Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

If there was one mantra that all companies learned to live by in 2020, it was to expect the unexpected. The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to turn on a dime, revamping their operations, fast-tracking new procedures into place, and ensuring both the stability of the business and the safety of employees and customers.

Last year at this time, when we were looking forward to 2020, no one could have expected to have to pivot as quickly, as frequently or as dramatically as we did. Nor could we have predicted the long-lasting upheaval resulting from a worldwide pandemic, soaring unemployment, social distancing and an abrupt shift to remote work. What is clear now is that the companies that thrived during such chaos were the most agile and the most resilient. They had to learn to adapt (the key word being “learn”) to the constantly changing environment and ensure that their employees were well prepared for this journey.

The common denominators among these thrivers: agility and velocity driven by digital transformation. More specifically, the companies that had already adopted modern digital learning tools fared much better, because they could respond quickly. The tools they had in place enabled them to be more innovative, helping them find ways to maintain or reinvent their business. After all, organizations that learn well typically perform well.

Systemic Problems Worsened the Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many systemic problems companies have with traditional training, knowledge-sharing and communications. Considering that companies rely on an average of more than 20 different learning point solutions, remote and essential employees struggled with how and where to find relevant, accurate, up-to-date operational information when they needed it most.

With COVID-19, the option of in-person instructor-led training (ILT) vanished as offices closed, face-to-face meetings were cancelled and travel ceased. While these traditional learning systems and methodologies sometimes sufficed during normal times, they couldn’t keep up during a crisis with entire teams working remotely, because they lacked flexibility, agility, relevance and speed. Since the pandemic struck, organizations have had to navigate through five stages of recovery, trying to return to some semblance of normal operations:

1. Communicate

Most organizations went through this stage early in the year as COVID-19 cases rose and everyone needed to learn how to prevent its spread. Learning, operations and human resources (HR) professionals were shaken out of their traditional routines and mindsets. Quick communications enabled businesses to keep employees, partners and customers apprised of new information about the disease, health regulations, safety and business continuity — and remain connected to the organization.

2. Reopen

As stay-at-home orders lifted in stages, organizations needed to understand what was required for them to open, often with new business and service models, and share new policies and procedures to keep employees and customers safe. This stage frequently included reimagining the business; opening up new service models; and playing the role of data-driven, digital experience designer as the first waves of transformation hit.

3. Reboard

In addition to new policies and procedures for reopening, organizations needed to figure out how to reboard laid off and furloughed employees or onboard new employees as their locations reopened. Returning learners needed refresher training to ensure confidence and engagement. When organizations have successful engagement strategies, productivity and profitability usually increase significantly.

4. Reskill

With social distancing requirements or finances limiting the number of employees who could come back to work, many organizations may have had to do more with less. Employees may have to learn new jobs or tasks to ensure the business could continue operating with a smaller staff. In other scenarios, new automation and powerful, dynamic digital transformation has also continued to introduce new skills to learn and master.

5. Revive

The pandemic has had unexpected silver linings, as many companies have created new offerings, programs and policies and embraced new digital transformation models that they wouldn’t have prioritized otherwise. New ways of interacting with customers, new products and new services have led to new revenue streams.

The speed with which a company can maneuver its way through these stages relates directly to the level in which it has invested in digital tools for operational learning, training and knowledge to support the shift to remote work and virtual learning. The companies that modernized this aspect of their organization with a learner-centric approach have fared better and navigated more quickly through the stages than the ones relying on training binders, central computer terminals and instructor-led courses.

Planning for the Future

Though we hope never again to see a global crisis with the impact of COVID-19, it’s safe to assume that all businesses should continue to prepare for the digital transformation of work and learning and to look at 2020 as the foundation of this long-term shift, which will revolve around a great employee and learner experience.

Adopting this digital mindset will help prepare leaders and organizations to expect the unexpected. You never know what the next crisis may be or when it will hit — a fire that shuts down your facility, a natural disaster that impacts an entire region or a geopolitical crisis that has far-reaching implications.

Regardless of what the future will hold, companies need to continue to invest in ways to be more strategically agile and ensure they can recover and reset, regardless of the challenges they face. Organizational resilience will require technology that exhibits five key characteristics:


Employees must know exactly where to go for the most up-to-date information and reliable operational knowledge and training to drive speed and agility within your organization.


Any time, anywhere and on any device, employees must be able to easily find what they need to learn or reinforce what they previously learned so they can apply it and return to work.


The speed with which organizations and employees can create, distribute and consume training, knowledge and communications will enable them to keep up with the needs of your business.


Employees want engaging digital content and operational knowledge that matches their expectations and delivers immediate answers to help them perform better in their jobs.


Organizations must reach every employee in a way that fits his or her unique learning needs to ensure business success and safeguard employee health, well-being and engagement.

If there’s one lesson to take away from our collective experience during the past year, it’s that in order to ensure organizational resilience, digital, learner-first platforms are no longer a luxury. Dynamic, bite-sized content and training in consumable formats, including interactive graphics, videos, digital checklists and flashcards, drive learner engagement and adoption. Organizations must move from traditional paper-based, computer-oriented or instructor-led learning to a digital platform that supports learning and collaboration when, where and how employees prefer to learn.

A strong focus on this aspect of the business will help minimize the operational impact of the next inevitable crisis and enable companies and their employees to keep up with the pace of change and rise above it. This resilience will often be the difference between business success and failure.