What a year we had in 2020! But at least we have more information available for planning 2021: We know it won’t be like 2019 or like what we thought 2020 would be, and we can make a pretty good guess as to where our priorities could or should be. Right? It’s all a matter of strategy based on your best analysis of where your business organization as a whole is headed.

This article contains some ideas about what that L&D strategy might look like.

The big picture

The MIT Sloan Management Review Research Highlight published December 17 (“The Essence of Strategy Is Now How to Change”) offers a guide to basing strategy on adaptability in a world where environments are complex and dynamic. Note that the entire article is behind a paywall; I will provide a summary of some of the relevant recommendations.

Hunsaker and Knowles suggest that business leaders (and in my opinion that includes L&D leaders) need to evolve their thinking about strategy in two ways in order to be relevant today (specifically in 2021). First, shift focus from what is stable to what is changing. This will be different for different organizations as a whole and for business units within those organizations. Next, broaden the number of stakeholders whose needs and potential contributions must be evaluated during the total strategic planning process. Again, this is likely to vary even for specific business units.

The authors propose a framework (MADStrat) that will help identify the form of strategic adaptation that is appropriate for an organization:

  • Magnitude: Strengthen execution of what the organization is doing now
  • Activity: Adopt new ways of pursuing what the organization is doing now
  • Direction: Take a different path

To determine the appropriate form of change, there are two perspectives to consider:

  • Fit to purpose: How closely does your offering fit the needs of current and prospective customers, and how does your business model deliver value for the other stakeholders? Who are you different for?
  • Relative advantage: How are your capabilities valuably different from the alternatives (not just direct competitors)? Can you claim that what you are doing now offers a distinct advantage to customers and key stakeholders? The alternatives could include outsourcing.

Hunsaker and Knowles suggest that this approach provides an alternative to the kind of polarization that you may see in advice online: Either keep doing more of what you are doing now, or engage in disruptive transformation. There is another option.

General courses of action for all employees

You should read the complete Hunsaker and Knowles article (see reference) if you are able to do so, but here are the three general courses of action for one set of stakeholders (there are more specific courses for this set of stakeholders).

These employees are stakeholders on your own L&D staff and the ones you may refer to as “learners”—the exact course of action for these groups will not necessarily be the same. In general, you can:

  • Enhance magnitude: Research the next generation of what you are doing now but do more of the current approach. The idea is to stay the course while keeping up with what is possible.
  • Reimagine what you are doing now: Focus on specific skill sets needed by employees (reskilling); fund research on the next generation of what you are doing now.
  • Shift direction: Retrain to match the new required job skills and workflows (upskilling)—this is likely to be disruptive.

What employees want

One important source of information about what employees want more of is Skillsoft’s 2020 Lean Into Learning: 2020 Annual Learning Report. This is important because it addresses employee expectations for L&D content and organization policy related to their work.

  • Working from home
  • Flexibility in working hours
  • Attention to physical and mental well-being
  • Increased family time

Elsewhere in the report, you will find the top course completions as compiled by Skillsoft for their offerings. To summarize, these all have to do with collaboration, communication, and specific virtual team applications, and with social justice content.

As the report notes, “In today’s world, the most successful people are training themselves.” There are three key areas that L&D must incorporate into 2021 planning:

  • Strengthen current employee capabilities and add new ones (these are different for different groups of employees)
  • Keep up with evolving technologies and improved instructional strategies for supporting learning
  • Build leadership skills

Courses of action for employees other than L&D

For some groups of employees where the work and workflow have not changed, the strategy is going to involve continuing to do what was done in 2020, with the addition of compliance training dealing with controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For other employees where job duties and workflow have changed, reskilling and upskilling will be the necessary approaches. For example, for sales managers, coaching skills in the virtual sales environment will need attention. For sales reps, using video to share lessons learned with the rest of the sales team will probably require reskilling or upskilling. For sales organizations with embedded sales trainers, virtual classroom facilitation and creation of virtual and augmented reality will be an area of reimagination and change of direction. Be alert to identify other groups of front-line workers and their managers for whom shifting direction (disruption), reimagining, or staying the course will be appropriate.

Courses of action for L&D employees (instructional designers)

Nearly all instructional designers will be involved in some form of reskilling and/or upskilling in many or even all of these areas, even though this will be more disruptive in nature.

  • Workflow: Adoption of Agile or project management techniques, such as kanban
  • Virtual classroom design and practice: adding a “producer” to the team
  • Techniques and technology for asynchronous engagement
  • Learning Experience design
  • Simulations
  • Support for performance in the moment of need

Where to find help with strategic planning

As Hunsaker and Knowles point out, the most successful L&D organizations in 2021 “will be the ones that recognize the change signals appropriate to their context.” Act on the signals that support a change in focus in magnitude, activity, or direction.

Where can you learn more about alternative courses of action? First, Learning Solutions, in addition to regular editorial content, will be publishing specific focused content weeks twice a month that will help with identification of those alternatives, and it is our hope that suppliers will also post sponsored content and advertising that will further clarify choices.

Second, if you were a registered attendee at DevLearn 2020 or Learning 2020, the session recordings and materials are still available to you online. There were sessions on many topics for consideration.

Third, the Learning Solutions 2021 Conference & Expo will meet May 4-6. Sessions are already listed on the conference site, and you can register today!

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Hunsaker, Tom and Jonathan Knowles. "The Essence of Strategy Is Now How to Change”. MIT Sloan Management Review Research Highlight, December 17, 2020.