2021 Trends: Learning and Development in a COVID World

After a year like the one we had in 2020, wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball to see where things are headed? While no one can accurately predict random events like pandemics, we can study the impact of those events on people’s thinking.

Recently, The Ken Blanchard Companies® surveyed over 1,000 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals to better understand how they are responding to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and how they plan to move forward in 2021. The results might reflect your own L&D challenges and give you some ideas about the future.

When asked to identify the single largest problem their learning and development team is facing in 2021 due to COVID-19, respondents revealed three main concerns.

Concern #1: Successfully Making the Shift to Virtual and Online Learning

When people gather in a physical classroom to learn, interacting with others plays a big role in learner engagement. People responding to our survey expressed concern about losing this human element and worry about how much people are staying engaged and particpating in the new virtual classroom. Many said that they are coping with feelings of loss from the absence of in-person training.

Others feel pressured by their rapidly evolving roles and the new expectations placed on them. They expressed concerns about skills gaps in design expertise, virtual facilitation, and the skillful leveraging of new tools and platforms.

They also identified ongoing logistical and technical challenges, such as session scheduling, clunky platforms, and connectivity issues. I think we can all relate to that!

Concern #2: Helping a Struggling Workforce

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce cannot be denied or ignored. People have lost jobs and loved ones. Those fortunate enough to be working remotely have been emotionally impacted as well.

The respondents of our survey identified isolation and a loss of connection as two major concerns, reporting that these have led to increased stress, exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.

People also expressed concerns about the overriding uncertainty in the current work environment and the sense that too much change is occurring too fast. Many acknowledged feelings of lowered morale and virtual fatigue.

Concern #3: Anxiety about Losing Their L&D Jobs

Budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, and questions of management support were at the top of our respondents’ minds as they closed out 2020 and looked ahead to 2021.

People shared their concern that 2021 would usher in a difficult period of high expectations for converting to digital and virtual delivery, but without the resources and support necessary to be successful. This was often expressed as “too much to do, not enough resources.”

Having the resources to hold people accountable, addressing quality issues, and improving the digital skills of their trainers were cited as solutions to these problems.

Looking Ahead to 2021

Has COVID spelled the end of face-to-face training? Decidedly not. But the future will be different. A majority of respondents—57 percent—see face-to-face training as having a role, but as a part of a blended learning experience. In looking ahead to the time when face-to-face options become available again, respondents expect to use in-person and virtual instructor-led training equally.

So, when do people think they’ll be able to get back into the classroom? In our survey, July 2021 was the most oft-cited date.

The Upside of 2020

In many ways, 2020 forced us to dig deep into our own resourcefulness and find ways to navigate an uncertain future.  Blanchard senior vice president Jay Campbell put it really well when he said that “COVID-19 created a discontinuity in the normal evolutionary path toward digital and virtual. It has accelerated the shift—possibly by as much as a decade.”

As a college professor, I love the magic that happens in a classroom. Yet there’s no question that both classroom and online training create a smarter, more skilled workforce. In other words, it’s a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” proposition. I’m excited about the future of training and development. As my son, our company president Scott Blanchard, says, “There has never been a more demanding time to be in L&D—but it is also a time of great opportunity for those ready to step into this new future.”

What Businesspeople Can Learn From the Back to School Mentality

Around this time of year, young people are experiencing the deep joy of a fresh start. It’s back to school season and possibility is everywhere! And I’ve got some good news: this sense of possibility isn’t just for students. Anyone can experience the benefits of a fresh start.

I once went on a cruise with a lot of older folks and noticed a big difference between those who saw opportunity everywhere and those who didn’t. The folks who saw opportunity in all the activities on the cruise expressed excitement about the future and were enjoying their lives more. Plus, they looked and acted 20 years younger than they were! The folks who didn’t take advantage of the ship’s activities were withdrawn and didn’t really come alive until mealtime.

The insights I gained on that cruise inspired my book Refire, Don’t Retire. One of the powerful ideas in this book is the Nothing Ordinary Rule, which challenges you to create new possibilities. For example, instead of ordering the same old thing at a restaurant, order a dish you’ve never tried. Go to an event you ordinarily wouldn’t go to. Listen to a new kind of music. Applying the Nothing Ordinary Rule increases your mental acuity and infuses your world with possibility. Pretty soon you’ll start to feel like an excited student all over again.

When you see opportunities all around you, you can’t help but generate good work. People often express astonishment that I’ve written more than 60 books. But I see each book as a new opportunity to learn about something new and share my excitement about that subject.

Aldous Huxley once said that the secret of genius is to carry the spirit of a child into old age. He was right! So take some inspiration from all the students going back to school this month—embrace the new opportunities around you.

What Great Leaders Know and Do: The Importance of Reinventing Continuously

My last couple of blogs were lifelong learning online adult education and knowledge building,dedicated to the first two elements of the SERVE model from The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, the first book Mark Miller and I coauthored, which was just released as a 10th Anniversary Edition.

For a quick review, the S in the model stands for See the Future and points out the importance of having a compelling vision for the future. The first E in the SERVE model stands for Engage and Develop Others. As a leader, you must be able to put the right people in the right roles, and you must invest in their development.

Now I want to tell you about the R in the SERVE model, which stands for Reinvent Continuously. This is a very big concept so I’ve broken it down into three components: Personal reinvention, systems and processes reinvention, and structural reinvention.

First, if you want to be a great leader, you must reinvent continuously on a personal level. Simply knowing how to do your job today doesn’t secure your success tomorrow. Read, watch videos, listen to audio books or podcasts, talk to colleagues, work with a mentor, or join associations or special interest groups. It’s important to keep up with this ever-changing world so that you can be innovative and bring new ideas that will respond to future challenges. In fact, Mark and I believe if you stop learning, you stop leading.

The second component applies to reinventing systems and processes. It’s critical to keep looking for ways to improve how your business is conducted. A key point to always remember, whether you are looking for ways to cut costs, reduce errors, increase speed to market, or simplify processes, is to talk to your people. Because they are in the trenches with your products, services, and customers, they often generate ideas executive leaders wouldn’t come up with. Getting input from people at all levels in your workplace also increases buy-in.

The third part is all about structural reinvention. Sometimes the way an organization is structured just doesn’t make sense for future growth. The best leaders recognize this and are willing to be flexible when it comes to restructuring teams, departments, and sometimes entire functions.

Continuous reinvention is a long-term quest. To get started on your reinvention journey, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are my mentors?
  • What am I learning?
  • What systems or processes need to be changed to improve how we do business?
  • Do any teams, departments, or functions need restructuring to enhance future performance?

I’d love to hear from you. In what ways have you reinvented yourself, your workplace systems and processes, or your organization?