Digital Upskilling: Why You Should Upskill Employees & How

Part 1: The Value — and Stakes — of Upskilling

Digital transformation is changing the fabric of nearly every industry. A first wave of automation, to a large extent oriented toward physical work in highly structured and predictable environments, has already swept through and dramatically changed industries like manufacturing, hospitality, food service and retail. But plenty of traditional white-collar work was significantly reorganized by that first wave, too, particularly jobs involving relatively straightforward data collection and processing. Think of the increasingly lean accounting and HR operations at many companies today, for instance.

Today, a second wave of change is upon us, this time with far broader-reaching consequences. The union of physical and digital technologies with analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) is creating new kinds of digital business models, and placing new kinds of demands on leadership, particularly around a bundle of activities known as “upskilling”—the ongoing commitment to employees’ learning, training and development.

As a business leader, of course, you always have to balance long-range strategic planning and vision with the much more immediate mandate to deliver on bottom-line goals—now, this quarter, in the moment. It can be a tricky balancing act.

So, before turning to how leaders can implement upskilling, let’s first talk about value: What is the value that upskilling can bring to enterprises?

Greater ability to innovate, adapt and respond to change

Of all the good reasons to spearhead upskilling efforts for your team, increased operational agility is an obvious one, yet it’s probably not the easiest to sell in the C-suite or to the board. The exact ROI is hard to quantify, for starters (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put metrics in place). To make your case, first, consider that ongoing technological disruption, global political uncertainty, increasing regulatory burden and ever-more-mercurial customer expectations are factors that weigh heavily on the minds of business heads. But, against these factors, there are no better suited counterweights than the increased ability to innovate, adapt and respond to change. You might even, through upskilling, find yourself overseeing a more collaborative and transparent culture and workforce at the end of the day—a positive externality.

Tighter alignment between teams and functional groups

Done properly, upskilling begins with an indepth assessment of organizational human capital, overlaying a hypothetical future-state on top of the as-is state today. What are the organization’s future talent needs going to be? What resources are currently at hand? Where do gaps exist? What do we need to get from here to there?

While this exercise is designed to be forward looking, it can yield short-term benefits as well. For instance, it can add visibility to organizational bottlenecks, and can shine a spotlight on areas where processes break down or silos exist.

Finally, don’t just focus on tech or IT skills — particularly if you are leading or planning on leading digital transformation projects — as soft skills have frequently been credited with contributing critically to the success of such projects.

If you want to retain talent, you simply can’t not upskill

Even for digital talent who are already highly skilled—in fact, especially for those highly skilled digital talent—ongoing upskilling efforts are a must. So many companies are vying for these employees that, if you don’t, they’ll simply go elsewhere. As a leader, you must work to ensure your organization is invested significantly in, and sincerely committed to, the kind of ongoing upskilling that will retain your most talented and valuable employees.

Part 2: Implementing Upskilling in Your Organization

In Part 1, we broke down the value of upskilling for stakeholders on all sides of the organization.
In Part 2, we’ll turn to some actionable strategies for effectively leading and rolling-out upskilling initiatives at your organization.

Show (don’t just tell)

It’s not uncommon to hear senior leadership merely pay lip service to digital transformation—
for instance, to sympathetically acknowledge all of the changes on the horizon, without actually
making the changes or adopting the new tools themselves. That’s a big mistake. Besides alienating employees, it sends the wrong message about the strategic priorities of the company in an era when, as the saying goes, “change starts at the top.” In other words, successful leaders will vouchsafe their commitment to digital transformation by taking a hands-on approach, personally embracing emerging platforms and channels. Plus, the simple act of learning to use these technologies will clearly demonstrate what upskilling looks like in practice, too.

Partner with human resources (but also work to build broad-base support)

As the home of learning and development (L&D), your company’s Human Resources (HR) department is a logical ally in any upskilling initiative. You can partner with HR leadership early on—ideally, when conducting the initial skills-gap analysis. But be sure to seek support elsewhere, too.

Studies have shown that digital transformation is unlikely to be successful in organizations that don’t engage with all stakeholders—including leadership but extending on down, across the front and back offices, from the outset—to make transformations happen. Make sure you engage with and secure buy-in from frontline managers and employees well before you attempt any kind of upskilling-related transformation effort.

Frame upskilling as an opportunity to evaluate technology or improve products

To effectively train your team for the future, it won’t hurt to have access to state-of-the-art tools. And one way to make this learning both hands-on and directly tied to business outcomes is to treat a new technology tool—something vital to the business—as your classroom. For instance, if your company is considering introducing chatbot-based customer service portals, this might be a smart place to begin your exploration. It’s also something that the finance department might approve.

Alternately, running design-thinking workshops with your team is another smart, outcome-oriented way to generate actionable insights—which you can then take back to business heads—through the practice of upskilling. Ultimately, whatever approach you take, the key point is that organically weaving upskilling into the fabric of your day-today business operations is strategically the way to go. And framing your upskilling initiatives within these broader value-adds for the business will surely make it easier to get the green light from your CFO, too.

Look for partners

There are an increasing number of potential solution providers now crowding into the upskilling space. Most of their offerings, which run the gamut from futuristic-looking augmented reality glasses for training pharmaceutical, biotech and manufacturing employees to more familiar SaaS eLearning platforms, can be tailored to meet the needs of different roles and industries. Ideally, employees will be incentivized to complete the training on their own time, for free.

Conclusion

As a leader of people, no matter where you sit exactly within your organization, you should be as passionate about upskilling as your team—and keep in mind that no one is immune from the imperative to upskill. According to most forecasts, a significant share of work is going to be automated in the coming years, and much about the economy of the future is uncertain. But, by being open about the need to upskill employees, taking proactive steps now and seeking support within your organization, you will be a much more effective leader—and have the chance to learn as you go.

If you’re looking for an infusion of talent to spearhead digital transformation at your company, learn more about Tatum’s solutions today.