The changes to the business world over the past year have been staggering. With many organizations switching to remote or hybrid workplaces, learners were faced with uncertain futures and steep learning curves. By understanding what learners want, learning and development (L&D) leaders can create training programs that are more engaging and effective, and that help organizations retain their top talent.

Research can show us the types of things learners are most concerned about, as well as the types of training that engage them the most. For L&D to enable organizations to move forward during these times, it is imperative that they listen closely to what learners have to say.

Our company has run an annual survey of over 1,000 learners since 2019, focusing on the learners’ reactions to and perception of business-critical topics. By understanding which learner attitudes remained consistent over the years, and which were subject to surprising changes, L&D will be able to foster greater ROI and talent retention.

Collaborative Learning for the Win, Over the Long Haul

First, what has remained the most consistent by far: Corporate learners prefer collaborative learning over other modalities (defined as “learning with/from others”). See chart A. (This, we validated in 2019, is a preference regardless of the last type of training the learner had taken.)

Chart A:

Leadership Stays on Top, But Runner-up Topics Change

When asked “What is the biggest, most important training topic your organization should focus on in the coming two years?” the resounding answer for all years was leadership, leadership, leadership. In 2019, leadership was at the top of the list — however, soft skills/communication skills and keeping up with technology were right behind. In early 2020, leadership was the most critical pain point, with other topics like onboarding, cybersecurity and onboarding lagging far behind. In the middle of 2020, according to our COVID-19 pulse survey, not surprisingly, topics like working from home, well-being and COVID preparedness accounted for just about half of the responses to the question “What do you feel is the most important topic your organization could be offering you training about right now?” Leadership by itself got only 7% at that time in history, but when added to “the future” and “communications” for a broader leadership definition, the percentage goes up to 19%.

In early 2021, leadership somewhat surprisingly outranked even COVID-19 safety and other pandemic-related topics. This tells us that leadership is seen by rank-and-file learners as key to all other successes.

When asked in 2021 how leadership is most often defined at their organization, 40% of the time respondents chose “management skills, including soft skills (e.g., communication),” with “strategic vision/strategic transformation” coming in second at 27%. This statistic goes hand in hand with the preference for collaborative learning with and from others — learning is most valuable when it’s people- and job-centric, and leadership is most critical when it comes to the people skills of communication and motivation.

In 2020, over 60% of learners stated a preference for learning about leadership from internal experts/peers, rather than external subject matter experts. In 2021, the difference in preferences shrunk to nearly even. The good news here is that collaborative online learning approaches, the “learning with/from others” way of delivering training and on-the-job relevance, makes it easy to satisfy both the need for internal context and external expertise seamlessly.

From “You Suck” to “I’m Encouraged!”: Learners Rate Their Learning Options

One of the most shocking things about our first survey in 2019 was the vehemence with which learners described the learning culture at their organizations. In the free-form response to that section, “Words describing your organization’s learning culture” were only 40% positive, and 60% negative. But the negative wasn’t just negative, it was really negative. “Joke, ineffective, lazy, disengaged, out of touch, useless” was one common sort of response. “Very poor” and “mediocre” came up a lot, as well as more descriptive epithets like “Here’s, stop asking us for learning” and one learner who described their corporate L&D department as throwing the baby into the deep end of the pool and saying “swim!” Not glowing reports!

By 2021, however, “embedded in the organization/meaningful and useful” had risen from second place to leading the pack by far. See Chart B.

Chart B:

What changed? The adoption of effective digital learning approaches, forced perhaps by the pandemic, but inevitable if you seek to satisfy the corporate learner’s preferences. In our summer 2021 pulse survey, we asked learners who had taken training (by default, online training) in the last year if the training they received allowed them to:

  • Ask questions of an instructor or coach and receive a prompt reply during the course.
  • Practice the skills being taught during the course (i.e., producing work or responses, not other than just a quiz).
  • Share thoughts and comments about the topic with other learners.


They were also asked if training was directly applicable to their day-to-day jobs. The exciting news is, the majority answered “most or all of the time” or “a few times/sometimes” to those questions. The shift to digital allowed collaborative elements like SME interaction, peer interaction and on-the-job application to come to the fore. The discouraging news is that so many folks still answered “No, not at all” to these elements. So, there is work to be done, but corporate L&D is on the right track according to these results, and well on the way to embodying those values learners shared they would ideally like their learning cultures to embody back in 2019:

  • “Personal, hands-on, directly applicable, context-based.”
  • “Helpful, frequent.”
  • “I would like us to put new ideas into practice.”
  • “Walk-the-talk.”
  • “Adaptive.”
  • “Bold, energizing, top of the line.”


What’s Next?

Collaborative online learning is here to stay if you want to take your learners’ preferences — and therefore their likely success with your corporate training — into account. Braiding leadership ideas and skills into all types of training is another recommendation that can be gleaned from all these statistics. And don’t rest on your laurels: If you happen to already have a good learning culture, keep it up! But if you’re one of the organizations where learners feel a disconnection with your efforts, keep trying, leveraging the methods mentioned above. The path is clear, and if you listen to the learners, your department will get to success much faster. Here’s hoping when next year’s high-stakes survey time comes around again, that the “improvement” trend in learning culture keeps going way up.