Last reviewed 22 March 2022

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many people’s working lives have been turned upside down. People worked from home and then in a hybrid manner, L&D professionals found themselves having to rethink how they delivered learning to so many remote workers, whilst they too were working remotely. It is not an overstatement to say that the last two years has been frenetic for workers everywhere. But what attention has been given to the L&D professional themselves during this time? What about their learning and skill development? In this article, Judith Christian-Carter, considers the need for upskilling and reskilling L&D professionals.

It has been noted that whilst adult learners in the workplace are much the same as those 30 years ago, the environments in which they now learn are definitely different. Today’s learning environments are new, networked and digitally-mediated. Learning and Development (L&D) professionals are now trying to understand what effects these new learning environments have on learner engagement and the role of learner perceptions of technology in influencing successful online learning delivery.

So what changes have L&D professionals experienced over the last few years, from tools, approaches and beliefs? How have they stayed current and adapted, and what upskilling and reskilling do they now need?

Technology

Technology changes have probably impacted on the L&D professional’s working life more than any other changes. It is not only new developments, such as virtual reality, but also the disappearance of older innovations, such as “Flash”, the multimedia platform software. Familiar tools, such as authoring software, have also over time become more robust and much easier to use.

However, a modern-day problem is the plethora of tools available, not only as software but also as “apps” on mobile devices. Whilst the cost of technology has reduced considerably, knowing which tools to choose can be far from easy. Therefore, the L&D professional needs to keep their focus on the learner and what enables them to learn effectively.

L&D practice

Probably the largest shift in L&D is the move away from the notion that the primary function of L&D is to create and deliver courses. It is without a doubt that technology changes are largely responsible for this shift, because the latter having become easier to use has led to the development of a multitude of digital learning solutions.

Not only is this shift in L&D practice a shift in mindset, but once embraced it also requires a major change to the traditional role of the L&D professional. The focus now has to be on the learner’s needs, environment and context, with the L&D professional adopting a more problem-solving role.

Likewise, the L&D professional now needs to adopt more of a facilitation role, so they need to learn how to give control to the learners themselves. Where learning is seen as a means of performance enablement and support, powered by new technology, this means that L&D professionals can no longer rely on providing and delivering learning content in advance. Instead, the L&D professional needs to adopt an ongoing role of enablement and support, with the ability to be flexible and responsive at the point of need.

Learning demands

Putting the demands of learning to use ever-evolving technologies to one side, L&D professionals now need to learn how to network and connect with people with whom they have never connected before. Building and maintaining these connections is far from straightforward or achieved quickly.

Another major learning demand for L&D professionals is knowing how to ensure that the L&D function is fit for the 21st century. For many this will mean letting go of old cherished beliefs, particularly those that have been debunked as myths, such as learning styles. L&D professionals will need keep up to date with learning research, understand what the data shows and spend time with their peers who have other L&D roles.

Learning demands are commonly either needs-driven or curiosity-driven. Examples of needs-driven learning demand are when a new concept (such as virtual reality, microlearning) intersects with a current need, learning deeply about just a few new trends, and choosing to focus on aspects that are directly related to a current project or task.

Learning demands that are curiosity-driven can also end up informing an L&D professional’s work or leading them onto a new path, for example podcasting, virtual reality and videography. In addition to which, there are always those L&D professionals who simply do not like not knowing about new concepts and trends.

Finally, there is the conundrum of whether, when upskilling, L&D professionals need to aim for proficiency or expertise. Most L&D professionals would opt for proficiency or somewhere in between being proficient and expert. Time is cited as the main enemy of attaining expertise in any particular skill set, what with everything else that is going on in the workplace, in addition to the changing role of the L&D professional. However, what every L&D professional does need, is the time to become highly proficient.

Support from managers

Just as the L&D professional’s role has shifted from designing and delivering courses to one of facilitation, the most valuable support from managers should be one of encouraging L&D professionals to identify their own learning needs and then to ensure that these needs are met through appropriate development opportunities.

Managers who allow L&D professionals the time to learn, the opportunity to try out new ideas, etc on the job, to share and connect with their peers and, above all, who can empathise with individuals and their roles, will provide a conducive environment in which L&D professionals can upskill. However, it should not be forgotten that many managers also need the time and knowledge to upskill themselves.

How to upskill

Producing a list of all the skills required of an L&D professional today can prove to be a salutary exercise, in that such a list will serve to show just how complicated and multi-faceted the role is, eg learning science, instructional design, user experience design, media design, communication, estimating and planning, to name but a few required skill sets.

For some the list will be daunting and overwhelming, in which case it pays to focus first on the basics, such as researching, interviewing and analysing an audience. Also important is getting comfortable with iterative design practices and thinking in terms of generating solutions for learning transfer. In this way, L&D professionals then start to pick up skills that touch on many areas of learning design and, by so doing, close their knowledge and skill gaps.

Other tips are to develop in areas that interest the individual and which are not necessarily what they get paid to do. Also, to focus on areas of weakness and work to improve these. Another tip is to focus on areas of opportunity within the organisation, as well as selecting a sound starting point where there is a solid foundation on which to build.

Newly acquired skill sets

Here are some of the newly acquired skill-sets revealed by L&D professionals that have proved to be invaluable in their work:

  • accessibility and representation

  • deep understanding of the target audience

  • data analytics to show L&D’s value

  • growth mindset

  • agile software development

  • importance of assessment

  • learner and content analysis

  • a measurement-first approach to design.

All the above reflect not only the new learning environment that L&D professionals are encountering but are also new and varied areas in which they need upskilling and reskilling.