The role of learning and development (L&D) continues to broaden, with many learning leaders helping facilitate and support change initiatives in their organizations. In a year of unprecedented change – from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to the racial and social unrest across the country – leaders have been required to completely rethink how their businesses operate and find new avenues to reach their goals. The training function has been integral to helping organizations transition to a remote workforce, shift in-person events to a virtual environment, and take safety and compliance training to another level. This influx of change has made it difficult to plan for long-term growth.

But as we move into a new year, we must begin to shift our focus to the future and plan for the next chapter. For L&D, this means ensuring employees have the skills they need to meet the ever-changing needs of the business. For some organizations, this may mean evaluating which job roles will become permanently remote. Many jobs have changed significantly in the transition to remote work. For example, salespeople are no longer connecting with prospects in person or taking clients to lunch. All interactions are taking place online or over the phone. L&D must ensure sales reps, and all roles within the organization, are prepared to succeed in this new normal.

As we move forward, the most innovative and successful training organizations will be those that apply the knowledge they’ve gained this year to create opportunities for future growth and expansion. The trends for 2021 reflect the changing nature of work and how learning leaders are uniquely positioned to guide their organizations through change and achieve new levels of success.

Training’s Role in Change Management

Effective change management helps organizations adapt to, work through and succeed in the face of a major business disruption. One of the most important elements of change management is the ability to manage people in a rapidly changing organization. Training managers are uniquely positioned to support their workforce and lead their organizations through change initiatives – from communicating changes to employees to assessing and closing skills gaps to measuring and reporting the impact of change initiatives to business leaders. These efforts create alignment across the organization and increase the success of change initiatives.

L&D must ensure all aspects of training activities – from establishing processes and developing programs to accessing resources – are strategically aligned to where the business is going. This requires training managers to have a clear line of sight of the changing goals and priorities of the business to ensure everyone is working toward the same objectives.

The Changing Nature of Work

The world of work is constantly evolving due to rapid developments in technology and shifts in the business market. For years, automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence have been changing the way we live and work. Now, many organizations are transitioning to virtual work environments at an accelerated rate, significantly changing the way many employees perform their jobs.

The shift to more virtual offerings has highlighted information technology (IT) and technical skills gaps as remote workers are left to troubleshoot technological issues on their own. Many companies are adopting mobile learning as a solution to support dispersed employees, but upskilling is needed to ensure employees can effectively use these tools to succeed in their roles. As the world of work continues to evolve, new job roles and skills will be needed, requiring organizations to reskill employees to prepare them for new positions. The World Economic Forum estimates that 50% of employees will need to be reskilled by 2025.

Upskilling and reskilling efforts can sustain and fuel company growth. L&D must work with business executives to identify current skill gaps, plan for future growth and create training solutions that target those goals.

The Evolution of Customer Education

People are buying differently in today’s market, and expectations regarding the quality and availability of customer education have changed. The onset of the pandemic forced the closure of many brick and mortar stores, requiring companies to adapt how they educate consumers on their products and services. With consumers limited in their ability to view and test products in person, companies are increasing their investment in customer education.

L&D professionals must work with business leaders to evaluate their company’s buying processes to create training resources that meet their customers at their points of need. With the dynamics of business changing, the market is becoming increasingly competitive. Now more than ever, organizations must provide high-quality customer experiences that foster longstanding relationships with current customers and set them apart in the market to attract new prospects.

Soft Skills Become Core to Business Success

There has been a growing focus on soft skills training for some time now. We highlighted this trend in last year’s report, revealing that gaps in soft skills exist across all roles and functions. The pandemic has created an immediate need to close this gap, especially in leadership roles. With stress and anxiety running high, leaders must exhibit higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence – among other soft skills – to properly support and effectively communicate with employees.

Soft skills have become core to organizational and employee success, and practice is needed to effectively develop this skill set. Face-to-face training is typically the chosen method of delivery, but virtual reality and augmented reality platforms are quickly emerging as a viable solution for practicing critical skills, such as delivering feedback, communication and active listening.

Evaluating Employee Performance in Remote Work

Remote work environments have changed the employee-manager relationship. Leaders who were accustomed to working in a traditional office setting must now manage at a distance. This shift requires different skills and new approaches to leadership. With observation more difficult in remote work, leaders must adopt new ways to assess their employees’ performance.

Establishing and evaluating progress toward key performance indicators (KPIs) can enhance our understanding of the employee and their performance. This provides leaders with greater insight into the competencies and skills that need improvement. L&D professionals can enable a greater understanding of employee performance by implementing a structured approach to assessing both the skills required to be successful on the job and progress toward established KPIs.

Building an Equitable Workplace

Public opinion has changed dramatically regarding diversity and discrimination, with research indicating that 76% of Americans believe racial discrimination is a serious problem. This change in perspective has ignited a social movement nationwide calling for police reform and racial justice. Protests and increased social unrest have created a call to action for organizations to reexamine their company cultures and make necessary changes. This includes examining the company’s values, hiring practices, leadership demographics, decision-making processes, and opportunities for employee development and advancement within the organization.

Eliminating racial bias and discrimination in the workplace is much larger than a training issue, but learning leaders must have a voice in the conversation. L&D can support company-wide succession planning by providing all employees access to development and career advancement opportunities – not just those identified as high-potential talent. Strategic and intentional succession planning is needed to ensure more diverse perspectives are represented in leadership roles. Sponsoring employee resource groups and diversity councils can bring diverse voices together and inform decision-making at all levels of the organization.

L&D Market Outlook

Despite the decrease in overall external training spend, the market still saw a high volume of mergers, acquisitions and funding. One trend of note is the mergers of companies like Skillsoft and Global Knowledge and Pluralsight and DevelopIntelligence. These mergers result in a combined set of offerings that span multiple learning modalities for a “one-stop shop” for technical learning and development needs.