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Re-skilling reality
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The genie is out of the bottle for L&D: It's time to rise to the reskilling challenge

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At a time when reskilling is an imperative and after the years of underinvestment in skills and capabilities, L&D has a responsibility to focus on objective development activities underpinned by evidence.

25th Mar 2022
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Reskilling and upskilling are two of the most popular current buzzwords in L&D. The acceleration of change in response to the global pandemic has had every organisation thinking about how work is done, by whom and the skills needed to perform the tasks needed now. 

Some of this is in direct response to the pandemic and – some may think – short-lived as we ‘return to normal’. Of course, smart organisations recognise that we ain’t ever going back to some rosy hued world pre-Covid. The genie is not only out of the bottle, it has joined a tech start up and now works remotely from its kitchen table!

My theory is that the pandemic suddenly surfaced how variable leaders were in their ability to articulate a vision and motivate people to move towards it

The changes which have led to demand for reskilling have included increased automation, digital transformation, and new customer or service user behaviour, as well as an increase in home working. Couple those with the societal changes which demand organisation focus – diversity, talent availability and  worker burn out – and you have a perfect storm with L&D teams in the eye of it.

Say what?

But are those teams equipped to manage? Not in all cases. And one of the big issues is when we discuss re-skilling. What do we actually mean? 

In technical disciplines or learning new software, then I think we get it right. Take a computer programming language like Python – the backbone of many apps. The process of learning the right sequences and how to build a routine either works or it doesn’t. The learning and the doing are inextricably linked.

The same could be said about data analytics, another often cited area where skills are perceived to be needed. There are a series of statistical processing skills which should be learned to ensure that the analysis produced is supported by – and representative of - the available data.

But when the Fosway Group investigated reskilling in early 2021, the four most important areas where reskilling was necessary (according to the senior HR and L&D folks surveyed) were not in technical skills. They were leadership and management, change management, communications, collaboration and interpersonal skills. In fact, those topics around people skills were perceived to be important or very important by 90% of all respondents.

My theory is that the pandemic suddenly surfaced how variable leaders were in their ability to articulate a vision and motivate people to move towards it. You only had to be subjected to a Zoom recording of the top of a senior team member’s head as they read their notes in a dull monotone to realise that there may be some issues with communication capabilities.

The need for people skills

Paradoxically, questionable levels of employee engagement and terrible change management initiatives became more visible when people were no longer working in one place. Data was all too easily available. The ability of an organisation to recognize and manage upheaval and change was tested – often beyond breaking point. In many cases, when facing the challenges of the Pandemic, we were found wanting.

So, I’m not surprised that people skills top the list for reskilling priorities. But are we ready to meet this challenge? There are two issues that I see.

The first is: what is a skill? When I’m programming Python it is clear – feed the right information into the right software and I have created an app. Hurrah! The feedback on my work performance is intrinsic to the task. It either works or it doesn’t. Not sure how to do something? There are online guides and a community forum. 

But leading teams, interacting with others, managing change – these are skills which don’t come with a user guide. Feedback may come eventually – over time the approach either worked or it didn’t – but by the time we have gained the feedback, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. If things went wrong, there’s usually some other factor beyond our skills which led to the disappointing outcome – deflecting blame after the event is both easy and antithetical to improving performance.

The second thing: how do L&D teams help people to develop leadership, interpersonal and collaboration skills? Often L&D teams talk about subjective or otherwise imprecise terms, such as empathy, emotional intelligence, openness, charisma. None of these are skills. None of them mean exactly the same thing to everyone who hears the words.

Endless videos delivered by motivational speakers with perfect teeth are now considered ‘learning’

The illusion of development

In trying to grasp the wet bar of soap that is the people skills we require, we cling on to the seemingly scientific. In accounts of leadership programmes or interpersonal skills development initiatives, I regularly see reference to profiling tools like DISC, MBTI and others. Most of these are of questionable use at best and thoroughly debunked at worst.

They create the illusion of development, while reinforcing the idea that one’s interpersonal behaviour is somehow fixed, reliant on personal traits alone. Insights into one’s own preferences or foibles may be interesting, but as a route to changing behaviour (which is what reskilling is surely about) they are pretty useless.

The other route is to throw content at people in a quest for self-improvement. Endless videos delivered by motivational speakers with perfect teeth are now considered ‘learning’. When did the video lecture become the  default for re-skilling? If I proposed to a client that the route to improving change management skills was for a series of lectures delivered to a group I would be rightly told to go away. But if I make a series of five minute inspirational talking head videos, suddenly I am the new messiah. Some mistake, surely! 

One of the most avid promoters of this video based (so-called) learning is LinkedIn. The Linkedin Learning Skills Advantage Report equates ‘skills’ with ‘content’ throughout (and, in a nod to my first problem, even references Learning Styles as though the work of Coffield, Willingham and Baroness Susan Greenfield in debunking this pseudo-scientific nonsense had never existed.)

The idea seems to be that having watched a video covering ‘how to be influential’, or ‘managing uncertainty’ somehow skills have been miraculously developed. No application required, no action taken, no feedback, no practice in a safe environment, no measurement of behavioural change. In short, no objectivity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are decades of research into how individuals can be supported to reskill and change their behaviour. 

Reskilling requires skills

Knowledge acquisition is – unquestionably – part of the equation, but it is only a part. Reskilling requires deliberate practice, actionable feedback (preferably in a double loop) and structured, supported implementation in the workplace. 

The important point here is that there are skilled models for what successful people do when interacting with others

There is also significant research into which behaviours and skills are required by those seeking to be better collaborators, communicators or leaders. Skills outcomes - such as being perceived to be open to new ideas or being influential – are actually achieved through multiple micro-behaviours which observational research has shown helps individuals to be more successful. (See here for more information – registration may be required). 

The important point here is that there are skilled models for what successful people do when interacting with others. These skills can be objectively monitored and individuals can be given actionable feedback about how they can communicate more effectively, lead with purpose and collaborate well. 

In a period where reskilling is an imperative – and L&D have been given a seat at the table to address the issues of years of underinvestment in skills and capabilities – we have a responsibility to focus on objective development activities underpinned by evidence. That evidence is out there, but you need to be skilled to find it!

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