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.

2020 is a year for the record books, and it made an impact on learning and development (L&D) leaders in a meaningful but exhausting way. Once COVID-19 shut down the world, every learning leader was the most popular person in the organization.

Why? Because we already knew what many of our stakeholders have been resisting for years: The future of learning is about continuous discovery and experiential learning that makes a real impact on performance. It is about learning anywhere, and it is about development for all, not just new hires.

Many organizations were not prepared for 2020 and had to shift quickly. The ones that did so successfully are now seeking ways to be even more effective in 2021. No matter where learning leaders sit on the continuum of 2021 preparation, there are several themes crucial to the learning experience that will impact organizations’ success this year:

1. Psychological Safety

Psychological safety impacts a learner’s willingness to apply new skills in a safe environment without the fear that often comes with making mistakes or taking risks. A psychologically safe environment is one where people are free to ask questions and disagree without judgment and where teams learn together.

Amy Edmonson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, categorizes the impact of psychological safety in this way:

    • “There is often workplace silence when voice is necessary,” which “robs our colleagues of small moments of learning.”
    • Teams are better when they work in environments where it’s OK to talk about and learn from mistakes.
    • Learning environments are often psychologically safe for employees, because the learning zone is the place people most often feel comfortable, are willing to take risks and are motivated to do a good job.
    • “Curiosity creates an opportunity for voice.”

In other words, when employees experience psychological safety, they are more likely to try new skills and receive feedback well when they make mistakes. They are more comfortable admitting their struggles to teammates and leaders and more open to discussion and learning. This openness creates high-performing teams, while a lack of psychological safety induces anxiety and hinders a learner’s ability to perform.

2. Reskilling and Upskilling

COVID-19 shed light on many organizations’ lack of digital skills as employees had to shift to virtual work and become better users of technology. It quickly became clear that some had trouble keeping up with the pace of the business because their technological skills were not up to date.

Work is transforming, and while there are many people with great knowledge, many also need better preparation for the automation and digitization of work. While most employees need not not fear that the robots are taking their job, most large organizations are spending money reskilling and upskilling employees, because they know the value of retaining their knowledge and experience.

One important area of upskilling is in soft skills like critical thinking, consultative skills, leadership, empathy, adaptability, communication, active listening and emotional intelligence. Even though soft skills have been a part of the “coming skills gap” narrative, COVID-19 made their lack more evident. As 2021 approaches, we will see more vendors providing virtual reality (VR) and other services that help learners practice their soft skills. While these vendors provide an expensive approach, without extra dollars, organizations can use case studies, virtual role-plays, mobile phones, games, collaboration experiences and microlearning to achieve similar goals. If learning leaders focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) and assess behavior change, any of these approaches is a worthy option.

3. Growth Mindset and Flexibility

2020 showed L&D the importance of moving at the pace of the business. As learning leaders came up against COVID-19, followed by social unrest, along with employees who were trying to manage working from home while sending kids to school on Zoom and having their pets join calls, we learned to be flexible. This flexibility grew into an understanding of how to manage teams and stakeholders in the new environment.

Anyone remaining set in his or her ways was quickly dissatisfied. As an industry, we had to quickly shift our thinking, move quickly and believe we could make magic happen. What we learned was that we could shift, according to business needs, more quickly than we thought possible. It may not have been perfect, but we all did the best we could.

2021 will be about taking what we learned about our ability to be fast, flexible and open and applying that ability to trying new things. We are no longer afraid of what’s new, because we know we can recover from missteps and that trial and error are central to learning, including our own.

4. Championing Change and Proving Its Value With Data

L&D leaders have always been and will always be change champions. While change does not scare us, however, we have not always focused on proving that a change was successful. In 2020, many learning leaders realized that they could predict the future of their learning organizations and show their value using data and telling good data stories.

In 2021, we will see more training organizations focused on analyzing data as part of their discovery phase with stakeholders. This process will allow us to prove that the performance bar moved. The challenge will be the difference between knowing it and knowing how to communicate it. Organizations that are ready are focusing on easy-to-access dashboards and upskilling their teams in data storytelling, which is a change management driver for all.

5. Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

Social unrest caused many organizations to take a long look at their commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity last year. In 2021, great organizations will go beyond work etiquette and political correctness and will take a stand in what it means to work within this framework. Many companies think that awareness training covers their bases, but awareness does not equate to behavior or mindset change. This year, we will see organizations commit to redefining their values to include specific statements about diversity, inclusion and equity, and the L&D leaders who are part of the conversation will be talking about helping employees practice the espoused values.

Learning leaders create positive work environments that recognize and embrace people’s differences. We naturally appreciate the value that differences bring to the workplace. As training organizations focus on programs, there will a tight lens on reinforcing differences and providing insights on how to work effectively together, engage in respectful discussions and interactions, and reduce the likelihood of microaggressions and discrimination.

There is no single solution to this need, and these training programs will not be one-and-done initiatives. For real measurable success to occur, training needs to be ongoing. If diversity, inclusion and equity are not top of mind and weaved through all we deliver, behavioral change will not be sustainable. It must become part of the culture, weaved into training programs.

The most important lesson we learned in 2020 is that learning, development and performance are important to the business. Because we delivered last year, 2021 will be transformational for our craft. While learning leaders have always believed in the work their teams do, our stakeholders did not always see the value. When COVID-19 hit, they needed someone to deliver with speed and effectiveness — and we did it! Let’s keep the momentum going in 2021.