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.

As we look back through the back issues of our beloved industry publications, we see headlines from new years past — year after year, hopeful thought leaders offering articles brimming with dewy promise.

For learning and development (L&D) professionals, as the calendar year flips, we make resolutions to take on new responsibilities, craft strategic plans, incorporate cutting-edge technologies and create proactive roles. Optimism reigns as we develop aligned learning programs to improve our organization’s performance.

2020 was no different. We readied ourselves to focus on trends that included a shift to a gig economy, skills of the future and new technology.

Then, March arrived.

By early spring, the COVID-19 virus had worked its way to the United States, pushing Americans into remote work. Spring became summer, and many Americans protested for improved social equity. Suddenly, it was apparent that the world — which, of course, includes the L&D industry — was not going back to the way it was any time soon.

As the adage goes, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Although 2020 had its merits, it was a year of learning hard lessons. As we enter 2021, it’s time to take stock of last year and refine our strategies for the new year. Here are some hot topics we’ll continue to address in 2021 and well into the years to come:

Transformational Diversity and Inclusion

That Was Then

Although diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs have been part of organizational offerings for a while, they have focused on discrete courses and campaigns.

This Is Now

With the rise in social awareness, the D&I conversation has become more transformational and sophisticated. Organizations are hiring D&I directors and managers to affirm their dedication to turning D&I goals into realities. Enterprises are offering transparency and insight into their current board makeup, while establishing goals designed to bring everyone to the table and ensure all voices are heard.

As an industry, we’re also looking at the mechanisms with which we drive educational opportunities. Applied to the learning environment, D&I initiatives include new mindsets and skill sets, modern funding strategies (for example, tuition reimbursement), more accessible formats, nano- and micro-degrees, and more connections to succeed through mentoring and micro-mentoring. Geared toward putting education in the hands of people who traditionally did not have the time or funding to pursue it, learning D&I is sure to move the conversation forward.

A Culture of Accessibility

That Was Then

Historically, we considered accessibility after we designed a solution. This approach is not much different from how we have treated translation and/or localization in the past. Traditionally, learning included a text version of the required material, often in PDF format and ready for a reader.

This Is Now

As part of the inclusion conversation, organizations are taking a more proactive look at accessibility — bringing in accessibility as a primary design point, not an afterthought.

L&D professionals are recognizing that the one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. Driven by refined accessibility compliance codes, we are going deeper, extending our approaches to accessible learning. We’re adopting new tools and new learning technologies, and we’re providing on-demand learning that benefits the entire audience.

We’re also discovering that accessible design is about being thoughtful in our learning experiences, rather than reducing all experiences to the simplest denominator. We’re making different pathways available, and we’re removing barriers.

Deeper Technology Integration

That Was Then

Artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, mobile and virtual learning, collaborative spaces … Before 2020, these technologies might have been on your organization’s wish list rather than on its must-have list. When COVID-19 put a global chokehold on companies worldwide, business ground to a halt.

This Is Now

Moving from nice-to-haves to must-haves, these technologies can help bridge the virtual gap. Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and the broader extended reality (XR) can provide learners with immersive experiences, nurturing difficult-to-teach and hard-to-measure mindsets such as empathy.

Bolstered by technology, remote work is supported by our virtual interactions, keeping our workplaces running in remote spaces — and we’re tracking our progress through the data that arises from these virtual, collaborative spaces.

Data That Forms and Informs the Workflow

That Was Then

In many ways, data has been one of the more significant evolutions resulting from COVID-19. With a few notable exceptions, performance or workflow data has been incomplete, self-reported or not contextualized. As a result, our ability to use data has been limited.

This Is Now

Have you headed to Microsoft.com to view your MyAnalytics dashboard? If you have, you found data about time you had to focus, time you took to disconnect and recharge, how much you manage your network, and how you collaborate.

Rolled out as part of the Microsoft 365 updates, MyAnalytics is but one example of how, across industries, we’re harnessing data to provide insights and shape how we do business. The picture is more holistic, but we still must augment it with common sense.

We can use the nudges from recommendation engines to move us forward, but we must recognize when it’s time to break away from the algorithm to formulate the right questions. It’s only through a union of the algorithm and the human element that we can craft workplaces and experiences that retain talent.