It sent shockwaves across the globe, cost a Prime Minister his job, led to all manner of back-stabbing amongst leading Leavers, saw 1 in 8 of us fall out irreparably with a friend or family member, and plunged us into a national uncertainty arguably not seen since the Second World War. Brexit has been one heck of a noisy newcomer, and we’ve not even left the EU yet. Whether you’re still unable to take off your plastic Union Flag bowler hat, or you quietly weep into a blue, starry flag at night, we are unified in one, common agreement; no-one really knows where this all goes next. As professionals, the best we can do is take stock and start planning for probable outcomes. Learning and development must feature in those plans, but the question quite simply is, how?
Although the initial gloomy economic forecasts on the back of the Leave win have proven overstated, we must not lose sight of the fact that we haven’t actually left the EU yet. In the increasingly likely event of a ‘hard Brexit’ the threat still looms of a downturn that could lead to full-blown recession. History has shown that in times of such debilitating economic hardship, L&D is one of the first areas of business to be strapped into the guillotine. Indeed, following the 2008 credit crunch, a Personnel Today survey conducted the year after, showed that nearly two thirds of respondents had reported a reduction in L&D spend, with 24% admitting to a reduction in training output.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but on reflection, pre-2008 spending on L&D was generally wasteful. Huge amounts were frittered away on arbitrary courses for the purposes of putting ticks in boxes. As corporate belts tightened in the aftermath, the approach to L&D was forced into change with courses becoming leaner, more objective focused, and with a greater emphasis on e-Learning programs. Should the worst happen again, then like post-2008, the effect on L&D hinges very much on an organisation’s response to it. Depending on where and how hard the axe falls on budgets, managers will have to become creative with what tools they use, and how they use them.
Amongst the arguments put forward by the Leave campaign both before and after the referendum was the enhanced opportunity for the UK to trade on a more global scale. Though the assurances that countries ‘will be queueing up to make deals with us’ may yet prove to be a little inflated, longer term opportunities beyond the confines of the EU27 are certainly possible. As new markets emerge and the reach of UK business extends, training may need a new focus on cultural differences and how best to communicate within these markets. Clumsy, ill-informed interactions within these markets could prove costly, so staff will require focussed education.
If, as is expected, the UK opts for a ‘hard Brexit’ then following the two-year period after Article 50 is invoked, all EU regulation will cease to apply. Revised UK regulation may well borrow from and mirror some EU regulation, but wholesale changes should be expected. It will be incumbent then on HR departments to make sure staff are fully informed as to revised rights and obligations.
It won’t just be about changes in regulation though. Training will be needed to bestow upon and consolidate the skills needed for managers to guide organisations through these quite unfamiliar waters. There will need to be a shift in focus from management to leadership with the latter seen as most crucial during periods of uncertainty. This will require dedicated training in enhanced communication, articulating vision, motivating staff and company insight.
Adapt to Survive
During times of great upheaval, it can be tempting to carry on regardless and hope for the best. At all costs, this temptation must be resisted. As the months progress it will become clearer and clearer what kind of Brexit we are going to get and how this will affect us. Organisations need to be thinking now about these changes and start putting preliminary strategies in place. These strategies must include L&D and the role it will play in preparing the workforce for the challenges ahead. With budgets inevitably becoming more tightly scrutinised, it is expected that there will be a greater uptake of e-Learning programs such is there proven efficacy and ROI.
At this stage, it’s impossible to say how organisations should begin preparing for Brexit, only that they should. Barring the House of Lords doing something dramatic, we are leaving the European Union and as yet, no-one can say with any confidence how that’s going to play out. What developments have shown us in recent years though is that a well-resourced and intelligent L&D strategy have a measurably positive impact on operations. In the interest of enduring the uncertainties the next few years will most likely bring, safeguarding and adapting that strategy might just be the difference.