Learning and change are inextricably linked. The purpose of learning is to bring about change in knowledge, mindsets or behaviors. Conversely, change — whether imposed by external or internal forces — triggers processes of learning that lead to adaptation and innovation.

However, the seemingly complementary nature of learning and change is undermined by what Edgar Schein calls the “learning paradox” in his book “Organizational Leadership and Culture.” At the heart of the paradox is the idea that the more we learn to do new things and stabilize that learning, the more unwilling we are to change, even when changing circumstances demand it. The resulting dilemma for organizations is how to develop strong, stable cultures that — at the same time — can innovate, adapt and grow.

The trifecta of health, economic and social crises of 2020 has highlighted the challenges facing organizations that are scrambling to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. While the early stages of the pandemic held out hope for a snap back to “business as usual,” time has proven that instability is likely to be the norm for a while, and business has been irrevocably changed.

This change has critical implications for learning and development (L&D) departments in how they approach their work. The current workforce, trained to operate in a pre-pandemic environment, will need new capabilities for organizations to thrive in constantly changing circumstances. For L&D teams, these new capabilities mean a shift in focus from supplying learning to actively participating in the change management process itself.

Building Critical Capabilities to Avoid the Learning Paradox

L&D departments looking to actively participate in change management will need to reexamine their own purpose within the organization, moving from a stance where a learning culture is viewed as a destination to one where the learning culture is the engine for change. Change-oriented learning organizations focus on developing new ways of thinking and acting that are embedded in the psyche of an organization, rather than viewing themselves as inventory managers of knowledge and skills.

The cumulative events of 2020 have heightened the urgency for L&D organizations to focus on new ways of thinking and acting, accelerating trends that were already underway as companies embarked on ambitious digital transformation projects. Although specific needs and changes vary by organization, three core areas of focus have bubbled to the top in terms of urgency:

Leadership Skills

The pandemic, accompanied by a sudden shift to remote and distributed work, has only heightened the awareness of the importance of leadership skills at all levels to support employees and manage change. Both the “what” and the “who” have changed in this area over the course of 2020. The “what” has expanded to areas that include empathy, vulnerability and well-being — topics were not always part of traditional leadership development programs. The “who” has expanded from formal leadership development programs to include current leaders who need new skills to manage changing environments, as well as employees who may not have formal management titles but who are, nonetheless, expected to lead.

Reskilling and Upskilling

In the context of the relentless pace of change of 2020, the line between reskilling and upskilling has become increasingly blurred. Digital work has become an essential part of everybody’s job, whether working remotely or on site. Broad-based digital training is a major focus at most organizations, but training on tools and technologies alone will not deliver the capabilities required for change management. Workers need to adjust not only to digital tools but also virtual management and collaboration processes to achieve the required agility and innovation.

Diversity and Inclusion

Social unrest in the spring and summer of 2020 resulted in renewed commitments to diversifying hiring and promotion practices. Diversity has been shown to improve innovation in organizations, but changing hiring practices alone is unlikely to succeed. It is incumbent upon L&D to cultivate the inclusive work cultures that are needed for corporate-level commitments to succeed.

Change Begins Within

For learning organizations to credibly claim the mantle of leadership in change management, they need to adopt new ways of thinking and acting to address the needs of constantly changing circumstances — and build strong learning cultures at the same time. L&D departments often inadvertently contribute to the learning paradox by projecting and providing predictable and stable skill development environments that don’t reflect the business needs to adapt, innovate and improve to solve immediate problems and achieve results.

How and where should learning organizations start? Change begins at the top, with leadership from the C-suite. Executive leaders set the tone and direction of change at the top of the organization. After them, L&D organizations have the opportunity to take up the mantle to drive — not merely enable — change. To be successful, however, L&D practitioners will need the leadership skills that enable them to understand the context of rapidly shifting business environments and influence change within their department and across the organization.

Next, practitioners will need to be reskilled and upskilled to deliver their products and services in a digital environment. Finally, they will need the skills to design and deliver learning experiences that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce and support inclusive workplace experiences.

Owning the Learning Paradox

Challenges produce opportunities. Learning organizations have inherent capabilities that enable them to take on leadership roles in managing change — if they choose to embrace them.

Skills in breaking down complex business problems, creating outcome-oriented learning objectives, and establishing alignment between learning and business outcomes can overcome the learning paradox, resulting in organizations that are resilient, adaptable and, ultimately, more successful.