L & D 2020.
New laws for a changing world.


Let’s start by pausing. By looking back to 2008.  It was a year of bank bailouts after the global financial crash, Beijing stepping up to host the Olympics, and Barack Obama was elected President of the USA. That was 12 years ago.  In another 10  years, we’ll be in 2030 and with the increasing velocity of global change, a lot can happen in a year.

So what’s on the agenda for 2020?

Eradicating poverty and universal literacy are on the agenda for major development organisations like the UN and World Bank, whilst climate change looks set to shape how and where we live and work. In developed economies, the internet of things will touch every element of our days – from when we wake up, to how we connect with colleagues around the world. Meanwhile, The Economist’s What If series imagines a future where independent work has become the norm by 2030 – a future where TaskRabbit has become the first Fortune 500 Company with no employees.

But what does that mean for Learning & Development practitioners?  How do we plan for this level of uncertainty? In this guide, Thrive Partners’ CEO, Pam Bateson shares her insights on the future of work and the future of learning.  Like all forecasts, conditions can change – but this guide sets out to make predictions that are reliable enough to help you take practical action today.


Read on for more on the four laws of L&D 2020:

  • Law 1: Learners will be smarter
  • Law 2: Learners will be less confident 
  • Law 3: Learning will be both laser-focused and everywhere 
  • Law 4: Your C-suite will expect whole-system learning 

Law 1: Learners will be smarter

While estimates vary on the percentage of learners that will be self-employed, there’s consensus that more and more of us will be part of the movement of ‘independent workers’ – to use McKinsey’s term – more commonly described as members of ‘the gig economy’.  One PwC model suggests that as little as 9% of US workers will be directly employed by companies.

So what will this do for learning?   Our view is that a new breed of intelligent learners will emerge. These learners will pull learning. They’ll recognise that staying ahead of the trends and practising the most relevant skills will add competitive advantage in a complex and ambiguous working world that praises know-how above all else.  There is no room for complacency and less space for precedent or privilege in this new economy. Borders and boundaries will become less relevant in a more digitally connected age and playing fields will level – with capability and value for money increasing in relative importance, compared with where you were born or where you studied.

The independent, intelligent learner will also recognise the value of pulling information when required from their peers and connections, as well as from online sources.  We expect learning communities of like-minded experts to emerge, with guru figures offering advice within their tribes of expertise – for a handsome fee, and likely online.  Peer-to-peer learning within large organisations will also become more commonplace for learners left in large organisations. We predict greater pressure on spend and a greater value placed on keeping company IP within the organisation, large businesses are likely to look for technological solutions to ensure that knowledge is passed down from experienced employees to new generations of talent (and, conversely, so that younger employees can reverse mentor leadership teams).

What’s more, technology will also offer a 360-degree learning – across content and experience.  Life and work learning will be seamlessly pulled from connected, wearable tech touchpoints.  Whether it’s pulling data from a screen on a pair of glasses to augment our understanding of the world or using an implantable device to help us monitor our health, learning content will be served up in new and immersive ways to the curious.

Read more on the ways in which content will be served up in part 3 of this report.

Law 2: Learners will be less confident

The Intelligent learner may sound like a dream, but with them comes a new set of challenges. With the uncertainty around where their next pay packet comes from, these learners will have to learn how to deal with uncertainty, necessitating resilience in a near-constant state of insecurity. Coupled with this, the new generation of workers have been named as the ‘most anxious’ generation. In this context, learning teams will need to find new ways to support and develop the soft skills needed for a tougher, more ruthless learning environment.  There are a few ways to do this, but most involve keeping human-to-human engagement in predominantly digital ways of learning. While robots and AI will get increasingly good at listening and responding to complex human states, 2020 is unlikely to offer substitutes for reassurance, comfort, encouragement or laughter in the learning processes.

Finding ways to mimic safer and more familiar ways of classroom learning is likely to play a part in this.  Using some of the familiar tropes of conventional training, such as role playing and group, work will give under confident learners the opportunity to exchange ideas in a way that feels more comfortable.

In this new era of intelligent learners, two big audiences might need special attention.

In a world where more and more of us are likely to work remotely, extroverts will need to find new ways to bounce ideas around and vocally connect with each other to stay energised.

Based on current analysis, women may also need a new kind of learning support as they reinvent themselves and their careers in the gig economy. Early research from the RSA states that they are much more likely to return to conventional contracts after dipping a toe in the gig economy.


Law 3: Learning will be both laser-focused and everywhere

Where corporate learning and development functions remain, their role will change significantly. Following the lead of our colleagues in marketing, we’ll move beyond the realms of content manufacture and curation, and into the realm of personalised, predictive content distribution.

This will be made possible with increasing volumes of ‘digital exhaust’ – the trails we leave behind from emails, online meetings, card swipes, and phone taps – which will be recognised as increasingly valuable.

As we become more comfortable and consenting that this kind of data exchange is part of the contract with the places we work (whether permanent or casual), employers are offered new potential to micro target learning interventions at individuals. This shift is, in part, driven by what’s possible with new technologies.  In the same way that Amazon or  Spotify recommend new content based on behaviours and action, learning management systems will offer tailored advice that goes beyond role, seniority and function – taking their cues from the questions we ask each other in meetings or over email; how confident we appear on video calls, or how our behaviour has affected others’ potential or productivity.

This emerging potential is, crucially, based on the actions taken and the results achieved by individuals – rather than their perceived needs or demands – which is good news for everyone. Employees will only see the learning content that is truly relevant and useful. For L&D teams, the long-held lament that people want “more development” will be flipped on its head as employers increasingly demand “more development” on the specific topics that drive the business forward or inhibit performance.

This new paradigm for surfacing content based on user behaviour will be matched with new opportunities to surface the content.  Smart screens will be everywhere by 2030 – in eyeglasses, on coffee machines – which will present more and more opportunities to offer seamless moment of microlearning as we go about our daily business.  Indeed, in my recent trip to visit the Innovation Hub in Dubai, I was impressed by their vision that all manual jobs be delivered by machines so that humans could be left to create, design and build.


By 2030, success will be measured in new and different ways. Provision of services will still count, but adoption will be the key metric. And the real test of great L&D interventions?  Stickiness. In other words, how many people use it and how long do they stay with it?


Law 4: Your C-suite will expect whole-system learning.

Insights and data won’t just help your teams and your learners. As your C-suite becomes more data-savvy, they’ll expect each function to use data and analytics to create a dialogue between the boardroom and business – with the goal of ongoing, incremental improvements.

So what does this mean in for L&D practitioners – and for CHROs more widely?

For starters, it’ll mean going beyond trait and state indicators – indicators that identify demographic or attitudinal factors, or that isolate thoughts or feelings at a point in time – and look to more relational indicators.  As HBR describes, finding ways to spot identify your rock stars and flight risks, your hub teams and your silos, will become increasingly important. In short, they will demand more from the types of insights and analytics generated by your business.

These relational indicators are likely to emerge from more of the real actions and interactions used to create micro-targeted learning programmes for individuals, but which will also help large organisations to understand their culture. As natural language processing improves, more of these insights are likely to be leveraged from real conversations that happen during L&D interventions (as well as through other everyday conversations).  With developments in AI and Machine Learning, it won’t be long before we can train machines to identify learning needs, communications needs, wellbeing indicators and employee engagement – from both verbal and non-verbal clues.

Doing this presents a few challenges for big organisations – the biggest being connectivity of the systems used to generate board-quality cultural insights.

This new emphasis on connected systems brings with it an equal and opposite force though: the need for greater humanity in offering learning.  A good leadership team will balance the use of data with the things they sense the culture needs intuitively. Thinking and feeling will be prized equally when defining learning programmes – with an increased emphasis on creating the right conditions for creativity, big-picture problem solving and entrepreneurship.


To paraphrase an old saying, time and technology wait for no one.

While lots of these possibilities seem like far away, fringe ideas, each and every one is being worked on by teams around the world as you read this.

If you’re not designing a future proof L&D strategy now, you’re already too late.


At Thrive Partners, we’re already creating the L&D landscape of 2030.

If you’d like to chat more about any of the issues in this white paper, we’d love to explore them with you.