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Prioritizing Learning in 2021

February 3, 2021

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Chris Proulx

Chief Growth Officer, US


Ross Coxon

Director, Client Delivery, UK

It’s 2021, finally. You and your team slogged through all the challenges that 2020 threw at you. But you ended the year feeling exhausted, distracted, and overwhelmed. It’s time for a fresh start.

Now is the time to upgrade your team and organization with these four learning and development do’s and don’ts.

Don’t wait all year to bring people together in-person again

The term “new normal” gets thrown around a lot at the moment. Meanwhile, leadership models for VUCA have been around for almost a decade but have gained new meaning in 2020. The truth is that change has always been a constant, but now it is coming at us faster than ever before–and the risks of not adapting are higher.

Old models of dealing with large external changes encouraged us to see change as a series of large-scale events. This view led to two general responses; either they need to be endured and weathered, out of which we emerge (hopefully stronger and more resilient). Or, we attempt tactical responses to mitigate the downside of the change with the assumption that things will stabilize again within months. Both responses are a form of hunkering down–neither of which is helpful now. We need to build teams and organizations able to not only weather multiple, overlapping, and ongoing changes at the same time, but actually build resilience that allows you to continue to grow and strategically adapt your way through them.

From an learning and development (L&D) perspective, this can be quite challenging. We have just had at least 12 months of a hiatus from our most used L&D technique, face to face training. Many organizations have thus ‘hunkered down’ and did not deliver on their learning strategies for months. This has left the organization under-investing in new skills and capacity when it was most needed. We have seen people’s roles changing, new systems and processes being implemented to manage remote work, new required behaviors and new responsibilities being assigned at a breakneck speed, with a learning structure that could not cope or one that was simply not fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the growth rate of COVID-19 infections continues to grow unabated in most countries, and the rollout of vaccines, if even available, is not yet able to keep up. The most optimistic estimates point to limited increases of in-person activities by mid-2021, but many are looking to late 2021 or beyond.

So, you can’t base your 2021 learning and development plan around getting teams together in-person again any time soon. And if you are one of the many organizations that delayed critical learning programs, especially management and leadership development, your business can’t afford to wait another several months, or a year, to make important training investments.

Don’t let Zoom fatigue get you down

The picture is not entirely bleak. Many organizations, teams, schools, families and individuals have embraced the brave new world of Zoom (or other video platforms) and it has made a real difference in uncountable ways. The advantage of Zoom has been its ease of use and rollout, its affordable entry-level pricing, and generally its high quality of uptime and video and audio quality. It has almost been a utility in 2020.

But it can also be exhausting and hard to use well, so Zoom fatigue is real for many of us. But Zoom is not the issue here; it’s how it’s being used. We need to embrace a broad set of tools to collaborate, work, meet, brainstorm, and convene to make this new modality work for us.

We know that in-person meetings and training are so much better when:

(1) the facilitator is highly skilled,

(2) the modalities of interactions and the tools used are varied; and

(3) there are well designed and considered agendas, breaks, social events, etc.

The same is true for real-time online meetings and training.  If your facilitators don’t have training in using the new online toolset, that’s a good place to start. There is an increasing number of training programs geared toward high-impact online facilitation. We are just launching our own at Humentum based on our successful in-person training of trainers.

Using online tools such as Mural or Miro for whiteboarding and mind-mapping in real-time or Kahoot or Mentimeter for user participation can quickly add a whole new range of interaction. Facilitation frameworks such as Liberating Structures, especially in the hands of a skilled online facilitator can supercharge an online event.

We are also big fans of the work of the NeuroLeadership Institute. They make their research very accessible, and it’s all workplace focused. Their AGES model helps us to understand how the brain works and to use that knowledge to design better training, meetings, and conferences to increase attention and ensure long-term retention.

Do embrace a broader toolkit for online learning

Going beyond Zoom, we know that one size never fits all. Video conferencing has so many advantages and benefits, but without a complete toolkit of options, L&D teams can never meet the comprehensive needs of an organization. People need access to learning when they need it (if I need to remember how to do IF formulas in Excel, I don’t want to wait for the Excel hints and tips call next week – so where should I go?)

Prior to COVID-19, we too often still heard organizations debating the mix of their in-person vs. online learning; or using online learning at all for anything beyond check-the-box compliance. It assumed online learning was a flat, one-dimensional tool.

In this new environment, if your idea of online learning is only replacing a face to face course in Zoom, you are missing out on a wide range of other learning approaches–most of which also work online with only modest adjustment. The whole spectrum of organizational learning tools needs reviewing in the current climate:

  • Secondments/job sharing
  • Stretch assignments
  • Self-lead asynchronous learning
  • Peer to peer learning (both in real-time and in asynchronous forums)
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Formal training
  • Informal training
  • Micro-learning and text-based learning

Looking for ideas, check out our latest e-book, Mastering Organizational Learning or follow some of the blogs and podcasts we follow: Train Like a Champion, Learning is the New Working, Action@Work.

Do re-invest in your managers and leaders

There is no doubt there has been forced change at every level of your organization. Are your managers equipped and ready to lead this change? Are they able to set the tone in terms of successfully managing in this new distributed working environment? Are they leading the discussions around equity and inclusion? Are they leading the identification and implementation of new solutions or holding your organization back because, well, the comfort zone is comfortable?

2020 was a challenging year to be managing any team. Most likely, your organization did not prioritize management development training because of the remote working environment, financial challenges, or the demands of keeping the day to day work going.

For most organizations, remote working is here to stay–at least for some people, some of the time, even after the pandemic eases. So, how can you support your managers to influence the work being completed, even if you can’t see the work being done? While specific skills are unique to the virtual team environment, the reality is that managers still need to “know their role.” Those who bring strong communication skills up/down/across the organization, the ability to listen intentionally, provide specific and timely feedback, and support team members in maintaining momentum will succeed in-person and in a distributed team. Remote teams have adopted skills in managing the work such as using scrum or daily or weekly stand-ups for over a decade to ensure work is more transparent and actionable.

As we look ahead, people are looking to innovate, and learners are more open to trying new things out. Embrace this period for even greater experimentation; there has never been a better time to offer new solutions, try new things and see what works. Embrace the constraints that this period offers and use them as a canvas for exploration. Feel free and enjoy the ride. Share with us your successes and failures, and if you need help getting started, ask us, we can help.

Talk to us about how to customize an e-learning program for your organization.