For as long as I’ve been in this game, I’ve been writing the ‘skills crisis’ story in whatever particular form was most to the forefront at any given time. It’s sadly one of the constants of enterprise tech coverage - there aren’t enough skilled people to fill roles and organizations need to train more up.
That’s complemented by the second angle - despite there being a lack of skills on offer, organizations are still falling short when it comes to training up more. Rinse and repeat! Will this virtueless cycle ever end?
Sadly not any time soon if the findings of a study from The Josh Bersin Company are anything to go by. Not only is the situation not improving, most Learning & Development (L&D) teams are actually falling further behind meeting the skills gap needs than ever before - and this at a time when the so-called Great Resignation is creating even more challenges across the labor markets.
According to the findings of The Definitive Guide to Learning: Growth in the Flow of Work, which looked at 94 L&D practices in 9 broad areas of learning at more than 1,000 organizations around the globe, almost 85% of corporate training departments feel ill-equipped to create new career paths for employees and lack the integrated tools and internal skills to create effective skills taxonomies to better align L&D directly with employees’ career aspirations and emerging skills gaps.
Paths and pathways
Underlying message here - time for an organizational re-think of L&D strategies all round. For example, in terms of the current state of L&D effectiveness, the Bersin report found that only 16% of respondents were doing well in term of L&D capabilities with the same percentage reported for good use of L&D technologies.
The report argues that L&D organizations must remember that the objective of learning is enabling growth:
Organizations need to orchestrate the shift from a culture of learning to a culture of growth because employees want to grow—and learning can help them develop the capabilities they need to do so—but if you don’t provide opportunities, they will find them elsewhere, outside your organization. In today’s competitive labor market, a culture focused on collaboration and individual growth is essential for companies to thrive.
The report also makes an interesting distinction between the pursuit of career pathways rather than career paths. What’s the difference? According to Bersin:
Career paths move people within similar job clusters as they improve their existing skills. Career pathways, on the other hand, support the development of new skills and help individuals transition into credentialed new jobs or roles that offer better pay, growth potential, and business impact.
Employers need to unlock opportunities for employees, up-skill them today for the careers they want tomorrow, provide guidance and support in preparing for the jobs of the future, and illuminate pathways to get there, including education, learning, assignments, and coaching.
There needs to be a commitment to an ongoing program of skills development. The report notes:
Building a skills strategy is not a temporary project, but an important discipline all companies should be prepared to undertake on a regular basis. Companies that focus on a culture of growth build an integrated skills strategy across recruiting, mobility, and learning, and update it year over year.
There are clear rewards to be had from getting this right. Bersin’s research found that 70% of highly mature companies operate an integrated enterprise skills strategy, compared with fewer than two percent of low-level maturity companies.
L&D teams themselves need to develop new skills and capabilities on a ‘physician, heal thyself’ principle, with the focus being on capabilities that most important for driving learning outcomes. As per the report:
L&D teams need to practice agile, iterative design, and they need to understand business and stakeholder needs. Additionally, they need to understand what the data on learning is telling them about learners' needs. They must embrace new media and tools—such as VR, AR, and virtual environments—and cultivate a deep understanding of video, audio, and all advanced media types.
That said, how L&D operates as a corporate function is more important than how it is organized within the enterprise. Bersin advises that the focus should be:
- On relevance and effectiveness, not just scaling and cost efficiency.
- On people and purpose, not just scalability.
- On co-ordination and innovation, not organization.
- On outcomes and business alignment, not just operations.
- On the right approach and solutions, not the right structure or perfect model.
- On delivering solutions focused on learners, not ones that that are disconnected or distanced from learner needs.
And there’s a need to ensure that the underlying L&D infrastructure kept pace with technology innovation to support the overall goals, but without getting carried away chasing the latest ‘bright shiny thing’ that comes along:
High-powered L&D teams innovate and experiment with technology, constantly refreshing their L&D infrastructure. They have a long-term platform roadmap and try to avoid buying too many tools and nonstandard offerings. They continually improve, iterate, and integrate their tools into systems of productivity; they focus on employee experience first and content second; and they focus on building a strong data architecture so they can measure what’s working, what’s not working, and what audiences or groups are developing best.
What’s on offer here for getting this right? Companies in which L&D teams experiment and innovate with new learning technologies and approaches are, according to Bersin’s research, 2.4x more likely to innovation as a business, 1.4x more likely to exceed financial targets and 1.6x more likely to delight customers.
It is an exciting time for L&D, but also a daunting one. Learning functions don’t just want a seat at the table; they need a seat at every table.
Again, that’s a variation on a familiar refrain, but none the less compelling for all that. The Future of Work in the Vaccine Economy has been a recurring topic of debate for a couple of years now and frankly we’re no closer to a definitive answer on that subject. Nor are we likely to be!
But in the face of a workforce that’s changed forever after two years of near house arrest under lockdown, the Great Resignation is a reality. Skills shortages are only likely to increase and those employees who can sell their capabilities to the highest bidder find themselves well-placed.
Organizations that want to ‘grow their own’ skilled workforce AND hold onto it need to take a long, hard look at their approach to L&D. Bersin’s report is very detailed in its assessment and recommendations. Worth a look.