Upskilling the L&D Function in 2020

As I build the necessary capabilities within my own start-up learning organization, I’ve been giving regular thought to the people and skills that I will not only need today, but also with the future in mind. How will the learning and development function continue to take shape in the months and years to follow? I’ve spent well over a decade in vendor and corporate environments designing and growing L&D teams of various scope and size, all of which have presented interrelated challenges with some common themes:

  • Fortifying foundational L&D roles and responsibilities on a continuous basis (the business as usual work)
  • Standing up new, specialized knowledge and skills in step with emerging business requirements and trends
  • Managing moments of accelerated growth (or decline) and unpredictable resourcing disruption and budget constraints

In just about every L&D team structure I’ve been a part of, the key was maintaining a unique blend of high-performing professionals (generalists and specialists) who could drive the necessary skill sets to run the core L&D function, but also evolve high-value capability, innovation, and solution agility to the business in parallel.

This past January, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) launched an update to their Talent Development Capability Model™. Their last release was 2013, which falls into their multi-year cycle of updating, but was arguably long overdue given the rapid transformation we’ve seen in the talent and learning industry in just the last few years. There’s plenty to absorb across the model’s three domains and 23 capabilities, many of which resonate with my own experiences noted above and align well to previously forecasted capability gaps (see topic #10 in this list). The accompanying book provides useful examples for using and applying this new model within your organization.

The fundamental shift in the latest ATD approach is moving from a current state of knowledge and skills model (competencies) to an integration of knowledge and skills, but with adaptability to future needs (capabilities). The model used extensive research to help predict what specific capabilities L&D will need to be successful in the next few years and beyond, but clearly, we are all going to need to flex and pivot along the way. This updated framework seems purposely designed to be calibrated and applied incrementally based on the L&D function’s relative scope and maturity in support of its larger organizational strategy and growth model.

With the mounting pressure of upskilling a diverse workforce in constant transformation, it is L&D who can’t afford to fall behind in upskilling themselves. As you align this new framework across your own team architecture, here are a few thoughts for consideration:

  • Objectively measure your team’s current state capability before upskilling in new areas. There’s merit in executing a thorough analysis to assess current competencies and proficiency levels while also uncovering where future capability gaps may exist. Collecting candid feedback from the people who live and breathe the work, day in and day out, can reveal unexpected yet meaningful insights. I have also found it very valuable to integrate any and all historical team project data that validates current state activity and patterns to get a complete picture of the actual work your team performs, and how that work is getting done. Are the right levels of people doing the right level of work? It’s not difficult to quantify this activity, but I’m surprised by how few organizations effectively collect and analyze these types of metrics.
  • Introduce relevant applicant pools. If you’re looking to add external talent to address new capability, some of the emerging skill sets are often born from non-Talent/L&D disciplines. Many CLOs are already transforming their teams by injecting capabilities from outside the learning industry or reaching across to internal business process and support areas to share capability. This requires more intentional planning with HR recruiting and sourcing partners on where to find the right talent with practical experience.
  • Design realistic, targeted job roles. I recently performed some simple research on job postings in the L&D space within a specific industry. In short, I’ve uncovered numerous job descriptions that are often all-inclusive of today’s needs AND tomorrow’s expectations, and I really question if you can find qualified individuals with this vast array of specialized skill sets with notable experience. Job descriptions can often become cumulative over time in reaction to skill trends and can lose alignment to an optimal, sustainable team operating model and role structure.
  • Introduce new skills and capabilities in an iterative, prudent fashion. This seems obvious enough, but I’d use a measured approach when committing dedicated resources against the latest trends. I’ve seen this happen in organizations with decentralized functions, often resulting in redundancy and conflicting models of practice. There are opportunities to pilot new work activity and curate resources (internally and externally) to first prove out the need and relative demand for activating new capability.

It’s an exciting time in the industry to see how L&D functions will continue invest in people and effectively build enhanced capabilities as identified in this new, comprehensive model. It’s also an important time for L&D professionals to reflect on their current career track and consider the evolving development opportunities to further learn and grow themselves.


ATD. (2020). Talent Development Capability Model. Retrieved from

Josh Bersin. (2017). The Disruption of Digital Learning: Ten Things We Have Learned. Retrieved from

Harvard Business Review. (2020). The Transformer CLO. Retrieved from