Upskilling L&D: What the Literature Says

July 23rd, 2021

What’s keeping L&D up at night?

  • How will we navigate return to work initiatives and hybrid workspaces?
  • What will the new world of work look like?
  • How will we ramp up the digitization of learning to meet this growing demand?

Encompassing these questions is the responsibility that the L&D function holds in ensuring a continuously skilled workforce. While the L&D function has been preaching the importance of prioritizing learning to leaders1 it has fallen hopelessly short in doing the same for itself. It’s the classic case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes.

Major themes

In our review of over 54 academic and business articles, reports, and books, we found a resounding call for a revamp of the L&D function. The average L&D function is seeing its impact on growth, transformation, productivity, and profitability decline, stemming from a misalignment of L&D and org goals, miscommunication, and a lack of clarity.2

We encountered several themes in our review:

The elevated importance of L&D doesn’t jive with L&D the dinosaur

Now, possibly more than ever before, L&D has the spotlight. Amid a skills crisis, a worker shortage, increased automation,3 higher employee expectations, and an uncertain global economic environment, orgs still need to build skilled workforces.

This spotlight extends clear up to the C-suite.4 Unfortunately, many L&D functions are perceived as slow, lumbering, backward-looking, and unprepared for the responsibility that has been placed on them. The impression they give is of a function that is rigid and inflexible,5 stuck using old ways,6 and having questionable impact.

Most L&D functions haven’t done enough to prove their effectiveness – and that has only been magnified by the recent pandemic.

New skills, new roles, and new applications for traditional roles

The literature had a lot to say about how L&D roles7 need to be expanded and reimagined. Specifically, it addressed shifting job descriptions, new mindsets,8 new skills, and new responsibilities9  that will be needed for L&D functions to credibly participate in business decisions.

L&D functions are becoming more multifaceted,10 with less emphasis on creation and more on enablement. This likely means new skills, such as influence and collaboration with different business functions, analytics, leading the digital learning charge, helping employees learn from each other, and creating a learning culture.

Even traditional skills are being applied in new ways: content creation is being applied to enabling user-generated content, vetting and implementing tools to be used by SMEs; likewise, facilitation skills are being used to lead online discussions or asynchronous cohort teams, and manage online communities.

And sometimes this is leading to new roles such as data analysts, consultants, marketing specialists, digital enablement specialists, and experience designers.

Models exist – and mostly agree

In the course of this research, we also looked at several existing prominent capability models, including:

While each model is unique, a similarity they share is that the capabilities they outline go well beyond classroom facilitation, learning management, and administration – areas often seen as L&D strengths. The opportunity to grow and expand the reach of the L&D function in enabling employees is vast.

The evolving role of CLOs

The role of the CLO has also evolved dramatically over the years: CLOs are transforming their organization’s learning goals, methods, and departments, bringing more focus to mindset shifts, better learning experience, and agility.12

The literature cites several examples of how successful learning leaders have taken their role beyond that of traditional training management by enabling learning cultures – recognizing that employees learn all the time and ensuring that tools, content, and opportunities are available to help them do it.

What caught our attention:

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out. Each of the pieces below contained valuable insights, and we encourage you to learn from their perspectives.

Back To The Future: Why Tomorrow’s Workforce Needs a Learning Culture

Jane Daly, Gent Ahmetaj, Emerald Works

"It’s no longer viable or beneficial to make assumptions about what we think people need. In fact, it’s risky. Our insights show it’s learning professionals’ biggest blind spot."


  • There is a key distinction between "High Impact Learning Cultures" (HILCs) and the average learning org. HILCs are 10X more likely to have a sustainable impact on growth, transformation, productivity, and profitability.
  • There is a widening gap between vision and practice for the L&D function. Learning leaders are more ambitious but less likely to have an impact on what matters to the org.
  • The top 3 concerns of learning leaders for 2020 are: 1) Reluctance from managers to make time for learning; 2) The L&D function is overwhelmed and under-equipped; and 3) The traditional expectations of the L&D function are difficult to challenge.
  • Learning leaders report a decline in the teams’ in-house capabilities. Ability to facilitate social and collaborative learning declined from 25% in 2018 to 15% in 2020.
  • The strongest capabilities of the L&D teams are classroom / face to face training / training delivery, and learning management/administration.

This report is an annual Health Check from Emerald Works, and is supported by robust data on learning strategy, learning tech, and the state of skills in L&D teams. It highlights the shocking state of L&D capabilities and the disconnect between business priorities and L&D strengths.

The LPI Dashboard


"It is perhaps no surprise that L&D professionals rate themselves most highly as face-to-face facilitators … a legacy skill that is under pressure from the continuing rise of digital learning, online communities, and virtual classrooms."


  • L&D professionals rate themselves most highly as face-to-face facilitators, a legacy skill that has decreasing value.
  • The L&D function is also good at content creation, solution design and development, and project management, which are vital for a modern learning function operating in an increasingly digital workplace.
  • The L&D function lacks the skills needed to define, collect, and assess the data that proves learning efficacy and impact – depriving it of the insights needed to inform strategy and decision making.
  • The L&D function also clearly struggles with the financial and procurement skills needed to manage budget allocation and maintain supplier relationships.

This unique dataset is taken from the LPI Capability Map, a self-assessment tool that helps individuals and teams identify their strengths and skills gaps to understand what is needed for building future capabilities. The LPI Dashboard gives a snapshot of the areas of strength and opportunities for L&D to grow.

A transformation of the learning function: Why it should learn new ways

Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Faridun Dotiwala, and Matthew Murray, McKinsey

"L&D team members will often work as part of cross-functional project teams that have end-to-end ownership and decision-making authority…key elements of an agile operation that strives to deliver fast. To stay relevant, the function will also need to keep updating its skill profile."


  • L&D should be deeply integrated with org strategy and talent processes, with a strong emphasis on helping employees continuously adapt by learning new skills and behaviors.
  • Organizations and functions that have undergone agile transformations outperform in fast-changing operating environments. L&D functions do not model this agility.
  • The L&D function is rigid, broken into different teams, and have goals not aligned to the overall goals of the business. Common evaluation metrics are myopic and limited.

Learning effectiveness comes through aligning L&D objectives with org objectives and ensuring the L&D function is agile enough to stay ahead of the org's changing needs. L&D needs to break away from more traditional methods to be more in sync with the changing needs of learners and the org.

Workplace Learning Report

LinkedIn Learning, 2021

"We have seen learning move from a relatively new discipline within HR to taking center stage and becoming a must-have strategic role that will help shape the new world of work.”


  • The L&D function is seen as a strategic partner to drive org change. Measuring the value of learning will be a major factor for L&D leaders to remain effective. L&D functions see budgets bounce back, with a focus on blended online learning.
  • Internal mobility has gained importance post-pandemic as L&D leaders focus on upskilling/reskilling in 2021.
  • Resilience and digital fluency are identified as top skills for the workforce.
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) are top talent development initiatives for L&D leaders in 2021, as they often partner with D&I teams to deliver joint strategies and programs.
  • The L&D function is front and center to so many important shifts in the ways of working, from reskilling, enabling internal mobility, and ensuring teams are agile and ready for change.

Do your L&D Leaders Need a Jumpstart? 

Julia Cook Ramirez, Human Resources Executive Magazine, 2019

"Today’s L&D landscape bears little resemblance to that which existed even at the arrival of the current millennium. Learning is increasingly individualized, mobile and on demand.”


  • Learning has evolved from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that is highly personalized.
  • A heightened importance for the L&D function amidst a skills shortage has led to learning leaders playing a pivotal role in org success.
  • Several L&D leaders offer examples of evolving roles, including those needing skills in consulting, business acumen, change management, org design, intellectual curiosity, compassion, patience, and understanding.

L&D leaders are charged with enabling learning for the entire org, but much like the "cobbler who wears the worst shoes," they often overlook their own development. The article includes several anecdotal examples of different skillsets that provide added value to the L&D function.

 Additional Reading Recommendations:

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


  1. Workplace Learning Report 2020 ”, LinkedIn Learning, 2020
  2. “Back to the future”, Jane Daly and Gent Ahmetaj, Emerald Works, 2020
  3. “Automation and the future of work”, James Manyika, McKinsey Global Institute, 2018
  4. ”Workplace Learning Report, 2021”, LinkedIn Learning, 2021
  5. “A transformation of the learning function: Why it should learn new ways”, Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Faridun Dotiwala, and Matthew Murray, McKinsey 2020
  6. “L&D Is Stuck… And Here’s What We Need To Do About It”, David James, Modern Learning in Practice, 2018
  7. “6 Critical Roles L&D Needs to Succeed in 2017”, Steve Dineen, eLearning Industry, 2017
  8. “Bringing a growth mindset to the learning function”, James Fulton and Todd M. Warner, Chief Learning Officer, May 2021
  9. “10 Things Modern L&D Professionals Should be Doing”, Shiftelearning, 2018
  10. “L&D: Evolving roles, enhancing skills”, CIPD, 2015
  11. Reimagining L&D Capabilities to Drive Continuous Learning“, Dani Johnson, Bersin by Deloitte, 2015
  12. “The Transformer CLO”, Abbie Lundberg and George Westerman, CLO magazine, January-February 2020