Written by

Maria Umbsaar


April 13, 2020

The Three Phases of Future-Proofing L&D in Disruptive Times

Future-Proofing L&D in Disruptive Times

The global pandemic has radically altered the state of nearly every workforce, and in some ways, businesses will never be the same. But this is far from over. How organizations navigate current challenges and the steps they take to prepare for what lies ahead could determine their long-term survival. Learning and development (L&D) programs will be critical to success.

In the recent past, disruption awareness has been high, but preparedness was low. According to a 2017 survey, 93% of executives believed their industry would be disrupted at some point in the next five years, but only 20% felt that they were highly prepared to address it. Now, L&D teams have been tapped to reframe, recreate, re-deploy and future-proof employee performance programs in the face of dramatic disruption. The following is a best-practices roadmap to guide your team forward.  

If no disruption plan was in place, this is a time to quickly catch up. Conduct a rapid assessment & audit to assess skills against emerging business needs. Strengthen business operations by adjusting which initiatives get delayed, accelerated, or modified.

  • Delay. The goals and threats your organization focused on just weeks ago may no longer be relevant. Delay programs that revolve around obsolete initiatives. Postpone non-essential courses and activities that require close physical contact. The US military has halted some forms of training, hospitals have delayed elective procedures, and many retail businesses have shifted towards an online-only ordering systems with limited pick-up options. What can your organization postpone or reimagine?
  • Accelerate. While some initiatives can be put on hold, others need to be ramped up to address new needs. Hiring employees, implementing safety training, heightening cybersecurity, deploying crisis management, and enhancing customer support are all potential areas of focus. In California, at least one fire department has expedited the training path for new recruits to quickly fill a workforce gap. In the US, the federal government has developed the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) framework in order to protect remote employees and identify talent needs. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has posted online training videos for medical professionals to access its latest recommendations.
  • Modify. Some operations may need to continue as planned, but with adjustments. With so many employees working from home, it may seem logical to simply convert existing L&D programs to an online format, but be aware that changes to curriculum may be warranted. Video conferencing and virtual learning environments can be used to preserve communication channels and teach soft skills, but in light of the circumstances, extra effort should go into making courses as engaging as possible. Simply sticking instructors in front of webcams and relying too heavily on lecture-based curricula puts programs at risk for low engagement and decreased learning retention. Hands-on learning is still critical. Employees still need regular qualitative, technical assessments to ensure that they can actually do the work required. 

Once needs are assessed, L&D should focus on rapid response and implementation. In addition to closing soft and hard skills gaps, learning programs can help disseminate new protocols for remote work and fill productivity voids, preparing employees to ramp up at an even higher level once they are physically able to return to work. While rolling out L&D programs during a crisis, special attention should be given to conveying empathy, fostering trust and sparking engagement.

  • Convey empathy. Consider the emotional toll that living and working through a global pandemic places on employees at all levels. They may be afraid or grieving for their loved ones, worried about their own health, and uncertain about their job security. With 88% of employees now functioning in a remote environment, many can feel isolated. Take care to offer additional online channels for pre- and post-learning discussion. Whether scheduled or asynchronous, these can provide an important communication outlet for employees who crave more interaction. 
  • Foster trust. When trust is low, the efficacy of learning takes a nosedive. Communicate clearly, frequently and often. Lay the groundwork with employees about expectations on their end and yours. Post goals, instructions and archives in a central database where employees can easily access them. For the 22% of essential employees who are still physically reporting into work––consider updating safety and self-care procedures, addressing supply chain issues and communicating emergency protocols. 
  • Spark engagement. Recreating L&D programs could be as straightforward as changing a video or webinar script; or it could require that you change formats altogether. Your pre-recorded content might now be more effective in a live format that allows for Q&A, role-playing, or other cohort-based interactions. Don’t just show and tell, involve. Leverage employees’ mobile devices for experiential, hands-on VR or AR learning. Assess and give feedback through collaborative annotations, online discussion forums, and quizzes. 

To meet current and future needs, L&D leaders must drive the shift to digital learning and reinforce the tools available to rapidly adapt, curate, deploy and measure training at scale. Future-proofing L&D protocols now is the only way to be prepared for the next big disruption. To build resiliency, focus on reskilling, growing your team’s data fluency and rethinking remote interactions. 

  • Focus on reskilling. Whether it is due to the current disruption or the next one, rapid workplace changes are increasingly driving a shift toward reskilling. Stay in front of this with continuous needs assessments and agile content creation.  
  • Grow data fluency. As organizations rely more and more on L&D, data will become even more important. Assessing skills gaps, employee competency, and keeping track of an expanding body of L&D content will require larger amounts of data. While a staggering 97.2% of organizations are currently investing in big data and AI, having access to data alone doesn’t help much. L&D teams will need to invest in training analytics personnel or partner across lines of business to use the data effectively.
  • Rethink remote interactions. Going digital requires us to create a new culture of communication, one that is still evolving. Strive to make remote L&D more personal. Highlight how the training will personally benefit employees. Involve your entire community by tapping company experts. Get management involved in saying thank you with a call or video. Implement gamification and simulations to emulate the experience of getting tips in the break room, engaging in healthy competition or simply getting the chance to practice and communicate with others while learning. 

During uncertain times, businesses face unprecedented challenges and the need to rapidly adapt. But ultimately, the changes L&D teams make now will set organizations up to be more resilient in the face of the next disruption. 



Written by

Maria Umbsaar


enterprise learning & development 2022 report