2021 Trends in Learning and Development

Vincent Romano

Vincent Romano

Senior Consultant

Learning and development, like all other corporate functions, has experienced enormous upheaval since the pandemic struck. This has required a complete rethink, not only regarding the topics that organisations need delivered, but how these programs are structured, how they are delivered and how the role of the company’s leadership team in learning and development is viewed.

With all this disruption taking place it can be difficult to make sense of what is happening, especially as the pace of change has increased dramatically since the pandemic began with organisations consistently evolving and implementing new solutions to manage the change. Therefore, to establish what the latest trends and best practice in Learning, Arcadia surveyed a sample of our clients and our network of Associates, as well as conducting our own research and receiving input from our Partners and Consultants across our Global offices. Here is what we found –

The Role of the Business Leader

The role of the business leader is becoming increasingly important in all learning and development activities. We are used to leaders being involved as program champions to help kick off or close out longer, over arching programs by providing business insights, setting goals, and motivating the program participants. However, learning and development is receiving a much higher profile during the pandemic, particularly as it is often seen as a vehicle to help bring employees together and supporting entrenchment of the organisation’s culture.

As a result, business leaders are increasingly looked upon to role model capability and help embed a culture of continuous improvement. It is expected that leaders demonstrate that they are open and share how they too are evolving in their personal leadership style. Central to this, is the expectation that leaders should show their human sides, by sharing personal anecdotes that their teams can understand, empathise, and relate to.

Structure of Learning Programs

With increased focus on learning and development, there comes more scrutiny on the structure of programs to ensure they are a success. Learning programs cannot simply be a tick box exercise to ensure that organisations can be seen to be developing staff. Instead, learning programs must be structured to help create and support a culture of learning. They need to be more customised to the individual learner’s capabilities and they must provide practical opportunities to implement the skills learned – this is particularly important to younger generations of employees who are looking for hands-on opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities. We are also seeing learning outcomes being tied to tangible improvements in performance such as revenue growth and quality improvement or to employee satisfaction scores.

Meanwhile, there is a definite trend for learning to become more bite sized and modular based so that learners can consume the content anytime, anywhere. Typically, we are seeing learning programs being structured so that initially the learner reads and watches content or completes an assessment before moving into an instructor led program containing individual or group-based exercises, receives coaching and/or mentoring and then applies the skills learned with work based projects, simulations or case studies.

The Purpose of Training

Not only are leaders at the top expected to champion learning programs, but the purpose of the learning program also starts at the top. Increasingly we are seeing training programs being linked directly to the mission or the purpose of the organisation itself. Also, programs are expected to embody company values and will relate to the development of the core competencies identified by the organisation to achieve success. Specifically, we are seeing a focus on the development of digital competencies.

Meanwhile there is an increasing emphasis on learning outcomes that will increase productivity, particularly where there has been cost cutting measures implemented or budget freezes.

While learning programs are frequently quoted as one of the principal “use cases” for returning to the office, the pandemic has also led to a general renewed commitment to upskill or reskill employees. Learning is also being used as engagement tool, either to excite or indeed retain employees, which is a particular issue in the current climate as organisations battle “The Great Resign” where resignations are blighting attempts by companies to revive their businesses.

The Impact of Technology

The current pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on learning and how this is delivered. Technology has been central to this and has accelerated the use and impact of technology accordingly. Clearly technology has been an enabler of remote learning, but it has also enabled micro learning – where learning is delivered daily in modular, bite sized chunks.

Indeed, research has shown that microlearning has 17% more efficient knowledge transfer by focusing on the bare minimum learning. Even with Arcadia we have found technology indispensable as we quickly pivoted our programs to digital formats which has been typical across all training organisations converting traditional instructor led learning into online accessible modules.

Technology has also supported the gamification of training and interestingly, studies have shown that 100% of employees will undertake take the microlearning if there is a game involved. Meanwhile, other technological developments in learning include virtual or augmented reality to immerse the learner and adaptive learning, where the curricula unfolds differently depending on how the participant performs.

Learning Topics

Undoubtedly, we are experiencing a strong demand for learning and development solutions and given the wide variety of reasons for these demands, whether COVID-19 related, transformation based, or technology related, there is also a wide variety of topics that companies are requesting. Some of the programs are a continuation of trends we saw before the pandemic while some are a direct consequence of its affects.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Programs – this has probably been the area we have seen the greatest increase in demand. Unsurprisingly, the US and then UK have been the locations where we have seen the most requests, however this is making its way to Asia and increasingly is coming under into the spotlight. There is a realisation that DEI training will not be a quick fix and will need to form part of a broader culture change project. Therefore, such DEI topics are also making their way into the themes of other learning programs such as leadership or hybrid working solutions.

Leadership Development – this is taking various forms, from general High Potential Leadership Development Programs to Asian Leadership and Woman in Leadership programs. One very particular area which is refreshing to see is the demand for Women in Leadership programs specifically for STEMs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Hybrid Working – this is another topic that is in high demand, and again we are seeing interest levels increase in the Far East. Initially demand was in US an UK given these locations returned to the office sooner, while Asia is very much in the planning stages.  This topic also references how to collaborate with organisations and includes culture and wellbeing programs.

Change Management – given that so many companies are transforming themselves, there is a high demand for change management learning looking at everything from internal processes to the employee experience and the customer experience. On a related note, companies are increasingly conducting design thinking workshops or courses on innovation.

Resilience – predominantly because of the pandemic, resilience training has been growing in demand. This can also include including adaptivity, wellbeing, and mental fortitude topics.

Communication – this has been a staple of learning curricula for a long time whether this is presentation skills, personal branding, or executive presence programs. However, one of the most popular programs at Arcadia has been for Digital Presence learning as companies quickly pivoted to Zoom meetings. Meanwhile, we have also seen an increase in data driven story training programs.

Executive Coaching – although this could be defined as coaching in general as it is no longer only senior executives who are receiving coaching sessions. Meanwhile, as organisations seek to embed learning to ensure knowledge transfer and demonstration of skills, we are seeing coaching workshops become an integral part of wider overarching leadership programs and can be conducted on a one-to-one basis or as a “coaching circle” with a small group.

Strategic Narrative – these programs involve strategic thinking, aligning leadership teams and creating high performing executive teams. Again, demand for these programs are a consequence of organisations transforming themselves as a consequence of the pandemic.


The current global pandemic hijacked the business world and exposed it to major disruption and increasing the levels of uncertainty. We all had to quickly adapt to newer and challenging ways of working, mostly from the confines of our homes!

Four key trends, technologies, and strategies for to consider include:

Learning is Culture and Culture is Learning – learning is one of the main tools organisations are using to build culture, and this is being embedded top down, with leaders championing programs and programs reinforcing the mission and purpose of the organisation

Technology – while some countries are opening up, travel is still complicated to say the least. Tech enabled programs will continue to be a necessity while organisations are embracing more sophisticated uses of technology in all facets of programs

Leadership – probably the biggest demand we see is for leadership programs – whether that be at Executive levels, for High Potentials or for Women in Leadership and Asian Leaders Programs.

Change – the other main theme for programs is change related, whether instilling Agile methods of working, supporting innovative practices or creating change mindsets

If you would like further information on this topic please get in touch with Vincent at vincent.romano@arcadiaconsulting.com.

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