Why reskilling isn't just about learning new technology

Experts say companies are placing too much emphasis on mastering specific products

We live in a world that's changing so rapidly that it can sometimes feel like it's impossible to keep up. Unfortunately, for businesses keeping up is not enough you need to be at least one step ahead to remain competitive.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the skills of a workforce. Organisations have a responsibility to ensure their employees not only have the right tools available to fulfil their current roles, but are equipped with the skills necessary to support a company's digital transformation journey.

Unfortunately, success can often breed complacency. The most innovative companies are those that are constantly exploiting the latest trends and technology, and to do that they are also constantly refreshing the skills they have at their disposal.

So how does an organisation identify the gaps in its skillset?

Skills? What skills?

Many organisations presume that their attention should be focused on digital or technical skills, perhaps thinking that these are the frontline areas that require the most attention. While they are certainly important, and often the most obvious places to start, there are in fact many other skills that contribute to a rounded base, and many of these aren't obviously digital or technical in nature.

The software that an organisation uses may change often and rapidly, and therefore what are often regarded as less tangible skills are becoming far more attractive than a proficiency for a particular tool.

Jack Orlik, senior researcher at NESTA and author of Delivering Digital Skills, tells IT Pro that it's important to "think about the underlying skills that cut across digital technologies and prepare people in work for a fast-changing digital environment".

"Given the impact of automation, Nesta's research has consistently found that fundamental cognitive skills like problem solving and fluency of ideas are going to be increasingly important in the future."

Vinous Ali, head of policy at techUK told us that "the skills we talk about are not always technical", referring to techUK's own research into reskilling. "Critical thinking, problem solving and creativity have always been at the heart of digital progress."

Finding the gaps

Identifying gaps in your company skillset is tricky, and there's no simple, easy to apply formula for getting it right.

"Self-assessment for all staff to identify their current skill level should be a starting point," explains Ali, "but a tailored programme of development would likely be more productive and allow individuals to develop at their own pace."

Yet, it isn't enough to leave the identification of skills gaps to the employees alone. Senior leaders need to be looking outside the organisation to see the lie of the skills land. Whether that's keeping an eye on what skills training providers are offering, monitoring job adverts, or listening to what industry leaders are saying about skills trends in their own industries. This can then supplement existing knowledge of what the organisation struggles to achieve currently, and be used to establish a far clearer picture of what skills are currently lacking.

"Companies should regularly forecast the skills their employees will need," explains Orlik, "taking care to include the non-technical skills that are becoming increasingly valuable in technology-rich workplaces."

Professional communities

There's a strong case for looking outside the organisation for both motivation and resources when it comes to developing and maintain skills on a long-term basis.

Within both large and small organisations, people can easily feel isolated or that they are just a cog in a machine. Making contact with other 'like-minded people' from outside can give employees a real boost of confidence in the importance of their roles, as well as providing access to training, both formal and informal.

"Where people feel that they are part of a professional community that connects them with people outside as well as inside their own organisations, they tend to be much more motivated to continually develop as part of a community of practice," explains Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, the Chartered Institute of IT.

Orlik agrees, adding that "if staff do not trust that they are learning skills for their own benefit, they won't be motivated to commit to training."

One size does not fit all

When we think of upskilling, it's not always helpful to follow the prescribed ways of doing things. Formal training, peer support, mentoring, cascading, online courses and plenty of other options exist, and advocating one particular method is far too rigid an approach.

"If you have the right professional community of practice for people to join, then they will figure out for themselves what works best," explains Mitchell. "So, don't be prescriptive, let people work out what is most effective for them and then support them to get access to those development opportunities."

In the end, organisations which aren't continually assessing their current skills base are destined to fail. Highly skilled employees are what will make the difference between achieving business goals and succumbing to the market competition. What's more, if you fail to prioritise their development, they will jump ship for a company that does.

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