At the same time, many of your current workers are in roles that are slowly becoming obsolete due to automation. What’s more, you have too many unproductive middle managers, and your digitally unskilled frontline workers are not prepared for the changing world ahead.

Does this ring familiar? These are the challenges we’re hearing from many of our clients, and they’re representative of the crossroads we’re at in the global skills crisis. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than half of all employees around the world need to upskill or reskill by 2025 to embrace the changing nature of jobs. Many organizations in these situations are turning toward reskilling to build the talent they cannot acquire or productively deploy. And yet a 2020 global BCG study showed that “talent and skills” was the second-most underinvested area incorporating transformation efforts.

As companies reimagine how they bring learning to a scale of thousands of people and at speed, we share six practical insights based on BCG’s extensive experience supporting more than 100 clients globally, touching hundreds of thousands of learners in the past four years.

1. Treat skilling as a business investment, not an expense.

The majority of skilling efforts fail because they are set up to optimize for learning and development (L&D) costs instead of driving real business impact. Globally, more than $300 billion is spent on corporate education each year, according to an estimate from Allied Market Research. From our experience working with clients, the majority of corporate education initiatives demonstrate limited measurable impact.

Leaders should treat skilling as a business investment — an asset that will help produce profits over several years, with clearly defined business, people, and learning KPIs as a starting point for the program design.

For example, an Asian real estate firm undertaking a leadership development program designed it by first defining the end business objectives: 50% faster time to new market entry and a two-fold increase in target achievement for land acquisition through faster decision making.

This completely changed the design of its L&D intervention. In the past, the company would have run a series of facilitated workshops on leadership and decision-making skills. Instead, participants went through a hands-on learning intervention, where they were shadowed and coached on how to run their monthly business review meetings differently to achieve their business objectives. The result was a steep jump in their market position and a successful initiative to cascade down to their mid-level management.

2. Serve “salads” for healthy skilling.

Too often today’s skilling programs are offered to employees as a menu of “main course” options to choose from — for example, functional, digital, leadership, business, or soft skills. Our experience shows that high-impact reskilling is better achieved through creating appetizing “salads” that blend all these different skills in a specific context.

We worked with the government in Singapore on a large-scale workforce reskilling program to help mid-career professionals move from traditional jobs to data and digital roles. The program needed to address a wide range of skills, from hard skills like problem-solving, insight generation, and analytics, to soft skills like stakeholder engagement and communication.

Instead of creating a module for each of these topics, the program focused on projects where all these skills needed to be applied in tandem. The result was a rapid learning curve over six months, where more than 65% of learners pivoted to new data and digital roles within just a few months of program completion.

3. Bring the joy back to learning.

Too much corporate learning is spent in hours of e-modules or Zoom workshops. Learning experience designers need to reimagine how, when, and where learning happens with a leading question in mind: How do we bring the joy and curiosity of learning that children experience to adult learners?

Instead of just sharing case studies on customer centricity, a leading mobile phone player in China brought real customers into their learning workshops, which led to several myths being busted and new insights being generated for the business. A major consumer goods player in India built communication skills for their mid-level managers by having them shoot and analyze selfie videos. This led participants to a heightened sense of self-awareness about how they communicate, as compared to the traditional approach of receiving feedback from a facilitator. A global public sector organization leveraged improv to get middle managers to immerse themselves in and understand the agile way of working by first playing typical work scenarios in “command-and-control” mode and then replaying the same scenarios in “autonomy-and-alignment” mode.

4. Power up with data.

Learning design and delivery is both a science and an art. Data can be used to inform decision-making in every step of the learning journey.

For instance, AI tools can look at an employee’s job experience and career trajectory in order to analyze their skills gap and personalize their learning experience. These tools can also identify pathways for groups of employees whose jobs will be significantly disrupted to transition them to in-demand roles. Another approach is to run A/B tests on different formats of the program or modes of learning for different cohorts and let data make the decisions as to the scale of the program. Finally, measuring outcomes with both leading and lagging indicators over time can allow for continuous improvement of skilling initiatives.

5. Assemble your own skilling stack.

Reskilling at scale for thousands of employees requires significant investment in creating an end-to-end skilling stack — including assessments, skills inventory, content curation, learning technology and analytics, training, delivery, learning experience management, credentialing, and career transition support.

Instead of “building” this infrastructure from the ground up, companies can now move at speed by “buying” or “renting” through partnerships to assemble their own skilling stack. Critics of this approach cite the lack of customization of the organization’s context. But your L&D team can distinguish between core commodity skills that are universal and can be sourced externally (for example, learning a new programming language) and where the value for customization can be high (for example, an internal expert sharing which data analytics use cases are most critical in your organization).

6. Empower employees to learn.

Skilling is often discussed as something that “needs to be done to the workers,” but research shows that workers know change is coming and are ready to act upon it. Data from BCG’s Decoding Global Talent report shows that 68% of workers globally are ready to retrain to new careers to stay competitive. If we believe people can be responsible for their own reskilling, interventions that allow them to decide what skills they need and pick from various options are best. Employers should empower their employees with the right tools, flexible resources, and supportive context to own their personal reskilling journeys.

For example, BCG empowers its expert consultants to stay relevant and up to date by designing their own learning intervention with an annual budget allocated. This has led to many creative learning paths — for example, collaborations on public-sector initiatives, co-designing with startups, immersion trips to completely different business environments, and more.

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By reimagining the traditional approaches to skilling, business and HR leaders can take timely action to prepare their workforces to be today- and future-ready. Organizations have a choice: Create a skilling competitive advantage or else run the imminent risk of falling behind.