Lean into Learning: The Middle East and Africa

April 27, 2021 | Activate Learning | 4 min read

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March of 2020, businesses worldwide faced a global shift to remote work at warp speed. At Skillsoft, we learned alongside our partners as we worked from home, reimagined live events as virtual experiences, and redesigned our courses to meet the urgent business learning requirements of the new normal. Our work was — and still is —based on one question:

How can we help people learn the skills and competencies they need to become future-fit?

In our annual Lean into Learning report, we took stock of how 2020 changed the face of learning across the globe. And we discovered that no matter where in the world a business is based, access to learning lies at the heart of adaptability and resilience. The organisations that will thrive are those that foster a culture of continuous learning.

Recent Skillsoft blogs focused on the state of learning in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand,China, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Now, we're taking a closer look at the Middle East and South Africa.

What was the state of learning in the region prior to 2020?

Until recently, learning was certainly valued, but not necessarily prioritised. In fact, a 2017 study by Financial Times showed that executive education and leadership development came sixth on the priority list of 1,000 respondents across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The survey showed their top priorities for 2017 were in-market growth, strategy development and execution, financial management, and cybersecurity. Many respondents also saw education and leadership development as challenges they wanted to address over the next few years — and here we are. It's no longer a choice; it's mission-critical.

Prior to the pandemic, there were gaps in learning adoption in the region based on hesitancy around privacy and data security issues, along with cultural issues such as local language content. We saw some distrust regarding learning moving to the cloud, and how that might align with government regulations. For instance, Saudi Arabia was cautious when it came to data hosting solutions from outside the kingdom. Across the region, there was still a large focus on traditional classroom training. And because they didn't invest as much time in online learning, courses had to be shorter. There was also confusion around digital transformation and how that might look for specific industries.

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How did learning change as the pandemic evolved?

The question is, how didn't it change? For example, United Arab Emirates (UAE) traditionally generates a lot of revenue from sectors like hospitality, tourism, entertainment, property, and retail. With the advent of global lockdowns and travel restrictions, many jobs in those industries were lost, some permanently. That being said, businesses that could adapt to remote work have seen a sharp spike in online learning since the onset of the pandemic, with higher demand for courses on time management, remote work productivity, and decision making.

Out of necessity, more organisations finally moved to cloud-based content delivery. In fact, we’re working with more customers throughout the region than ever before. In the Middle East alone, Skillsoft has experienced close to 25% growth in our programs. In Turkey particularly, we have seen a significant increase in our Technology and Developer offering with upwards of 250% growth. Many have reached out to us to work with them on customising programs that best support them as they make the crucial transition from in-person learning. We're currently developing more content in Arabic, which we anticipate will be in high demand throughout the region.

During this crisis, we’re seeing a transformation of leadership, supported through Skillsoft's Leadership Development Program. Beyond executive training, we’re helping organisations develop broader learning libraries for all employees. In South Africa particularly, there is an increased focus on the re-skilling of staff through our custom Aspire Journeys. And, there’s a greater focus on course completion enabled by Digital Badging, providing greater “reporting” capacity for L&D/HR to demonstrate engagement with content and ROI justification.

What does the future of learning look like?

A survey conducted by KPMG earlier this year found that more than a quarter (28%) of the workforce in UAE will require reskilling, and that's more or less reflective of the situation throughout MEA. Looking ahead, we see new opportunities for employees through new technology and digital learning experiences. Of course, cultural influences and lingering hesitancy may still affect regional adoption rates; and we anticipate a stronger requirement for expert-authored content that can be validated and customized.

COVID-19 has been a paradox for us all. For some businesses, the pandemic has highlighted shortcomings and enforced cultural boundaries. For many others, it has proved to be a catalyst for growth and new ways of connecting.

Learning is the bridge across that divide.