August 10th, 2021

Earlier this summer, we launched a new study on future skills for L&D leaders. As part of our research, we gathered learning leaders for a research roundtable focused on this topic.

We centered our discussion on 4 key areas:

  • Challenges L&D functions face in ensuring a skilled workforce
  • L&D skills needed for the future
  • New roles L&D functions will need
  • How L&D functions should determine and develop the right skills

Mind map

The mind map below summarizes the main themes that emerged from our roundtable discussion.

Note: This is a live document. Click the window and use your cursor to explore.

Key takeaways

The roundtable brought together industry professionals and thought leaders who engaged in a rich, lively discussion of the challenges faced by L&D functions and the skills needed to have a business impact. While many interesting perspectives and insights were shared, the discussion brought forth these main takeaways:

  1. Critical gaps exist for skills that help L&D leaders act strategically
  2. Partnering within and outside the org can help L&D teams fill skill gaps
  3. Skills matter more than roles
  4. L&D leaders struggle to find time for their own development

The following sections offer an overview of the major points associated with each key takeaway.

Critical gaps exist for skills that help L&D leaders act strategically

L&D functions often struggle to see the big picture and understand what skills and experiences are needed to achieve business objectives, which leads them to make traditional decisions rather than doing what is necessary to understand what will have the most impact.

Participants pointed out that this manifests itself in not only the decisions L&D functions make but also the way they speak; they often use terms such as “learners,” “learning objectives,” “course completion rates,” “smile sheets,” and “learner experience,” which are focused on L&D rather than on solving larger business challenges.

 “The C-Suite cares about its talent and human capital—how they’re going to get their objectives accomplished through people. Talk in that language.”

Participants also noted the lack of skill L&D functions often have in framing employee development goals in terms of business outcomes. For many, this means building consulting, active listening, scenario planning, and strategic thinking skills.

Partnering within and outside the org can help L&D teams fill skill gaps

Another theme we heard was that L&D functions should broaden their connections with other business functions to address skills gaps. L&D functions are doing this in several ways:

  • Focusing on strategic, org-specific work while outsourcing tasks like content creation and facilitation
  • Building user experience skills internally by partnering with external consultants to accelerate learning
  • Leveraging relationships with people analytics, marketing, and IT functions to build skills that can benefit the L&D function or to create collaboration pools to get work done more quickly

 “We have a small L&D team and outsource facilitation, instructional design. We do a lot of managing and leading vendors.”

Skills matter more than roles

Some of the new types of roles we heard this group mention included data analytics and performance consulting, among others. As L&D functions move from simply providing courses and tracking completions to creating and supporting a learning culture, new roles are imminent.

However, many participants pointed out that what really matters is access to the right skills—not defining the perfect role. This is particularly important for smaller, resource-constrained orgs, where hiring for additional roles is harder. As an example, a participant pointed out that hiring for the role of a data analyst may work for some orgs, but what the L&D really needed was the skill of understanding the data well.

“We’ve been shifting our thinking away from L&D roles (a defined box) to pools of expertise (what are my expertise areas) to get a more nimble, flexible way of working together, regardless of what we call each other.”

Other participants said their orgs were making the shift from thinking about “defined roles” to “defined skillsets and required skill levels” for specific projects. Leaders stressed the importance of an ecosystem to provide access to skills in multiple ways, including tech, vendors, gig workers, consultants, learning cohorts, and other functions that can be brought in to provide advice and services when needed.

L&D leaders struggle to find time for their own development

The leaders acknowledged that budgets for developing leaders in the L&D function exist, but people are stretched thin and unable to take full advantage of learning opportunities. Skill building and development becomes more important as hiring new talent gets more challenging.

So how are teams addressing development in time-constrained circumstances? We heard leaders discuss how they embed development opportunities as part of their work. Some teams use stretch assignments, communities of practice, and job rotations to access resources and build skills. This allows orgs to create a bench of talent that can be pulled into project teams when the need arises.

"Work is where skills are really built. Stretch assignments are where our L&D folds have really built new skills. For e.g., if they’re interested in building workforce planning skills, have them spend 10% of time on that work.”

While many noted the need for cross-functional “borrowing” of skills, some cited challenges in putting these structures into place. Some skills, such as analytics and UX, are in high demand across various functions, and the L&D org’s needs are rarely prioritized over those of other teams.

The L&D teams also called for an increase in shared learning across the function, including creating learning cohorts, organizing lunch and learns within teams, involving external experts to share the latest thinking and industry trends, and even reaching out beyond the L&D world to build skills.

L&D functions will need to stop doing some things

The participants noted the need to STOP doing some things to accommodate new responsibilities. Many mentioned some of the more traditional types of work they do as examples of things to shuttle, with content creation and defaulting to the course as the primary way to learn being high on that list.

That said, one participant noted that while learning leaders strive to elevate the discussion to strategic alignment, there is still sometimes a need to create content or courses, making it difficult to perform while you transform. Despite the recognition that they must let go of some things, the participants acknowledged that this is difficult for a few reasons:

  • Momentum: Systems and processes are in place to support this kind of work, and it takes effort to change them when their job has never been more important.
  • Habit: New types of work require new mindsets and new ways of thinking that haven’t quite been developed yet.
  • Expectations: Organizations often associate “learning” with courses. Educating other business functions takes time and effort.

We are thankful to all our roundtable participants and breakout room leaders for enriching our discussion by sharing their experiences and insights. We saw that the challenges faced by the L&D function are similar across industries and learned from the unique ways orgs are addressing skill gaps and developing the L&D function.

As always, we welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and feedback at [email protected].

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