As I look back over the past eight months of COVID-19, Learning and Talent Development practitioners were forced to evaluate the structure and sustainability of their learning organization. Running the business of learning that seemed to have worked so well prior to March 2020 would need to be reevaluated based upon new criteria. Having uncovered new information may require us to take a hard look at how we were operating and challenge processes that had been in place.

It may require an overhaul for some, a reengineer for others and an entire redesign of the previous model as we acknowledge any setbacks that may have ensued. As well as to recognize opportunities that may have unfolded during these unprecedented times.

In a process-driven, operationally focused business, where compliance and accuracy are crucial, technical skills can tend to be the primary focus for some training.

For us, much of this type of training could be distributed virtually. When COVID-19 hit, I was confronted with a different challenge. We had recently started our Senior Leader Development Program, which is offered each year over a period of 6 – 8 months. It involves a combination of all-day in-person sessions, collaboration meetings on Action Learning Projects with cohort teams, executive sponsors, and other organizational leaders. It then concludes with in-person presentations, graduation, and networking. Such a program was built to create sponsorship and expand an individual’s leadership network.

The simple notion of taking an entire program that had predominantly been delivered on-site, along with all the development activities, was daunting. We considered canceling the 2020 cohort all together but immediately ruled it out since we had already completed the official Kick-off session earlier in the year. We then contemplated delaying the upcoming sessions until later in the year but immediately decided against that approach. The cohort would have had neither interacted with the program nor engagement with each other for several months, creating some concern about maintaining the momentum after having such a strong start.

In a process-driven, operationally focused business, where compliance and accuracy are crucial, technical skills can tend to be the primary focus for some training

Instead, I worked closely with both our internal and external stakeholders to strike a nice balance and maintain the quality of the program. We elected to postpone the actual program from April through July while offering to the cohort a monthly, one-hour virtual session on leadership development topics. It resulted in a 98 percent participation rate, and the topics complemented the overall program very well. The interim approach allowed us to go back to the drawing board and reshape the entire program. Through these efforts, we were able to produce a highly engaging, well-constructed virtual program and restarted it this past August. It has been running quite smoothly ever since, and we now have two effective options to deliver this program long-term.

On the one hand, having to rapidly shift proved that we had the organizational capability and partnerships to do so, especially for the short term. It also revealed that in order to effectively sustain in the longer term, it might require developing a new set of competencies that reach far beyond merely the ability to engage the virtual learner in a different modality. It may require enhancing the learners’ ability to know how to learn and how to consume knowledge and skills in a new environment. It was necessary to empower learners and their leaders to take ownership of their development so that they would continue to seek out ways to further develop in the changed world in which we now operate. Having the resources to point learners and tools to reinforce accountability will be an important aspect of the learning process.

Maintaining the balance between how people are learning and will continue to acquire knowledge and skills is top of mind as we forge ahead. Contemplating what will be needed in an uncharted, undefined post-COVID environment poses a multitude of questions. What should the organizational learning strategy look like?

What learning solutions can we provide?

How do we prioritize the most impactful development activities that drive performance as performance expectations are ever-changing? What technology should we use to create and deploy learning? With funding for learning resources constantly being examined during times of market stability, adequate resourcing during times of uncertainty is under even more scrutiny. How do we make the appropriate investments for greater organizational impact?

The good news is that those who already have the desire to learn and grow will seek out and find learning opportunities that are available to them. They will likely know how to maximize those opportunities and to make them work for their own individual development. For those who may not be as motivated to do the same, learning and development practitioners have an opportunity to create resources that guide learners through the development process to make it easier for everyone to access self-driven, self-directed learning and development.

As the learning and talent development practice evolve, it can be a vital resource in helping to drive change and in managing performance during these times. The more an organization leverages and integrates their learning function, the better positioned it can be in meeting the organizational needs through its talent.

Here are five ways the Learning and Talent Development team can be strong learning partners that contribute to organizational success:

Collaborate with stakeholders to provide solutions-oriented alternatives.

1. Engage with the business, Human Resources, employees, and others more frequently. Being well-positioned to respond to shifts in the market, economy, workforce, and organization that may require a shift in priorities.

2. Prescribe expert learning options that make an impact— leveraging both internal and external resources to create a highly effective career and development plans that are structured and readily available to learners.

3. Provide ways to teach people how to learn. Help learners and leaders to shift their perspectives on “training” and “learning.” Ensuring the organization understands the difference between training to do something or to improve upon it and learning that is ongoing, has accountability, and, if done well, nurtures continuous development.

4. Create tools to bridge the gap between training/learning and applying. Providing specific guidance on how to access, consume, and ultimately execute upon what has been “trained/learned.”

5. Retool and restore the learning and development reservoir. Ensuring learning and talent development staff has or acquires appropriate skills and experience to meet the demands of operating in a new learning environment. Often times, their time is committed to addressing the development needs of the organization, leaving little time for their own development.

Planning for a post-COVID learning organization remains to be a work in progress.

Questions continue to unfold; lessons are still being learned, and balancing both challenges and opportunities at the same level of intensity is part of everyday life. Staying consistently open to new ways of operating is definitely a competency; many of us are learning to adapt.