People Analytics Technology 2022: Executive Summary
Posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022 at 9:00 AM
Summary of findings
- Employee engagement and experience vendors continue to dominate the PAT market. A full 42% of vendors in this year’s people analytics technology (PAT) study are in the employee engagement and experience category. In 2020, this percentage was 34%—but even then, it was still the dominant category.
- The PAT market size and level of are at their highest levels to date. The market grew at an unprecedented rate, with a 53% growth rate between 2020 and 2021, and an 80% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) for the past 5 years. We estimate the overall market value at just over $3 billion. Almost half (47%) of vendors reported receiving investment in 2021, while 30% were acquired, bought another company, or experienced an ownership change.
- Vendors differentiate themselves as new challenges arise. Vendors helped customers meet their data challenges in 2021 by focusing on data engineering, collection, and integration capabilities. This contrasts with 2020, when most vendors differentiated themselves on the methodology, expertise, and science they brought to the table.
- Use cases are shifting, but vendors are likely not responding fast enough. In 2021, vendors continued to focus on serving people analytics practitioners (PAPs). However, our analysis reveals that, as customers’ level of data sophistication increases, the value of PAT is often in the scaling of insights outside the people analytics team. Vendors need to provide capabilities for non-PA practitioners or risk losing the ability to expand their offerings. Today, only 56% of vendors report people managers as current end users, 51% report business and C-suite leaders, and only 23% say the same for employees.
- Customers are less satisfied than before, but that might change in the future. The average Net Promoter Score® score (based on customer responses) dropped to 58 in 2021, as compared with 67 in 2020. The good news is that vendors are actively responding to customers’ needs in 2022. Fifty-seven percent of vendors said that they built new solutions or products for customers, or adjusted their product roadmap. More than 30% of vendors now offer greater technical and administrative support and resources to meet customer needs.
2021 brought its own set of challenges beyond the continuation of COVID-19: a rise in job resignations, the beginning of high inflation (which is still perniciously present), and the start-stop pattern of planning for hybrid work. Now that we are fully in 2022, we continue to manage those challenges, which are exacerbated by the persistence of COVID and its variants, the war in Ukraine with its far- reaching impacts, and a rise in commodity prices. Leading a business is never easy, but the past few years have been especially volatile.
To address this volatility, leaders have turned to people analytics like never before. When workers were’t physically present, people analytics provided insights into their needs. When organizations needed to pivot to meet changing customer needs, people analytics helped leaders identify staff with the skills and capabilities to lead those efforts. And when leaders needed to understand why employees were leaving in droves, people analytics provided insights and helped stem the tide. In short, people analytics has been a beacon of rationality and calm in a world that had little of either during the past few years.
For these reasons, understanding the people analytics technology (PAT) market is more important than ever. These tools are helping millions of leaders make better decisions about their people in a time when uncertainty and confusion can cloud decision-making capabilities. Therefore, understanding what’s happening in this market—and what needs to come next—isn’t just interesting, but critical to leaders’ ability to manage the next phase of volatility and uncertainty.
This executive summary contains some of our main findings from this year’s study. We share more details in our People Analytics Technology Report that RedThread members can access on our website. We also plan to launch an updated PAT tool on our website with much content available for both members and nonmembers.
We hope the findings in this executive summary provide you with better clarity about the evolving market, its areas of focus, and how your organization can solve your people-related challenges.
Thank you to all the vendors and customers who participated in this year’s study. Your support is critical to us being able to do this work. Thank you, also, to our research members; without your support, our work would not be possible.
Employee engagement & experience continue to dominate the solution market
This year’s study is composed of 58 solution vendors, although we know there are more than 125 vendors in this market. Within our study, the largest vendor category (42%) serves the employee engagement, experience, and voice space. This was also the dominant category in 2020 as well, although it then had just 34% of vendors (see Figure 1).
The dominance of this category wasn’t surprising for a few reasons:
- Employee engagement and experience was a critical area of concern for companies during the pandemic, giving vendors an even greater impetus to focus on it.
- The employee engagement and experience software market has traditionally been a crowded space and many vendors (primarily survey providers) have quickly added analytics capabilities recently, thus moving into the people analytics space.
The percentage breakdown for the remaining categories was similar to what we saw in 2020, suggesting that vendors continued to focus on their areas of expertise and, as our data shows later in this report, doubled down on differentiating themselves within their submarkets.
2021: Biggest market size yet
The PAT market grew at an unprecedented rate in 2021.* We calculated market size at just over $3 billion for 2021 (see Figure 2). Overall, the market grew at the following rates:
- 53% growth rate for 2020-2021
- 80% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) for the past 5 years
Vendors indicated that growth was driven by both new and established customers which had expanded their user base beyond people analytics practitioners (PAPs).
These growth sources align with other research that found organizations requested talent metrics to a greater extent than before the pandemic and planned to increase the size of their people analytics teams in 2021.
For those who read our 2020 research, you may notice that we’ve updated the revenue numbers for 2017-2020. This is because we have several new participants in our study and a number of older participants provided us with updated figures for previous years.
2021: A busy year with significant investment
Market growth was at least partially driven by significant investments in the space. As Figure 4 shows, almost half of the vendors that participated in our study received funding in 2021. About one-third of the vendors reported undergoing a merger, an acquisition, or some type of ownership change. Our findings align with the trends in the overall HR tech market, which saw a surge in investments during 2021.
In addition, vendors expect to see continued growth in this area well into the future. Specifically, for 2022 (see Figure 5):
- All vendors expect growth of at least 6% or more
- More than half of vendors expect growth greater than 31%
Our briefings revealed that vendors expect this growth to be driven by a few factors. Specifically, customers are:
- Using people analytics to implement and manage hybrid work
- Exhibiting a growing emphasis on using data and metrics for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)
- Preparing for more SEC reporting requirements around human capital metrics
A crowded marketplace
We continue to use our matrix approach to classifying the PAT market, for which we compare 2 aspects of solutions’ capabilities: usage frequency and data sources (see Appendix 1 for more details; note that a firm’s placement up and to the right in the matrix is not necessarily better).
The number of logos on our matrix (see Figure 6) has almost doubled since our first PAT study in 2019. A few things caught our attention this year:
- The majority of new vendor participants have surveying capabilities. We’ve particularly seen a crowding of vendors in the 2 quadrants to the right of the Y axis, indicating a greater focus on more continuous analysis driven by employee listening.
- More vendors are integrating data than before. We’ve observed the addition of vendors above the X axis, meaning a larger number of vendors are:
- Pulling disparate internal organizational data (e.g., sales, CRM, learning data, etc.) as well as external data (e.g., labor market data)
- Combining active data collected directly from employees with passive data, such as metadata or data from collaboration tools (Slack, Teams, etc.)
2021 necessitated different approaches
Similar to 2020, vendors were quick to respond to customer needs last year. The pandemic, growing resignation rates, and a shift from remote to hybrid work meant that leaders needed insights based on real-time data from multiple sources to make informed decisions.
Our data reveal that vendors responded to these needs. Compared to previous years, in 2021, vendors had a much clearer understanding of their strengths and what set them apart from other vendors.
As we see in Figure 7, in 2020 vendors focused on differentiating themselves based on their domain expertise and methodology. In 2021, they differentiated themselves based on their data integration, collection, and engineering capabilities, while keeping the solutions flexible and easy to use.
However, while these capabilities met a critical need of the primary users of the solution, they fell short of meeting the needs of other users, as our data show on the next few pages.
Use cases are shifting over time
Over the course of our conversations, it became clear that there is a change in how organizations are using people analytics technologies, depending on the organization’s PA sophistication and the type of user. Figure 8 is a simplified depiction of how many organizations are using these technologies:
- Phase 1: PAPs use vendor tools for understanding a specific HR area (e.g., engagement), integrating data from other HR data sources (e.g., HRIS), and presenting it in dashboards; senior leaders begin to leverage dashboards.
- Phase 2: PAPs use vendor tools to integrate a broader set of people-related data and some operational data, and provide a continuous stream of data; other leaders increasingly use these more robust dashboards and insights.
- Phase 3: PAPs use vendor tools to export the integrated data, and add it to a data lake or to run additional analysis on the tools of their choice, such as Tableau and Power BI; leaders broadly adopt the dashboards and other capabilities to answer business questions.
As shown in Figure 8, once PAPs move to Phase 3, the level of usage of the tool declines for them. Importantly, though, this is when the tools can achieve broader scalability via adoption by business, HR, and people leaders—if the tools target those non-PAP audiences. Unfortunately, most do not.
Vendors may not be responding quickly enough to changes with end users
The vast majority of vendors (93%) continue to focus on PAPs as their primary end user (see Figure 9). Additionally, when compared with previous years, there’s a decline in usage frequency by all other groups except people managers.
This growing gap is indicative of what we heard during our vendor briefings and found in our surveys. Vendors now understand the value propositions their solutions can provide for different users—but they’re not doing enough to attract greater usage from non-PAP users.
We heard from numerous vendors about their efforts to design user experiences around a specific set of users and provide them with targeted capabilities. However, given the significant gap in usage between PAPs and all other users, clearly vendors need to do more. For example, vendors should consider:
- Surfacing relevant insights for HR and HRBP users that tie in directly with business priorities, benchmarking those against other business units and making it easy to share them more broadly
- Giving tool access to employees so they can see insights based on data collected about them and compare their own historical performance with that of other teams
For years vendors have said they would expand their end-user focus: We’re still waiting
In our first study in January 2019, we asked vendors the extent to which different users were current users and the extent to which those users would use the solution in 3 years’ time.
Well, it’s nearly 3 years later. When we compare vendors’ predictions from 2019 about usage rates at the end of 2021 with the actual rates from the end of 2021, it’s a bit dismal (Figure 10):
- Business & C-suite leaders: The estimate from 3 years ago was 72%; actual usage is 51%.
- People managers: The estimate from 3 years ago was 81%; actual usage is 56%.
- Employees: The estimate from 3 years ago was 54%; actual usage is 23%.
Here’s the really depressing part: All of those actual usage percentages for 2021 are lower than the actual usage numbers given in 2019.
With the near stagnant levels of usage by non-PA leaders and the shifting use cases we discussed earlier, vendors could face a real challenge if they don’t start providing value to non- PA leaders and thereby increase their usage.
Customers are not as happy as before
We saw a dip in customer satisfaction levels for 2021 when compared with 2020. Specifically, we saw a decline in NPS from 67 in 2020 to 58 for 2021 (see Figure 11). This NPS is based on the 21 vendors with 5 or more customer responses.
A few potential reasons for the decline in NPS include:
- Some vendors may not be doing enough to cater to the needs of non-PA leaders, resulting in a poor experience for them
“The concept and idea is good, the analytics is good—but the content and features are not attractive for users.”
—Large technology company for an employee solution experience / engagement solution
- The pandemic made everything urgent, which means customers needed solutions to deliver on their promises and provide updates in a much shorter This may have been challenging for many vendors
“Flexibility is good for what you can build / do in the application, but for Strategic Workforce Planning it needs to be more robust and aligned to the overall WFP process if it wants to be a successful player in this competitive market.”
—Midsize transportation company for a workforce planning solution
- With an increasingly crowded market space and rapid growth, there’s growing competition, along with customers’ high expectations of vendors to provide unique and differentiating capabilities
“They do not deliver the roadmap and are way behind what the competition can offer.”
—Large technology company for an employee solution experience / engagement solution
Vendors made business changes for 2022
Even though customer satisfaction levels were lower in 2021, we expect to see improvement in the future as vendors make investments to better meet customers’ needs in 2022.
Specifically, our findings reveal that in 2022 vendors (Figure 12):
- Adjusted their products, roadmap, and / or marketing strategy to meet the needs of the changing 2022 environment
- Offered greater technical and admin support as well as resources to customers as part of their subscription
- Changed their sales and pricing models
This is good news. Vendors are applying a multipronged approach to making business changes. Our briefings also revealed that vendors are actively engaging with the wider customer community to understand emerging issues, and are working creatively to help customers solve them through better data capabilities, partnerships, and expansion into other talent areas. As customers face more nuanced challenges while navigating the complexities of hybrid work, we expect to see more vendors make such in-house business changes.
Events of the past 2 years have made people analytics vital for organizations. Leaders relied on people analytics for various efforts, including:
- Improving employee safety, health, and experience as they worked remotely during the pandemic
- Planning current and future workforce, and understanding attrition from large numbers of resignations
- Planning for hybrid work
This is reflected in how this market is thriving, with its impressive growth rate and the high number of investments made in vendors during 2021.
That’s not to say the market doesn’t face challenges. The crowded landscape means vendors will find it increasingly difficult to set themselves apart from the competition in the future. Additionally, as we saw, customers are less satisfied when compared with our 2020 findings.
As we move ahead, vendors will have to become much more distinct in their value propositions, especially for non-PA end users. If they don’t, then vendors may be unable to grow at the rates they (and their investors) are hoping for. The challenge for 2022 is to bring the right insights at the right time to the right audience. We look forward to seeing how vendors fare during the next year.
Appendix 1: Methodology
This study is a culmination of 5 months of qualitative and quantitative research. We kicked off our People Analytics Technology study early in 2022 by launching our Vendor and Market surveys. In order to
participate in our study, vendors had to complete both surveys. They were also asked to share case studies, representative screen shots of their technology, and logos, and complete a 60-minute briefing and demo with us. The vendors had the option of providing prerecorded briefing videos if they preferred. The briefings took place from January to April 2022. A total of 43 vendors completed our surveys. In addition, publicly available data for 15 vendors were included in the dataset, bringing the total n to 58.
On the practitioner side, we launched a short People Analytics Technology Customer Poll in January 2022. Customers were asked to share the challenges they’re using the solution to solve, give feedback on the vendor’s strengths and areas of improvement, and provide a Net Promoter Score and any other feedback. Each vendor was required to receive a minimum of 5 customer reviews to have customer information be included in our study; there was no limit on how many reviews they could receive. We received 5 or more customer reviews for 21 vendors as of the end of March 2022.
Once our qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis were complete, we revisited the 2×2 matrix that we introduced in our 2019 report. Our matrix compares 2 aspects of vendors’ capabilities: usage frequency and data sources. This approach allows us to identify some points of differentiation and categorize vendors in different, meaningful segments.
Understanding the X-axis
Starting with the X-axis, (see Figure 13), we range from solutions that users tend to use / access on a frequent basis (e.g., quarterly, monthly, or bimonthly) on the left side of the matrix to solutions that are used on a continuous / always-on basis (e.g., weekly, biweekly, or daily) on the right. Please note: We’re specifically thinking about how frequently users tend to utilize the solution, not the frequency with which it’s updated or can give insights. We focused on user frequency because it allows us to understand, from a practitioner’s perspective, how frequently a solution tends to be used—which can help us understand how and by whom it’s used.
For example, the solutions on the left side of the model tend to be used to consistently check in on specific areas of interest. These are leveraged by HR, people analytics, and other business leaders looking to make strategic talent decisions.
As we move to the right, we see solutions that are trying to both provide analysis for strategic, organizational decision-making, and inform users about themselves or their team. Many of these solutions’ typical primary users are people analytics or HR, but the vendors have expanded or are in the process of expanding their users to senior leaders, managers, and employees.
On the far-right side of the graphic are solutions that tend to be used more continuously, which lend themselves to more operational (nonstrategic) adjustments, and alert individuals about their own or their team’s behavior. Obviously, when this type of data is pulled together and analyzed longitudinally, it could inform strategic decision-making as well. These vendors tend to focus more on providing greater accessibility to data and sharing insights directly with employees in the form of nudges, individual reports and dashboards, and notifications.
Understanding the Y-axis
On the Y-axis, we classify solutions as follows—from whether vendors collect (via any method) and “create” the data themselves, as shown at the bottom of the graphic, to whether they integrate the data from other sources (e.g., government data, other third-party solutions, or other internal technologies), shown at the top of the graphic. Note that almost every vendor in our study pulls data from the HR information system (HRIS) for basic demographics, hierarchy, location, and other facts, so we don’t “count” integration with HRIS as one of the integrations on this axis.
Figure 14 indicates how the scale changes. At the bottom of the model, we have solutions that “create” data primarily by collecting it directly from employees (i.e., engagement, onboarding, or exit surveys, etc.). Moving up the axis, we add in solutions that collect data as well as integrate other data they capture on employees, such as wellbeing or performance management data, via their own tools. Moving up further (closer to the X-axis), we have solutions that still capture data but also integrate a wide range of data sources (e.g., 360-feedback data, financial / business outcome data, work productivity data like email or Slack / Microsoft Teams, and customer experience data).
Finally, toward the top third of the Y-axis, we have solutions that primarily integrate data from others. Unlike those on the bottom, the majority of these solutions don’t offer the capability to collect data. A number of them work in tandem with those lower down on the matrix as part of the bigger people analytics technology ecosystem.
When we put all of this together, we end up with 4 different quadrants with distinct characteristics.
- Accumulated Vendors in this quadrant rank high in their ability to provide users with a longitudinal view of data, with insights that enable strategic talent decisions. Data tend to be aggregated and integrated from several sources, including external data. The insights from these vendors can be used by teams on a frequent basis to track specific areas of interest.
- Snapshot Vendors in this quadrant are data collectors and provide insights that are reviewed for strategic talent decisions on an event-driven basis. These vendors are primarily focused on active data collection, though they may also have some newly introduced data integration capabilities.
- Targeted This quadrant includes vendors that focus on a specific talent area (e.g., engagement /experience, performance management, wellness). They collect data directly from employees, which enables both quicker deployment and adoption, and access to insights and analysis by multiple teams on a very frequent or continuous basis. Several of them push insights directly to employees to promote faster action.
- Guiding analytics. This quadrant includes vendors that integrate data from several different sources and are used very frequently to continuously. The combination of elements means that users can frequently access deep and broad information which can guide strategic organizational decisions, operational decisions, and individuals’ decisions about themselves or their Our mental model for solutions in this section is like a guided missile—they can give insights that can change the trajectory quickly.
It’s important to note that none of these quadrants is superior to the others. In fact, there’s likely a place for all of them in an organization’s people analytics technology ecosystem. However, by putting technologies into these boxes, we can start to think about what that ecosystem might look like and how organizations might begin to build them.
Appendix 2: Vendor demographics
This year, a total of 43 solutions participated in our study. We included publicly available information for an additional 15 vendors, bringing the total to 58. The demographic breakdown of survey participants by year founded, number of employees, and HQ location is shown in Figures 16-18.
Appendix 3: Customer demographics
We received a total of 128 customer responses. Figures 19-21 show the demographic breakdown for customer respondents by industry, roles, and number of employees.
Roundtable Readout – Learning Methods: Which Ones Work?
Posted on Tuesday, May 10th, 2022 at 12:13 PM
At our recent roundtable called Learning Methods: Which Ones Work, we brought together Learning and Development (L&D) leaders from various industries to talk about learning methods. Specifically, we wanted to understand the learning methods L&D functions are implementing and how they might have changed since the pandemic.
Before we began, we reminded everyone of the research RedThread did last year. We identified 66 learning methods employees are using and how those methods fit into the 6 behaviors in our employee development framework (see our final report Learning Methods: What to use, how to choose, and when to cut them loose). This framework illustrates how different learning methods enable different behaviors.
We focused on 4 of the 6 behaviors:
- Plan: includes methods that enable employees to plan their development
- Experiment: includes methods that enable employees to experiment with new knowledge and skills
- Connect: includes methods that enable employees to learn from each other
- Perform: includes methods that enable employees to learn while on the job
We chose these methods to push the conversation to those behaviors that L&D may find challenging or areas they are just starting to consider.
This roundtable generated several insights we thought were important. This readout shares our top 4 key takeaways.
Skills are an essential driver for helping employees plan their development
Learning leaders are actively thinking about skills—and with that, how to encourage and enable employees to build skills the organization needs. To do this, they're focusing on learning methods such as:
- Skills assessments. L&D is leveraging assessments to better understand the skills employees have and help them figure out how to fill them. As one L&D leader said,
“We’ve started to use skills assessments to fill skills gaps as we begin to think about what the future skills are."
- Individual development plans (IDPs). As organizations focus on individuals and personalization, IDPs appear to be getting new life. One leader said his organization had rebranded the IDP as a Growth Portfolio – a way to plan and record individuals' learning and development that can also show desired career path and competence.
- Career Coaching. L&D sees career coaching as a learning method to help employees build the skills they need. However, it can be a heavy lift for organizations to manage. For this reason, many roundtable participants confirm that their organizations do not rely heavily on career coaching when planning development (our data says 19% of employees).
Experiment methods are slowly gaining traction.
Roundtable participants noted that learning methods geared toward helping employees experiment with new knowledge and skills (job rotations, job shadowing, informational interviews, etc.) were becoming more common within their organizations.
“We’re trying to do more job rotations. We’re thinking about the skills of the future and how we bridge those gaps. Especially for new employees and HIPOs – how do we get them into those rotations?”
As L&D works to utilize these methods, many are facing 2 challenges:
- Systemic issues. L&D leaders find ”experiment“ methods challenging to manage and track. But they’re still making it work. One leader said her organization is trying to leverage its talent marketplace to enable employees to experiment with new knowledge and skills (e.g., scheduling informational interviews).
- Structural issues. Many participants also noted that the L&D function isn't the sole owner of many experiment methods. Because it is a shared responsibility in many cases, it’s sometimes unclear who's in charge and who is driving the initiatives, or it takes too much coordination. Others mentioned that their organizations don't yet have the structure to encourage experiments on a larger scale.
The pandemic left many employees feeling bereft of support and connection.
Before the pandemic, there was a big focus on self-service learning. After the pandemic, one of the themes appears to be connection in learning. Roundtable participants mentioned that they see connection in the following ways:
- Both internal and external connections. Organizations are looking for ways to help employees connect internally with other employees for learning but are also looking to connect them with experts on the outside. A participant noted that the top 2 most relied upon Connect methods, from RedThread Research’s learning survey data, focus on building networks outside of the organization (prof networks = 39% and social networks = 28%).
- Employees feel responsible for helping their peers learn. L&D leaders are observing that employees have a desire to learn from each other. For one L&D leader, a recent survey in their org found that 68% of employees felt accountable for contributing to the learning of others. They continued by saying,
"This was 20 percentage points above benchmark. This data influenced our strategy—how can we facilitate that natural strength of our learning culture?"
L&D leaders are trying to figure out how to support the shifts in connection. As one participant said,
“Do we want to support colleagues in creating external and internal connections or leverage collective knowledge in the organization by supporting connections among colleagues?”
Choices in how methods are implemented can affect how equitable learning opportunities are
The idea of learning equity or development equity resonated with roundtable participants. We weren't surprised to hear this, as more L&D functions are taking on responsibilities having to do with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
Participants drew a connection between more personalized planning and offering more learning methods and a more equitable experience. One leader said,
“Everyone has an opportunity to grow. We’re making it easier for individuals to capture the strengths / skills they have and what they want to develop more of. So, let’s allow people to tell us what they’re good at and tailor the learning to that.”
Additionally, participants mentioned the need to tweak systems and processes related to access to learning methods. For example, online courses are often reserved for those with specific titles or in certain areas of the company. Instead, L&D functions should work to provide as much access as possible to as many as possible, cost permitting.
Thank you to all who participated and shared their experiences. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].
People Analytics Tech: Supporting a Hybrid Work World (Presentation Slides)
Posted on Thursday, April 28th, 2022 at 5:51 PM
What does the current people analytics tech market look like? How has it changed over the past year? What are the different capabilities offered by the vendors, and what challenges are they able to address? In this session, Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra answer these questions and many more.
This session explores:
- An overview of the people analytics tech market
- The changes in the market over the past year
- People analytics vendor capabilities and strengths
- Challenges addressed by vendors.
- A clear understanding of the people analytics tech landscape
- Knowledge about the different vendors in the market and their capabilities and strengths
- Learn how you can leverage people analytics tech to address your organizational challenges
Roundtable Readout: L&D's DEIB Opportunity
Posted on Tuesday, April 26th, 2022 at 5:49 AM
In April 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how L&D functions can make employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. This session was part of our research into what we're calling L&D's DEIB Opportunity. We aim to identify the most effective things that L&D functions can do to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts in their organizations.
This readout shares some of the highlights from the session. Thank you to all who participated, shared their experiences, and learned from one another.
L&D's DEIB commitments are growing
To frame the conversation, we shared data from LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 and 2022 Workplace Learning Reports (Figure 1). L&D functions are not only planning more DEIB programs, but they’re taking on more ownership of DEIB efforts.
When we asked roundtable participants if they were seeing or experiencing this trend themselves, they agreed. They wrote in the chat things like:
- “Without a doubt”
How can L&D functions meet these growing responsibilities?
To answer this question, we focused on how L&D functions can make the systems of employee development in their organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We discussed 4 aspects of employee development:
- Discovery. How do employees find out about development opportunities? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably discover those opportunities?
- Access. Which employees could take advantage of development opportunities if they chose? Who has permission / is nominated to attend? Who has the right tech? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably access development opportunities?
- Participation. Which employees participate in development opportunities? How does participation differ across groups, and why? How can L&D functions enable more equitable participation across groups?
- L&D itself. How might L&D’s systems and processes be biased or inequitable? How might L&D functions address those inequities?
The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 5 takeaways.
To make learning more DEIB, focus on how decisions are made
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ways decisions are made have a huge effect on whether employee development is equitable, inclusive, and accessible across the various groups in an organization. Decisions about who can access certain development opportunities are particularly impactful. One participant shared the following anecdote:
I used to work for a large corporation. Pre-pandemic, we would fly people in for exclusive leadership development programs. The lack of diversity was astounding. The programs are great, but they're often reserved for people who are already privileged. I had to ask myself: Who's approving these attendees? Who's got the budget?
Leaders shared 2 ideas for reducing such biases.
- Make decisions transparent. One organization implemented decision-making frameworks to help managers and leaders understand the different factors that weighed into their decisions. These frameworks also help leaders explicitly focus on the criteria that align with their values and the organization's values.
- Make matches, not decisions. Another organization is using skills to remove some decisions entirely. By ensuring every employee has a skills profile (or skills signature), the organization can match employees with specific skills needs and gaps with appropriate development opportunities. The system makes the match, not a leader.
We thought these 2 ideas for reducing bias in decision-making were practical approaches that might apply in many organizations.
Marketing and messaging can include or exclude
A second insight from the group is just how important marketing and messaging are. They influence who learns about what development opportunities and—arguably more important—who decides to take advantage of those opportunities.
A portion of the conversation focused on whether outreach and marketing activities reach the people L&D functions intend them to. As one leader put it:
It's inequitable if L&D sends an email about a development opportunity and 30% of your workforce doesn't use email.
Leaders suggested marketing development opportunities in multiple channels—overcommunicating—and ensuring opportunities are marketed where employees are. For example, a paper flyer in a break room or stand-up meeting might be most effective for reaching front-line employees who do not regularly check email.
In addition, leaders noted that the language, visuals, and tone used in marketing communications about development opportunities can affect whether an employee thinks an opportunity will be relevant and helpful to them. They should be able to see themselves in the opportunity, or they may not choose to participate even if they have access.
Analytics and data can reveal systemic inequities
Leaders in this roundtable emphasized the need to check assumptions about whether development opportunities are as DEIB as L&D functions might hope. Ideally, they said, the demographics of the people who participate in development opportunities should roughly mirror the demographics of the organization's employee population.
Leaders shared that some reasons for differences in participation rates between groups might be:
- Lack of technical access to training (e.g., cannot access learning on mobile phone, do not have a company-provided device, do not have good enough internet access). The ability to pay for tech to access development opportunities is also a potential source of inequity.
- Messaging / marketing doesn’t speak to certain groups
- Certain employees aren't afforded the time to access learning within their work day and cannot / do not want to participate on their own time
Tracking participation in development opportunities over time to see if attendees do, in fact, mirror the population can help reveal possible gaps in marketing / messaging, access, etc. The importance of tracking data over time was articulated by one leader who noted:
We can make plans that we think allow for universal access, but until we check to see whether in fact the result is representative participation, we don’t know whether our approaches are in fact creating equal access.
One leader shared that in her organization, they do A/B testing like marketers. They look to see who's registering for opportunities, who shows up, who consumes content online, etc. They analyze this data by all demographic / diversity statistics that are available.
L&D functions should rely on DEIB resources across the organization
Leaders in this roundtable agreed that as L&D functions take on more of a role in DEIB efforts, they cannot and should not do it alone. There are many resources across an organization that can help L&D functions identify and address inequities in employee development.
For example, the leader whose organization does A/B testing recommended reaching out to the IT team. They can help L&D functions access data about who's clicking where, which employees have company-supported devices, and—in many organizations—aggregated data on how many employees have downloaded accessibility software (screen readers, etc.).
Other leaders noted all that DEIB teams can offer. A number of leaders said the DEIB teams in their organizations do "fairness audits" for business functions to help identify gaps. They can do this for the L&D team, for example by auditing the fairness of L&D's messaging, communications, and learning platforms.
A third resource leaders noted were Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). They recommended involving ERGs in marketing / messaging for development opportunities, assessment of how different opportunities appeal to / impact different groups, and the creation of new opportunities.
Virtual work made some learning more equitable
Leaders noted that when the pandemic forced them to put many in-person, cohort-based development opportunities online, they saw a marked increase in participation rates in these programs. And not only did participation increase, but it often increased in terms of diversity: more diverse employees attended. Leaders attributed this change to a few factors:
- Virtual is easier to attend. Trainings were shorter and didn't require travel or overnights away from home. This meant it was easier for caregivers (who are disproportionately women and members of underrepresented groups) to attend.
- Diversity begets diversity. Leaders reported that in their organizations, as more people saw people like themselves participating in or leading learning, they felt more comfortable participating themselves. As such, they saw an increase in participation from people who'd never attended trainings.
One leader offered a counterpoint to this general trend. After the pandemic started and her organization shifted to remote work, she saw a marked decrease in participation rates. When she asked employees why, they told her that before the pandemic, they only requested to attend training because it got them out of the office. Their experience in-office was toxic; they felt they couldn't express themselves. Working from home, they didn't feel the same need to escape.
We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected]
Future-proofing L&D: Developing the Right Skills
Posted on Tuesday, April 19th, 2022 at 3:21 PM
In December of 2021, ByteDance, which owns the better-known TikTok, dissolved its learning & development function. According to CNBC, the entire department was let go over the holiday break in a virtual meeting.
Their reason for this drastic move? ByteDance felt that “many learning events, such as online talks of mediocre quality…that could easily be found on the internet didn’t make good use of their employees’ time.” In an internal memo, ByteDance also mentioned that initiatives were more feel-good activities with limited and questionable value.
In short, L&D wasn’t cutting it.
L&D’s Oh Sh!t Moment
The ByteDance story—and other stories we've heard—indicate that L&D functions may be having an "Oh, sh!t!" moment. L&D functions are facing bigger, more complicated challenges than they have before. These challenges are causing L&D functions—and senior leadership—to reevaluate what they do, how they do it, and the skills they need to do it well.
Yet this moment comes at a time when L&D functions have never been more visible. The past 2 years have created renewed awareness of the importance of employee development. Indeed, L&D functions are being called upon to solve some big problems.
Many senior leaders are looking to L&D functions to guide skills, skills data, upskilling, reskilling, and mobility, in an effort to meet the needs of their ever-changing environments. Our data indicate that L&D is being involved in larger strategic discussions and workforce planning in about 50% of high-performing organizations. A percentage that high would have been unheard of a decade ago.
Additionally, according to Glint's 2021 Employee Well-Being Report, “Opportunities to learn and grow” is the most important driver for a great work culture, a stewardship owned by the L&D function. Employees expect more than page-turner courses or day-long events. And if we connect the dots, opportunities to learn and grow affect culture, productivity, engagement, and retention.
The problems L&D is tackling—upskilling, agile workforces, mobility, work culture—aren’t small. They’re big and important and relevant, which is both a blessing and a curse. L&D has been seeking a “seat at the table” for years. They finally, undeniably, have one. The question now is, do they have the skills they need to do something at that table?
Learning and Development Skills
We want to start by acknowledging that some good work has been done to identify skills L&D pros need. Of note are LPI, ATD, and Training Industry, all of which have capability models outlining L&D skills.
Our intent with this research was not to create another capability model. Instead, we are interested in the skills that L&D pros in high-performing organizations think they will need to focus on developing to meet near-future needs.
All the Skills
To avoid bias (and to make our lives harder), we asked 300 L&D pros the following open-ended question:
What are the top 3 skills you feel L&D functions will need for the future?
We coded their answers, combining those that were similar, and grouped them into larger skills groups.
In all, L&D pros identified 39 skills. These skills were then categorized into 7 skill groups. The graphic below shows the relational focus of these skills and groups. The larger the bubble, the more L&D pros mentioned the skill. The percentages represent the percentage of the total number of skills mentioned that fall into each category.
Click graphic to enlarge, or see our infographic for this study.
The skills identified by L&D pros were varied and nuanced. They give some insight into the kinds of challenges L&D pros and functions may be facing.
In fact, in looking at the names of the larger skills groups, we see many indications that L&D’s influence is expanding, as its responsibility:
- Leadership: skills to lead inside and outside the L&D function
- Data & Decision-making: skills to use data for making better decisions
- L&D Core: skills to build the capabilities of the workforce
- Business Core: skills to understand and align with business strategy
- Managing Relationships: skills to build and maintain relationships, internal and external to the L&D function
- Readiness: skills to help individuals and functions readily adapt to changing environments
- Tech: skills to leverage tech to upskill the workforce
This data—the skills identified by L&D pros—tells us that L&D pros need to be more than just instructional designers. They need to know much more than just adult learning theory. In this day and age, and particularly at this very strange moment in history, they need to be entrenched in the organization.
At the same time, we know that focusing on building all the skills will lead to focusing on none of them. Understanding the 39 skills L&D pros think they need is only the first step.
Understanding the ones they actually need is the next.
Skills in High-performing Organizations
Determining which skills L&D people need is an inexact art. The existing literature bases skills recommendations on expert opinion, asking L&D pros and thought leaders what challenges – and skills – L&D professionals will need next.
We took a slightly different tack. Instead of asking experts, we looked at the data L&D pros provided about the skills they thought they needed for the future. We then asked them how their organizations were performing, using these 4 measures:
- Met or exceeded its business goals for the last three years
- Responds quickly to marketplace changes
- Innovates faster than its competitors do
- Customers are more satisfied than its competitors’ customers
We then combined these 4 measures into one score and assigned that score to each L&D pro that gave us data on skills. Finally, we identified those L&D pros with scores in the top 25% to determine which were associated with high-performing organizations.
Finally, we compared the skills that L&D pros in high-performing organizations were focusing on with the ones L&D pros in other organizations named. The results, shown in Figure 3, revealed some interesting differences.
The results got even more interesting when we combined our observations from this data with the insights we gathered from interviews and our roundtable.
Four differences stood out to us. L&D pros in high-performing organizations likely:
Are already focusing on leadership skills
We know that L&D pros in high-performing organizations participate in workforce and strategy discussions significantly more than their counterparts in other organizations.
So while it may look like L&D pros in other organizations are more focused on Leadership skills than those in high-performing organizations, it's likely because they perceive those skills as a need. L&D pros in high-performing organizations have likely already acquired them.
Have already built data into their decision-making process
Anecdotally, higher-performing organizations are more attuned to Data and do more information-gathering, and it is more ingrained in the way they currently operate. Other L&D pros may not have developed these competencies or the systems to support them in their work, resulting in a higher recognition of the need to meet future (or current) needs.
See connecting their work to the business strategy as key
L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus significantly more on Business Core skills. Both the quantitative data and the data collected from our interviews and roundtables indicate that L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to draw more explicit connections between what they do and the goals and strategy of the organization. They also tend to have a deeper understanding of the business goals, and they tend to make decisions based on those goals.
Focus on relationships more than their counterparts do
Finally, as we'll see throughout this report, L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus more on relationships.
High-performing organizations tend to have L&D pros who understand their place in the larger ecosystem and value their relationships with other functions.
These 4 broad differences can give us high-level insight into where L&D pros may want to focus. However, the devil, as they say, is often in the details.
We also saw differences among the 39 individual skills between L&D pros in high-performing organizations and their counterparts in other organizations.
The Skills Groups
In the following sections, we’ll provide more information about each of the 7 skills groups, including the individual skills within each. Our goal is to explore why each group and their respective skills may be important at this point in history.
We’re also interested in the blind spots—the places where L&D functions may be over- or under-emphasizing certain skills. To determine what those blind spots may be, we compare the skills that L&D pros are focusing on in high-performing organizations with other L&D pros may be focusing on.
L&D pros view their own leadership skills as the most important group of skills for the future. Twenty-one percent of all skills mentioned fell within this category.
That 21%, validated by our interviews, are indicators of the breadth of leadership responsibilities L&D pros currently have. Kirsten Jackson, a Director of Leadership Development, told us:
We’ve really done a lot of work in the last couple of years to make sure L&D has a seat at every table—tables at the business function level to understand development needs, but also tables at the enterprise level to understand leadership expectations, goals, and how L&D can support them.
But it isn’t just these significant initiatives that L&D pros find themselves leading. In our research, we found that a lot of L&D functions are becoming much more strategic and intentional about employee development. They offer more learning methods and integrate more development opportunities into the workplace than in the past.
These changes from reactive to proactive, from just-in-case to just-in-time, and from learn-in-a-classroom to learn everywhere, require L&D functions to change the hearts and minds of business leaders and employees alike. Leadership skills like consulting, coaching, and motivation and engagement ensure that L&D professionals will be able to make these adjustments.
Leadership: Blind Spots
These findings don’t constitute hard and fast recommendations. Each L&D function should consider all of the variables – internal and external, that may affect the skills they need. That But we did identify some areas that may be getting either too much focus or not enough from the L&D professional population as a whole.
Focus more on Coaching, Motivation & Engagement, and DEIB
L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus almost twice as much on Coaching and Motivation & Engagement as their counterparts in other organizations.
We have observed that organizations, particularly those adopting hybrid and remote practices, are continuing to look for ways to connect and engage with employees. A stronger focus on Coaching and Motivation & Engagement can help organizations build those connections into their development practices.
Gina Montefusco, Associate Director of L&D, at United Healthcare Group, sees Coaching as a crucial skill for internal L&D leadership as well as external consulting:
Coaching is super important. You can use it to understand your business better and be more comfortable asking questions. I do think that my coaching experience has made me a better consultant overall, because now I ask questions differently.
In our 2022 yearly trends report, we mention that the human is becoming more critical. The fact that L&D pros in high-performing organizations are focusing on skills that further that mission is not lost on us.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention the abysmal showing for DEIB skills. While we are happy that this skill showed up at all, the percentage of L&D pros that mentioned it is pretty low. And it's even lower among L&D pros in high-performing organizations.
LinkedIn Learning’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report says that 55% of L&D functions own or share responsibility for DEIB initiatives. L&D pros should be building these skills and looking for opportunities to align their work with DEIB initiatives.
Focus on a broader set of Leadership skills
L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus more evenly across key leadership skills while L&D pros in other organizations tend to focus quite heavily on just some of them.
This uneven focus may mean that L&D pros are putting too much focus on some while ignoring others. For example, L&D pros in other organizations focus more on Consulting (6 percentage points more) and Influencing (7 percentage points more) than those in high-performing organizations.
This focus on specific skills may be key to being effective in their particular organizations, but L&D pros should at least consider how they’re spending their development time and money, and what those skills can get them.
Data & Decision-making
Within Data & Decision-making, the top skill mentioned by L&D pros was Data Analysis. In general, we think that a focus on data skills is good, and it has been missing from most L&D functions for years.
We grouped Data Analysis with other skills used to make better decisions, as Data Analysis is a tool rather than an end unto itself. To be useful, Data Analysis must necessarily be tied to questions, which are ultimately tied to decisions. Other skills in this group are highlighted in Figure 6 below.
As L&D pros take active roles in bigger, more strategic conversations, the need for skill in Data Analysis grows. One L&D leader mentioned that data was a language that businesses speak. Data Analysis is crucial for L&D pros as they try to identify the skills organizations and individuals need and then identify experiences that will help them grow those skills.
Many leaders mentioned that they’re looking more deeply at LMS, LXP, and other learning data to understand what their users need. Some have also started to analyze data outside of L&D. Another L&D leader, for example, looks at engagement data:
We look at data from many sources. So, for example, we look at employee engagement scores—questions like, “Do you feel supported by your manager?” This data helps us understand what our leaders will need in the future.
It’s great that L&D is focused on data. Where it gets tricky is how “data” is defined and what other sources L&D pros should be considering, which brings us to a blind spot for Data & Decision-making.
Data & Decision-making: Blind Spots
While L&D pros have started to focus on leveraging data for decision-making, they may be failing to develop other skills that could help them make sounder decisions. And by the way, this is true for all L&D pros. In this case, there was no significant difference for those in high-performing organizations.
Focus more on different data-gathering skills
Data-gathering skills include External Environment Analysis, Data Literacy, and Research. These activities may not always result in hard numbers, but many of the insights they yield can be key to better decisions. Not all data is quantifiable. Trust us. We're researchers.
Focus more on decision-making skills
Problem-solving and Strategic Thinking fall within this subcategory. Frankly, we’re a little surprised we didn’t hear more about them. As L&D pros exercise these skills, they’ll likely see more possibilities and solutions.
So, to sum up: L&D pros recognize the need for better decision-making. And they recognize that Data Analysis skills are a big part of that. But they shouldn’t develop these skills at the expense of other underdeveloped skills.
Not surprisingly, L&D Core is important to L&D pros. Several pros pointed out the importance of these skills to their job and, if they were a leader, their employees’ jobs.
And rightly so: L&D pros bring an essential and unique skill set—one that no other group has—to help organizations solve the development challenges they face.
Learning Experience Design and Training Delivery top the list of skills L&D pros feel they need in the L&D core skills group.
Training Delivery and Learning Experience Design top the list of essential skills in L&D Core. This is not surprising, given that many L&D pros get degrees and certifications in these skills, and have based their careers on their application.
However, what was surprising was the number of other skills that popped up in this skills group. Human-Centered Design, for example, or the Ability to Upskill, have been recognized only relatively recently as skills that L&D pros need.
Another unsurprising but still growing skill was Content Curation. Its relative prominence hints that L&D pros understand that their responsibilities go much further than creating a course. It may have more to do with assembling the right information and creating the right context and experience.
When we talked to L&D pros about the skills they need specific to L&D, we heard traditional answers, but with a twist. For example, where Training Delivery used to be all about facilitating classroom initiatives, L&D pros mentioned new methods used to “deliver” learning, including coaching, stretch assignments, and external content.
L&D leaders are also looking for broader skill sets when it comes to L&D Core. Ryan Cozens, Learning & Development Lead, Well Health, said:
I think instructional design is an important skill, but it can’t be the only skill. There have to be mindsets and behaviors tied to that. I’m not just looking for someone with the ability to design really incredible self-directed asynchronous learning; I’m looking for someone who understands and can see the bigger picture.
Indeed, L&D Core skills are changing. L&D pros are looking at traditional skills differently, and they're introducing new ones for the future.
L&D Core: Blind Spots
L&D Core skills were the 3rd most important group of skills identified by the L&D pros we surveyed. But, as we saw above, when we look at the focus of L&D pros in high-performing organizations versus those in other organizations, we see they rated L&D Core skills at the same level as Business Core.
That Business Core and L&D Core are considered equally important is telling. It indicates that L&D in high-performing organizations are likely more aligned to and focused on business challenges than more traditional L&D functions.
There are also some key differences between the particular focuses of L&D pros from high-performing organizations focus and those in other organizations. Two caught our eye.
Focus more on Experience Design and Upskilling the Workforce
First, L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus more on Learning Experience Design (7 percentage points more) and Upskilling the Workforce (8 percentage points more) than their counterparts in other organizations.
These differences might indicate that L&D pros in high-performing organizations are more attuned to the entire experience of learning and ensuring that the workforce has the right skills. This, in concert with the other skills they find essential, may indicate a more holistic, intentional approach to learning in general.
Focus less on Training Delivery and Learning Science
This brings us to the second big difference. L&D pros in high-performing organizations focused significantly less on Training Delivery (12 percentage points less). While Training Delivery was the most important skill in L&D Core for L&D pros in other organizations, it was 5th out of 8 skills for those in high-performing organizations.
Likewise, while L&D pros mentioned Learning Science as a skill they thought they needed for the future, not one L&D professional in a high-performing organization mentioned it. Does this mean Learning Science is not necessary? Absolutely not. But it does mean that L&D functions that focus too heavily on traditional learning science, without considering the new context (technology, mindsets, motivations, etc.), may not be using their L&D development time or dollars in the best way.
Increasingly, L&D pros consider themselves a part of the business rather than an entity that serves the business. This idea came through loud and clear in the research: L&D pros identified skills that are necessary for collaborating with other business functions.
Business Acumen and Marketing top the list for important Business Core skills, according to L&D pros.
Figure 10: Business Core skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=87 | RedThread Research, 2022
Among the skills mentioned in the research, Business Acumen topped the list. Leaders mentioned 3 aspects of Business Acumen.
Understanding organizational goals and strategy. L&D pros are more proactively evaluating their business direction and determining the best ways to build a skilled workforce than in previous years. Brandon Wolfram, HR Manager for Learning and Performance Solutions at SaskTel, put it this way:
We used to get more operational requests—things like, “Hey, we need some training on this topic,” or “Can you put something together on this.” Now, we get requests like, “Can you partner with us to solve this complex business challenge.
Understanding business basics. L&D functions are professionalizing. Many see themselves not as a traditional cost center but as a contributing member to business growth. As such, project management, change management, and their creativity and innovation muscles are increasingly important.
Speaking the same language. For years, L&D functions have embraced adult learning theory and the research surrounding it. While that is all good, leaders we spoke with understand the need to ditch wonky L&D terms in favor of vocabulary used more broadly.
Focusing on Business Core skills draws them into the business itself, erasing any invisible lines that may have kept them separate. These skills also make it easier to participate in larger strategic discussions.
Business Core: Blind Spots
The blind spots that L&D pros may have around this skills group come down to 2 individual skills.
Focus more on Creativity & Innovation
First, L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus significantly more (19 percentage points more) on Creativity and Innovation than their counterparts in other organizations.
The importance of this focus in high-performing organizations aligns with what we heard from learning leaders in our interviews and roundtables. Drew Goodrich, the Director of Learning Enablement at Intuit, spoke about the importance of Creativity & Innovation for his team:
Let's get inspired by anything that’s working and done well and takes hold and gets people to do things. That's a lot more creative than just standing up PowerPoint slides or doing a breakout session—let’s get creative.
L&D pros in high-performing organizations are less likely to worship the status quo. They tend to focus on finding creative solutions to business challenges and taking more risks.
Focus less on Marketing (courses)
L&D professionals in high-performing organizations and their peers in other organizations also focus differently on Marketing.
Marketing, in this case, refers to using marketing techniques to encourage employees to participate in learning interventions. While L&D professionals in general seem to see this as a critical skill, L&D professionals in high-performing organizations were not as interested (9 percentage points less).
While it's beneficial for L&D, focusing too heavily on Marketing may indicate a fairly traditional approach to learning: “If you create an awesome course and market it the right way, they will come.”
That L&D pros in high-performing organizations are focusing so much more on Creativity & Innovation indicates that they may also be broadening their views of learning, including methods that may not be as easily “marketed” in the traditional sense.
This means that L&D pros should likely broaden “marketing” to include strategies that make all learning opportunities “discoverable.”
Several skills mentioned by L&D pros had to do with building and managing relationships. We grouped these skills into the larger skills group, Managing Relationships.
L&D pros who spoke with us in the roundtable and in interviews identified 3 areas where they found managing relationships crucial.
First, L&D pros found it necessary to manage the organization's relationship with L&D. Learning is an entirely voluntary activity—you can force someone to complete an e-learning course, but you can’t force them to learn the content.
L&D pros spoke of developing trust with the organization —communicating the benefits of consistent development and empathizing with employees when creating and delivering initiatives. One leader emphasized the importance of listening as a part of communication:
I think the hardest part is hearing. Not just hearing enough to fall in love with the problem, but hearing enough to solve the problem. And then creating.
Second, L&D pros increasingly see their networks and relationships with others in the organization as the key to their success. Some mentioned these relationships in the context of understanding key aspects of the business in order to meet their development needs. Others mentioned these relationships as crucial to getting things done. Relationships were crucial for tasks from understanding who to speak to in procurement to identifying the strongest SME for a specific project. Another leader said:
I’m a big believer in networking: getting to know lots of different people, and not getting too deeply dug into one particular discipline. Because if you do, you forget how all of these things are connected.
Finally, L&D pros also mentioned the need for Relationship-building and Networking as key to increasing their own knowledge and understanding. They also mentioned the need to identify the best ways to build those skills in the employee population at large.
Managing Relationships: Blind Spots
Consistent with our finding about Networking, we found that L&D pros across organizations place value on skills around Managing Relationships.
Focus more on Collaboration & Teamwork
When we look at the focus on specific skills, however, there is a different story. Collaboration & Teamwork received significantly more attention (14 percentage points more) by L&D pros in high-performing organizations.
This focus indicates that L&D pros in these organizations realize that learning cannot just be the responsibility of the L&D function. It has to involve everyone in the organization. Drew Goodrich at Intuit says they leverage collaboration to help with strategy:
It's good there’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration and co-creation and co-planning. Getting everyone involved and getting everybody’s hands on it means you’ll actually stick to your strategy.
In essence, part of L&D's job is to deputize the organization – get everyone on the same page and build cross-functional systems that support a learning culture. That can only be done through carefully managing relationships.
When asked, 10% of L&D pros identified Readiness skills as necessary for the future. Readiness skills are those universal skills that allow L&D functions to do their jobs in ever-changing, often chaotic circumstances. L&D pros recognized 4 skills within that category.
The past couple of years have required significant change for most organizations. That need has also trickled down to L&D functions. They have had to adapt many traditional training methods to serve hybrid and remote employees. They are also being tasked with leading initiatives such as DEIB or Return to Office (likely more than once).
These changes are forcing L&D pros to be more adaptable, agile, resilient, and efficient.
The Readiness skill group the majority of them spoke of them as capabilities needed by the L&D function, not necessarily the individual. Many talked about changing mindsets, systems, and processes to make the function itself more adaptable and agile.
For example, L&D leaders mentioned they were doing things like:
- Moving away from traditional waterfall development processes and toward agile approaches, because waterfall slowed them down too much
- Recognizing the perishable nature of learning and encouraging L&D pros not to fall in love with any one solution. Thinking instead of the lifecycle of the solution and put into place evaluation triggers and plans for sunsetting or replacing them
- Adapting to immediate needs versus making sure that something is 100% perfect before launching
- Experimenting and taking risks, gathering data, and adjusting as they go instead of only measuring at the end
One leader summed up all of these ideas as she described how her L&D function was becoming more nimble:
We need to be OK with putting something out there that isn’t 100% polished, because we need to move fast. Then we see what happens. Then we need to gather feedback and adjust.
The funny thing is, we’ve been paying lip service to these skills for years. But recently, probably prompted by external events, L&D pros are doing more than just talking about them.
Readiness: Blind Spots
L&D pros from all organizations put the greatest focus on Agility in this category. They also agree that Adaptability & Flexibility are important skills. But then we see some differences.
Focus more on Resilience
L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus on Resilience more than their peers in other organizations (7 percentage points more). The 2011 journal article “What Is Resilience?” describes Resilience as positive adaption, or the ability to maintain or regain mental health.
From our interviews and roundtable discussions, we learned that L&D leaders are looking at Resilience in 2 ways.
First, L&D leaders recognize the changes their own functions have encountered recently and understand that Resilience is key to quick adaptation.
Second, L&D pro are considering how Resilience can be taught, encouraged, and systematized within their organization so that their workforce can handle future changes and disruptions.
Focus less on Efficiency & Productivity
Interestingly, L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus significantly less on Efficiency and Productivity (9 percentage points less). We’re fans of efficiency, and we think all L&D functions should strive to be more efficient and productive. But we also know that change is often messy, requiring inefficiencies and experimentation to find new and better ways of doing things.
The combination of these 2 things—greater focus on resilience and less on efficiency—likely lead to more experimental and risk-friendly environments.
L&D functions may want to consider how much respective focus they put on Resilience and learning from mistakes versus institutionalization and standardization.
Finally, Tech. Nine percent of L&D pros mentioned Tech skills when determining which skills will be needed for the Tech plays a pretty important role in the work of L&D pros, and that role appears to have been magnified as organizations were forced to adopt remote and hybrid work models.
Even before the pandemic, however, L&D pros saw tech as a way to engage, scale, personalize, evaluate, and quantify learning. Organizations had also started to move toward a digital mindset. As organizations have begun to adopt skills a skills mindset, tech has only become more critical.
L&D pros identified tech skills in basically 2 flavors, as shown in Figure 16.
L&D pros overwhelmingly identified skills related to using tech more effectively in their roles. In fact, Tech Use was the second most mentioned skill overall—second only to Data Analysis. However, we want to note some nuances in the interviews that we feel are important.
First, L&D pros mentioned that as their organizations have fully embraced hybrid and remote work, many employees lack the skills necessary to work in these environments effectively. Karen Dowdall-Sanford, Senior Director of L&D at Flyhomes put it like this:
Once again, there’s a skill set specific to virtual collaboration and how you use Teams or Slack effectively. There’s the technical skill set of just understanding the tool, but then there are also norms and practices and behaviors that run into how to do it effectively.
L&D pros appear to understand that they need skills to help others develop skills in virtual collaboration—something we think we’ll see more of.
Second, some L&D pros mentioned 2 skill sets that fall under tech use. First, a skill set needed to use the tech effectively. Second, a skill set associated with creating the right environment around that tech. Tech that doesn’t integrate with the organization doesn’t work. Mitchel McNair, Global Learning & Career Consultant at Dow, said it like this:
We’re doing some things in technology, but the huge technology piece is probably the easiest piece. The bigger challenge is the culture and processes and L&D work design.
The other piece of the Tech skills group is Tech Strategy. Tech Strategy focuses less on the skills needed to use individual technologies and more on how the technologies work together to create the experience.
Tech Strategy often involves tech outside of the L&D function, such as tech that is leveraged from other business functions. (Teams and Slack are good examples).
A strong tech strategy also identifies places of intersection with other business tech and ensures that the learning tech roadmap aligns with the vision of the larger organization.
Tech: Blind Spots
Focus more on Tech Strategy
None of our research indicated much difference between the focus of L&D pros in high-performing organizations versus those in other organizations. All L&D pros focused heavily on Tech Use.
Frankly, we wish we had an explanation for this, as we expected to find the opposite. However, it looks like high-performing organizations are still, as are most talented L&D pros, thinking about what the tech can do and less about how it fits together.
Therefore, the blind spot associated with technology is common to all L&D pros, regardless of their organization’s performance. All L&D pros should focus more time and effort on creating the experience, including determining how technology pieces fit together, the overall technology strategy, and how it aligns with the organization’s tech strategy.
Wrap Up: Upskill, L&D
Undoubtedly, organizations are focusing on upskilling their workforces. And, undoubtedly, L&D pros have a big role to play in that effort. Exciting times are ahead, but L&D pros need to be prepared.
To use a well-known metaphor, L&D pros are sitting in an airplane experiencing some turbulence. The oxygen masks have dropped, and L&D needs to take the time to put theirs on first before ensuring that employees get theirs on as well.
So upskill, L&D. We learned a lot in this study about where L&D pros should focus their efforts. Knowing is half the battle. The other half – making the time and actually doing the development – is the harder part, but we think crucial to the continued efficacy of L&D functions everywhere.
Note: for Appendices, including skills definitions, study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.
Future-proofing L&D: Skills They Need to Take On What's Next
Posted on Monday, April 11th, 2022 at 4:54 PM
What skills will Learning and Development functions need for the future?
Our research identified 39 skills, categorized into 7 groups, that Learning and Development professionals (L&D pros) said they need to future-proof themselves. These 39 skills varied for L&D pros in high-performing organizations compared to those in other organizations. This comparison led to the discovery of various blind spots about the skills L&D pros think they really need.
This infographic (click on the image below to get the full version) complements our final report on this topic, Future-proofing L&D: Developing the Right Skills.
As always, we’d love your feedback at [email protected]!
Learning Content: Making Sense of the Chaos (Webinar Slides)
Posted on Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022 at 6:26 AM
These days, there’s learning content everywhere—inside and outside orgs; online and offline; in learning systems, email, chat platforms; and more. It’s chaos.
L&D functions must help employees navigate the chaos to find the content they need. They can start to do this by asking 2 questions about their learning content:
- How specific is the content to my org?
- How long is the content’s shelf life?
In this session, Dani Johnson and Heather Gilmartin Adams explored these 2 questions and presented RedThread’s latest research on learning content. Participants:
- Learned about current trends in content
- Explored a model that can inform a solid learning content strategy
- Saw how forward-thinking orgs are addressing common learning content challenges
Putting Purpose in Your Leadership Pipeline
Posted on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022 at 12:56 PM
Organizations focused on purpose are outperforming their peers in recruiting, retention and business performance. Yet, many leaders struggle to do this well. So how can organizations help leaders at all levels focus on purpose? You’ll learn how in this session as Stacia Garr shares RedThread’s latest insights on how to reframe and understand organizational purpose, how to help leaders lead with and reinforce purpose, and how to develop new leaders to take on this important responsibility.
L&D’s Opportunity to Move beyond Diversity Training
Posted on Thursday, February 24th, 2022 at 7:52 PM
Organizations are investing more than ever in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts. We see an opportunity for L&D functions to do the same, beyond simple diversity training. With their influence on culture and reach across the enterprise, L&D functions are well-positioned to improve the DEIB culture in their organizations.
And L&D functions want to do more on DEIB. In LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 64% of L&D professionals globally and 73% in North America said DEIB programs were a priority. Our own experience tracks with this trend: RedThread community members are asking more and more about DEIB and learning.
But L&D functions seem to struggle to identify the best ways to help. That’s why we launched a research study focusing on this question:
What are the most impactful things L&D functions can do to help build a robust DEIB culture in their organizations?
To get a grasp on the current DEIB and learning conversation, we reviewed nearly 100 articles, books, podcasts, and reports. We expected, frankly, to find a lot about diversity training and not much else. And, as expected, there was a lot about diversity training. But there were more interesting ideas, too.
This short article summarizes the key ideas we found, including:
- 4 themes from the literature
- 1 hidden gem
- 5 articles that caught our attention
- 6 additional articles to check out if you have time
What we found: 4 themes from the literature
The literature has lots of ideas about DEIB and learning. These ideas fell into 4 themes:
- L&D is tangential to the DEIB conversation
- L&D is focused on improving diversity training
- Developing underrepresented groups is a common DEIB strategy
- L&D functions need to take a hard look at themselves
L&D is tangential to the DEIB conversation
In the literature we reviewed, DEIB or org psych professionals sometimes wrote about diversity training or unconscious bias programs. But not many L&D professionals ventured into the broader DEIB conversation.
Additionally, a few studies we ran across revealed that L&D functions are on the periphery of DEIB efforts. In one survey by i4cp, only 25% of respondents said L&D is “heavily tasked” with efforts to improve diversity and inclusion goals.
Many articles noted that L&D and DEIB teams often do not work together as closely or as effectively as they could. As a result, L&D functions are sometimes left out of key DEIB strategy, goal-setting, and planning decisions. These pieces argued that if L&D functions want to do more on DEIB, they need to partner better with stakeholders across the business. For example, Matthew Daniel, principal at Guild Education, wrote:
"Rather than siloing objectives onto separate teams, CLOs and CDOs can accomplish more by working together, while also measuring and tracking progress at the same time."
Other pieces echoed Daniel’s point about measuring and tracking progress. They suggested that L&D functions should know how success on DEIB is defined, tracked, and measured in their organization. Then, they said, L&D should align the learning strategy to those goals and metrics.
L&D is focused on improving diversity training
We expected to see many articles arguing that compliance-focused, event-based DEIB training doesn’t work. And there were lots of articles about diversity and unconscious bias training. To our surprise, however, these articles took the ineffectiveness of these training programs as a given. They often cited the 2016 article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” as proof.
There were 2 broad threads in this portion of the literature:
- Training effectiveness: Ideas about making diversity training more effective in changing employee behavior. For example, articles mentioned using AR / VR simulations to encourage empathy and help employees practice skills.
- Inclusivity: Suggestions for making all training (especially diversity training) more inclusive. For example, the literature suggested soliciting diverse perspectives when designing training and content.
Some articles did explore additional learning methods that might be used to develop employees’ DEIB skills. Of these, many mentioned coaching managers on being more inclusive leaders. Others discussed microlearning and “nudges” that space learning over time. But these articles did not explore ways for L&D functions to improve DEIB outside of creating learning programs.
Developing underrepresented groups is a common DEIB strategy
The literature agreed that organizations should develop individuals from underrepresented groups. As one study by McKinsey pointed out, employees in underrepresented groups report having fewer development opportunities than other employees. Several articles argued that active and intentional support of underrepresented groups could help reduce this gap.
The literature also noted that employees from underrepresented groups are more likely to use and benefit from structured programs. There were many ideas about programs that might enable these employees to develop and advance. Some of the ideas mentioned included:
- Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
- Work-study programs
- Work assignments (e.g., international postings)
- Rotational schemes
- Tuition reimbursement
- Talent marketplaces (to enhance visibility and access to opportunities)
- Intrapreneurship programs
- Communities of practice
- “People advisors” who provide career coaching
- Mentoring and sponsorship
In reviewing this theme, we noticed a disconnect: Many articles pushed for more development of underrepresented groups. But others noted that L&D isn’t heavily responsible for DEIB efforts (as we saw in the first theme of this review).
These threads seem contradictory. If developing underrepresented groups is so important, why isn’t L&D more central to DEIB strategies? The literature didn’t answer this question directly. But it’s interesting to note that many of the above programs aren’t traditionally L&D’s responsibility (e.g., rotations, ERGs). We think that may be the reason so many authors emphasized the need for L&D functions to partner with key stakeholders, as mentioned above.
L&D functions need to take a hard look at themselves
A few articles in the literature asked L&D functions to do some serious self-reflection. They are not the bulk of the literature—not by a long shot. But we are calling them out as a theme because they highlighted an issue with substantial DEIB implications: L&D’s own lack of diversity. These articles—especially the ones from authors Gena Cox and Katy Peters, Ave Rio, and Maria Morukian—noted that most L&D functions are majority white and majority women (except at senior levels). Most L&D professionals hold advanced degrees. That means:
White women with advanced degrees dominate L&D. At more senior levels, white men with advanced degrees do.
According to these articles, non-diverse L&D functions might find it harder to drive DEIB efforts and make employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. For example, some articles noted that a lack of diversity might allow bias to creep into the ways that L&D functions tend to:
- Define, prioritize, and measure skills, aptitude, and abilities
- Use data to make decisions about learning
- Decide which development opportunities to offer
- Choose learning methods to invest in
These articles explored how the L&D function might need to change itself to address potential biases. They are a great start to a broader conversation about all the ways L&D functions can contribute to DEIB efforts in their organizations.
Hidden gem: A systems approach to DEIB and learning
We found a handful of articles that took a systemic view of how L&D functions might influence DEIB. They thought more broadly about how to make learning more equitable and inclusive, rather than just about the programs L&D functions might create.
J.D. Dillon, CEO of learning vendor Axonify, wrote:
"Restoring learning equity requires a fundamental mindset shift. Rather than relying on programs as the basic unit of learning, professionals should adopt a systems approach."
By a “systems approach,” these articles meant looking at things like accessibility and opportunity:
- Who is offered access to development opportunities, and why?
- How might access to development opportunities vary based on an employee’s location, access to tech, or ability to use nonworking hours for development?
- Are learning opportunities easy for all employees to find? Are they widely and effectively marketed to all employees?
We appreciated these prompts to think about how L&D functions can ensure that all employees have equitable access to development opportunities. And we believe a systemic lens will reveal many additional ways that L&D functions can make learning more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We plan to investigate this systemic approach in more depth as part of this research.
What caught our attention
Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the articles below contained information that we found helpful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same. Click on the titles to go to the full articles.
Advance DEI Using Talent Development Expertise
"The biggest opportunities for TD professionals to make a difference lie in three important but often overlooked segments: knowledge management, career and leadership development, and coaching."
This article has detailed, practical advice for L&D professionals who want to do more on DEIB, above and beyond DEIB training. It also has some great examples of what good looks like—and what good doesn’t look like.
- Training courses are one part, but not the cornerstone, of a strong DEIB strategy.
- L&D functions can use their knowledge management expertise to make tacit DEIB knowledge more explicit, storable, and shareable.
- Inclusive, equitable employee development programs require DEIB and L&D staff to work together.
- Coaching can build more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces by equipping managers with DEIB skills.
L&D’s DEI Blind Spot: Perpetuating Inequity?
Gena Cox and Katy Peters
"What if the L&D professionals who measure achievement of… skills understand the day-to-day experience of only a subset of their colleagues? What if the career progression decisions from those measurements perpetuate some of the same distorted effects that are now evident in educational assessment?"
This article examines how L&D’s potential biases and blind spots might lead to inequitable employee development. It makes a case for a proactive, systemic approach to overcoming those biases.
- The L&D profession lacks racial and ethnic diversity, potentially leading to blind spots, biases, and inequity.
- The way skills are currently defined, prioritized, and measured may lead to biased outcomes.
- Overcoming L&D’s blind spots requires a systemic approach that re-examines many long-standing L&D practices, including how skills are defined and how data are used.
- A proactive approach to addressing L&D’s blind spots will help make workplaces more inclusive.
Mapping Exclusion in the Organization
Inga Carboni, Andrew Parker, and Nan S. Langowitz
"Our research made clear that who you know is as important—often more so—than what you know when it comes to rising through the ranks."
Organizational network analysis (ONA) can reveal who knows whom. It can uncover who has access to informal networks and sources of info about development opportunities. Using ONA, L&D functions can also identify marginalized groups who can be invited for specific development.
- One study revealed that men’s informal relationships with their male managers could explain nearly 40% of the gender pay gap.
- Women are less likely to be at the center of the networks that matter: knowledge, innovation, and critical decision-making networks.
- L&D functions can impact DEIB by codifying and sharing the networking strategies of people with solid and diverse networks.
- L&D functions can use ONA to assess the effectiveness of specific diversity training and other learning programs.
L&D’s Diversity Dilemma
"‘Here we are in Taiwan, in Asia, where they were doing training and learning way before the US, and the two major keynoters they got were white guys over 60 from New York,’ Masie said."
This article is packed with quotes from L&D and DEIB experts. These experts explain why L&D functions must reflect the employee population in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, background, etc.
- The number of people of color in L&D does not reflect the communities L&D serves.
- L&D functions are often asked to be the ambassadors of organizational culture, which is difficult if they aren’t representative of the workforce.
- Thought leaders in L&D are often older white men, reflecting the people who pioneered the field in the 1960s and 1970s.
- To increase diversity, L&D functions need to be intentionally inclusive about whom they highlight as thought leaders.
- L&D’s role in DEIB must be part of a larger organizational strategy.
Getting the Most from Your Diversity Dollars
Jennifer Garcia-Alonso, Matt Krentz, Claire Tracey, and Miki Tsusaka
"When asked if their company offers support for women from executives and middle managers, 72% of male respondents say yes, compared with only 54% of women."
This report helps companies identify the specific diversity and inclusion initiatives—including learning initiatives—that offer the greatest payoff for gender equity. It breaks initiatives into 4 helpful categories: Proven Measures, Hidden Gems, Baseline Measures, and Overrated Measures.
- Proven measures are valued by women and known to be effective by leaders. For example, a proven measure related to L&D is sponsoring women at scale.
- Hidden gems are highly effective initiatives that many organizations should pursue. For example, a hidden gem related to L&D is offering professional development for underrepresented groups.
- Baseline measures are basic steps that all organizations should do, but that don’t have a transformative effect on women’s daily experience. For example, a baseline measure related to L&D is mentoring women.
- Overrated measures are seemingly promising efforts that often do not lead to real cultural change. For example, an overrated measure related to L&D is one-time diversity training sessions.
Additional articles to check out
- "Are learning equity issues affecting your company?" J.D. Dillon, TD Magazine, 2021.
- Improving Workplace Culture through Evidence-Based Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practices, S. Creary, N. Rothbard, and J. Scruggs, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, 2021.
- "How internal talent marketplaces can help overcome seven common DEI strategy pitfalls," M. Heiskell, D. Kearns-Manolatos, and M. Rawat, Deloitte, 2021.
- "Assignments are critical tools to achieve workplace gender equity," E. Macke, G. Gall Rosa, S. Gilmartin, and C. Simard, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022.
- "How does your company support ‘first-generation professionals’?" M. Burwell and B. Maldonaldo, SHRM, 2022.
- "Providing performance feedback to support neurodiverse employees," M. Hamdani and S. Biagi, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022.