Learning and development (L&D) leaders emerged from 2020 with increased respect and influence in their organizations—presenting opportunities to shape workers and drive readiness for further changes. Many organizations emerged from 2020 with an increased openness to digital transformation and an accelerated timetable for achieving online learning maturity.

The 2021 LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Report, released in early March, bears this out. The survey of thousands of L&D leaders and learners worldwide found that fully two-thirds are focused on rebuilding or reshaping their companies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital transformation wrought by shutdowns and pivoting to remote work. Almost as many (63%) reported that, in their organizations, L&D leaders have “a seat at the executive table”—compared with just 24% who said that in the 2020 Workplace Learning report.

These individuals are using their amplified voice and influence in powerful ways: Upskilling and reskilling employees is a global priority. Developing power skills, chiefly digital fluency and resilience, is another focus. And L&D leaders have embraced their role in shaping diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Upskilling, reskilling, and internal mobility

Upskilling and reskilling workers are top priorities for 59% of L&D professionals surveyed. These L&D leaders know that they need to equip workers with new and updated skills to prepare them for coming change:

  • The World Economic Forum predicted in an October 2020 report that the combined effects of increased automation and the pandemic will drastically alter the labor landscape, with 85 million jobs “displaced” and 97 million new jobs created by 2025.
  • Organizations are increasingly turning inward to fill skills gaps and open positions, with more than half of L&D professionals saying that internal mobility has become more of a focus since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Upskilling and reskilling strategies prepare workers for changes in their roles by updating their skills, recognizing that “future-proofing” their employees makes more financial sense than recruiting new employees. L&D leaders’ role includes:

  • Identifying existing skills gaps or anticipating future skills gaps
  • Building and managing internal mobility programs
  • Identifying employees with “skills adjacencies”—skills related to anticipated skills gaps

Internal mobility and reskilling employees pay off for organizations, in both higher job engagement and greater longevity: Companies with high internal mobility retain workers almost twice as long as those with low mobility.

The power skills of 2021: Digital fluency and resilience

Resilience might be the byword of 2020: Resilient organizations, leaders, and learners are able to navigate the quickly changing norms and needs of their workplaces. Part of building resilience is acquiring digital fluency, which the LinkedIn report defines as having “the technology skills to effectively operate in an increasingly digital world.” It is a broad set of skills, encompassing everything from being able to work with the Microsoft Office suite to knowing what artificial intelligence is and does.

Some L&D leaders view digital fluency as a learning path, and they are creating training targeted at developing this fluency—and resultant resilience—in their learners. It’s a virtuous cycle: Nearly 60% of learners surveyed agreed that learning makes them more adaptable.

In addition to digital fluency, L&D leaders looking to the future are emphasizing soft skills, such as communicating with distributed teams, emotional intelligence, and leading through change as power skills for 2021, both for themselves and for their organizations.

L&D a key player in diversity and inclusion initiatives

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are hot: Nearly two-thirds of L&D professionals globally, and almost three-quarters in North America, say that D&I initiatives are a priority among their organizations’ top executives.

L&D plays a key role in designing, developing, and implementing these initiatives, either working closely with a diversity and inclusion team or taking sole responsibility for the initiative.

Leadership in DEI is a natural fit for L&D leaders, according to Kindra Dionne, who told The Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance Winter Online Forum that “Diversity, equity, and inclusion, and also accessibility, are critical in the learning and development environment because, when we walk into the learning environment as practitioners or as instructors, we have a melting pot of personalities and experiences that we’re encountering.”

Without taking learners’ individual experiences into account, L&D may fail to serve them, said Dionne, who is the president and CEO of Purpose WorX LLC. Regardless of whether an organization has 5 or 500 learners, practitioners must “figure out how to incorporate the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in everything we do.”

TorranceLearning instructional designer Jessica Jackson agreed, adding that L&D touches “almost every person in the organization”, meaning that L&D gets to “set the exemplar for what it means to be an equitable, inclusive, and diverse organization” in all L&D work, not only specifically focused D&I training.

Think outside of the “training” box

The abrupt shift to online learning and working gave L&D professionals a rare opportunity to lead, share their expertise and skills, and shape the future of their organizations. As companies emerge from the pandemic, those that have emphasized digital fluency, deepened their commitment to developing employees, and focused on building equitable and inclusive workplaces will thrive in the “new normal.”

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