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Why is L&D still not aligning upskilling and reskilling programmes with business needs?


We were warned by the UK Government back in 2016 of the digital skills crisis and yet it remains a huge issue today. So what has the L&D profession been doing to address this issue? And how can we change our approach to have a more meaningful impact?

22nd Feb 2021
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“As companies begin to formulate business transformation and workforce strategies over the course of the 2018–2022 period, they have a genuine window of opportunity to leverage new technologies, including automation, to enhance economic value creation through new activities, improve job quality in traditional and newly emerging occupations, and augment their employees’ skills to reach their full potential to perform new high value-added work tasks, some of which will have never before been performed by human workers.” World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018

I love this quote and let me share why. Does your L&D activity and spend reflect what your company does? If I looked at it, without knowing your company, would I be able to work out what you do and/or are trying to do as a business going forward?

It’s a simple challenge and, for me, it highlights the growing need to be really focused on skills/capabilities that will continue to make your company a success in the time ahead. We are in the middle of a perfect storm and I believe now is the time for those across the L&D world to really step into a new role and make positive commitments for change.

We were told back in 2016 to sort this out and we’ve spent billions on L&D since then. Yet it’s still a very real issue today.

We have been warned

Let’s start at the beginning, way back in the distant past of October 2019. UK productivity fell at its fastest annual pace in five years. Let that sink in for a moment. Our ‘UK Plc’ output was running at the lowest rate since 2014 (the figure in its simplest form is output per hour per employee). Despite this, profit numbers seemed stable.

That’s OK, I hear you cry, we were wrestling with a thing called Brexit and we’d be in such a different place once that was sorted either way…

A report from the Office of National Statistics at the time added that productivity since the economic downturn in 2008 was "growing more slowly than during the long period prior to downturn.” So we were working harder and longer, for little improvement and/or pure economic benefit. 

It really is a great time to be in our profession but we can no longer ignore the macro challenges we face in the coming months and years ahead.

In addition, I’m confident many of you will have read or heard this ‘stat’ before in some guise: in the next five years more than half of all workplace tasks will be performed by machines. The robots are coming! We are all doomed! Many, many jobs, as we know them, just won’t exist.

The World Economic Forum has warned us of this over a number of years and made some potential assumptions on what this means across sectors and countries. It was shared back in 2018 in the ‘Future of Jobs’ report quoted at the beginning of the article. It was discussed again at Davos in January 2019. In a very short summary, many roles and people require significant change and upskilling – and the time is now.

It’s not dreamland, it’s not years and years into the future, it’s right now. But UK productivity is still at the low ebb and we have known for a while about our skills challenge that seems to be holding us back. I’m sure we were told about this before, right? Here’s what the government pointed out back in 2016 in its Digital Skills Crisis Report:

“The evidence is clear that the UK faces a digital skills crisis. Although comparative nations are facing similar challenges, only urgent action from industry, schools and universities and from the Government can prevent this skills crisis from damaging our productivity and economic competitiveness…”

Why has L&D not changed?

We were told back in 2016 to sort this out and we’ve spent billions on L&D since then. Yet it’s still a very real issue today. So what have your L&D activities really been doing?

If it sounds harsh, it is. If it sounds troubling, it is. If you are questioning why I’m talking along these lines with a UK lens, let me reassure you it does map globally. All the data and insight continues to suggest we are not working on the right things at the right time across huge areas of L&D.

How to move forward

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I claim to, but I hope this prompts you and/or your team to question what you are doing and what you can do in the time ahead. Put simply here’s my top tips: 

  1. Understand your business strategy. Be able to understand your company's direction of travel and how the value chain works. How do you make money/services/solutions today and how do you want to do that tomorrow?

  2. Know the real pain points in the value chain. What is getting in the way? What would help make it better? (clue: it might not be a traditional learning thing!)

  3. Test and try something quick (weeks, not months) that may help and get feedback on the outcome

  4. Keep building your network around your company and be brave in talking about failures as well as successes

  5. As a result of all this, what will you stop doing and say NO to that isn’t adding value/contributing to the business strategy

It really is a great time to be in our profession but we can no longer ignore the macro challenges we face in the coming months and years ahead. Now is the time to be brave and take on a new stance as to how you can add real value to your company. Take a look at your activity. Are you closing your skills gaps and contributing to real business outcomes? If not, now is the time to change.

Interested in this topic? Read 'Why flexible learning of critical skills is key to the UK’s economic recovery'.

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