September 2020

Guiding Learning Teams in the Time of COVID

By Mary Ann Herny

Summary. Learning leaders face unique challenges in today’s business environment. The need is greater to meet learners where they arebudgets are tighter, and emotions are high for learning teams adjusting to new workplace norms. Leaders need to find ways to turn challenges into opportunities. More importantly, they need to make sure that their teams, and the learners they serve, are helped and encouraged to do the same.  


  • Learning budgets are at risk as companies react to the economic reality of COVID-19 
  • Even the most creative leaders may be feeling unprepared to meet current needs 
  • Both learning teams and learners face uncertainty 
  • Learning leaders have options when working with lower training budgets 
  • Learning leaders may create lasting change today 

Introduction. In the past few months, leaders in all industries and at all levels have had their work cut out for them. The current disruptions in our workplace environments, and the resulting impact on employees, have created unprecedented challenges, and learning leaders are in the eye of the storm. Even the most stable learning organizations may be seeing changes in their workload, their budgets, their methods, and their teams. For smaller organizations with fewer resources, the challenges may be even more profound, and their very existence may be at risk. 

The Center for Creative Leadership website makes a timely and relevant point: 

 “Leadership is a journey that never stops… and the organizations that can evolve, adapt, and turn challenges into opportunities will be the ones who thrive in the world that comes next.” 

Many of us in leadership positions want to think of ourselves as forward-thinking (we all describe ourselves as innovative in our resumés). However, even the most creative leaders may be feeling unprepared for current needs.  

Surveying the challenge for learning leaders. While challenges vary for different organizations, three challenges are particularly prevalent among our clients and partners.  

  1. Shrinking budgets. By far this is the most common concern we’ve been hearing about. In many years of working in this industry, one truth seems to be self-evident – when times get tough, training budgets are often among the first to be cut. We’re not alone in this appraisal. Earlier this summer (June 11, 2020)Human Resources consultant, Ed Krowcautioned in an article for Forbes that now is not the time to cut training budgets. And yet more recently (August 3, 2020), Gallup Speakers Bureau member and executive coach, Vibhas Ratanjee, offers training solutions to consider after budgets are cut. As the economy contracts, so will discretionary spending – a category that unfortunately is often where learning teams find themselves pigeonholed. The impact of having to do more (a lot more) with less is going to be significant, because the need to help employees adapt to new and evolving roles, and the training that will be required, is not going to lessen – it will increase.  
  2. Addressing fear. This is a three-pronged challenge – fear exists among learning teams themselvesAm I going to keep my job? Can I adapt in the ways needed? Will I be asked to do more than I am capable of? Fear also exists, to a degree, among learning buyers, who may be unsure how to get the best value out of a shoe-string budget. Finally, it exists, insidiously, in the learner population, which affects both what we teach and how we teach it. Learners are dealing with a lot of uncertainty in both their personal and professional lives. It’s critical for us to be aware of and think about that, and to do what we can in each learning opportunity to move people from fear to confidence in their abilities to deal with change 
  3. The need for creativity. Dealing with each of these challenges is going to require new ways of thinking and working, and the ability to do some agile problem-solvingComfortable routines and standard methods are not likely to be enough to fully meet the coming needsCreativity in how we design instruction has never been more important – it is our best defense and should be our primary focus going forward. 

Dealing with reduced budgets. There have always been options that learning leaders can control when working with lower training budgets. Thinking about the possible variables is a great start as you strategize ways to help your team adapt to reduced funding.  

  • Controlling length. Give thought to what is truly necessary for learningBeing asked to work with reduced budget gives us an opportunity to really focus content, making sure that learners get exactly what is needed to support their performance – no more, and no less.  We can also reframe the design so that less critical information is moved to reference documents or future phases of training. Keep active training time limited to the most complex, important, and frequently needed topics. 
  • Reusing existing content. For years, we have been hearing about the benefits of curated content, yet I have seen only a few projects that really use existing content well. If ever there was a time to ask your instructional designers not to recreate the wheel, this is it. Start every project by looking at what already exists, and how that work can be leveraged. Through the internet, social media, and industry blogs, there has never been more information so readily available – help your team learn the art of curation. 
  • Blending in low-tech solutions. Sometimes designers become so enamored with a spiffy technique or technology that they are unwilling to consider anything simpler. In today’s environment, we need to consider whether costly solutions are really needed. Simple documents and presentations may be enough for some learning, and may, in fact, be better choice, as they will be easier to maintain and can be developed much more quickly at a time when changes are frequent and needs are fluid.  
  • Inviting greater involvement from learning customers. There are real advantages in helping organizations to more actively participate in their own training delivery. While some customers cringe at the thought of peer-to-peer training, it is, in fact, how most people learn, most of the time. Finding ways to harness this preference with a robust toolkit and a welldeveloped team of coachessupervisors, or learning cohorts can give employees a greater sense of ownership in their own learning experience, and helps develop better teamwork, accountability, interaction and growth. It can also uncover real training talent that may be hiding in the group, waiting for a chance to blossom. 

Overcoming the fear factor. Briljent has long believed that learning is an emotional journey, and that we must manage learner emotions if new knowledge and skills are to take root. It is why our analysis process often starts with identifying the emotional needs and situation of the learner population.  

When dealing with apprehensive learners, it can be useful to borrow techniques from organizational change management practitionersOCM specialists use a set of tools and actions that are designed specifically to alleviate the fear and resistance that occur when change is imminentTeam members with OCM experience can assist with readiness assessments, impact assessments, stakeholder engagement and communications planning. Frequent, honest, and inclusive communication is especially important. 

Inspiring new focus and new ideas. One of my college professors described design as creative problem-solving within fixed parameters. Fundamentally, instructional designers do exactly thatThe parameters we normally think about, however, are evolving, and our learning customers are asking new questions: 

  • “I am losing critical tribal knowledge. How can I keep my team performing with fewer, less experienced employees?”
  • “Our workflow process is being completely revamped. How can I get this information out to my team as quickly as possible?” 
  • “What if we can’t meet face to face? How can I show employees what I need? How can I make sure they get it and verify they understand? 
  • How can I keep my team engaged remotely? What can we do to build team camaraderie and get them working together? 
  • “Resources are being reallocated to other areas of need. What can I do to ensure that learning and development is still happening and is successful?” 

Learning leaders need to get their teams thinking now about the new questions that are being posed and how to address them. Leaders also need to be willing to consider, test and support new ideas. Not all will be effective, but those that are successful can energize your team and create new avenues and options for the next opportunity.  

Creating lasting change. What we do now echoes in eternity. Marcus Aurelius had it right. This time is going to impact our work and our team members for years to come. As we adopt and adapt, some, and maybe many, of the new and creative learning approaches we invent now will gain traction in the community with other learning professionalsIt’s not likely that hard-won cost saving approaches will be thrown out once more funding becomes available for training initiatives. They may, instead, gain broader acceptance in business sectors where training timeframes and budgets have traditionally been shorter and slimmer, thereby improving the learning experience even in places where there are fewer dollars and less time available.  

For learning leaders, this is a time when greater creativity will expand our options and increase the potential value of our work and the work of our teams. My hope is that as a community we will reach out to each other, share ideas, and pull through this time together, truly turning these challenges into opportunities from which we, and our learners, can all benefit. 



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