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Learning and development: three ways to close the rapidly expanding skills gap

How can L&D professionals equip their learners with critical skills to thrive in the rapidly changing world of work?

3rd Nov 2020
CLO Totara Learning
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‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’, said a recent government skills campaign – but is it really that simple?

It’s been widely reported that we’re currently facing a rapidly expanding skills gap. Indeed, this isn’t new – we have always needed to reskill. Over time, skills become obsolete, whether that’s factory line workers being replaced by machinery, or supermarket cashiers being replaced by self-service checkouts. We are, however, in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, defined by digitalisation and intelligent automation and skills gaps are fast becoming huge chasms. How can we make the leap?

Learning, engagement and performance management processes are intertwined. An intentional learning culture recognises that.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused millions of job losses worldwide in the space of a few months, with industries such as travel, hospitality, retail and education particularly badly hit. A government reskilling campaign, with an advertisement suggesting that a ballet dancer could retrain in cybersecurity, received widespread backlash recently, showing that it’s not as simple as losing one job and moving into another, completely different, role. (Admittedly, that particular image came from the government’s Cyber First programme, which was launched back in 2017, but it was resurfaced on social media in recent weeks – particularly poor timing given the dire straits the arts sector has found itself in this year).

Additionally, the UK government’s widely derided skills assessment quiz, supposedly to help guide people into new careers, shows just how difficult it is to generalise advice in this way; it must be personalised to the individual.

Reskilling is a well known problem, but the solution is less clear cut. In this article, you will discover three ways to close the rapidly expanding skills gap and ensure that your people are equipped with the skills they need to survive and thrive in the new world of work.

1. Adopt continuous performance management

In many organisations, the annual appraisal persists. Employees may never discuss their performance with their manager outside these formal meetings, making them anxiety inducing, ineffective and, very often, too little too late. 

A performance issue that arises ten months before the appraisal will likely have been forgotten by the time the conversation comes around, or will have escalated to such an extent that the problem is unfixable. 

Continuous performance management requires a switch in your performance management processes. The formal appraisal is replaced by, or supplemented with, a series of regular informal performance check-ins. This approach is invaluable for identifying meaningful pathways for development and reskilling. 

More frequent conversations breed a deeper mutual understanding. Managers can offer better guidance and more timely two-way feedback means issues can be addressed quickly and motivation levels maintained. Company goals become truly aligned with team and individual goals, meaning collectively business performance is much more likely to meet intended targets. 

future L&D leaders hub link

2. Create an intentional learning culture

Changing to continuous performance management is an important component of cultivating an intentional learning culture. Intentional learning means that your people are empowered to constantly seek out new learning opportunities, and managers are actively spotting and addressing skills and performance gaps. 

The culture is non-judgmental and feedback is given and received with a collective understanding that everyone is aligned around common goals. 

McKinsey highlights the five key skills that ‘intentional learners’ practice:

  • Set small, clear goals – big goals can often feel overwhelming, so setting smaller, achievable goals means you’re more likely to complete them.
  • Remove distractions – managers should support employees in creating dedicated time for learning new skills in their schedules.
  • Actively seek feedback – employees must feel comfortable asking their manager or peers for feedback to ensure that they can continue to improve.
  • Deliberately practise skills – practising new skills must strike a balance between being challenging enough that it’s worthwhile, but not so difficult that it becomes demotivating.
  • Reflect regularly – use your regular performance check-ins to reflect on how your learning efforts are going to maintain a constant cycle of reskilling.

This intentional learning culture encourages employees to work with their manager to figure out what needs to change and how to change it. 

For instance, a manager in a factory may discover that they will be implementing a new machine that will replace a certain job function. The manager can work with their employees to learn how to operate the new machinery and gain new skills to ensure their skill set stays relevant. The manager should then fully support reskilling efforts, including goal setting, ring-fencing time for training, practice and reflection. 

Feedback on progress and adoption of the new skills should be conducted throughout so they become embedded into every day work.

As we can see, learning, engagement and performance management processes are intertwined. An intentional learning culture recognises that, and is supported by processes and tools that can coordinate these activities together in an effective and flexible manner.

3. Let ‘good enough’ be good enough

When jobs are at stake, it can suddenly become a scramble to plug yawning skills gaps with formal training courses and certifications. On its own, that may not be the right approach.

Informal learning practices are just as important. Expertise is often already available within your organisation. These experts just lack visibility and a voice. Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is a quick, cost-effective way to democratise access to new skills and rapidly distribute those new skills across your organisation. 

33% of skills needed three years ago are no longer needed today…the world is changing so quickly that we must all be vigilant and open to continuously learning new skills. 

A learning experience platform (LXP) empowers your people to create, curate and collaborate in ways that can dramatically accelerate problem solving and the adoption of new ideas and innovation that would otherwise languish in hidden departments or teams. 

When used as part of a fully blended learning programme, employees can share their personal experiences, ask questions and offer up resources they’ve found useful for gaining new skills. 

Using the example of the factory workers, that might mean asking your sole expert on your new machinery to create short videos of themselves using the machine as a supplementary training resource. 

They might also pull together a quick step-by-step guide to a new task, explain their ‘workarounds’ or create an FAQ document as performance support. This might feel ‘scrappy’, but the immediacy and informality are important to the practical adoption of these new skills. 

Leaping the skills chasm

Things change; 33% of skills needed three years ago are no longer needed today. This rather sobering statistic shows that no matter how secure we feel in our own skill sets, the world is changing so quickly that we must all be vigilant and open to continuously learning new skills. 

We in HR and learning are in the best position to do this for our workforces, but we need to start with ourselves. Digital and data literacy is now a core skill to all job roles, and none moreso than HR and learning professionals. This is in addition to the more soft skills of remote communication and collaboration, performance consulting and the mental resilience to cope with uncertainty and unexpected change.

In order to rise to the reskilling challenge, we must reconfigure the HR function as a whole. It means being able to synchronise your learning, engagement and performance management activities in ways that offer a coherent and motivating employee experience. Doing so builds an intentional learning culture that will give rise to the innovation and performance needed for your organisation to stay competitive and thrive into the future.

Interested in this topic? Read The 2020 dilemma: how to solve the UK’s critical unemployment and skills shortage problems.

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