March Spotlight: Neel Vaidhyanatha Learning and Development Manager Dubai

  1. Tell us about you, your experience and time in the Middle East.

As an engineer and an industrial designer, I started my career in the area of experience design, developing user interfaces and interactive content for in-flight entertainment (IFE) platforms and managing the IFE accounts for global carriers, including Emirates. Having trained airline engineers on these systems, I was fascinated by the world of learning and the potential it had in impacting people and organisations. So, I took to L&D, joined a learning technology start-up in the US and led a globally distributed team of learning designers to cater to a variety of sectors, from K-12 to corporate learning.

I moved to the UAE in 2003, to take up an offer from the Emirates Group. Over the last 16 years, I have progressed in my career, taking on different roles. This included leading large-scale initiatives, embedding digital and mobile learning, upskilling L&D professionals and partnering with business leaders in bringing measurable, impactful solutions. The region, and the UAE in particular, has always offered me opportunities to learn and grow. It continues to inspire me to develop a proactive mindset, focus on business results and use creativity to meet the demands of tomorrow.

  1. How would you describe some of the changes in recent times?

The organisation has achieved exponential growth over the years and has also pushed through several challenges and adverse conditions. With a workforce strength of over 160 nationalities spread across multiple locations, there’s constant thrust for innovation and collaboration while delivering cost efficiencies across business areas. Being a highly regulated industry, employees have typically received a mix of mandatory and regulatory training, as well as self-initiated, on-demand learning.

The learning landscape has also seen tremendous changes over the years, with investment in digital infrastructure and mobile learning solutions, focus on learning application on the job as well as demand for demonstrating ROI, especially for strategically critical initiatives. On the other hand, when an organisation has a large number of people working in a dynamic, operational, customer-facing environment, compared to those involved in corporate and back-office functions, a substantial workforce doesn’t end up getting easy and consistent access to learning. Line managers cite practical constraints – such as their inability to allow mobile devices during operations or allocating additional time for learning, considering resource limitations. It requires a mindset change across all levels and a practical approach to address the challenges from multiple angles, through better stakeholder engagement.

  1. What are your recommendations for L&D leaders to get direct access to the decision makers in the company?

I see three main factors that can help L&D leaders gain easy access to decision makers, especially in a large organisation. These are:

  1. Solid performance consulting
  2. Continuous skills development of L&D teams and
  3. Establishing and nurturing a trusted business partnership with learners, line managers, operational business heads and internal support teams.


It’s important to work on changing the perception of L&D just being seen as a service provider that meets training demands.  When L&D teams stay closer to learners and the business, they can a) clearly identify any gaps between the key business problem and the skills of employees, b) proactively seek feedback towards continuous improvement in the learning solutions, c) showcase clear alignment of learning outcomes with business strategies and d) support workplace performance and demonstrate value, by measuring and reporting on business impact. Once this is achieved, executive-level decision makers will be more than happy to invite you to be a partner in key strategic initiatives well in advance, which in turn will enable your team to provide better solutions and positively influence future decisions.


  1. What do you see as the biggest challenges in the next 5 years?

While there are many challenges that I can foresee, I would like to elaborate on the top two in my list:

  1. Catering to a new generation of learners: With millennials and post-millennials steadily making up a considerable percentage of the workforce, a disruption to the traditional L&D strategies has already started to take shape. These modern-learners spread across the global network want their learning to be available just in time to close a knowledge or skill gap, which is accessible anywhere, using any device of their choice. Learning Management Systems (LMS) are already being replaced by Learning Experience (LX) Platforms, as the former is increasingly being seen as nothing more than a learning record repository. Social learning tools, micro-learning nuggets, virtual synchronous sessions that are currently being implemented, may take a completely different shape and form over the next five years. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, though being dismissed by some as a fad, have great potential – especially in addressing learning solutions for high-risk areas such as safety, security and precision engineering. With these technologies and devices becoming more mainstream and affordable, these may become a standard offering in the future.


  1. Transforming Customer Experiences (CX): To what extent can today’s transformation initiatives keep pace with customer expectations for the future? Scalability and reliability of these solutions can also pose a challenge to the L&D community. With employee’s skills, subject matter expertise and engagement being critical factors that impact customer experience, what innovative approaches can L&D teams use in order to upskill the employees? How do they anticipate needs and exceed customer expectations, while delivering business value? Can the new systems incorporate not just an intuitive interface but also an electronic support system, so a formal training is not necessary?


  1. What are the skills and competencies that you would need to train in order to meet the region’s talent requirements?

Today’s skills are getting obsolete tomorrow at a very rapid rate, which in turn would lead to massive skills shortage in the near future. Many regional governments have been taking great efforts in developing the knowledge economy for the ME region, by focusing on innovation and making substantial investments in higher education, research, IT and mobile infrastructure. Coupled with these developments is the growing influence of AI, automation and data analytics. This is likely to result in an increased pressure on talent acquisition, talent management and learning and development, whether it is about hiring new people or upskilling existing ones, including the learning and people development communities of practice.

Leadership programmes for the modern workforce must shun traditional approaches and incorporate more of digital and adaptive learning, including virtual coaching, mentoring and stretching assignments. Micro-feedback and micro-reflections embedded throughout the leadership development journey will help them stay on track. Rewards and recognition may include opportunities for career mobility and exposure to other verticals. Enhancing leaders’ emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility, developing people managers as coaches, developing project teams to use design thinking and agile approaches to solve complex problems and improve resilience – are some of the skills and competencies likely to be high in demand.

HR business partners and L&D professionals can benefit from developing their own skills in advance people analytics so that these are seamlessly integrated into continuous performance management systems. Learner-curated and learner-generated content has great potential to improve employee engagement, although for organisations in the region, this warrants a leap of faith from business leaders and stakeholders.