ATD Blog

Learning Leaders Find Silver Linings in the Pandemic Chaos

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

In a recent internal ATD Forum pulse poll, 60 percent of respondents said the COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions within their organizations. One of the changes was that employees—those whose jobs allowed it—started working remotely suddenly and without preplanning. As part of myriad other changes, such as entire families sharing space at home and internet bandwidth, the office cubicle began to seem like a luxury. Various other restrictions and concerns related to safety, health, and economics compounded these changes. During this time, most learning and development teams had to pivot to new tasks and different ways of operating. Primarily, they were asked to help their organizations become more efficient at operating in virtual spaces, which included converting in-person learning assets into virtual assets, finding and curating resources to help with employee issues, and using new and different technologies.

As we start to return to a new normal and focus on issues like reboarding employees and limited capacity in offices, those in the learning profession know how important it is to pause from all the pivoting and to learn by reflecting on our experiences. A protocol learning professionals frequently use is a variation of the Kolb Learning Cycle, which highlights the importance of reflection while learning. We use this to pose questions such as:

  • What are the pros and cons from this experience?
  • What are your takeaways?
  • What are your lessons learned?
  • What will you do differently tomorrow because of this experience?

As we engaged with Forum members during the COVID-19 pandemic this spring and saw what they were doing and sharing with others, we realized while this triage and survival period created hardships and discomfort, there were many silver linings. So once again, we polled Forum members for tips, tools, techniques, and lessons learned to aid in this new normal as well as in the process of how to convert learning assets into virtual delivery formats.

Some of the negatives from their experiences could be expected. Because of various reasons ranging from inexperience to a need for speed or clunky technologies, there were inconsistencies in conversion design and delivery. For example, there is a tendency to just “lift and shift” a session from a face-to-face format to virtual format, especially if the executives are pushing just to “get it out of the door!” This means taking the PowerPoint deck online and, at best, having a lecture with some discussions, and, at worst, just having the slides with audio. Another challenge with virtual delivery is the difficulty of actual practice, observation, and feedback on skills. Thus, for skills-based training, time-to-competency is longer with virtual training. And, as expected, the delivery method can easily be driven by the functionality of the existing technology, not designed for what the learner needs and how it best meets their needs.

However, even with all the drawbacks, there were many silver linings as well as opportunities to reap great rewards from these ideas and enhance learning going forward. One of the big takeaways for many of the Forum members was the ability to fast-track the development of some new virtual offerings; this was seen by 80 percent of Forum respondents. Many members reported plans to move to more virtual learning assets. Several things contributed to the ability to ramp-up production or fast-track those already in the queue. First was survival—it was the only way to continue, and those executives who had not been open to virtual training were faced with necessity and urgency. Also, most of the organizations in the survey already had a formal process in place for conversion. This was a rethinking of the entire learner experience, not a lift and shift. These companies were able to use this standard process or made modifications to it.


A second silver lining was the increased skills learning leaders gained in technical applications, one of the critical professional elements of the new ATD Capability Model. Seventy percent of respondents said they were experimenting with more technologies. Besides an increased awareness of the plethora of technologies available, learning leaders found themselves experimenting with new apps like Miro for brainstorming. Because they were called on to advise others, they realized the need to learn in the moment. They took advantage of commercial on-demand virtual training and informal postings and groups to learn how to use these technologies at the point of need.

Another silver lining was the various open source and free resources available for tips, techniques, and general help with managing the learning processes. These were gathered and shared by professional associations, vendors, consultants, and thought leaders like Elliott Masie. Additionally, there was the more expansive and private sharing within closed-membership groups like the ATD Forum.


Expanding the curation process to produce content more quickly was another hidden aspect of the pandemic. Many survey respondents did selective or limited curation prior to 2020, but the pandemic demanded the expansion and use of curated learning assets.

Another silver lining that surfaced was exemption testing, which has the potential to save the employee time and the L&D team money. Still another was user-generated learning assets, which subject matter experts use to generate large amounts of content and extends the bandwidth of L&D teams.

As leaders, L&D professionals learned about themselves and became more aware of how they operate. By mid-April many were experiencing video fatigue. Others yearned for the social engagement of simple watercooler discussions. But all recognized the value of clear communications, frequent interactions with others, and an agile mindset that focuses on respect, trust, openness, empathy, and courage when faced with disruptions such as COVID-19. The goal moving forward is that all L&D teams will intentionally identify silver linings and take time to develop them as opportunities for building enhanced performance capability within their respective organizations.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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