Learning from COVID-19 to Prepare for AI Disruption: Wisdom Gap Impacts On L&D

Learning from COVID-19 to Prepare for AI Disruption: Wisdom Gap Impacts On L&D
Midjourney prompt: a painting in the style of "The School of Athens" by Raphael but with everyone wearing surgical masks


This post explores how the Wisdom Gap is increasingly impacting the Learning and Development (L&D) sector. We’ll delve into how lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic prepare us for AI's impending disruptions in society and within our organizations. The mass shift to remote work triggered by COVID-19 upended L&D strategies across educational and corporate settings, challenging organizations to meet immediate COVID-19 demands while maintaining existing learning programs.

The Wisdom Gap: A Quick Recap

In our previous post, we outlined the Wisdom Gap as a widening chasm between the complexities of contemporary challenges and our collective capability to tackle them. This gap has practical, tangible implications that directly affect the success and resilience of individuals, organizations, and societies.

COVID-19: A Wisdom Gap Unmasked

The pandemic shone a harsh light on the Wisdom Gap, forcing organizations to adapt to remote work with little notice. L&D departments often lacked a coherent strategy as they rapidly digitized learning experiences. This rapid change exposed the inadequacies of traditional L&D methods when faced with sudden, disruptive shifts.

Societal Implications

Despite early warnings about our unpreparedness for a likely global pandemic and the rapid development of vaccines, the pandemic saw numerous avoidable mistakes. This demonstrated a glaring Wisdom Gap. Societies were unprepared and failed to stockpile vital supplies like Personal Protective Equipment. Compounded by misinformation spread through social media, this led to a loss of trust in institutions and politicization of the pandemic response.

Visualization of the timeline and death toll of global pandemics from the Antonine Plague to COVID-19.
Image credit to Visual Capitalist

While some countries fared better than others in terms of estimated excess deaths per capita (see interactive chart from Our World in Data below), the debate is far from over. Differences in outcomes may be due to proactive measures taken—such as early, coordinated prevention. However, unchangeable factors like demographics undoubtedly played a key role. Public opinion remains divided, not just on the efficacy and risks of vaccines, but also on the complex trade-offs between pandemic restrictions and personal freedoms—elements that continue to stoke societal discord.

The societal challenges posed by COVID-19 had a cascading impact on organizations, amplifying existing struggles for both organizations and their L&D teams. This raises the question: Might organizations in countries that navigated COVID-19 relatively well have faced fewer or less complex challenges compared to those hit hard by the pandemic and associated societal discord? We suspect so, and will unpack this in the sections that follow.

Organizational Implications

The societal challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic created a ripple effect that severely impacted organizations. While many companies were already grappling with fast-paced digital transformations, the pandemic added an extra layer of complexity. Organizations had to pivot to remote work, often facing conflicting or no guidance across various jurisdictions. The fast pivot to remote accelerated digital adoption; however, it also exposed gaps in digital readiness.

The societal Wisdom Gap was evident as leaders struggled to make informed decisions in a politically charged environment filled with uncertainty, misinformation, and rapidly changing circumstances. Early on, some organizations stepped up to try to fill societal gaps by procuring or producing PPE themselves and donating it to front line workers or their own employees. Critical functions like strategic planning, crisis management, and employee well-being came under scrutiny, forcing organizations to reevaluate and adapt almost in real-time. Skills gaps became evident, which were then fed into L&D teams.

L&D Team Implications

L&D teams weren't spared from this upheaval. The urgent shift to remote work meant an equally urgent need to digitize face-to-face training programs and courses, without sufficient resources or time for proper instructional design. This situation revealed gaps in the L&D space: a disconnect between traditional, slow learning approaches and the agile, adaptive learning approaches that shine in crisis scenarios. Teams had to not only restructure content but also consider the mental and emotional states of employees, who were coping with enormous stress and change. The pandemic laid bare the limitations of our current L&D strategies and highlighted the need for more resilient, flexible, and scalable learning solutions.

How Scaling Learning Helped

Some L&D teams were able to help their organizations cope with COVID-19 better than others by scaling learning.

  1. Established and Coherent L&D Strategy: Organizations with a well-defined and coherent L&D strategy were at a distinct advantage when the pandemic hit. These organizations were not only agile enough to meet the immediate learning needs but also positioned to invest intentionally towards long-term goals. Because they had a roadmap, they could pivot without getting lost. For instance, many of these organizations took the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate their L&D initiatives, utilizing additional (and often temporary) funding streams to invest in strategic skill development initiatives and learning technologies. Conversely, those without a coherent strategy found themselves scrambling and, at times, misallocating resources into unsustainable programs and learning technologies that proved to be a liability.
  2. A Robust & Integrated Learning Technology Toolbox: Having the right technology stack is critical for scaling learning, a fact that became even more apparent during the pandemic. Organizations with a robust and integrated set of talent and learning technologies were better equipped to shift from in-person to remote learning quickly. They could adapt existing content for online delivery, track learning metrics to evaluate impact, and offer a variety of formats to cater to diverse learning needs. In essence, their technology toolbox was not just a set of isolated tools but an integrated ecosystem that enhanced their L&D strategy and quickly addressed urgent and unique needs that emerged during the pandemic.
  3. Data, Analytics, and Reporting Available & Used: The pandemic made it evident that data-driven decision-making is not a luxury but a necessity. Organizations that had strong data analytics and reporting capabilities were better positioned to assess the impact of the rapid changes in learning delivery methods, adapt strategies in real-time, and demonstrate the ROI of their L&D initiatives. Whether it was analyzing employee engagement metrics, tracking skill development, or assessing the effectiveness of different learning modalities, these organizations used data not just as a rear-view mirror but as a dashboard for steering future strategy.

Strategic alignment, learning tech robustness, and data-driven decision-making enabled certain L&D teams to mitigate the Wisdom Gap during the pandemic, not just reacting to the crisis but leveraging it as an opportunity for scalable, sustainable learning to meet strategic goals.

How Scaling Learning Could Have Helped Address the COVID-19 Wisdom Gap

Broad preventative efforts at the society level are hard but worth exploring given their potential dividends. Recall that the Wisdom Gap can be narrowed by increasing the capacity of society to deal with issues and reducing the complexity of the issues themselves. The following will explore each in turn.

  • Increase Society Capacity: Before COVID-19 even appeared on the global radar, a comprehensive, scaled learning initiative focused on pandemic preparedness could have made a significant difference. Such an initiative would not just have been about encouraging the stockpiling PPE and ventilators, although that's important. It would also involve educating the public, policymakers, and healthcare providers about the importance of preparation, the science behind vaccines and viral transmission, and effective strategies for containment and mitigation. This kind of broad-based education could have led to faster, more coordinated, and less divisive responses, potentially saving lives and resources while also building rather than unraveling social cohesion.
  • Decrease Issue Complexity: Navigating the complexity of COVID-19 was a monumental challenge for individuals, organizations, and entire societies. As we've seen, some countries managed the crisis more effectively, likely simplifying the problem-solving landscape for their organizations and citizens. Here, insights from Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" become invaluable. Kahneman delineates two systems of thought: System 1, which is quick and intuitive, and System 2, which is slower and more deliberative. During high-stress situations like a pandemic, the quick judgments of System 1 can often dominate, leading to potential biases and hasty decisions. To decrease issue complexity, it's crucial to engage our System 2 thinking. This involves creating the time and space to methodically work through challenges, assessing risks and benefits more precisely, and perhaps employing consultative processes or data analytics to inform decisions. By proactively scaling learning to encourage System 2 thinking before emergencies hit, we can make wiser, less biased decisions that simplify crises and could have mitigated the COVID-19 fallout.

Preparing for AI: The Next Frontier

If you thought COVID-19 was a curveball, brace yourself for the AI revolution. While AI promises efficiencies and new capabilities, it also raises questions that society, organizations, and L&D teams are not fully prepared to address. How do we upskill workers displaced by automation? How do we instill ethical considerations into the use of AI both in how we work and how we learn? These questions point to a Wisdom Gap that's widening as AI becomes more capable and more integrated into our workspaces.

The Coming Wave

In the context of our ongoing discussion about Wisdom Gaps, I want to take this opportunity to highlight and recommend Mustafa Suleyman's book "The Coming Wave" (video trailer below) that I'm reading. His book offers a pertinent lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities presented by disruptive technologies, specifically AI and synthetic biology. Suleyman talks about the wave of fast-proliferating technologies that hold the promise of addressing global challenges but also bring about upheaval on an unprecedented scale. This aligns closely with our exploration of how gaps in collective wisdom can either amplify the negative consequences of such technologies or be the key to unlocking their positive potential.

How might the Wisdom Gap between the challenge of the 'Coming Wave' of AI and Synthetic Bio and our capacity to respond drive the priorities of Talent and Learning Professionals in the coming years? 

AI presents both challenges and opportunities for learning. The book serves as both a stark warning and a hopeful guide, similar to what we aim to achieve in addressing the Wisdom Gap by scaling learning through the effective, ethical, and safe use of AI. As we discuss the societal and organizational complexities introduced by COVID-19 and anticipate those that will be brought on by AI, "The Coming Wave" provides valuable insights into how we can navigate this volatile landscape without falling into dystopian pitfalls.

Conclusion and What's Next

We've examined how the Wisdom Gap manifests in COVID-19 to set the stage to explore the Wisdom Gap related to the rise of AI. Addressing this gap requires more than traditional approaches; it requires a comprehensive strategy informed by deep insights into human learning and powered by the effective use of learning technology. Strategic alignment, technological robustness, and data-driven decision-making enabled certain L&D teams to mitigate the Wisdom Gap during the pandemic and offer insights into how to prepare for and navigate coming AI disruptions. We'll also explore how scaling learning beyond organizations can strengthen societal capacity and narrow the AI-related Wisdom Gap.

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