Surge in digital learning

ACCORDING TO THE LATEST LEARNING AND SKILLS AT WORK REPORT, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in digital learning. Seven in ten organisations (70%) reported increased digital or online solutions over the last year. More than a third of organisations (36%) have also increased their investment in learning technology in the last year. The report, which surveyed over 1,200 UK organisations, highlights how the learning profession has adapted due to COVID-19 and its disruption to the world of work. 

The switch to a more digital model has gone well, with 77% of organisations saying they’re successfully using learning technology and 69% saying they’re innovating in their use of learning technology. COVID-19 has not just had an impact on the way organisations deliver learning, though, with the report suggesting learning professionals have been prompted to reflect more widely about the future of work:

  • Half (51%) have assessed the impact of automation on roles and how to redeploy talent (up from 40% in 2020)
  • Two thirds (64%) have considered which roles are changing and how to reskill employees (up from 56% in 2020). 

Encouragingly, organisations seem well placed to respond to changes in the world of work, with 81% either agreeing or strongly agreeing they understand the skills in their team and the skills they’ll need for tomorrow.

Red flags for the learning profession

However, the report highlights several red flags for the learning profession, not least that nearly a third have seen their headcount (32%) and budget (31%) decrease in the last year. 

Gains in learning technology may be less clear-cut than it first appears as well. While the use of “basic” digital learning, like webinars, has increased, the use of “sophisticated” digital learning – which can be more accessible, engaging, and effective – has stalled. For example, the proportion of organisations using mobile apps in 2021 (13%) is level with 2020 (12%). This suggests that, for the most part, organisations are transferring their face-to-face content online, and only a minority are making the most of learning technology and its benefits.

The report also finds that learning professionals are not widely using evidence to inform their learning offer. Currently, only 32% say they are proactive in identifying the performance issue before recommending a solution.

“Being able to reskill and redeploy workers during the last year has been essential for individuals and organisations to adapt to changing needs – and for the wider economy. It’s been great to see the learning profession stepping up and delivering, despite many having their budget and headcount reduced. Digital learning done well delivers benefits in building new skills, and the pandemic is catalysing shifts in learning capabilities that are much needed. It has also proven to be a prompt for learning professionals to take stock of other changes coming down the track that they need to be prepared for, particularly in relation to automation. We hope to see the innovation and adaptability they’ve demonstrated over the past year continue as they help individuals and organisations adjust – and excel – in the ever-changing world of work.”

Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development

“This report shows that learning never stops. With all the upheaval of the last year, the need for learning is greater than ever before, with businesses needing both better technology skills and more human ingenuity. People want more growth and development at work, whether they are at home, in the office, or a bit of both. To cope with this, learning professionals have had to reset plans and they should be congratulated on their resilience. This report also provides clear messages for the CEO and other business leaders with clear differences between the ‘haves’, who have good sponsorship, funding and sophisticated learning technology and data – where outcomes have accelerated in the last year – versus the ‘have nots’, who are getting by with reduced funding, limited infrastructure or no professional learning support.”

Andy Young, Managing Director within the Talent & Organisation practice at Accenture

Key findings

  • Around a third of organisations report reductions in budgets, L&D headcount and use of external consultants. Organisations who had been more severely impacted by the pandemic have had to make greater cuts to learning budgets. 
  • Only 18% of organisations think that their learning strategy, investment and resourcing will go back to what it was before the pandemic. 
  • Despite the seismic shift to digital learning, take-up of technologies that have the potential to make learning more engaging and effective, remains low. The proportion using mobile apps, chatbots, VR and AR animations or games is largely unchanged from last year. 
  • Organisations that adopt a more sophisticated approach to technology create a virtuous circle, generating an increased appetite for learning.  
  • Compared with last year, a greater proportion say their learning strategy is aligned with business priorities and the vast majority report that they are clear about the way learning adds value in their organisation. 
  • The switch from traditional forms of learning to digital has in some cases improved the way individuals support each other; there has been a significant upswing in the proportion of organisations saying they develop and maintain a climate of trust, as well as a rise in those that say employees are supporting each other to learn.  
  • Since last year, a greater proportion of organisations say they have assessed the impact of automation and how to redeploy employees affected (51%) as well as how roles are changing and how to reskill to meet these needs (64%).  
  • Organisations are more confident about their ability to address current skills gaps, with 72% reporting that they are able to effectively tackle skills gaps. 
  • While more organisations had online facilitator roles in place, only a minority had design roles, such as learning technologist/product owner (11%), digital asset creator (7%) and instructional designers (11%).  
  • Only a third of L&D professionals say they are proactive in identifying performance issues before recommending a solution, and only a quarter design and make recommendations using evidence-informed principles to address those issues. 


In light of the survey findings, and acknowledging the huge impact of the pandemic on organisations, we set out a number of calls to action for practitioners:

Reflect on what has worked well during the pandemic and what can be adapted to build back better.

Embrace digital innovation – define your technology strategy in line with your learning strategy. Start small and experiment before scaling up.

Co-create organisational value through continued cross-team working and cultivate collaboration between business and learning leaders.

Harness the wider learning environment by agreeing the role of line managers in the L&D context, encouraging peer-to-peer connections and supporting individuals to apply their learning.

Plan for the future skills your people and organisation need. Encourage continual learning, create the clear learning pathways and career choices.

Be evidence-based: define your desired outcomes, engage key stakeholders, gather evidence and measure learning impact on performance.

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