New Skills for a New World: Why Upskilling is Necessary?

Every cloud has a silver lining (John Milton) - this popular English proverb epitomizes optimism in an otherwise pessimistic scenario, one such as the on-going COVID-19 crisis. Undoubtedly, businesses around the world are witnessing unprecedented disruption and change, compelling them to rethink and reinvent their way of working for the long haul.

Even in the pre-pandemic era, businesses were battling talent shortages across verticals due to disruptions caused by digitization and the gradual adoption of intelligent technologies. In fact, a McKinsey Global Survey stated that 87% of executives were either already experiencing or expecting skill gaps in their workforce within the next couple of years. Therefore, the ongoing situation has accelerated the need to redefine existing job functions and related skill requirements to meet the skill gaps in the new remote work ecosystem.

Hence, upskilling has emerged as a critical response to not just recover from the effects of the unprecedented crisis, but also to prepare for the ‘future of work’. As a result, upskilling programs have transitioned from a ‘good to do’ to a ‘need to do’ action item on the corporate agenda to enable their employees to do their life’s best work.

A paradigm shift in the business learning landscape

As legacy business models make way for digital-led strategy, traditional learning and training methodologies are being replaced with state-of-the-art learning tools. These are backed by technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR), Cloud computing, video-led content, and gamification. As a result, digitization has compelled the restructuring of existing job roles, functions, and KRAs.

Not only have existing learning tools undergone a change, but the beneficiaries are also being redefined. Besides putting emphasis on technical skill-based training for products, systems, and processes, organizations are also focusing on non-technical skill training, such as communication, employee engagement, and other soft skills. In addition, learning and development (L&D) programs are being redesigned for top leadership, as well as business and process heads. Hence, there is also a growing need for the ‘trainer to be trained’.

Why do we need reskilling/upskilling in the current scenario?

The learning function is evolving from being an ancillary requirement into an indispensable approach for knowledge dissemination, irrespective of geographical location, type of organization, and social strata. According to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index 2020 in India, 64% of professionals are likely to increase their focus on learning in the coming weeks. In addition, three out of five professionals claim to believe that they will achieve career progression through upskilling.

With telecommuting being adopted by organizations as part of long-term workforce planning, managers and leaders will need to develop skills to engage, motivate, and manage distributed teams. This is imperative for developing employee engagement and employer branding. Higher levels of employee engagement in a remote work environment offer a boost to productivity. In addition, organizations should focus on training in enhancing digital competency. For instance, at Optum, we use innovative approaches such as gamified curriculum, employee-sourced video learning platform, etc. in our L&D training to make business learning a simple yet immersive exercise. When paired with transparent communication and employee incentives, such training programs can help in improving efficiency in existing jobs as well as for new remote jobs.

It is easier said than done: Challenges in upskilling employees

In order to steer upskilling efforts in the right direction, it is vital to consider a few key perspectives. To begin with, it is imperative to adopt new-age technology-backed learning platforms instead of traditional methodologies. However, the choice of platform will depend on the skills that impact the business and are needed to drive business growth.

In addition, learners need to get used to fully digitized approaches (self-paced self-training programs) to learning through online videos and social sharing. They also need to be receptive to learning new skills to ensure better preparedness for possible expansion in job roles in the future. At the same time, facilitators are required to adapt themselves to the virtual medium to effectively engage, coach and support remote teams. The idea is not just to keep track of the productivity and learning curves, but also provide emotional support in a rapidly changing business environment.

Mapping employees to requisite skillsets can be a major challenge while designing L&D programs. It is often found that companies face difficulty in identifying existing skillsets of their employees; the ones they need; and how to bridge this chasm.

Finally, technology-related issues, such as low bandwidth, lack of digital devices, power fluctuation, and poor Internet connectivity, carry the potential to hinder the seamless delivery of a successful training program.

How can we overcome these challenges?

There are several approaches that businesses can follow to foster a culture of learning in their organization. Some of these include:

· Re-evaluate existing resources and star performing employees to see how their potential can be best leveraged.

· Incorporate feedback-driven learning to ensure that learning is consistent and on the right track. It will also boost employee morale as they will feel valued when their voices are heard.

· Repurpose existing training programs by breaking lengthy training into short module-based sessions. Mobile-based micro-courses help in cutting down on information overload and are a better fit with the dynamics of the work environment.

· Integrate guided learning with the work environment so that employees can apply new skills learned on the job to their day-to-day functioning. For this purpose, regular reviews and follow-ups by managers must be conducted.

The way forward

In the post-pandemic world, companies with forward-looking workforce planning strategies; sound technological infrastructure; and an openness to new learning approaches will have an advantage over their competitors in sustaining business continuity and achieving growth. To this end, upskilling and reskilling the workforce becomes a critical initiative to build a thriving and resilient workforce. This will not just drive value to the organization, but also empower employees to adapt to the changing domain needs of the business.
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