The challenges of learning in 2020

As L&D professionals there is even less insight available into what this will mean for our specialism, learning, and how we can equip ourselves and our L&D function to capitalise on it

Learn 2020 looks set to plug this gap. This innovative research project launches its findings today, revealing what challenges organisations will face in the next five years, uncovering the blueprint for learning in the future, and giving insight into how L&D professionals can equip themselves and their function to thrive through this change.

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“The pace of change is faster than ever before”, “change is the only constant”, “change is coming in seismic shifts” – we constantly hear of how large scale and impactful upcoming change is going to be for our organisations, but less about what form this future change will take.  

The Learn 2020 project interviewed 20 senior L&D professionals from pioneer brands to gain in-depth perspective, and added to this the insight of the project’s two learning consultants and research findings in this area. The result is the Learn 2020 blueprint for learning and the roadmap for L&D functions to work strategically with the organisation to use it to meet the challenges the next five years will pose.

The project found no shortage of challenges that organisations face as 2020 approaches; the most significant being three Cs – customer, competition and culture. 

For the first C, customer, creating customer value and therefore loyalty has always been on the agenda.  Today’s customer challenge focuses on getting closer to the customer with a tailored offering that meets their exact need.  Tomorrow’s customer challenge is scale – meeting the customer’s many needs through a diverse portfolio of high quality brand extensions, and managing to keep their customer’s loyalty despite the explosion of choice on offer to them.

For many organisations the biggest challenge lies in the second C, competition.  Previously most organisations have faced a well-known adversary set of three to five main competitors, who have jostled over the years for market position and share.  Towards the future, organisations are facing many more competitors attacking their business on multiple fronts.  Far from being well-known this competitor set and their relative positions will change not from year to year, but from week to week.  Even more daunting, future competitors can and will come seemingly from out of the blue “from a garage in China to changing the game overnight” as one participant of the Learn 2020 research put it.

The third C, culture, is the challenge organisations face to become and remain an organisation with a clear and shared purpose, in a future context of constantly changing propositions they offer, regular business acquisitions they make, and broader geographies and territories they encompass as they grow.  Creating a culture that is clear, consistent, truly global, large scale, and yet meaningful for each individual will be key.

This brings us to Talent.  There is no question that Talent of the future will work differently and be motivated differently from their counterparts of today – but in what ways?  By 2020 the workforce will encompass four generations, from Boomers seeking to make meaningful contributions for longer as their retirement age becomes later, to Millenials seeking purpose and self-actualisation from their work.  Organisations will need to deliver an EVP that chimes with very different individuals if they are to win the increasingly competitive war to attract and retain top Talent.  Organisations will also need to respond to more “modern” motivations – the opportunity to work flexibly in hours and location, the opportunity to practice creativity and entrepreneurialism, the opportunity to work collaboratively across disciplines, projects and timezones.  If organisations do not meet this emerging need their Talent will self-select out – to organisations that do, or to be masters of their own destiny.  X estimates that up to 50 per cent of the workforce may be freelance by the year 2020.

This of course also demands significant change on the part of the Talent, the individuals themselves.  Talent will need to develop new capabilities and skills to be regarded as Talent in this new world.  Among these capabilities will be agile thinking across a wealth of information and options, including in ambiguous situations.  From this the ability to make sound quick decisions, decisions that may be different each time due to a constantly changing criteria set.  Still further, Talent will need to blend this internal mental processing with the contrasting ability to externally influence, communicate and persuade compellingly to clients and customers alike.  Given that all this will be for business purpose, business acumen and a commercial mindset will also be expected of Talent.

So what is the future for learning as we head towards 2020?  Inevitably this world of new challenges for organisations and Talent will mean seismic changes for the landscape of learning too.  Organisations believing they have the brightest and best will capitalise on these internal experts, making their core learning created “by the people for the people”.  This core learning will take place in many contexts from on-the-job, to on-the-move through mobile and PDAas, to in person through social learning networks.  The classroom will therefore take on a different form, with teaching of core concepts already covered, so the classroom becomes an experiential context where these concepts are developed and implemented through advanced facilitated learning.

Returning again to Talent, this new world of learning therefore adds learning capabilities to those that will be essential for Talent to be successful in the 2020 world.  The capability of being an agile learner, the mindet of always learning, the self-awareness to learn optimally and the understanding to value learning as a point of difference and personal competitive edge in the drive to outperform one’s peers.

So what does all this mean for our function, for L&D?  It means the need to transform ourselves from content providers to learning enablers.  The need to be networked, tech-savvy, exceptional coaches and, above all, business people.  If we get it right, the opportunity for our L&D function and for us as L&D professionals is huge.  The 2020 world where learning is a principle source of competitive advantage and success, for organisations and for individuals alike, is a world in which L&D has the opportunity to partner the business more closely than ever before, and to earn that seat at the top table that it has long coveted.

About the author

David Liversage and Lara Roche are co-founders of Learn 2020 which launches on October 13th as a hub for best practice in preparing L&D professionals for the future. To find out more contact David or Lara:


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