In February, Nexia International appointed Alastair McTavish as its new learning and development (L&D) manager. Joe Pickard speaks to him to find out more about the pandemic’s impact on the L&D process


 The Accountant: How much of an impact have the various lockdowns across the globe had on CPD?

Alastair McTavish: I think it has increased the importance of having a digital and blended learning offering.

Many organisations rushed to transfer their face-to-face training into live virtual webinars, with varying levels of success. Like anything, people get better with experience and practice. The current situation is actually a great opportunity for organisations to reflect on their L&D strategy and speed up the digital transformation of their learning interventions.

I hear a lot of firms are looking to update their old clunky learning management systems and are researching or implementing new learning experience platforms that resemble Netflix or YouTube. In this way, their employees can ‘learn in the flow of work’ and not have to wait six months until the next live course to learn something, or rely so much on checking Google or YouTube when they run into a challenge at work.


TA: How has the pandemic impacted the need for upskilling and relearning?

AM: Onboarding new staff virtually remains a challenge for many firms. How can companies give new staff a positive onboarding experience without meeting them face to face? Many firms have done some great things, but there is still a lot to learn in this area. Managers and leaders have had to learn how to recruit virtually, manage and lead remote teams and take a closer interest in the well-being of their staff.

Professional services firms have had to improve their ability to win new business and service their current clients without face-to-face contact.


TA: How has the pandemic highlighted gaps in knowledge and experience?

AM: The pandemic has highlighted gaps in knowledge and experience at many firms in a number of areas. A few of these include people’s ability to manage change, to deal with unexpected situations and to think of innovative and creative solutions.

I recently read a book called Rebel Ideas by high-performance expert Matthew Syed. In the book, he talks about the value of diverse thinking to solve challenging problems.

I think most firms say they listen to their employees’ ideas, but in reality many do not. That’s why concepts such as creating psychological safety for employees to speak up and share ideas is becoming more important. Likewise, methodologies from other industries such as IT and tech are starting to be embraced by some professional services firms, for example agile and design thinking.


TA: What areas do you believe need to be focused on in terms of upskilling?

AM: Every firm is different and every employee has their own challenges. L&D teams need to spend a bit more time uncovering the real problems their staff are facing – rather than guessing, assuming or just taking orders from stakeholders – and then offering a wide variety of learning interventions to help them at the point of need. A common trend is moving from ‘courses to resources’ providing useful tools and performance support that help staff to do their job.

It might be a live training course, but it could be a one-page checklist or common mistakes to avoid as a new manager, a blog post, infographic, podcast or even a TikTok video. People like to learn and consume content in a variety of formats. If L&D can provide different types of resources in a wide variety of formats, it will increase the chances that employees feel empowered to take control of their own learning and personal development.

Some of the popular areas that firms are focussing on include personal resilience and well-being, virtual onboarding, virtual recruiting, succession planning, improving soft skills such as influencing and persuasion, effective communication skills, mentoring skills, and the ability to give and receive feedback.


TA: As a global network, will you be taking a holistic approach to learning and development programmes, or do you need a more tailored approach for different regions and countries?

AM: Both a holistic and tailored approach. We will deliver some of our learning programmes for our member firms in other languages, such as Spanish and Mandarin, to help make them as inclusive as possible. For example, when our colleagues in South America translate webinar content and deliver sessions in Spanish, it has been hugely popular.

Having personally delivered L&D programmes in more than a dozen countries, I believe a tailored approach in different regions is important to respect the local culture and way of working.

In a previous role, I delivered a number of global training programmes in China. If I had tried to facilitate workshops in a 100% standardised way then certain concepts would not have translated very well or could have caused offense. I am, therefore, a fan of tailoring up to 20% of content for different regions and countries, and where possible using facilitators that speak the local language and understand the cultural nuances.


TA: Will the coming year be focused more on virtual training as opposed to face to face, given the ongoing pandemic? What impact will this have and what are the pros and cons of virtual learning?

AM: Virtual learning in 2021; hybrid in 2022 and beyond. Virtual learning has a lot of obvious benefits, including lower costs – no need to pay for flights or hotels for international colleagues – and the option for staff to log into training from around the world. Some of the disadvantages of virtual training include screen fatigue, with so many Teams or Zoom meetings. It is also harder to build a strong connection and rapport through a screen.

However, I think with experience, facilitators are becoming more confident in using breakout rooms, polls, the chat box and other applications such as Miro and Poll Everywhere, to help make virtual training more interactive and engaging.

I was speaking to a partner at one of Nexia International’s member firms today, who mentioned they are now focusing on more blended learning rather than traditional face-to-face training. A few firms in other industries have even stopped all face-to-face training and only provide digital learning. In my opinion, in the next few years most companies will focus on a blended approach to learning and try to create personal learning journeys for their staff.

Their learning experience platforms will use algorithms like Netflix, Amazon and YouTube to push relevant content to their employees based on their preferences and previous usage.

Face-to-face training will still exist, but there will be less than before and the time together will be even more focused and precious. For me, the future is definitely blended.