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.

We came into 2020 with plans. We committed to goals and projects. Then, the world changed, and we changed in response to it. As we finally reached the end of the longest year (metaphorically), just checking “survived” on your year-end performance assessment is worthy of a five-star review.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work. It has shifted our priorities, and it has repositioned the role of learning in the ever-evolving “next normal.” Some of these changes have been a long time coming and represent meaningful steps forward. Some have been reactionary and without clear long-term visions. Ultimately, 2020 reinforced the value of workplace learning and highlighted the improvements we must make if we hope to keep up in 2021.

Meaningful Steps Forward in 2020

We Brought Learning to the Workflow

For too long, employees were expected to make time for learning. They had to step away from their jobs for days or weeks in order to focus on their development.

2020 forced us to rethink this model. Learning and development (L&D) teams rapidly adopted new tools and processes in order to push information and training to employees when and where they needed it. We collaborated with subject matter experts (SMEs) and stakeholders to build, deploy and manage solutions faster than ever before, because we had to.

We Solved Problems

No one delivered training to check a box in 2020. L&D still handled plenty of compliance and onboarding programs, but 2020 was about solving the next problem. People had to figure out how to use new technology to work from home. People had to onboard in hours instead of days to keep the operation moving. People had to become familiar with new health and safety protocols.

In 2020, learning was not locked in programs and scheduled months in advance. Learning became agile and focused on what was most important for employees and organizations in the moment.

Reskilling Became Real

In 2020, reskilling became a real and immediate need, especially on the front line, where employees shifted roles to meet customer needs and changing safety regulations. Overnight, retail associates transformed into fulfillment workers and bank tellers became contact center agents. Companies recognized that the key to organizational agility is having mechanisms in place to rapidly reskill their people.

Digital Became Standard

In 2020, learning went digital. To reach people when and where they needed help, L&D adopted a range of new digital tools in a matter of weeks. Learning management systems (LMSs) and learning experience platforms (LXPs) saw increased engagement, as they became the only options for training.

Organizations set aside traditional restrictions on personal mobile devices in favor of enabling people to access the information they needed to do their jobs safely and productively. The digital transformation of learning was reactive, but there’s no going back to a classroom-based reality.

Our Roles Evolved

The workplace learning conversation has changed from “We need training on …” to “We need help with ….” However, to keep pace with change and solve new types of problems, L&D professionals had to adapt their roles, too. Classroom trainers became online event hosts and producers. Job trainers became digital coaches and mentors. Surges in customer demand and new safety regulations caused us to work more closely with the people we support and become a more deeply embedded and recognizable part of the everyday operation.

Work to Do in 2021

If people tell you they have a clear strategy for 2021, they’re lying. We may have clearer ideas now than we did in June, but no one really knows exactly what the world will look like this year. Agility will be the key to business “sur-thrival” this year. People will have to continuously adapt their knowledge and skill to meet changing workplace needs, and value must become the primary goal for L&D.

Reflect on the Mess

What worked in 2020, and what didn’t? When were we able to keep up, and where did gaps emerge? Change may slow down this year, but it won’t go away. L&D must take time to reflect on the value provided last year and prioritize improvements that will help others keep up as the workplace continues to evolve this year.

Build an Agile Infrastructure

Information is like water. Employees need it to survive, especially during times of change. Through training and communication, L&D plays a critical role in giving people the information they need to do their jobs.

But water won’t reach the right places without reliable plumbing. L&D teams must assess their ecosystem and make sure they have the mechanisms in place to help people build new skills without unnecessarily disrupting the workflow. A virtual meeting platform and a traditional LMS probably aren’t enough to address the needs of a dynamic organization.

Fix Measurement

“Is it working?” is the biggest question L&D had to answer in 2021. With tight budgets and continued operational challenges, stakeholders only invest in solutions that deliver clear results. L&D must partner with internal and external data experts to adopt a continuous approach to measurement that goes beyond surveys, completions and test scores to determine the real-world value of workplace learning.

Prioritize the Front Line

Frontline employees represent the greatest challenge and opportunity for L&D in 2021. Frontline training has historically been limited to onboarding and compliance. Stakeholders have viewed this training as a cost rather than an investment due to high turnover rates and their inability to connect frontline work to business value.

In 2020, the frontline workforce played an essential role in keeping businesses open and communities moving forward. New operational strategies will only succeed if the front line can execute them, and they’ll need consistent, reliable training and communication to keep up.

Focus on People

Traditional training tactics, such as classroom sessions and eLearning modules, often fail to align with how people actually learn. They include too much information and make it difficult to transfer knowledge into on-the-job performance. Excessive virtual sessions and online learning paths can easily fall into the same trap. L&D must take advantage of the digital shift to design a human learning experience that effectively blends training with reinforcement, performance support and coaching.

Workplace learning changed forever in 2020. Some changes will stick, because they provided clear value. Others will fade as the workplace continues to evolve. Rather than fall back into past habits and over-rely on structured training, L&D must seize the opportunity to adopt a modern learning mindset. We may not be able to predict the challenges we’ll face in 2021, but we know one thing will be true this year: Learning will make all the difference.

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