2021 in Learning: Looking Back (and Ahead)

2021 year in learningOnce again, we arrive at that time of the year where we take stock of where we’ve been and where we are going. 2021 has been a strange one, to say the least. It began with the promise of an exit from the pandemic yet ends pretty much in the same place it started. And despite this apparent lack of change, the year has been all about change. As a testament to the dichotomy that typified 2021, people I speak to are about evenly split on whether the year crept along at a snail’s pace or flew by. This all adds up to some pretty high expectations for 2022, as organizations seek to break loose and get us to the “new normal” we keep hearing about. The fact is, it appears we have already arrived at normal and it is anything but “new” and certainly not “normal.”

For Learning and Development, the past year solidified a couple of things. First, L&D’s strategic profile has unquestionably risen. Companies relied heavily on learning to help the workforce adjust to a remote world, as well as quickly upskill and reskill to meet rapidly changing needs. Of course, learning had to accomplish this without a return to in-person learning, which had been the modality of choice until 2020. Second, this elevated status came with reduced budgets, headcounts, and timelines. Never has learning been asked to do more with less despite a long history of having to do just that.

The upside has been the accelerated digital transformation of learning, which is something that had already been underway — albeit slowly — long before the pandemic. 2021 saw organizations finally adjusting to the new status quo and appropriately leveraging a variety of digital and virtual tools. This is in stark contrast to 2020, when learning was still a technological free-for-all, devoid of much strategy with even fewer outcomes.

2022 promises a continued focus on creating the right kind of content and learning experiences to fit the needs of any worker, regardless of whether they work in an office, at home, on a shop floor, in a store or on the road. The personalization of learning continues to evolve and mature, bringing us closer to achieving an ideal mix of strong formal learning elements and continuing reinforcement and learning support within the flow of work.

With the pandemic being more long-term than originally thought, companies started to re-invest the budgets they had allocated for in-person learning into newer, more flexible solutions and that will continue and expand throughout 2022. It will be interesting to see if ILT returns to the top of the charts, where it had lived comfortably for decades prior to 2020. It will and should return — just not to the degree it was once was. It will look much different as other tools and technologies are used to enhance the experience.

We will also see a continuing shift in attitudes toward artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2019, organizations were still worried that artificial intelligence would either take all our jobs (at best) or fuel the robot uprising (at worst). The ensuing digital transformation shows that AI is a critical piece to ensuring technologies that really meet the needs of employees and the business.

As the old saying goes, “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.” Whatever 2022 may bring, the time to get to work on any learning-related initiatives is now. Review a stagnant learning strategy, evaluate new technologies, audit your existing content against your company’s future needs. None of these endeavors will be any easier to tackle at the end of next year. The time is now.