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10 learning and development trends for the next normal

Today's companies need to upskill and reskill their workforces to stay competitive. Here's a look some of the most important learning and development strategies that can help.

With a profound skills shortage looming, upskilling and reskilling should be on everyone's agenda right now.

The number and types of learning and development (L&D) tools is expanding, including tools for learning in the flow of work, macrolearning, microlearning, collaborative learning and language localization, said Josh Bersin, industry analyst and founder of the HR development resource the Josh Bersin Academy, based in Oakland, Calif.

Those learning tools will become more important as the pandemic ends, and the unemployment rate potentially drops to below 4%, said Bersin, during a panel session on digital learning at the virtual HR Technology Conference and Exposition in March.

"We're going to see the most incredible growth cycle coming out of this pandemic," he said. "You will not be able to find enough people to hire; you will have to train people internally in order to grow."

That means HR, talent and learning leaders need to promote internal mobility and stay on top of L&D trends. Here are 10 to understand.

Digital corporate learning

The pandemic cemented an L&D trend that had been on the rise for some time -- the shift to digital learning, also called e-learning or virtual learning.

"It's the accessibility of [digital] learning [that] democratizes [it] more so than in person," said Terry VanQuickenborne, global head of learning and organizational development at Autdodesk, a 3D design, engineering and entertainment software vendor based in San Rafael, Calif., speaking from the panel.

We need to create things at scale in language availability, and it has to be ready for when [employees] need it throughout their day.
Christine VaccolaHead of global leadership development curriculum and transversal skills, Sanofi

Employees have given positive feedback to Autodesk's digital learning offerings, noting their ready availability instead of having to travel or deal with other accessibility issues, VanQuickenborne said.

The digital approach has also been working for Sanofi, a multinational pharmaceutical company based in Paris, France.

"It is really important that digital is absolutely on the roadmap," said Christine Vaccola, head of global leadership development curriculum and transversal skills at Sanofi, speaking from the panel. "We need to create things at scale in language availability, and it has to be ready for when [employees] need it throughout their day."

Digital transformation of learning

Whereas digital learning is what faces the learner, digital transformation -- essentially, the use of computer-based technologies to improve an organization's performance -- is how business, HR and IT leaders reinvent the training and development processes so that employees actually use the digital L&D systems.

Take the experience of Visa, based in San Francisco, for instance. When Chief Learning Officer Karie Willyerd started at Visa in 2018, the company already had digital training offerings, she said on the panel. People did contribute great content, but on the experience front, it was difficult to navigate, so adoption was low.

Visa embarked on an ongoing digital transformation, as the company develops and refines its L&D approach, Willyerd said. One aspect of that involves modernizing the learning experience, including simplifying the way users are able to access content on the front end. Another aspect of Visa's learning digital transformation is creating trainings that clients can use.

Hybrid learning

For many companies, the forced shift to remote work will become either permanent or hybrid post-pandemic. Learning will follow suit. But exactly what the balance of face-to-face and online looks like remains to be seen.

"There's going to be some challenges to it because, if we go completely flexible, there are some research studies that show that it disadvantages women and underrepresented groups," Willyerd said.

A hybrid approach -- partly remote and partly in-office -- will be different for every company, said Nuno Gonçalves, global head of strategic capability at food manufacturer Mars Inc., based in McClean, Va., during the panel.

What is important is that a post-pandemic normal is inclusive both in terms of working and learning.

"We cannot go back to the places where we have 80% of the people in power in the office in a conference room," Gonçalves said.

For Sanofi, the right hybrid learning equation depends on the capabilities in question.

"We're going to be very mindful of the investment on face-to-face; it'll be based off of the skill, and what is best to serve that skill," Vaccola said.

Change management and other soft skills

Change management is the No. 1 most in-demand skill in his academy for HR people, Bersin said.

People want to know how to be good managers, how to be good leaders, how to work in teams.
Josh BersinFounder, Josh Bersin Academy

Concrete and technical skills are important, but soft skills -- such as change management -- are key to building successful companies in a time where disruption is the norm. Today, L&D can turn to digital tools to teach those behavioral skills.

"People want to know how to be good managers, how to be good leaders, how to work in teams," Bersin said.

Other soft skills include storytelling, growth mindset and influencing skills.

These are the type of skills Sanofi's business side deemed critical and the learning team used to build its offerings. Its first virtual offering was about leading through change, Vaccolo said.

"It taught us a lot about agility, in our design and the concept of experimentation," she said.

Capabilities that support business goals, agility

Business and HR leaders need to identify the core capabilities for roles, projects and the work employees do as a basis for modernizing training and development initiatives that can keep up with the pace of change.

Organizations can deploy digital learning tools from vendors such as Degreed, EdCast and Microsoft very quickly, but understanding whether learning efforts are contributing to business efforts is another matter, Bersin said.

For Mars, that means working to simplify skills development. The company is implementing an ambitious Workday project, in part to become more agile and strategic with its learning efforts.

"We need to simplify our [job architecture] landscape," Gonçalves said. "How will we be doing marketing or sales differently or supply or manufacturing differently in the future, [and] how does that translate into our job roles?"

Improved digital employee experience

One of the major L&D trends is creating better employee experience as it relates to learning, and that means offering a more consumer-like experience.

Visa uses Microsoft Teams to provide a simple user interface for learning.

We're really experimenting with bringing everything to the learner in their workspace, even though these are all separate applications.
Karie WillyerdChief learning officer, Visa

Developers created APIs to stitch together about two dozen applications to create the current offering, Willyerd said. The learning experience platform (LXP) is the front end for learners, and on the back end resides the learning management system. For example, learners can access the Intrepid learning platform and Degreed upskilling platform through Teams, where they also collaborate.

"We're really experimenting with bringing everything to the learner in their workspace, even though these are all separate applications," Willyerd said.

Another aspect of that L&D trend is the use of xAPI, a protocol that allows companies to collect from different systems what learners are clicking on and using, store it in a learning record store, and apply analytics so companies can improve the offerings. It's is an important new technology, Bersin said, pointing to Watershed as an example.

Rewards: Digital badging and gamification

An important L&D trend is a focus on rewarding the learner through credentialing methods, such as digital badges and gamification.

For example, Visa built a bespoke gamified system from Leo Learning, Willyerd said. Through its connection to Watershed, a learning analytics platform, the L&D team can see the duration of engagement, where people drop off, and other aspects of the learning journey. The vision is to connect that to the CRM to see how the learning connects to selling.

The company also uses digital badging to give users points for completing certain sales courses. The vision is for the LXP to recognize this, connect through the talent acquisition system and suggest well-matched jobs to an employee.

VR for corporate learning

Virtual reality (VR) for training has been in the spotlight for years, but the pandemic made its value more relevant.

Autodesk recently took advantage of VR for its Emerging Leaders Program. It used a variety of modalities to target specific needs. Understanding the right modality for training -- for example, where personal coaching or on-demand videos are best -- is another important aspect of where L&D is going.

Autodesk partnered with Immersion to bring simulations into the training, along with coaching support and a virtual classroom, VanQuickenborne said.

Globalization and localization

Tailoring learning content for local needs is an important L&D trend.

"Globalization is key for us," Vaccola said.

For starters, Sanofi will translate each soft skill into eight Workday languages, she said.

In addition, she pointed to vendors such as corporate language training company Gofluent [sponsor of the L&D panel] as part of the company's language strategy.

The need to lead with business initiatives

As the learning and development market expands, the need for an effective technology buying strategy becomes even more important. Putting together a learning technology ecosystem that's integrated and effective is no simple matter.

At Mars, the learning team starts with strategy, then works with the company's shared technology services department to find the right tools. 

"What matters is that we choose the right learning technology for getting us to where we need to go; what other organizations are using is not the point," Gonçalves said.

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