"You can't go out and hire these people" - debating the re-skilling imperative with Visier's Ian Cook

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 8, 2021
I have a chip on my shoulder about re-skilling - and what I see as an over-emphasis on external talent. But Visier's Ian Cook has a different take, and the field stories to back it. Here's five keys to re-skilling from our exchange.

Confused business team holding a question mark sign

One of the most maddening aspects of the IT industry? The disposable approach to hiring. When I ran an ERP recruiting practice in the 1990s, I was shocked at the willingness to hire externals with supposedly "hot" skills - often at the expense of deserving internal employees.

Many would have thrived with a bit of training, yet they were locked out, their careers in neutral. Is that starting to change?

We can debate it, but that's why I'm a sucker for a "re-skilling" conversation. Back in February, I had a good one with Ian Cook, VP of People Analytics at Visier.

Given that Visier specializes in HR analytics, Cook was ready for a gut check on how companies approach re-skilling now. For reasons too tedious to get into (all of which are my fault), I didn't file that story in February. But, fortunately for me, the need to cultivate talent hasn't exactly gone away. So, without further delays, here's some takeaways from Cook on the realities of re-skilling.

Why would re-skilling be any different today? Why wouldn't we fall into the same trap of paying lip service to re-skilling, while engaging in disposable hiring? Cook pointed to these trends:

  • Unprecedented automation is changing the job roles available, and the skills required. Those skills are not necessarily readily available (many of those skills are "soft" or process/analytics skills).
  • Baby boomers are retiring in droves.
  • The pandemic has accelerated the digitization of work, requiring new skills and new tools.

Each of these points has various reports and stats to back them, though you'll see different numbers depending on where you look. However, it was Cook's next assertion that really stood out:

"You can't go out and hire these people - they don't exist in the market"

Therefore, you must train from within. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it's a statement worth considering. Cook elaborated:

You just can't go out and hire these people. I think that's one of the key differences... When we were starting to make software, you just went out and hired a bunch of software developers. You got rid of the other people; you hired a bunch of developers. In this phase, the people that you need don't exist in the market. You've actually got to try and make them.

Customer example - financial sector clients

Can we back that up with customer examples? Cook cited the financial sector:

We have a bunch of financial sector clients - they don't need as many people to sit behind a pane of glass and pass transactions back and forth. The adoption of online banking went from something like 35% to 70%, literally over the last year. So that has a knock-on effect where I don't need tellers.

But what I do need are people who can manage relationships. What I potentially need is people who can sell financial service products, and I need people who can do that online. So there's a skill shift. Instead of saying, 'I'm going to get rid of all my tellers; I'm going to find these completely different customer success people who don't exist.' You say, 'I need to morph a large portion of my population from working this way on this thing, to working this way on this similar but associated thing.' That's a re-skilling path, and we have a number of clients that are following it.

If we embrace re-skilling, how do we get there?

Cook acknowledged that in the past, a re-skilling imperative of this scope would have likely involved an army of consultants and huge consulting bills, with consultants "poring all over your business with Excel spreadsheets and graphs." Visier contends that modern technology can enable re-skilling in a more efficient, people-centric way. But you still need a methodology, including a skills gap analysis, a personalized learning plan, and so on. Cook explained:

Now this is much more technology-enabled, as in, 'What does that future role look like? What is the person doing? What is the task makeup? What are the capabilities that somebody needs to do it? Well, then what's the skill gap? Which of my tellers are oriented towards customer success and customer engagement and the communication piece, and which tellers are more oriented towards process management, the assessment of risk, and those kinds of things?' So we've taken that one population - there's potentially two paths they can go down.

Sheep dip training doesn't work

But the old scenario of "sheep dip training" over a period of years isn't viable either. Training must be faster, and more personalized:

There's a whole thing around pace, where these re-skilling tasks have been done in the past, but they've often been done in a way that I call a sheep dip. I started life thirty years ago in training and development. So sheep dip methodology is like, you put everybody in the hopper, and you just run them through a learning program. Four years later, you've transformed. Well, we don't have that time.

So methodologies are digitally created, where it's more a case of actually, 'We're not going to take you from point A to point B...  We're going to set up systems whereby we'll tell you where those places are. And we'll let you access the tools that get you there as fast as you want to get there.'

The re-skilling technology layer must change

So how can technology aid in re-skilling? Cook:

The technology layer that's being built, used and deployed is giving an individual, 'Here's the  options for your future career; here's where you are; here's your Delta; here's the learning paths that are open to you. Choose the one you want to move down' - as opposed to trying to move tens of thousands of individuals along a bespoke path for them.

So it's more employee-centric, as opposed to employer-centric. And the technology is doing a ton of the mediation and distribution of the information, putting it in the employee's hands to then make those choices. I think it's a really cool phase, because it's sort of liberating people to choose; it's putting the opportunity back in the hands of the employee. Some people will be super comfortable with that; other people will be less comfortable with that. But that's how those things are coming together.

Giving employees a map of the jobs ahead - and how to get there

Employees then get a clear sense of what jobs are projected. You eliminate mystery around the removal of some roles in favor of others. Cook:

So it's big picture; 'Here's the jobs that we need done that will be in place in 6-12 months; here's where you are, and then here's the stuff to learn; here's the courses to take, here's the certifications to get' - and then letting people opt in.

And of course, there's a spectrum of practice in different organizations. Those that we've seen being very successful tend to take a more learner-centric, employee-directed approach because it just means things can move fast. So that's the re-skilling pattern - we're seeing a lot of good stories.

My take - re-skilling is a culture problem

You can't force an employer to adopt a humane/smart approach to re-skilling - nor can you implant an employee with the motivation to change. I'm not sure Cook is right that you absolutely "can't go out and hire these people" - I think that depends on a number of factors, including location and budget - but his argument for transforming-from-within resonates. An employee with a deep knowledge of your company and industry is the real potential rock star here - not the shiny resume of someone who checks all your certification boxes, but whose character and tenacity are unproven.

I"m not inclined to call re-skilling a technical problem, but I do see Cook's point. Modern tech can help personalize career development, in a way we could not have afforded or conceived before. Still, getting the right employee/automation mix is never easy. Then you must mix in the proper use of recruitment and talent markets to diversify. I still see this as a culture problem, one that most companies can't seem to solve. I'm not sure most can solve it, no matter what tools you put in their hands. Look no further than the hybrid work debates, with so many companies running from the true meaning of flexible work arrangements, and imposing much more rigid hybrid policies than needed.

It was good to hear Cook point to an industry setting where re-skilling is being embraced. That counters my view that companies don't know where to begin. That notion of multiple job paths, with skills gaps identified and near-continuous training in place, sounds almost too good to be true. But, from what Cook says, it's achievable. I have no doubt that bank tellers are giving way to customer success roles and process experts. But how many are making that transition? How far can re-skilling go to change an industry? These are questions I always have time for.

End note - since Cook and I talked, Visier has been busy. Here's some content highlights:

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