It’s easy for anyone to realize that the plans made at the start of 2020 were not followed through to the letter. The year turned out to be one for contingency plans and putting out small fires while trying very hard to make it out of the big fire with as many assets as possible. The measure of success is still unclear as companies — and the world — are not out of the (burning) woods yet.
L&D had a very difficult task last year, helping managers, teams, and outsourcers adapt to a new normal that felt anything but that. 2021 comes with even greater challenges because now it’s a given that organizations will need to adapt, transform and become truly versatile to thrive on the market. Here’s how to overcome some of them:
1. The role of L&D will become broader
Learning has always been crucial to organizations, but mostly it was about different groups of employees having to embark on similar paths to acquire different skills and build relevant competencies. From C suite executives to the newest hires, everybody working for the company has to learn the exact same thing – how to behave and what to expect under the unique circumstances.
The supporting role of L&D will no longer be tied to organizational education but also to strategy, HR, and setting attainable company goals. Learning specialists have to act as active consultants in almost all areas, and their involvement in critical decision making is essential for moving forward at a sustainable pace.
2. The most valuable knowledge is that obtained in 2020
In high school, I was part of the Academic Debate Team, where there was a rule that said: no proof for supporting an argument could be more than five years old. The reason, of course, was relevance. As we begin this year, the most important information and know-how that L&D departments can deploy in the organization will not be even twelve months old.
Everything that worked in the last ten months will be transformed into workflows, processes, and procedures, while everything that landed in the “error” pile will act as experience for improving things. To do a good job of this, L&D specialists will have to tap into the collective expertise, conduct relevant interviews and extract the most valuable lessons that were learned in 2020.
3. Soft skills take the lead
This subject is by no means a new one. There has been a growing demand for soft skills training for some time now, yet up to a point, it was mainly because of the need to communicate with customers. There were different sets of skills for customer support, complaint handling, collection personnel, and the sales department.
While these are all still important, at the present time, the most stringent need is for employees in leadership roles to develop their emotional intelligence, exercise genuine empathy, and acquire excellent assertive communication skills.
People are stressed, worried and there is a general feeling of anxiety that is normal but needs not be deepened by the managers’ inability to connect and adequately transfer information.
4. Change management goes from a nice-to-have to a must-have
The word “transformation” has probably been written in every goal-setting document generated in every organization for the past five years. The digital revolution changed many things, and companies knew they had to adapt to new technologies and market shifts.
Now, change isn’t due to some foreseeable advancement but to the global upheaval that took everyone by surprise last Spring. Products, services, and marketing strategies are more easily adjusted, but when it comes to the changes that are happening in 2021, they are a lot about the people.
Traditionally, L&D managers are prepared to tackle any sudden changes and plans and steer their teams towards new objectives. Their know-how and previous experience with change management (even if at a much smaller scale) qualify them as internal SMEs who can help the other leaders do the same for their respective teams.
5. Technical skill gaps need to be closed ASAP
The shift to a remote work environment has made these technical skill gaps both apparent and a hindrance to organizational progress. In the absence of a full physical office where employees can rely on their colleagues’ expertise (and goodwill), it’s difficult for many workers to do their jobs at the same level that they used to.
Mobile learning is a great asset, and thoroughly drafted instructional modules can close some of these gaps, but there is more to consider. Machine learning and AI were evolving rapidly anyway; the global crisis gave them an even bigger boost. Therefore, companies must start upskilling their workforce sooner rather than later, as new skills and job roles will be in demand before we know it.
6. Evaluation and KPIs need a makeover
Virtual global teams have been around for a while, and their managers now have a much easier time than most leaders. Working in the same space, collaborating constantly, and informal coaching sessions make evaluation and monitoring progress a lot easier than in a remote situation.
With direct observation off the table, leaders need new tools to assess and formulate action plans. L&D specialists can better understand employee performance by assessing the skills required for them to be successful in the new situation and then define the KPIs that will measure their results.
Managers need insight, and L&D professionals can offer that plus the necessary support for both sides (leaders and team members).
2021 will surely provide more challenges than we can predict at the moment. However, there are already some clear directions that need to be followed, and L&D departments will not only have their hands full but also the opportunity to become even more valued by their organizations.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.