Workplace Learning 2020 And Beyond The Cloud

Workplace Learning 2020 And Beyond The Cloud
Bakhtiar Zein/
Summary: 21% of learning professionals think that demonstrating the value of learning is priority.

Learning Trends In 2020

How's your 2020? I want to keep this article clean, so let's just put it this way: Google "Scooter 2020 on YouTube." Every single year learning pundits post their “future of learning” and “my predictions” or “major trends we predict”-type content. Probably not many of these predictions came true in 2020. This year, you don’t need to read articles to learn about trends because, no matter where you live and work today, most likely you’ve experienced the major trend in 2020 yourself: working remotely and learning online.

Learning Through The Data Lens In 2020

This article asks a lot of questions and explores this new world through data. Along with anecdotal evidence, data is essential to gain insights and make informed decisions. We, learning professionals, love to analyze, design, develop, implement, and sometimes even evaluate solutions we build for problems. We often do this under tight deadlines and strict resource conditions. Are we successful at what we do? It all depends on how you measure it.

Traditional annual learning reports may include elements like the number of hours delivered, number of completions, number of repeat visits, and our lovely Level 1 evaluation numbers. Building on these numbers you may even see made-up Return On Investment indicators such as the number of hours delivered per FTE (full-time employee).

These statistics don’t tell much about the impact you have created for the business you support. In fact, one can argue that cutting the “number of hours delivered” in half while achieving the same business results would be a better learning outcome.

To our credit, this is not always our Learning and Development field’s fault. Regulations may also approach the skill or knowledge gap problem with the BIS solution: mandated number of training hours (BIS as in butts in seat). So, let’s step back for a moment from building and delivering learning solutions to ask some crucial questions.

What Are The Biggest Upcoming Challenges We’re Facing In The Workplace?

Imagine you're interviewed by a magazine. They want to know what your biggest upcoming challenges are in the workplace—the audience is NOT learning professionals. How would you answer? What would you list as some of the biggest challenges your organization is about to face?

According to the World Economic Forum [1], the following challenges are hot ticket items:

  • The pace of technology adoption is expected to remain unabated and may accelerate in some areas.
  • Automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a "double-disruption" scenario for workers.
  • Although the number of jobs destroyed will be surpassed by the number of "jobs of tomorrow" created, in contrast to previous years, job creation is slowing while job destruction accelerates.
  • Skill gaps continue to be high as in-demand skills across jobs change in the next five years.
  • The future of work has already arrived for a large majority of the online white-collar workforce.
  • Online learning and training is on the rise but looks different for those in employment and those who are unemployed.
  • The window of opportunity to reskill and upskill workers has become shorter in the newly constrained labor market. [1]

Are there any that match your concerns? What are your top 3 out of this list?

Reskilling And Upskilling

The summary of the findings strongly suggests acceleration of change that requires reskilling and upskilling while the window to be proactive is shrinking.

In fact, look at the top 4 planned business adaptions in response to COVID-19:

  1. Accelerate the digitalization of work processes (e.g., use of digital tools, video conferencing)
  2. Provide more opportunities to work remotely
  3. Accelerate automation of tasks
  4. Accelerate the digitalization of upskilling/reskilling (e.g., education technology providers)

Digital transformation is no longer a crawl-walk-run approach. The year 2020 forced many to abandon all plans and just run. Cloud computing allowed many commercial and non-profit organizations in 2020 to move their operation online at a record pace. Digital transformation is not just about technology changes. It is about how we get things done. Therefore, some skills will be in-demand, while others may become obsolete.

The 2020 Workplace Trend Report: Skills of the Future [2] supports the same argument by exploring ways L&D is tackling the reskilling/upskilling challenge.

What tech skills are people learning on Udemy?

  • Python
  • React (web)
  • Angular
  • Machine learning
  • Docker
  • Django
  • CompTIA
  • Amazon AWS
  • Deep learning React Native (mobile)

You don’t need to be an expert in all of these topics as a learning professional, but at least you should be aware of what these topics are.

Barriers To Reskilling And Upskilling

If reskilling and upskilling are one of the top priorities for now and the upcoming year, let’s dive deeper into the challenges or barriers that hold people back from learning these new skills.

What Are The Major Obstacles Holding People Back From Learning?

Once again LinkedIn released an important study in the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report. And among many findings I want to point out, the most important is simple. The number one thing holding people back from learning is time. This means it’s your job as a business or HR leader to "give people more time." Not enough time to learn was already in concern in 2019. Did we solve this problem for 2020? According to the new report, the answer is no. [3]

Time remains one of the major problems in 2020. We are not magicians. We can't create time. How do we make time for learning? If employees are already stretched, how do we make time for them to learn?

Through my career as a learning consultant, I often faced this problem with clients: “We made the courses available online so employees can take them any time, but they’re busy. We don’t want to make them mandatory. How do we make them take the courses?”

The "you build it and they come" approach does not work. My line of questioning mostly goes like this: “Tell me about the audience for this course. How are they measured today? What are the KPIs? Who sets priorities for them? How are they incentivized?”

There are two major themes to unpack here:

  1. People spend their time on what they think (or they’re told) is valuable and they're measured on.
  2. There is a difference between intention and execution. Let's say, you have the best intention to support learning new skills, so you provide courses. Data shows people are not taking advantage of these courses. If people are not taking your courses, they don’t want to learn new skills. That is not a valid conclusion. When people are not taking your courses, it might just mean they do not think those courses are the most effective way to gain the skills they need.

Most employees have a manager. We must not forget about managers when it comes down to reskilling and upskilling. Managers are crucial players in the process. The 2020 LinkedIn Learning report asked talent developers to list their top challenges [4].

On top of the list (49%) sits the manager: “Getting managers to make learning a priority for their teams,” and the culture (42%): “Creating a culture of learning.” Hmm, going further down the list, all the way down to 21% is this challenge: “Demonstrating the value of learning.”

As a data geek, these numbers make me wonder. And when I wonder, more questions pop into my mind: Why do only 21% of learning professionals think that demonstrating the value of learning is a priority?

Is it only 21% because it is not a challenge? Is it easy to demonstrate the value of learning? Or, is it only 21% because people didn’t even think it was important? In other words, it wasn’t mentioned because talent developers do not think it’s important enough to be on the challenge list.

Do We Know How To Measure The Value Of Learning?

Maybe if we spent more time measuring and demonstrating the value of learning, we wouldn’t need to worry about managers not making learning a priority for their teams? We don't know.

Beyond the manager and culture, there is the "time problem" again. "The top factor that prevents employees from learning is that they don’t have time to learn at work, but nearly all learners do see the career benefits of carving out time to learn. [4]"

  • 49% mentioned time as the biggest factor

In the cloud computing industry, for example, where I work, the pace of change is measured in milliseconds. Without continuous learning, you quickly fall behind the latest technology and services. We, learning professionals, can’t make up more time for our target audience to learn. Stop wasting your employees' time!

What we CAN do is stop wasting their time. Don't make them look for information, sort through information, find a course, find two valuable minutes in a 40-minute course, watch a video they can't skip, etc.

Again, there's a difference between intention and execution. You may have the best of intentions to create a course for everyone to learn "X." When you design a course for everyone to learn X, you design it for no one. We must stop treating a course as a container to deliver information on a topic. Imagine if you walked into IKEA to get a missing part for the piece of furniture you were building, and they just threw you into a room packed with all the parts. Go and find what you need. It’s there.

Learning Is Not A Department

We must stop solving problems by creating a course. A course may be part of the solution, but we need to admit that learning is not a department anymore. We do not own learning. At the same time, our target audience is not a passive bystander waiting to be entertained either. Learning is a social contract. It comes with responsibilities on both sides.

We share the responsibility of learning with our audience. We, learning professionals, are responsible to use science-informed but culture/business-driven solutions that are effective and realistic. Our “learners” are responsible for actively participating, reflecting, and sharing. We are responsible for the best conditions, they are responsible for taking advantage of the best conditions.

If You Ask Your Audience, What Would They Say They Want?

When was the last time you surveyed or interviewed your audience? It’s good to have a clear vision from leadership and management but don’t forget to validate that with the very people whose knowledge, skills, and careers are at stake. If you find discrepancies between the two groups, that means you’re dealing with more than a reskilling challenge. Learning rarely solves organizational, leadership, cultural, and broken business processes issues.

What Do They Want?

According to the LinkedIn report, the majority of professionals want learning experiences that are:

  • Social and collaborative
    Learners feel motivated to learn in a social environment—with their colleagues—while taking a course.
  • Personalized
    Learners value receiving personalized course recommendations based on their career goals and skills gaps.

The workplace is a social environment. We learn a lot from a discussion on Slack or Teams, a one-on-one conversation with a mentor, making decisions in a meeting, doing A/B testing, etc. While the learning process happens in the brain of each individual person, in the workplace we often need to collaborate with others to achieve a common goal. Sharing what you learned and showing your work not only empowers a stronger team but also helps you make your knowledge stick and practice your skills.

Personalized Learning

As for the personalized aspect of learning, the challenge lies in the details: personalized how? In order to recommend the right learning path (note, it doesn’t have to be a course), we need to know a lot about the “learner.” In fact, if you base your recommendation solely on what the “learner” does in an isolated Learning Management System, you will most likely run into challenges. Assuming that a person knows only what courses they took in an LMS will lead to a narrow path.

For example, if the learning platform’s “AI” picks up a pattern of a user watching short videos instead of reading longer articles, does that mean we should recommend more short videos? Maybe. But maybe this person does not really learn from those. We don’t know how this person performs against their KPIs. Maybe it’s a recommended company policy to take X number of courses for professional development and the easiest way to accomplish that is taking the shortest ones. Who knows?

Skills, Skills, Skills

This challenge is still out there. However, what we do know is that it starts with knowing the end: skills. Whether your organization is using a competency model or a capability model, Learning and Development must be aligned. Each role, each level must have clearly defined skills. You can't reskill someone if you have no idea what skills they have and what skills they should have.

Skills without diagnostics tools are useless. So the next step is to figure out for the “learner” where their skill level is. Finally, learning assets (courses, articles, videos, communities, webinars, hackathons, experts, etc.) must be tagged against the same skills taxonomy. Once all these elements are in place, you may be able to help someone move from point A to point B by identifying the skills gap and providing a recommended path to get there.

More Skills

As upskilling and reskilling are on the top of mind for both the business and L&D, let’s look at the top soft skills the WEF lists in the future of work publication:

While the most in-demand soft skills are all about how employees work together, the most in-demand hard skills are the ones defining what they’re working on.

Soft skills:

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional intelligence [2]

Again, these soft skills determine how we get things done at the workplace. If you plan to provide learning opportunities for employees on soft skills, my suggestion is not a generic "creativity workshop" or an "emotional intelligence" session. Integrate these soft skills in the authentic context with real project work. In other words, let employees safely practice "the how" on what they already do anyway, rather than build up general knowledge of creativity looks like:

Trending data also reveals that data-driven decision-making skills like analytical reasoning (#3), up one spot from last year, and business analysis (#6), up 10 spots from last year, are essential in today’s workforce [2].

Reflection Time

Data-driven decision-making such as analytical reasoning is up on the list. How does this skill manifest itself in your learning organization? What data do you use to make decisions? What decisions? Do you know where the data comes from? How it was collected? Was it scrubbed (cleaned)? Without data literacy, we may not even know what questions to ask.

To be honest, major decisions that affect our work are often made out of our control. Technology being a large capital investment may be one of them. The downstream impact of technology, however, always impacts us. On one level, we need to adopt, on another, we need to help the workforce.

What Technology Will Impact Your Organization?

According to this WEF report, the top 5 technologies adapted by 2025 will be:

  • Cloud computing
  • Big Data analytics
  • Internet of Things and connected devices
  • Encryption and cybersecurity
  • Artificial Intelligence (inc., ML and NLP)
  • Text, image, and voice processing

If you're not a tech person, you may look at this list and think: How does this affect me, personally? Do I need to learn new skills? How long will it take for me to learn these new skills?

The Top 10 Work Skills of Tomorrow and How Long it Takes to Learn Them report by the WEF sheds some light on the subject. According to the report, the vast majority of business leaders (94%) now expect employees to pick up new skills on the job—a sharp rise from 65% in 2018:

For those workers who stay in their roles, the share of core skills that will change by 2025 is 40%, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling (up 4%) [5].

Even if you're staying in your role, there's a good chance you need to unlearn and relearn 40% of what you're good at today. That's basically a half-new person by 2025:

Critical thinking and problem-solving top the list of skills that employers believe will grow in prominence in the next five years. These have been consistent since the first report in 2016. But newly emerging this year are skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility [5].

Critical thinking and problem-solving top the list again. These skills require us to ask questions—to ask the right questions at the right time. This is one thing we must work on to get better instead of jumping into creating solutions, we must stop to ask the right questions. Measure twice, cut once.

How Long Will It Take To Learn New Skills?

“The platform says it could take just one to two months to acquire one of its top 10 mastery skills in emerging professions across people and culture, content writing, and sales and marketing [5].”

Two months to master a new skill? This statement from the report made me wonder again. I wonder how they measure "mastery." I’d be curious to know how the platform knows that someone has acquired one of 10 mastery skills in two months! I hope the definition relied upon the job skills assessment and not answering multiple-choice scenarios about “what would you do…”

By asking the right questions about the data source, here's what the answer was:

According to Coursera, data from individuals completing reskilling and upskilling on its platform, working toward a new skill in Cloud Computing could take on average 106 full calendrical days; in Content, 24 days; in Data and AI professions, 60; in Engineering, 77 days; in Marketing, 39; People and Culture, 36; Sales. 37; and in Product Development professions, 44. We take the average month to have 21 working days. [1]

I was somewhat disappointed in the detail given on how they came to this conclusion. Questions remained unanswered about how they measured skill competency before and after. The data doesn't tell you a meaningful story without knowing more than the average days. What kills in cloud computing, for example? What was the skill gap closed? Reskilling or upskilling? And a lot more...


Through different data sources, we’ve looked at learning from various angles: reskilling and upskilling, top skills, and technology. Two interrelated themes kept popping up during my research: cloud computing and AI/ML.

As I’m working in the intersection of cloud computing and digital learning, I can also personally attest to the importance of understanding the pros and cons of cloud computing. If you’re a learning professional and not so much of a technical person, you may think of cloud computing as geeks sitting behind expensive computers. Something that doesn’t personally affect your role.

This can’t be further from the truth. Think of cloud computing as automated problem-solving at scale. It’s not the technology that shines, it is the service and experience it powers. If you want to learn more about cloud computing, take a look at what’s possible now. Don’t start with the technology. Start with problems and challenges solved in record time, at scale with automation. Start with the creative and innovative solutions cloud computing powers. Start with the end in mind.

As for AI/ML, it deserves a whole new article. According to an MIT white paper [6], business leaders believe that powered by cloud computing, AI/ML is bringing more change to organizations than any other technology before. The paper also highlights the need for collaboration, breaking down silos, and the importance of training:

AI demands more collaboration among people skilled in data management, data analytics, IT infrastructure, and systems development, as well as business and operational experts. This means that organizational leaders need to ensure that traditional silos don’t hinder advanced analytics efforts, and they must support the training required to build skills across their workforces [6].

What does your reskilling/upskilling plan looking like?


[1] The Future Jobs Report 2020

[2] 2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future

[3] New Research Shows Explosive Growth in Corporate Learning: Our Biggest Challenge? Time

[4] 2020 Workplace Learning Report

[5] These are the top 10 job skills of tomorrow – and how long it takes to learn them

[6] How AI Changes the Rules