers around the world have been forced to move online at a pace that few had anticipated. In the early stages of the pandemic, FTSE 100 education giant Pearson offered 2,000 free virtual school places to prospective students in China. They received 70,000 applications! At a time when many organizations, including the CEF, are moving their training and learning to a new online environment, it’s instructive to note that Pearson’s chairman, Sidney Taurel, sees this becoming a way of life, especially for older students. London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw affirms this trend and notes that “the resistance wears away when it becomes a necessity and very quickly people realize how well it works”.

The change in education, training and learning more generally is not simply about moving from one mode of delivery to another. Cognitive Edge, one of the organisations at the leading edge of developing approaches that allow organisations to absorb uncertainty and create resilience, observes that “the knowledge and skills that brought us success in the past are now becoming irrelevant at a mind-bending pace”. As more and more people settle into remote working, there is renewed interest in what this means for learning and flows of knowledge. As an organization with that at its heart, the CEF needs to play its part in this process of sensemaking.

Of course, bringing about change in organizations, like those in the public sector, that are large, complicated and affected by constraints on legal and financial powers is not simple. And there are almost inherent contradictions in the positions taken by many organizations. In reporting the results of a recent survey of its Professional Accountancy Organization (PAO) members, the Confederation of Asia Pacific Accountants (CAPA) noted that “… PAO leaders agreed that what a PAO will look like in the future was impossible to predict …” but at the same time, when asked whether business models needed to be adapted or changed to operate in the new normal, “… most PAOs are of the opinion that they do not foresee huge paradigm shifts”.


The challenges posed are not trivial. Take remote working, for example. How many times in the workplace have we found a solution to a problem through “running into” a workmate and having a rewarding conversation about a shared problem? How can we “run into” others when we are only virtually connected through a computer screen?

The changing focus of education and training has implications for people beyond those involved in frontline delivery. Organizational leaders are increasingly seeing their role as creating the kind of environment in which learning can take place. Organizational training teams are shifting their focus rapidly from designing content to designing context. New ideas are developing at great pace: serendipitous learning and distributed cognition are only two of the ideas that all organizations – particularly those like the CEF, with a very direct interest in learning and development – are having to come to terms with. We have to rethink the existing resources that we have come to rely on. And we have to reconfigure the networks of relationships that we have depended on to develop and test out new ideas in order to cope with the new reality. The communities of learning that we have painstakingly created over the years have to be reimagined in the new, virtual world.

There is no grand plan in place here, no overarching single common vision for the future. As Wendy Schultz, a thought leader in the Futures community, explains it,

»To adapt to challenge, complex systems require … to move beyond any individual expert’s insights to the highly granular, multi-perspective global imagination, with competing, contrasting, and collaborative futures drawn from people around the world.«

This multi-perspective global imagination isn’t simply a better mechanism for forecasting. Given the uncertainties we face, and the inherent uncertainty of looking into the future, how people envision that future is the only thing we can easily get hold of about what that future might look like. And the images, visual and verbal, on which those visions are based reflect each individual’s assumptions, implicit and explicit, about something that is inherently unknowable. For some time to come, it seems, we will be living life in perpetual beta. It’s time for us to come to terms with that, and give up our old ways of seeing the world and embracing the tension between familiarity and novelty. As that unfolds, look out for how this is happening in more posts on this Learning Blog.

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