Future skills for L&D: the times they are a-changin'

June 24th, 2021

The challenge

The pandemic and the global skills crisis have thrust L&D into the limelight and increased its influence with the C-Suite.1 Suddenly, L&D functions that used to struggle to get senior leadership attention and budget, find themselves with plenty of both. Unfortunately, many L&D functions aren’t sure how to take the lead in ensuring skilled workforces – particularly when many are now hybrid, operating in unsure conditions, and lack the ability to pivot quickly.

L&D functions often lack the skills themselves – those they need to influence, align, invest, create, and analyze in these new conditions. In fact, research shows that only 1 in 4 respondents agree that training measurably improved performance2 and L&D functions receive dismal NPS ratings.3

The good news is that times of chaos are the perfect opportunity for change. Whether orgs remain fully remote, take a hybrid approach, or require employees to be back at work, the traditional ways that we have used to train employees are broken forever. And L&D functions need different mindsets and skillsets to define what employee development looks like moving forward.

Why we care

We spend a lot of time listening and reading about employee development, and over the past few months, we have recognized the need to study the L&D skills necessary to upgrade employee development, for a few reasons:

Old tricks won’t solve new problems

An L&D function’s main goals should be to enable and empower a future-fit workforce. Instead, many L&D functions have been focused on doing what they have always done: designing courses, executing on traditional learning delivery, and measuring success by how many people took their course and liked it.

There is a growing need for L&D functions to step out of the old rinse-and-repeat execution mode and place a sharper lens on what results they are trying to achieve. Rapidly changing working conditions mandate that L&D functions revamp their own skills to better support org goals and strategy.

Conditions matter more

With the tremendous task most L&D functions have ahead of them, they don’t have time to be a bottleneck to development. Their new role will be much more focused on building conditions within the org that encourage learning, rather than building the learning itself. And building conditions will require a bigger, more strategic set of skills.

Employees care more about experience

Employee development continues to evolve and employees have much more of a say in how and what they want to learn. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Waterfall development, peanut-butter courses, even personas, are being replaced with more personalized, less coursey types of development.

Businesses want to know what they’re getting for their money

At the same time fewer L&D functions are struggling procuring budget, they’re being asked to show actual impact of what they’re doing on org goals. L&D is notoriously bad at showing impact, often defaulting to metrics like butts in seats or smile sheets instead of thinking more broadly about what information businesses actually need.

Leaders are interested in the long game. Nearly three quarters of leaders expressed concern about L&D’s short-term focus.4 We haven’t done the research yet, but we’re betting that one set of skills L&D will need to develop in the future has to do with analytics and measurement.

Tech changes everything

While many L&D functions have, to this point, focused on making their work more efficient and less expensive by using tech, the more strategic ones have leveraged tech to do completely different things. L&D functions have to learn to think strategically about tech, leverage it, and remain focused on the strategy instead of being distracted by all of the shiny new things.

Our hypothesis

Given the context above, we’ve identified exactly 1 hypothesis we want to test with this study:

L&D functions that create conditions for learning have more impact and a different set of skills and roles.

What we'll research

To test the hypothesis, we plan on following our tried and true research methodology – conduct a lit review, look at existing development models, hold interviews with thought leaders and forward-thinking orgs, and surveying (if it makes sense). Some of the terms we’ll be exploring include:

As always, we welcome feedback! Did we miss any major areas for exploration?

Dani Johnson Redthread Research
Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Divya Iyer


  1. 2021 Workplace Learning Report | LinkedIn Learning, LinkedIn Learning, 2021
  2. Getting more from your training programs | McKinsey, Aaron De Smet, Monica Mcgurk, and Elizabeth Schwartz, McKinsey, 2010
  3. How the Workforce Learns Report 2019 (degreed.com), Degreed + Harvard Business Publishing, 2019
  4. Same Team, Different Sides?, MindTools for Business by Emerald Works, 2021