Disruptive changes are leading companies towards restructuring their business models and driving rapid alterations to their performance management system, policies and procedures, workforce planning as well as learning and development. Such a change often requires re-shifting the workforce in a new direction to be able to adjust to the new reality. With new job demands, a new set of skills is needed. So how are organizations dealing with reskilling and upskilling their employees to meet these new requirements? A study by the World Economic Forum finds that employees will need an average of one hundred and one days of reskilling and upskilling in the period leading to 2022. On average, the shelf life of a skill is less than five years and soft skills have been identified as the skills of the future. They transcend individual jobs and cannot be replaced by automation, digitalization and artificial intelligence. Despite the misconception that L&D budgets will be eliminated, a study by IE University showed that only 25% of organizations will reduce L&D budget post-COVID-19 and only 5% will redeploy their L&D staff, whereas 57% will focus on new critical business initiatives. Today, many organizations are undergoing a restructuring process leading them to go digital and create new job descriptions for certain employees. From a learning perspective, it’s important for the heads of departments, especially those in executive management, sales, marketing, and HR, to know the parameters of manpower planning like the number of personnel, different types of skills, time period, etc. to be able to assess the efficiency of their current structure and what kind of gap exists that needs to be filled. This is where upskilling and re-skilling play their role. Upskilling initiatives target workers who are in thriving or stable fields, but need additional training to remain relevant or to advance in their existing company or industry i.e. the marketer who needs to learn how to use new digital tools or the engineer who needs to master a new coding language. This kind of training is moving from on-site training, conferences, or full-length courses to bite-sized digital learning. Upskilling is also expanding from its roots in compliance-based learning and development to encompass broader learning, such as systems thinking, data analysis, and digital skills. A great example of that is Guardian Life Insurance Company which recognized its need to increase the skills of its professional workforce to make the most of new technologies, such as Fitbit monitors and car sensors, that are generating data on health and habits that can help insurance companies more precisely calculate risk. The company partnered with General Assembly, a digital skills provider, to upskill actuaries through short workshops and intensive boot camps. Similarly, Coursera is leveraging its platform to allow companies, the likes of Google, IBM, Cisco, BCG, and PwC, to develop courses and certificates that teach everything from block chain to leadership. Reskilling programs, on the other hand, are designed for workers who need to move into an entirely new type of job and career. They don’t just need additional skills; they need entirely new ones. This type of training often happens after an employee has been laid off but, increasingly, employers are investing in it as a way to avoid layoffs and costly hiring initiatives. AT&T, for example, has invested heavily in analyzing its workforce and retraining employees according to expected growth areas. The company’s research showed that only about half of its 250,000 employees had the necessary science, technology, engineering and math skills, and around 100,000 workers were performing hardware-related work that would likely be obsolete in 10 years. Rather than hire a whole new workforce, the company invested $1 billion in a multi-year initiative that features a career center, online courses, and collaborations with Coursera, Udacity and leading universities. Walmart, as another example, provides two to six-week training academies in advanced retail skills designed to help employees move into new jobs in the company. It recently announced a new effort to help its employees retrain for healthcare jobs, as the company begins rolling out primary care clinics across the country. In McKinsey & Company’s “Scaling rapid workforce conversion during COVID-19” report, they reference the financial-services industry as a great example of how management can rapidly train employees to perform critical, time-sensitive tasks at scale. The United States Congress formed the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in response to the distressing effects of COVID-19 on small businesses. Organizations hardly had a few days to train bankers, underwriters, loan processors and loan closers to handle loans linked to the program. Employees were required to answer intricate questions about the program. They also had to learn and how to fill out the forms required to process loans while working remotely. So how did they manage to achieve this in such a short period of time? Practical learning experience:
  1. The Why: Remind learners why their task is both critical and important. In the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) example, loan officers are not only authenticating payroll data and filling out forms. They are executing a vital service that permits businesses’ survival.
  2. Concision and Clarity: In the PPP example, loan officers are required to describe the application process in a simple manner, and implement the terms and conditions of the loan that usually relate to the majority of business owners. They are also expected to be able to answer a set of frequently asked questions and identify a loan application’s status. Designing the training for this would require defining the list of essential tasks to be performed while cutting out unnecessary tasks, then, monitoring performance and fine-tuning the to-do-list to better equip the following round of learners.
  3. Simulation: In the PPP design, loan officers had only a few days to catch up. To speed up their learning, leaders would simulate real-life experiences. Some methods to apply this include the use of case studies and role-play to prepare for complex technical and interpersonal circumstances.
Once employees have been integrated into their new role, an on-the-job support system will act as a key differentiator in rapid-scale workplace-skilling conversion. In order to implement this, a tailor-made learning experience is advisable and can be done through the following steps:
  1. Identifying the essential skills that will have the biggest impact
  2. Creating the right atmosphere for on-the-job learning
  3. Providing support tools whether through digital platforms or through a designated committee.
  4. Communicating transparently about the importance of each role being played.
Tools and techniques that can be used to encourage an on-the-job support system include:
  • A user-friendly online guideline on jargon, acronyms, terms and conditions, FAQs, and other useful data.
  • An online platform for discussing issues faced and how they were resolved.
  • An alert system for important updates.
  • A designated committee that provides support and coaching.
Now that the tools and techniques are in place, what about the cost-effectiveness of learning in times of uncertainty and tight budgets? Blended learning includes a mix of face-to-face learning solutions, on-the-job learning and online solutions. In a study led by researchers at the University of Iowa, over 95% of students who were enrolled in blended courses earned a grade of C- or higher, compared to 82% of students in lecture-only courses and 81% in online-only courses. Improved learning isn’t the only benefit of a blended learning approach. Blended learning does require instructors, but it requires less of their time, which helps save costs on travel fees, instructor expenses and training materials. Learners also gain real-time access to training, so they can review it whenever they need to, which helps organizations retain productivity. These benefits mean that training costs will decrease while training effectiveness increases. During these times of uncertainty, many companies have demonstrated a remarkable amount of agility when it comes to redeploying their teams. Companies that can apply rapid workforce conversion to adjust to the evolving market needs will be better situated to navigate through disruptive changes and will have a brighter recovery path. For that reason, learning and development should not be cast aside as an unnecessary investment, but rather used in the most efficient manner to sustainably equip the workforce with essential skills needed to thrive.  

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