Learning and development (L&D) professionals wear many hats and continue to gain new responsibilities beyond their traditional role of deploying training programs at the request of business leaders. Learning professionals are now taking a more strategic and proactive role in planning and developing training that’s aligned with business goals and, therefore, improves organizational performance.

For example, executives are increasingly recognizing that training has become a competitive advantage for organizations vying for talent. Employees today want personal and professional development, which has brought training to the forefront of many talent acquisition efforts. Once hired, those employees perform better and stay longer with companies that have built a strong learning culture, developing employees for their current and future roles.

The business market is changing at a rapid pace, requiring organizations to become more agile and responsive to change. Technology is only accelerating this rate of change through innovations in areas like automation and artificial intelligence. Organizations must now reskill and upskill employees at a faster rate, deploying learning experiences that quickly close technical and soft skills gaps and prepare everyone — employees and customers alike — for the future.

As the business market continues to evolve, so will the role of the learning leader. The key trends for 2020 reflect the broadening role of L&D to deliver effective learning solutions at the speed of change.

Training for the Gig Economy

More and more organizations are employing a growing number of contract and temporary (“gig”) employees. The gig economy represents a shift in how employees view work, valuing the flexibility and freedom of contract jobs over the traditional arrangement of a steady 9-to-5 job. As the gig economy grows, organizations are challenged with how to train these new types of workers, who may not be granted access to traditional employee systems, such as learning portals.

The gig workforce is a continuation of the trend we saw last year around preboarding. It requires the L&D function to think beyond the enterprise when it comes to ensuring peak performance for the organization. As the nature of work continues to evolve, L&D is beginning to adapt by providing learning opportunities for workers beyond the focus of traditional enterprise training.

Growing Focus on Soft Skills Training

Technology is evolving business practices through automation and artificial intelligence (AI), and the future of work will include jobs that don’t exist today. Even with this transformation, soft skills like creativity, agile thinking, communication and collaboration will stay in high demand. However, our research shows that gaps in soft skills exist across all roles and nearly all functions, and organizations in all industries are responding by providing a variety of forms of training. We can assume that this gap is everywhere, and much like data literacy, soft skills training is becoming core to organizational and employee success.

Soft skills are not learned in a one-and-done training event. To truly develop these skills, employees require multiple training experiences over an extended period of time to learn and practice them. We foresee a continued focus on soft skills training, and L&D professionals must create comprehensive learning experiences to develop this critical skill set.

Data Literacy

There is no shortage of data in the modern business environment, largely due to the reporting and analytics capabilities provided by technology. Organizations are struggling to consolidate all this data — including learning data — and understand how to use it accurately and ethically. Our research shows that companies that proactively invest in developing their employees’ data literacy are outperforming companies that don’t across a variety of metrics, including revenue growth, profitability and employee satisfaction.

The training function — at any company, in any industry — cannot afford to ignore this competitive advantage, and addressing the data skills gap is critical. Our recent competency and career research has shown that among the weakest competencies for L&D professionals are organizational performance analysis, performance measurement, and business and training performance assessment. L&D professionals must take the first step and invest the time and resources to become data-literate themselves to prove the value of learning to business executives. Then, we can drive the development of this critical skill across the entire organization.

High Capital Investment in Learning Experience Platforms

In 2019, we saw more investment, through an influx of capital investments and consolidation, in learning experience platforms (LXPs). Traditional learning libraries are no longer cutting it for organizations that need to aggregate content from multiple sources and providers to create more offerings for employees. As a result, organizations are transitioning to on-demand learning to support employees at the time of need, and AI and machine learning are becoming more commonplace in a range of tools, from delivery platforms (LXPs as well as traditional learning management systems) to chatbot-based coaching tools and content curation applications.

We expect to see more investment flow into the learning space in the coming year, with a focus on improving the employee learning experience. Understanding the implications of these technologies, their potential built-in bias, and the source and use of learner data will be top of mind for L&D professionals as we include these emerging tools in our companies’ technology stacks.

Defining L&D’s Role in Building a Learning Culture

Improving and refining the employee experience continues to be a focal point for many organizations. Having a strong learning culture can maximize employee potential and encourage creativity and innovation. The outcomes of a strong learning culture could even attract talented employees and extend the length of time they stay with a company.

The challenge we face is defining L&D’s role in building that learning culture. The C-suite, human resources, organizational development, and learning and development teams all have a vested interest and responsibilities in developing and maintaining the company’s learning culture. The tone at the top is key, and our research shows that executives feel they are making the level of investment needed to maximize the impact of learning on the company. The challenge is for L&D to make certain the investment is achieving the outcomes we expect it to.

Ubiquity of Customer Education

Technology is constantly changing, and whether it’s by downloading a new app on their phone or by installing new software on their computer at work, users adapt. Today, every technology has some form of self-help function, so no formal training is needed. Many tools have short videos or articles available to answer frequently asked questions. There is also a growing focus on designing technology with an intuitive user experience, enabling navigation without assistance.

As a result of these developments, one could argue that customer education has largely become a self-help model, with users upskilling themselves as needed. With technology evolving so rapidly, it’s important for these training tools to be relevant and simple, and to be agile, they can have a lower quality than more traditional training materials. L&D must revisit the value we can bring to the development of this critical form of extended enterprise learning. Strong instructional design of these programs will reduce cost and mitigate risk, but do we have a seat at that table? Best-in-class companies recognize the role L&D can play in great customer education programs.