The future of learning is humanity, with a side of technology

When it comes to talent mobility, a real-life “talent concierge” can beat out any algorithm.

Internal talent mobility is hard. It’s the great white whale that most companies continually chase, and the fact that the talent pipeline isn’t growing at the pace it needs to be is worsening the situation even more. Job posting durations are growing in some of the most in-demand fields, and 2020 freshmen enrollment numbers are down 22 percent compared with 2019 numbers, with the expectation they’ll continue to drop year-over-year. The “talent wars” that we’ve been buzzing about for the past 15 years are now truly upon us.

The situation isn’t going to change anytime soon, and it won’t be solved through external hiring simply because demand is outstripping supply. It’s not surprising, then, that almost every CLO in 2021 is listing the growing skills gap and new talent upskilling as a top priority.

But trying to solve the problem of building internal talent and getting such talent to the right roles has largely been relegated to software, algorithms and other forms of technology: technology that helps us map skills and roles, technology that matches content to skills, technology that helps us track stretch projects and technology that matches all of that to our employees. These technologies and skills frameworks have been implemented in some version for years but have produced limited results.

We’re treating the challenge of learning paths and internal talent mobility like they’re a problem that can be solved with one technology solution we buy off the shelf. Instead, we should be treating this more like a dilemma to be managed through an ecosystem of tools, processes and, most important, people — the last of which may prove to be the most overlooked asset of all.

The power of human connection

Think back on your own career journey. How did you get into a new field or a new role? How did you decide which new skills you should invest in? Almost certainly, you were guided by a real-life conversation, whether it was with a manager, a mentor or even a stranger. Perhaps that person asked simple questions or made observations that helped you shape your own next steps. Maybe they recommended connections, training or education programs, and jobs.

When we look back at our lives and our careers, our journeys make sense to us, as if every step that took place occurred naturally as it should have. But when you look toward the future, and take into account things as complex as skills and jobs, it’s hard to imagine what path you should be on and what it will take to be successful. If you’re on the front line in an unstable job market, this task can be especially daunting.

Employers are tapping into the concept of career and development navigation services to address this challenge. Last week I had a call with a CLO for a large health care provider. Their organization is working with engineers to build smart search bots that tie out skills to learning content, but knowing this is a real need today, they’re putting a stop gap in place. As of this month, there’s a human at the other end of the digital experience they’ve built that’s reviewing a learner’s previous learning activities, searching for content and learning experiences that would build relevant skills to the organization for the future based on internal role posting, and helping the learner get enrolled. This is far more than “smart search” — it’s humanity interjected at one of the most overwhelming and important moments in a career.

That is why I propose a new tool, one that will help enable internal talent mobility in addition to the existing tech we have that matches learners to content and jobs. This tool will be a real-life human being.

What the job title reads on paper isn’t important — consider them “upskilling coaches” or “talent concierges” or what have you. But the roles themselves are vital, since they are the ones who will make the intentional effort to pick up a phone and answer questions about 1) what skills the organization needs now, soon and later, 2) what kind of opportunities, like courses, rotations, and projects, can learners connect with to develop those skills, and 3) what job postings are available that learners can pursue immediately. While this solution isn’t exactly scalable at first glance, the money this role saves in recruiting could be a net positive for the organization that makes scaling feasible in the long run. Just think for a moment about the likely waste in your programs not adopted, roles unsocialized or skills not targeted for development as a result of the lack of guidance from someone in a role like this.

In my line of business, we call these kinds of phone calls “wraparound supports.” These services include helping an employee navigate the complexity and multitude of learning courses, getting the person through complex registration processes, regularly checking in on progress with longer programs, helping with job prep and interviewing skills, and giving advice about succeeding in a new role. In fact, in a recent survey of education benefit programs from dozens of large companies, our team found that when coaches are used as a part of the selection, enrollment and persistence support for learning activities, the NPS increases by about 40-plus points. This support is especially helpful when it is focused on the population where the most lift from investment can be gained: low-wage and front-line workers.

People-powered support

For these front-line workers, wraparound supports are paramount to successful upskilling and mobility. Amazon’s Career Choice program, for example, includes blended learning with on-site classes and training at fulfillment centers, which helps alleviate transportation and child care challenges for employees. It also provides each employee with a professional coach, and managers are encouraged to adjust employees’ schedules so they can attend in-person classes.

The key to all this is humanity. One of the most important benefits of coaching, which algorithms will struggle to get right, is building employees’ confidence and providing emotional support as they make career choices, learn unfamiliar skills and adjust to a new role. Having someone to talk to, a human who will ask questions and respond to their hesitations and worries, allows employees to feel listened to. And it’s this human interaction that will have the greatest impact.

To be clear, I still believe in the benefits of skills frameworks and libraries, and I want the work to scale internal talent mobility through technology to continue. But this is an issue that cannot simply wait around for technology to get it right. In short, we’re pumping out meaningful content and leaving it to compliance-based due dates, algorithms with limited data, ineffective search bars and overwhelmed employees to navigate that content in hopes of creating success for our learners.

As an industry, we’ve been in this humanity versus technology position before with the concept of content curation. Years ago, after reading a Chief Learning Officer article by Elliot Masie about the role of a content curator, I hired my own content curator while leading the learning innovation team at Capital One. This person used her library science background and her time in L&D to comb content readily available on the web, rank it, make it available for learners and maintain it over time. I knew that eventually, the tech would improve enough to scale above what humans could do in this role. But we needed to start somewhere and make faster progress on the concept of curating the plethora of content available from the market. We also needed to know what worked and what didn’t so that people would drive the technology features, not vice versa.Today we find ourselves in the same boat, and for now, if we want to enable internal talent mobility, humanity is the key to success.

A unique time, a unique opportunity

If better performance metrics are the proof of good learning interventions, then internal talent mobility may be the proof of actual talent development. Improved performance is important for this quarter’s financial results, sure, but a narrow focus on today’s skills will ultimately result in “skill debt.” And when organizations get what they need today but aren’t prepared for what they’ll need in the future, talent problems arise once again.

Now is the time to make investments that will offer enduring solutions to such problems. The pandemic and resulting economic downturn offers bold leaders the perfect opportunity to make long-term, thoughtful investments, while pressure for short-term financial success has temporarily been reduced. L&D can find a way off the hamster wheel of short-term skill investments. By having another person to help connect the dots for learners — making clear connections for them about the perishable skills they need for their jobs today, as well as the durable skills and learning opportunities they need to mobilize within their careers — business partners can plan for their own futures. This will set up organizations for success for whatever the future may hold.