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Are skills the new currency of L&D?

Traditional notions of what someone needs to know or demonstrate in the workplace are usually rooted in a job description. The duties are specific, siloed within a team or department, and relatively unchanging over time. Training for that role, naturally, follows suit.

But this way of thinking about learning and development is no longer sustainable. Today, people are navigating no less than a fundamental change in what it means to be a part of a workforce. A sweeping movement towards the automation of roles and functions, economic volatility, and a truly global marketplace that has increased both the intensity of competition and the pace of change has left many to wonder where their future lies. The answer is often uncertain.

What we do know, however, is that organizations and individuals alike must remain agile and adaptable if they are to meet tomorrow’s challenges successfully. The best way to do that is through the development of skills that keep you competitive. A highly skilled workforce is more resilient in the face of change and most equipped to seize the moment when an opportunity presents itself. In turn, learning and development that fosters skills acquisition can no longer be beholden to job titles –  skills are about what you need to do next, not what you’ve already done. 

Why weren’t skills ‘currency’ before the pandemic?

The pandemic has compounded the urgency with which the workforce has adopted a “skills-first” approach to professional development. Seemingly overnight, it was no longer enough to acknowledge the importance of prioritizing skills development without actually doing something about it.

The rise of remote work, mass closures and reorgs, and phenomena like “the great resignation” or the “she-cession” have demonstrated just how quickly the working world can change and force our collective hand. As overwhelming as the change can feel, it can’t be forgotten that in change lies opportunity. Developing skills that take change head-on will determine who thrives in a new landscape. 

How can organizations unlock the ‘value’ of skills?

L&D can no longer focus on preparing its workforce to fulfill the duties in its job descriptions. The goal now is to unlock the full potential of their people. Unlocking the potential of people is how to move beyond discussing L&D as a cost center to harnessing its unique ability to make the extraordinary happen: a highly skilled workforce with little turnover. New competitive advantages. Organizational goals achieved.

The best way for L&D to accomplish its new goal is to adopt the same principles that have been asked of the workforce – agility and adaptability. A vision for learning – one consistent with the unique goals, objectives, and use cases of the organization – is critical to charting a viable course. But when that vision evolves – when the next Big Idea comes along – L&D must be prepared to evolve along with it. 

How important is investing in upskilling?

You’ll have heard people talk about a VUCA business environment before; Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. The pandemic has taken the idea of what we once thought was VUCA and knocked it into fifth gear. Businesses are pivoting left and right to adapt their models and catch up to whatever the world throws at them. Hotels that you can’t stay at, pubs you can’t drink in, banks you can’t visit.

Trying to match the skill requirements of whatever today’s ‘go-to market’ strategy entails, with what incumbent talent can deliver, is an enormous challenge. It leaves massive gaps between what we need people to do and what people are currently capable of doing. 

Whilst traditionally we’d have looked to hire people to help bridge the gap, many job markets are impossibly hot right now. A combination of macroeconomic pressure and very high demands for certain skills has created enormous inflationary pressure on the job market. We’re seeing certain roles demand in excess of 30% base salary more than that same role would have commanded 12 months ago. That’s almost impossible to keep up with for any length of time – especially when hiring new employees at a high cost brings the added pressure to raise pay to fair and equal levels for loyal staff.

Looking instead at building your organizational ability to retrain, upskill and re-position staff through the business, is the next logical step. If we’ve got an excess of people in one area, and a drought in another, there’s a clear need to redress that balance.

And, the great thing about reskilling is that people don’t just forget where they came from; you develop a workforce with a strong set of skills that can be deployed in a range of situations – for whenever the world turns again and you pivot back to where you came from!

How can data analytics help?

Data plays a crucial role in understanding where your organizational strengths lie. By understanding the skills of your people and mapping them back against the organization’s strategy, you can create a powerful skills gap analysis that can guide the executive team in their decision-making processes. If we’re woefully short in a skill area that the go-to-market plan called for, that’s a good reason to look at the strategy again. Equally, a deeper dive into the analytics of learning can uncover which tactics help improve time to competency in a given area fastest.

It’s not enough to just know where you are strong or weak as a company; you need to know the levers you can pull to quickly upskill and retrain the workforce without wasting time and energy on initiatives that don’t close the gaps. 

How can AI and machine learning help?

Understanding which skills are actually useful ‘on-the-job’ has always been a bit of a dark art. Twenty years ago we spent fortunes on a constant cycle of competency mapping and job descriptions, trying to explicitly capture what made each role tick. But this was always doomed to a never-ending cycle of trying to make the tacit explicit. AI, and specifically Machine Learning, can help us to map and understand the jobs people really do and the underlying skills ontologies that might underpin the work.

By analyzing huge data sets, companies are becoming increasingly capable of determining the common skills and themes that underpin certain job roles and functions. And these sets of skills can adapt and change in real-time; they aren’t a written document like they used to be, they are a model that learns and changes as the work evolves.

*This blog was written in partnership with Sisense.

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