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How to upskill: From strategy to practical steps 

A versatile workforce is key to overcoming challenges, including disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies have agreed on the business case for reskilling and upskilling, but they don’t always know how to achieve either at scale or leverage technologies like learning management systems (LMS) effectively. Employees can access a plethora of courses, certifications, and badges, but, despite this abundance of certification, many leaders still struggle to discern which will have the biggest impact on their business and their people. 


Many organizations have already shown that they can quickly pivot their employees to work remotely almost overnight out of necessity. As companies begin to settle into the new reality, it is natural to ask how other concerns, like workplace learning, can best be carried forward. With creative solutions and technologies, leaders are investigating how best to achieve this in their companies by assessing how to communicate authentically, collect insights, and implement employee training with better outcomes.  


Along with a strategic workforce strategy, organizations can take these practical steps to support effective employee training and professional development. 


1. Determine skills gap and anticipate the long-term needs

Once companies have determined their goals and assessed multiple scenarios for the business in the short and long term, they develop a workforce strategy to match. An essential step to bring that strategy to life is closing the gap between the skills your workforce needs to have and the competencies they currently possess. Many companies, as they adapt to economic uncertainty, are assessing these skills gaps while determining whether to reduce their workforce. As critical as it is to think about today’s staffing needs, it is just as important, if not more important, to consider workforce and skills needs even as far as five or 10 years in the future. While certain technical skills may have a shorter shelf life, others, like leadership development, are an investment in a company’s long-term future. And a robust employee training program has also been shown to help attract and retain the best talent, the ultimate long-term resource. 

The first major effort in formulating any talent strategy is the identification of the jobs or careers that will require employee upskilling. For example, many jobs will be reconfigured as a result of technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), that can take on routine work. Organizations should start by identifying tasks that are critical to growth and improving customer experiences. Companies should next match resources to best accomplish those tasks, including intelligent machines and reskilled employees. Rewritten job descriptions should reflect the need for this more strategic and creative workforce. As companies hire, HR technologies today can help them predict on-the-job success by assessing personality and cognitive ability for job candidates.

In addition, to continuously assess the skills of the workforce, consider developing a skills library – a database of what employees need to know and skills they should have to be able to perform successfully in their role. In a sense, they function as skills-based job descriptions. A flexible job model allows each employee to build on the skills that are specific to their unique assignments and development.


2. Survey employees  

HR technology platforms can gather real-time data about the employee experience and business goals to help companies make the right choices about their upskilling priorities. By surveying employees about their skills and goals, they can diagnose a person’s present skills and collect insights about skill adjacencies, the principle that certain skills are easier for employees to learn because they are adjacent in concept or practice to skills an employee might already have. 

Understanding an employee’s needs are critical not only for a company’s upskilling strategy, but to improve the employee experience and retention. For the most effective, long-term outcomes, companies should align the effort to upskill their workforce and employees’ own career planning and development. A happy workforce is often a productive workforce. Past research has shown that employees are often at their “career best” when their talents (what I’m good at), passions (what interests me), and organization’s needs (what my company needs from me) intersect.


3. Consider skills, knowledge, and experience

In some fields, obtaining and transferring knowledge is just as critical as skills. While data scientists may be in high demand to integrate AI technologies in a business, having an existing employee seek a certification in data science may not always be sufficient. They will need a deep background in mathematics or computer science to understand how algorithms work. When companies lack the scale, credibility, or expertise to upskill employees in particular areas, they can partner with institutions – including academic and professional organizations – for customized training.

One widely referenced learning framework, the “70-20-10” model, encourages companies to facilitate 70% learning from on-the-job experience, 20% learning through others (such as mentoring and coaching), and 10% through formal training. But the model may be weighted with significant differences across fields and skill sets. For example, airline pilots have differing requirements, depending on the license they wish to achieve, including private or commercial. Many would argue that rigorous, formal training should be weighed more than just 10% in many fields.  


4. Rethink, reshape, and retool HR to support a continuous learning process

One of the keys to a successful workforce strategy is to instill a learning culture in an organization. Employees may not have the time to listen to or watch a two-hour training class. Luckily, technology, from apps to learning management systems, allows employees to gain skills and share knowledge with each other through iterative upskilling. These vignettes of training can take the form of 10-minute, “bite-sized” learning videos that they can play offline on the train with their cellphones or at home.  

Gone are the days when companies prioritized core competencies and assigned learning and training sessions to employees. Today, leaders can leverage technologies and ecosystems to allow employees to drive their own learning. Customizable tools that use AI and machine learning, for example, can provide personalized training, coaching, and feedback. 


Are you on the path to success? 

Explore 6 questions to better assess your upskilling & reskilling workforce plan

5. Motivate employees by facilitating and helping them track their progress

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for upskilling. Instead of offering prescriptive training plans, leaders should follow the cues of employees for successful employee training and professional development.  

With personalized employee development plans and social learning, people can stay engaged and focused on their work through virtual networking and peer mentoring, while managers motivate to achieve team goals. To support a remote workforce, chats and social boards can be critical to recapture community dynamics that were in place at physical workplaces. Other motivational techniques include gamification tied to other benefits, including financial rewards or gift cards. And the latest learning management systems allow companies to deliver, track, and manage content, certifications, and employee data as a single source of record for learning. 

Following the growing trend of sharing information and consuming information on social media, many people expect to have ownership over when and how they learn. And, as one CHRO put it, encouraging employees to create and contribute to their own learning content by building their own “learning playlists” allowed them to become, in effect, CEOs of their own learning world. This opened the floodgates of individual progress.  


With a comprehensive workforce strategy that aligns with business goals, companies can apply these practical steps to identify reskilling opportunities and gaps. And with more effective reskilling experience and outcomes, organizations can support a future-proof workforce.  



Changing realities around the globe – from shifting supply chains to business models – are impacting every business. Those organizations that can reorient their people will meet the changing challenges of the future.


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