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Reskilling employees – much more than just training

The Covid-19 virus accelerates the transformation into a “distance economy”. Digitalization is gaining focus and the need for reskilling employees in your company increases drastically. But how do you reskill? Is training enough? The answer, of course, is no, as training is only a small part in building new capabilities.

The organizational capability, e.g. for digitization, is so much more than the skills of each employee. It’s also about culture, leadership, IT-systems, ways of working etc. In the same way, the individual’s capability is more than knowledge from training. Employees also need motivation to change, ability to apply new skills at work, to collaborate with others and to use information and IT-tools that contributes to the capability.

Initiatives for reskilling therefore includes more than just training. In this article, I will describe how projects, mentors, teams, and information support are necessary components of such an initiative. I will describe how reskilling can be done remotely, with platforms like Microsoft Teams, and finally the importance of employee learnability to succeed with reskilling.

What reskilling employees should look like.

Reskilling employees – now more than ever

Recently, many industry colleagues I am talking to have focused on delivering training at all throughout this crisis, e.g. moving classroom lessons online.

That doesn’t mean the need for new capabilities has come to a halt. Rather, the transformation and speed of digitization is increasing.

McKinsey described in a recent article (May 7) that the need for reskilling rather increased as a consequence of Covid-19. We now are in a “Distance Economy” where we work, shop, consult doctors, do banking, etc. digitally.

Professions that even before the pandemy was in transformation are now being digitized even faster. I’m talking about bankers, shop staff, sales people, but also administrators and production staff. Critical value flows are now automated at high speed.

The latest forecasts indicate that over 1 million Swedes will either be unemployed or short-term laid off during the autumn. This is probably true for many other countries. When the economy turns, many existing jobs will not be there. People in the professions above will need to reskill into professions in programming, data analysis, automation etc.

One company being proactive in reskilling is Amazon. They are currently investing SEK 7 billion in several initiatives for reskilling of 100,000 employees from warehouses, transportation, stores to new IT roles. This includes initiatives like the “Machine Learning University”, various forms of “Coding Bootcamps”, career planning and new apprenticeship roles.

The need for new organisational capabilities

In Sweden, several initiatives are underway to reskill staff who have been laid off. Swedish “Beredskapslyftet” focuses on transition of personnel mainly from transportation, hotel and restaurant to health care and school. FutureFit is organized by several trade unions, including the “Financial union”, and is aimed at administrative staff who need to learn digital new skills. Google’s Digital Academy is a broad effort to strengthen digital skills.

All these initiatives help individuals who want to develop their digital skills. Especially those who work in disrupted industries.

In order to succeed with transformation in a broader perspective, for a company, we also need to look at the big picture, the organizational capability. An organization’s capability for digitization, is for instance more than the sum of employees knowledge of IT.

According to BCG, only 17% of the organizations surveyed succeed with their digital transformation. In a large study, McKinsey identifies 21 factors for success with digital transformations. Some important factors are leadership, culture, access to digital tools, new ways of working, clearly communicated change needs, new “digital” roles, etc.

Let me take another example: The capability to deliver a personalized customer experience, something that many banks work on. It’s about understanding my needs as a customer and offering solutions that are targeted just for me. This capability includes IT systems that can integrate with external data, data analysis tools, employee skills in data analysis, leadership and culture that encourage customer research, an organization aligned to the customer journey, etc.

Capability for digitization and capability to deliver personalized customer experiences are two examples of organizational capabilities. Other examples are agility, innovation, adaptability etc.

My point is that capabilities that create value, for customers and the company, always include significantly more than individuals’ potential knowledge and skills in any subject, e.g. “data analysis”.

I have been using the image below for many years to show that knowledge and skills are a limited part of creating results in the business.

Factors contributing to organisational capability and results

If we want to help create value for the business, we also need to do much more than deliver courses. We also need to cooperate with other functions in the business to make it happen.

One example of the above is that it is less effective to only train a single role. Often we need to look at the entire team’s capability. When the Swedish telecom vendor Ericsson introduced 4G, large groups of employees had to be reskilled. 4G meant a major change of technology towards IP technology. One challenge I recall at the product launch was that salesperson was hesitant to offer 4G because they did not trust other roles, e.g. Network Architects. The solution was to create integrated sales teams with multiple roles and to train many common skills at the same time.

New capabilities for employees

We therefore need to view the individual’s capability in a holistic perspective, the organizational capability.

Of course, the banker who will provide more customer-specific solutions needs to learn more about business or private finance, the bank’s offers and communicating with the customer. They also need to learn how to use opportunities with new IT tools, to draw conclusions from data, interact with AI/automated services, work in virtual teams internally and externally, work in new agile ways etc.

Succeeding with the transformation puts more demands in addition to training:

  • That the employee can self-motivate and plan to implement the new behaviors in daily work.
  • That the employee methodically tests, evaluates, reflects, adapts and improves their attempts to apply new behaviors.
  • That the employee can collaborate with and learn from others who contribute to the customer solutions.
  • That the employee can take advantage of the information and IT systems available.

Overall, training is the smaller part. I often repeat Tony Driscoll’s (Professor Duke University) calculation:

  • 15% of the results at work depend on skills.
  • 15% of the learning takes place through formal learning.
  • 15% of course participants apply what they have learned in a course.

The product will be 0.3% which is of course intended as an provocation and to inspire reflection.

Researchers such as Brinkerhoff, as well as myself, often focuses on the last 15%. To increase the effect of training. With Brinkerhoff’s “High Performance Learning Journeys” we can increase the proportion who apply their knowledge. Brinkerhoff says to 90%.

My point, however, is that we need to have a broader perspective. By just thinking about training, we still limit ourselves to only a few percent of the result at work. We ignore the fact that the organizational capability consist of so much more (culture, leadership, teams, working methods, etc.) and that our individual capability consists of more than pure knowledge we have gained from training.

It is challenging that we are so one-sidedly focusing on training as a means of increasing individual and organizational capability. This article in the Harvard Business Review calls it “The Great Train Robbery“. According to the article, 3,500 billion SEK globally is spent on training employees with very little proven effect.

How to develop new capabilities

So how do we then develop the new capabilities? Take the banker who should create added value and sell customer-specific solutions. Let’s start with what doesn’t work; To go to the subject matter experts (product owners) and ask them to list content for a course. It will likely be a course where all the facts about the product are communicated to the employee in one day. Information that is already available on the intranet.

Instead, we need to understand how we successfully, now and in the future, create customer-specific solutions. We need to understand what the banker does, who they interact with, how the desired behavior is motivated, what processes, tools and IT-support they use, etc. Maybe we’ll come up with the capabilities described further up in the article.

How do we build these capabilities?

A key part is that the banker actually applies, evaluates and improves the new skills with customer solutions. We can’t just leave it to chance. A project or a series of tasks performed in work is therefore important to include in order to build capability.

Learning is not done in isolation but in collaboration with others. Vygotsky described a long time ago how we, together with a more knowledgeable person, can explore new areas and do things that we couldn’t before. Social influence is also the strongest factor for motivation and for making things happen. We therefore need a more knowledgeable person, a mentor and a team.

A last factor in developing the capability is how we use and learn from information and tools. We need to use customer data, find information about products and use the systems and tools available. A part of supporting and developing the capability is therefore to build support into IT-systems so that they are easy to use and to provide the information that makes work with customer solutions successful.

The image shows the difference between a traditional course and a reskilling initiative.

I will in coming articles go into more in depth how successful reskilling initiatives are set up and run. Here’s a summary:

  1. Understand the holistic perspective, e.g. as above how the organizational capability to create personalized customer solutions is developed.
  2. Identify individual capabilities that need to be developed and what gaps exist today.
  3. Create projects and tasks that gradually build the desired capability.
  4. Identify and provide mentors to guide participants through assignments and projects.
  5. Provide easily accessible and relevant information and build performance support into IT systems where needed.
  6. Create learning content that enables projects and tasks and can be learnt during work.
  7. Invite participants to complete training, projects and assignments in teams to create social influence and knowledge sharing.

More to consider is of course how the organizational factors contributes. How is the initiative communicated by C-level? Do they act as role models? How are new behaviors rewarded? Are processes and structures supporting the new capabilities etc.

How to reskill remotely

Can we reskill remotely? Can we manage projects, mentors, teams and information support in an efficient way in our distance learning?

For me, it’s now work platforms like Microsoft 365/Teams are particularly useful. I have previously described how Teams can be used for delivering training programs. With Teams and other apps in Microsoft 365, we are able to create blended learning using self-study content, web lessons, assignments, and social learning.

Training integrated in Microsoft Teams. In the picture a quiz made in Forms.

Teams, or for that matter Slack, are primarily designed to support projects/tasks, teams/mentors and information support.

Managing projects/assignments for learning

After all, Teams is a place for work and communication. Here we have the support to run projects. We can use channels and tabs to provide support and information about the project. Microsoft Planner is a tool to support projects. We can assign tasks to individual people or teams, discuss the tasks, and track progress.

The kanban board in Microsoft Planner is used to follow up projects.

A key part of learning at work is to apply divergent thinking, e.g. by experimenting, finding different perspectives, exploring alternatives, etc. A number of apps support your team to better explore work tasks. Some examples are Microsoft Whiteboard, Mural, and Invision Freehand.

Brainstorming and prioritization in the MURAL app.

Learning from projects and work also includes reflection. We need to continuously reflect and evaluate how things are going and what we have learned. In Teams, we can add OneNote to document and gather our lessons learned.

Managing social learning

Microsoft Teams is basically social. We assign a number of people to a Team that can be either training and/or a project. Here we work together to solve the tasks or the project and share experiences. In the design we create questions to be discussed.

Using Teams enables discussions and knowledge sharing on assignments. (Swedish screen)

It’s also easy to add mentors in the form of moderators for channels. In this way, we can design the reskilling initiative using mentors to support different projects, topics or people.

Manage information support

With information support, we create access to relevant information to develop the new capability. By using Teams we have several opportunities. For example, Teams can display selected parts of the intranet or other web pages. If we use SharePoint, there are many options to filter out information that is relevant to the participants in the initiative.

Several aggregation and curation platforms integrate with Teams. An example is Feedly. This allows the banker we talked about earlier to get a news feed that is tailored to support the capabilities needed.

Integration of curated news feed into Teams.

Reskilling places demands on participants’ Learnability

This is a new way of thinking. From attending a course to continuously improving new capabilities. This places new demands on the employee. Attending a course was easy. We went to the classroom and put much of the responsibility of getting involved and fed with new knowledge on the instructor.

When we ourselves are responsible for developing new capabilities, it becomes more complex, and it will not happen because we take a course. In short, we need to develop another capability – and that is to learn.

Learnability means developing one’s own drive, being able to motivate ourselves and persevering in our development. We need to be able to plan to build the capability and make it happen. We need to learn more from experiences at work, ie to get more out of projects / tasks, apply divergent thinking, experiment and reflect. We need to act and learn together with others, in teams. We need to find information and training that are relevant, process what we have learned and transfer it into new behaviors at work.

These are all parts of learning new capabilities and adapting to new circumstances. Read more in my article “Learnability – develop your learning skills“.

Learnability is built up of 6 basic capabilities.

Do you agree that we need to expand our approach to learning? Please write a comment below. I see that a lot of what we right now are talking about in learning is integrated into what I would call “digital reskilling”.

In future articles, I will, among other things, describe how successful reskilling initiatives can be set up and also look further at how Microsoft 365/ Teams can be used in an innovative way.

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