6 Learning and Development Trends in 2021: Finding Opportunity in Change

learning and development trends in 2021

Want to see more up-to-date trends? You might like this post on L&D trends to expect in 2022.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that 2020 didn’t quite turn out the way we expected. While 2020 was the year of massive change and flux, it’s likely that the ripples will be felt well into 2021. In fact, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work, communicate, and learn. Learning and development trends in 2021 are set to address these changes and ensure that L&D continue to support organizational performance while taking a more strategic role in training development.

In 2020, a report from the Learning Guild found that over 35% of respondents’ organizations were implementing work-from-home policies for the very first time. While job skills were a focus for respondents, they also reported an increase in other types of training, including leadership/management training. 

So, whether it’s a shift in the way training is delivered, changes to training content itself, or how the training team operates, 2021 will see a lot of L&D teams perfecting and optimizing the new activities they were forced to quickly undertake in the previous year. 

With that in mind, here are six learning and development trends for 2021 to keep your eye on:

1. Increase in diversity, equity, and inclusion training

This is a trend predicted by several organizations, including the Learning Guild in its June 2020 Covid Impact study. 

Although the focus on diversity may have been heightened by widespread social unrest, particularly in the United States, it’s far more than a knee-jerk reaction. Diversity training was already gaining traction across organizations large and small, especially as compliance with social and governance initiatives has become a mandate from the executive suite, board of directors, and investors.

L&D teams, if they haven’t already, will need to figure out the best way to deliver this effectively and with up-to-date best practices. Diversity training in 2021 needs to go beyond what is or is not appropriate outward conduct in the workplace and seek to address issues such as unconscious bias as well. 

2. AI for talent development, especially for leadership coaching. 

AI for training is nothing new: in fact, it was on our list for 2020 trends.

This time, however, AI will get even more intelligent: it will actually decide who is ready for leadership training.

“The leadership development market is becoming intelligent too,” cites HR consultant Josh Bersin, “as a new set of tools provide AI-based coaching, learning recommendations, and neuro-science based assessment to understand who is ready for leadership.”

AI has been slowly creeping into the learning technology stack, making use of recommendation engines and smart assessments. The results are exciting, and so is this upcoming trend. Not only will it empower L&D when it comes to profiling learners based on their knowledge and skills, but it will assist with the tricky business of identifying future leaders in the organization and retaining them for further talent development. 

learning trends 2021

3. Making new virtual experiences just as engaging as in-person ILT sessions.

ILT (instructor-led training) has been steadily moving from offline to online over the past several years. Despite many reports to the contrary, however, up until this year there was still a heavy reliance on in-person training across a vast range of industries and organization sizes. 

Of course, the global pandemic accelerated the movement of training to digital formats greatly. But now that the dust has settled after the initial panic of shifting to online learning, training teams are turning their attention to making sure virtual sessions are just as engaging as their in-person counterparts.

Whether it involved conducting ILT sessions in virtual environments or converting ILT training to eLearning, the speed at which this had to be done in the past year meant that quality may have taken a back seat. So, one of the key learning and development trends in 2021 will involve L&D teams looking back over their newly converted online training and virtual classroom environments to ensure that learning experiences remain effective and engaging for learners.

We spoke with virtual classroom training expert Kassy LaBorie recently to find out how to make the most of virtual learning for instructors and learners. You can check out the full on-demand webinar recording here.

4. The upskilling and reskilling revolution will continue.

While the #4 challenge for L&D in LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report was to effectively roll out upskilling and reskilling programs, the challenges of 2020 will only embolden these initiatives in the coming year.

According to the LinkedIn study, upskilling leads reskilling 51% to 43%, respectively, which makes sense given the upheaval in most work environments this year. Upskilling means learning new skills for the same job function, and employees have certainly been asked to do this. This could mean the same job but now remotely using different tools.

Source: LinkedIn

In fact, the quick shift to remote work in 2020 has already necessitated the first major round of upskilling for both learners and trainers. From navigating new technologies to facilitate remote learning, working, and collaborating to new social distancing measures, this is an example of another trend that was rapidly accelerated during the ongoing pandemic.

For 2021, upskilling and reskilling programs will continue to address these issues while also facilitating upskilling and reskilling that helps organizations remain competitive in increasingly dynamic business conditions.

5. L&D as learning consultants for business partners

Understanding what skills to build or what courses to develop was listed as a top 10 challenge by 22% of learning professionals in 2020.

This conundrum is familiar to lots of learning professionals who take their lead from business partners in terms of what training solutions are most critical to the business. Working with business partners to establish exactly what is needed on an organizational level should boost performance and make an impact. But too often, L&D experiences a knee-jerk reaction to training requests, especially when they come from someone of a senior or executive position. The instinct is to support the organization by diving right into creating the requested training.

But in order for the training team to make a positive strategic impact, it’s essential to challenge those requests and act as a consultant to business partners to establish the true organizational training need that is triggering these requests. 

In 2021, learning and development will capitalize on the brighter spotlight that was cast on them in the previous year by finding ways to act as internal consultants on learning and training needs. By carving out this role more definitively, L&D have the opportunity to cement their role as important strategic influencers.

A panel of learning experts discussed this concept recently in the webinar “The New L&D Gameplan.” You can view the full on-demand recording here.

6. Focus on productivity/making the most of resources

The Bersin Academy’s HR Tech Workshop report outlined how the focus on HRM technology has shifted rapidly in recent years, from efforts to automate right up to leveraging technology for increased employee engagement.

Now that learning and development have the tools and technology to engage learners with ever more sophisticated digital experiences, the focus in 2021 will move towards systems of productivity. 

It’s a trend that will become increasingly central as teams across the organization, including L&D, deal with budget freezes, cuts, and redundancies. How can L&D do more with less in circumstances such as these? Learning technology will increasingly focus on providing solutions to make training teams more digital, agile, and efficient.

No matter what 2021 learning and development trends come your way, the key is for L&D to stay on their toes and remain adaptable. If there is one lesson we can take from the past few months into the year ahead, it’s that change is inevitable and often unexpected. It’s up to us to embrace that change and find the opportunity within it.

Planning for 2021 has never been more relevant or more crucial to the success of L&D.
Download our Learning and Development 2021 Strategy Toolkit today!

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6 Learning and Development Trends in 2021: Finding Opportunity in Change