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ATD Blog

The Modern Learning Dance: Pivot, Pause, Pivot

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Navigating through this time of major systems disruption and uncertainty headlined by the COVID-19 pandemic can feel like being on a crowded dance floor. There’s a lot of noise, pressure, and movement, and no matter our position or identities, we’re stumbling and bumping around. Perhaps we try to lift our heads to get perspective. We might feel alone and disheartened or energized and alive with possibility, sometimes all in the same day.

As learning and development leaders and practitioners, we’re finding ourselves catching our breaths, having risen to the challenge of pivoting from face-to-face event-based learning to more distributed, digital modes of delivery. Now we’re pausing and readying ourselves to pivot again, wondering what the future holds for ourselves, our organizations, our professions, and the world.

At a recent ATD Forum ConnectSpark, Dana Koch, team lead at Accenture’s Institute for the Applied Learning Sciences and former chair of the ATD Forum, interviewed Elliot Masie, president of the Masie Center, about what we’ve learned and what learning professionals can anticipate going forward.

Three Phases of Our Lived Experience

"Our field is going to have to changea lot. Not because we're broken but because a lot is broken . . . We can be a big part of helping to shape where it goes.” –Elliot Masie

Masie shared three distinct stages that we’ve experienced:

  • Stage One was a time of universal disruption as we were thrust into an environment for which we had little to no preparation: the COVID-19 pandemic. We experienced disorientation, fear, shock, disbelief, and loss. While managing our personal lives, we scrambled to figure out how to work from home and how to shift critical programs from face-to-face to digital (also known as distributed).
  • Stage Two was awakening to the fact that this situation was going to go on for a while. By this time we figured out how to work remotely and noticed that our jobs and environment had changed. We witnessed (or experienced) job losses and furloughs. There was an acknowledgment of collective exhaustion and the need to give ourselves and others permission to be less productive than usual. We realized that rather than relying on experts, everyone needed to be invited into their own learning process.
  • Stage Three is bifurcated, with some companies partially reopening and many staying digital. “Reboarding” people to an environment that will be different is a hot topic. There’s an opportunity to renegotiate the rules of engagement and how we work with each other. We might think of this time as a baseline, or reference point, for building the agility we need for the future.

What Will Be Different? Evolving Our Field and Ourselves

“We should look at whether the pandemic is the reasonor the acceleratorfor not doing things the old way.” –Elliot Masie

Masie shared several ways in which our field will look different going forward:

The Way We Work: Learning will shift to a global, distributed environment that is more data-driven and there is a daily event where activities are parsed in new and different ways.


Leadership Development: We’ll have more freedom to extend learning beyond the boundaries of a time-bound face-to-face event. Our designs will still focus on content, process, and connection, but the sequencing and activities may be different. There’s an opportunity to make leadership development more behaviorally based (for example, shifting from weekly hourly coaching to daily ten-minute coaching options).

Conferences: In-person large events won’t come back anytime soon; however, local events may happen sooner and could be held in much bigger spaces that are campus-like environments. There’s an opportunity to deconstruct the elements of a conference and imagine stacking them in new ways.

Key Elements of a Conference: content, context, collaboration, community, certification, compliance, commerce, and career

Learning Design: Masie offered five tips for learning designers:

1. Understand what happened to people during the pandemic. How have their needs changed and are they getting the performance and workflow support that they require?

2. Let outcomes drive the design, clarifying, “Do we want people to know it or be able to do it?” and assess what people already know.

3. Masie also noted that we are victims of our own habits, so start from the extreme then back up. For example, what if we were opening a leadership development supermarket? The learner has a shopping cart and can pick and choose what they want.

  • Offer just enough content. Don't pretend that people will retain everything right now.
  • Curate experiences (such as stretch assignment, content, and connections).
  • Use workflow prompts—think GPS when you are driving—rather than working from the assumption that learners need to memorize things.

4. View learning as chunked and modular, building in spaces between modules for practicing and processing.

5. Keep learning going. While events end, design opportunities to keep learning ongoing.

Keep on Pivoting, Adapting, and Pivoting

Looking forward, this time of disruption provides an opportunity to deconstruct and rethink our assumptions about how learning must be delivered.

There are many silver linings inherent in this time. Koch noted that many senior leaders at Accenture report that, with the shift to remote work, they have more facetime with clients now than in the past.

Empathy for learners will be key, along with the ability to adapt to new ways of working that are just emerging. It’s an exciting time to be in learning and development, and this will require a greater willingness to rapidly design, experiment, learn, and iterate.

In Masie’s words, "I can't imagine a time when it was more important, more powerful, and more interesting to be in the learning field than right now at the center of change and the center of opportunity."

About the Author

Kara Laverde is a past chair of the ATD Forum, and is the Principal and Owner of Seattle-based Laverde Consulting. Kara has more than two decades of experience in leadership development, adult learning, and organization development, and is a seasoned consultant, facilitator, curriculum designer, and change leader.

Past experience includes serving as the Deputy Director of Learning and Leadership at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Kara led enterprise-wide leadership and management development, as well as the learning and professional coaching functions.

Kara’s consulting experience is cross-sector, including public, private, non-profit, and philanthropic organizations. Here early career was in social work and she lives the social worker’s mantra of "starting where the client is" in her consulting practice.

Kara has a BA from Smith College and an MSW from the University of Washington.

About the Author

Steve Boyd has been a principal of MacDonald Boyd and Associates (MBA) since 1976. His work focuses on leadership strategy, executive team development, board governance and decision-making, retreat design and facilitation, leadership coaching, strategic planning, organizational assessment, communication skills training, transition and change management, team building, conflict management and negotiation.

Steve was a Fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs from 1982-1984 where his study and research examined public participation in American foreign policy, leadership development and social change. From 1985-1994, he was the founder and President of the Washington Leadership Institute and the Washington Governors' School for Citizen Leadership, a nationally recognized civic leadership program for youth and adults. For seven years he was Executive Director of the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle and prior to that he served as Program Administrator and Director of the Youth Division, City of Seattle's Office of Human Resources.

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Thank you for a very thoughtful perspective on the future of training and development.
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Thank you Kara and Steve for this thoughtful write-up.
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