There was plenty of change to contend with before the pandemic struck. Recent events, however, have brought new meaning to the words: volatility and uncertainty. We’ve rushed to shift work to remote settings, to equip offices, work sites, or production floors to meet new safety measures, and to restructure or reorganize teams to meet new consumer or client demands. We’ve had to learn new skills while developing skills in others, and we’ve had to do all these things while also navigating radical disruptions in all our familiar rhythms of life.
But while we’re all trying to find our new normal, we need to remind ourselves that some of the most challenging work still lies ahead. This will be a marathon – not a sprint. That’s because the current environment has only served to accelerate the social, economic, and technological changes that have already reshaped much of the work we do and the ways in which we do it. While earlier research suggested that nearly a third of our current jobs could be displaced through digital automation within two decades, this is now likely to be a conservative estimate. We are seeing in real time how quickly some jobs are changing, while others are becoming obsolete, and still others are being created.
When you sit in HR, talent management, or L&D, you have first-hand knowledge of these seismic shifts in the workforce. Many roles, and the skills they require, are changing faster than our talent strategy can accommodate. New skills are needed not just for the future, but right now. Yet, closing gaps quickly and cost-effectively is more difficult than ever before. Hiring new talent to fill skills needs may take more resources than the organization is prepared to risk, especially considering that many of the most in-demand skills are also in shortest supply.
Alternatively, efforts to re-skill or up-skill workers, although increasingly necessary, faces its own challenges. Even setting aside the complexities of transitioning in-person to remote learning, it takes time and resources from both the organization, and the individual worker, to learn something new and to make it stick. Mobilizing L&D resources to quickly to respond to emerging needs often means having to pick and choose development priorities, but it’s not always clear where to place your bets.
So, what are HR and L&D professionals doing differently now to identify and support the skills needs of their organizations? As part of recent research conducted by HCI and Cornerstone People Research Lab, we talked with Dr. Cenina Saxton, a global talent development leader and influencer, and Steve Russell, the senior director of learning and development at Maximus, to gain some insight into what works for identifying skills needs and accelerating training and development efforts in these times of rapid and radical change.
Communicate Across the Organization to Identify New Skills Needs
There are a wide range of sources you can use to understand the skills needed by the organization over both the short and long term. Many L&D and HR professionals report making use of job descriptions, assessments, and feedback from managers. But this is certainly an area in which more is more. Dr. Saxton recommends drawing on a wide variety of sources for insight into skills needs and expanding your communication across the organization, from the senior leader to the individual contributor.
“I think it’s a combination of conversations and exercises to understand where people are at on the individual level and what will be needed. One of the things that works best is polling the employees to understand the skills they see as critical for their role. You also need to understand the business and what’s happening in it, and to do that well you need to get in touch with the leadership to understand how they are seeing the need for skills. That insight allows you to position the learning strategy.”
Dr. Saxton reiterated that broad patterns of communication are often the most helpful for identifying newly emerging, or urgent needs, as well as make projections against future skills demands. “Managers and leaders should be talking about development with each other and with their team often and on an ongoing basis. That’s the way you find out if there is something that’s bubbling up in the industry or in the organization that may be of value to learn.”
Look Beyond Technical Skills
By extending your communication reach, you’re likely to receive a wealth of helpful feedback on the specific technical skills that are becoming more important to the organization. But it’s also important to think through the professional skills important for supporting and sustaining technical expertise, and to introduce development approaches that emphasize both.
Russell reminds us, “the skills we need our programs to address are not just technical skills. Anybody is going to be able to go on the internet and pick up some coding or take a class or a MOOC that will give them the information they need for many of those things. The skills we really need to address are the professional skills that allow us to be more effective in our roles. Skills that might let someone take their idea to leadership and talk about it persuasively. Or if I’m a leader, the skills that let me develop my staff so they feel that there’s an investment in them and gives them a sense of ownership.”
It’s not that Russell feels understanding future needs for technical skills are unimportant, only that professional skills are part of the fuel that feeds an ongoing desire to learn and apply new technical skills effectively. “We can work to predict which skills are needed in the future, but what we really need to is to help people see the value of continuously re-looking at what they need to know in order to solve a problem or run a project. It’s then that we can get them involved in new projects and tasks that are going to stretch them.”
Lean on Technology to Find the Shortest Path Between the Skills You Have and the Skills You Need
When you understand the skills already present in the organization, and you’ve surfaced information on the skills that will be needed in the future, you can offer clarity on learning paths for your organization’s talent, and even identify the emerging need for new roles and positions. This is central to the new-skilling approaches to learning and development described in research conducted by HCI and the Cornerstone People Research Lab. New-skilling leverages both partnerships and tools to forecast future skills needs and extend opportunities for learning that enhance current skill sets while introducing new and needed skills for the future.
Understanding the evolving skills needs of the organization can’t be managed through paper files and spreadsheets alone. But that doesn’t mean you need a new system to begin building skills inventories and identifying gaps. Dr. Saxton shares that at one of her previous organizations she and her team “made an effort to work with the IT department to build out templates and tools to help automate our collection of data and make individual development plans easy to access and easy to adapt or change.” Having a clear direction for development helps both workers and their organizations, shortening the ramp to proficiency for new skills.
This is one of the most important outcomes of a new skilling approach. It helps you identify the shortest path between the existing skill sets of the workforce and the organization's future skills needs. This allows you to refine programs and redirect resources to maximize your L&D spend, while accelerating development efforts to close skills gaps more quickly.
To learn more about identifying and addressing skills gaps through new-skilling, listen to an on-demand webcast on this topic, or download the report.