Reskilling and upskilling have become topics of big conversation and big business.

The online learning provider Udemy recently raised $50 million in new capital from a Japanese education firm based on a $2 billion valuation. The focus on skills is being driven by the digitisation of work and artificial intelligence, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and has accelerated due to the pandemic.

According to the World Economic Forum, one billion jobs – roughly one-third of all jobs worldwide – are expected to be transformed, and 133 million new jobs will be created to meet future demand. This cannot be done without upskilling and reskilling tools.

While skilling is big news, many human capital leaders are struggling with how to implement and enforce an effective skilling strategy. PwC’s 2020 Annual Global CEO Survey revealed that only 17% of US CEOs and 30% of global CEOs felt their upskilling programmes were ‘very effective’ in accelerating digital transformation. Where are the disconnects?

As we work with customers to upskill and reskill their workforces, we find that the world of adult learning is changing quickly. As a result, companies can mistakenly structure their reskilling and upskilling plans based on myths and outdated information.

Let’s debunk these myths.

myth 1: learning must take place in-person to be effective.

In a post-COVID world, this might elicit a chuckle from some learning and development (L&D) leaders. Most know learning can absolutely be done effectively remotely. Until companies were forced to adapt to virtual learning when quarantines went into place this year, many L&D leaders fought this myth internally as their organisations preferred traditional in-person learning, claiming engagement in virtual learning was low. True, it’s easy for people to escape while participating in a learning webinar via Zoom or Webex, but you can design engaging learning programmes without much adaptation.

In a Harvard Business Review article from April, INSEAD professors Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri explain that online learning is more than “setting up a Zoom account and continuing business as usual.” They point to research that supports two means of learning – cognitive and socio-emotional – and describe each:

“The first is cognitive. We absorb processes and use information to complete our tasks. Cognitive learning has us focusing on information and skills. We might get that factual information from a class, an article we read or a colleague teaching us a new procedure. We might impart it by conscientiously preparing a slide deck and presenting it. Too often, when people think about learning remotely, they’re only thinking about how to facilitate cognitive learning.

“The second way we learn is socio-emotional. We learn how we – and others – feel and think about the new situation we are in, and how to manage those thoughts and feelings. This type of learning has us focusing on people and requires that we inquire about our own and others’ experiences.”

According to Peshkam and Petriglieri, when companies are under stress they often revert to promoting cognitive learning, even though socio-emotional learning is where they “really need to be focusing now as we adapt to radically different circumstances.

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Organisations can encourage socio-emotional learning by, for example, opening a call with a leader sharing how she’s feeling and adapting emotionally to new situations. Using socio-emotional learning techniques can help you adapt your previous in-person content into an online delivery forum and keep the interest of your audience.

Professor Annie Peshkam

myth 2: learning happens only through formal courses.

At Randstad RiseSmart, we have seen this myth disproved when our customers encourage their employees to participate in dynamic teams or internal gigs, which are a very popular means of on-the-job learning.

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we saw a spike in the use of dynamic teams to address new business models and adjust quickly to a fast-changing environment. Trying new things at work can give employees some of the best upskilling and reskilling learning available, as proven by the traditional 70/20/10 model.

According to Dr. Palena Neale of the Forbes Coaches Council, “Career and leadership transitions are facilitated by stretch assignments where we get to learn, practice and experiment. Creating more of these stretch opportunities and linking them to training experiences is a great way to build on training efforts. Participants can practice what they have learned in a relevant context while the organisation develops talent and promotes collaboration.”

Likely, these forms of learning are already happening in your organisation. Recognise this and encourage managers to lend their talent to other teams and to allow contributions from employees outside their job functions.

This will not only help you solve immediate problems but will also break down silos within the company, in turn making future communication easier.

At the same time, it will encourage employees to take charge of their development, understand how to align their interests with the needs of the organisation and promote a growth mindset that is at the core of agile businesses.

myth 3: providing employees with options is good.

This can be a ’yes’ or ’no.’ Of course, it’s good to make sure that an employee learning SQL at an advanced level, for example, has access to more than just beginner courses, but too many options can paralyse a learner.

Most companies have supplied their employees with tens of thousands of courses for upskilling and reskilling. With the growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and online learning, it’s easy and quite inexpensive to do. Yet, most companies we work with say their utilisation of these tools is downright abysmal. At the same time, employees continue to ask for more learning and skilling. What’s going on?

I’ll provide an analogy to explain.

When I was a first-time homeowner, I decided to tile a small bathroom. I started my project with a trip to a big box home improvement store where I was confronted with an overwhelming 20’-tall, 100’-long aisle of everything I needed to tile. From grout to sealer to tools and options for the tile itself, I felt overwhelmed.

Until I got guidance through one of the retailer’s classes, I was absolutely lost and my project remained unfinished. When I got personal guidance, I was able to better understand what I needed and how it all worked together.

In the same way, employees can benefit from having a knowledgeable guide sift through the courses available and choose those that meet their learning objectives and are best-suited to the employee’s learning style and time frame. The same is true for learning plans, which brings us to our next myth.

myth 4: access to courses alone is all employees need.

Technology alone doesn’t solve upskilling and reskilling.

People need personal guidance to develop their own strategic learning roadmap.

The best learning plan may include experiential learning and other avenues, such as webinars, TED Talks, certification programmes or formal degree programmes. In the absence of this guidance from career and learning professionals, employees are likely to be overwhelmed, which typically leads to inaction or poor decision-making. The outcomes can include a failure to learn the right skills, sub-optimal learning and skills development, and a loss of motivation.

Some employees may need ongoing assistance to stay on track, especially if they have an intense learning roadmap. In these scenarios, a role of learning advisor can be instrumental in helping individuals reach their goals.

myth 5: companies can only afford to providing upskilling and reskilling to their 'high potentials'.

This may have been true back in the days when in-person learning was a company’s only option. When a facilitator is flown in and has a few days in a classroom with 15-20 people, a company has to be selective in deciding who participates or bring in more facilitators. Under that model, many companies choose to develop only their HiPos in an effort to focus on efficiency.

Things are different today.

First, most companies recognise their HiPo selection process is wrought with bias. In a traditional 9-box assessment process, subjectivity is prevalent and leaders, consciously or unconsciously, tend to provide more favourable ratings for both performance and potential to those who remind them of themselves.

This can leave many qualified employees out of the process. Especially now, when diversity and inclusivity are rightfully at the top of many corporate agendas, companies can give all employees equal access to learning opportunities without busting the budget.

The modern organisation looks to a combination of high-tech and high-touch services to scale learning across the company, making tools available to the entire enterprise. Through efficiencies in technology, companies like RiseSmart have made high-touch services such as career coaching more accessible and scalable.

When combined with focused online learning tools, this approach can provide an inclusive and affordable upskilling and reskilling solution that includes everybody.  

An interesting phenomenon also emerges when everybody gets access to these tools. Talent begins to emerge from unexpected places. One HR leader told us she was amazed by the ’hidden gems’ buried deep within her organisation when all employees received access to learning tools.

Companies today are seeking any means they can to stay agile and adjust to changes in their business models. Keeping workforces updated on their skills is critical to meeting these needs. As additional tools come on the market, companies that are early adopters and who evolve their thinking will be faster at responding to these changes in the future.

This requires questioning old thinking that we may have taken for granted as ‘truth.’ Setting aside old myths will allow you as a learning leader to innovate your way to upskilling your organisation and can help your company stand out in a time of rapid change.

about the author
Jeanne Schadd
Jeanne Schadd

Jeanne Schad

transforming the future of work

A strategic ideator who is committed to helping today's companies build strong employer brands and engaging cultures. Named one of California's Most Powerful & Influential Women by the CA Diversity Council.