The thrills and chills of skills development

People-focused, results-driven, AI-powered talent strategies are fortified to meet the needs of organizations that seek to remain competitive in the rapidly-changing global workforce.

Workforce learning, employee engagement and talent attraction collided with pop culture during the pandemic, with everyone becoming interested in how people work. In the U.S., that collision coincided with a ramping up of retirement for the biggest generation of workers the country had ever seen. The timings of these incidents combined to create a perfect storm for talent development professionals. Organizations became increasingly aware of the need to sustain their workforce and maintain their talent catalogs. 

Enter a heightened focus on skills development. Upskilling and reskilling increased in popularity, but the intensity of demand often conflicted with the time demands that strategic skills-developed plans need for creation and implementation. Learning professionals everywhere are expected to respond and resolve the skills-development challenge quickly and with few resources. According to a 2020 report by LinkedIn Learning, CEOs are interested and weighing in on organizational learning strategies now more than ever. This heightened visibility can be both exhilarating (thrill) and paralyzing (chill) for those charged with creating and implementing skills-based talent plans.  

The data

Ninety percent of participants in PWC’s 2021 Future of Work survey believe investment in skills and data assessment is critical to creating a successful workforce. Despite that finding, frighteningly, LinkedIn found that as of 2021 only one in two U.S.-based companies had a skills-based talent strategy. Make no mistake: talent management is a global challenge with training, retaining and engaging talent, puzzling companies worldwide.  A 2020 global talent-development study conducted by CompTIA reported that 49 percent of talent professionals believe that hiring managers fail to prioritize training and lack of time is the top reason employees don’t invest in learning new skills. In short, employees know that learning and developing new skills is vital to staying competitive and productive, but they struggle to balance that with demonstrating efficiency.  

Chill: The complexity of skills identification

Creating a skills-development strategy requires skills recognition and measurement. Traditional and large-scale skills assessments found in LXPs and LMS’s often utilize self- and peer-reported skill identification. With limited time and resources, many organizations have no way to validate or measure the accuracy of the outcomes. Relying solely on these results creates an environment in which many skills-assessment practices are surface-level at best and unreliable at worst. Using faulty results as the foundation of any strategy leads to instability and the misclassification or omission of skills, which can result in ineffective and possibly detrimental workforce training plans.  

Thrill: AI-enabled practitioners

Acknowledging the limitations of participant-led skills identification by incorporating methods for validation can help strengthen automated skills assessments. Many learning tools have begun to use AI to power validation and testing exercises. In many cases, these applications provide practitioners with feedback about the learning habits and skills usage within their organizations while providing benchmarks based on industry leaders. These types of outputs save time and amplify the reach of learning professionals, empowering them to be more confident in their ability to accurately pinpoint skills.

Chill: The challenge of globalization

Technology and a global economy mean that many organizations are boundaryless. Cultural norms add complexity to diagnosing skills levels and closing gaps. Organizations often work to create internal languages for understanding and measuring the talents of their workforce. Those languages may be represented in skills maps and/or competency frameworks. Ensuring that these tools are universally relevant to the regions, generations and cultures that make up a company’s workforce is essential. Talent professionals lament that creating a culture of learning is a significant obstacle for their success, but also recognize that they miss the opportunity to customize and personalize learning for their audiences. For example, to empower and increase cross-directional feedback, an international U.S.-based institution may promote candor as a must-have skill for team members worldwide. For its Japanese employees, candor in the workplace can be especially difficult to adopt and exercise as it may conflict with cultural norms and translate to insubordination and disrespect.  

Thrill: DEI informed skills-approach

Research shows that organizations with strong DEI initiatives demonstrate stronger innovation, problem-solving and customer service skills than their counterparts without formal DEI plans. Beyond the moral imperative of diversity, learning professionals can leverage cultural insight to increase personalization and customization of skills training and heighten effectiveness. Better understanding of an audience and its nuances can fortify organizational development efforts by making use of existing cultural norms and practices to support skills strategies rather than attempting to create and indoctrinate new ones. In 2021, PWC’s Future of Learning report found that learning programs that embrace DEI and are responsive to organizational demographics rank high in authenticity and yield dedicated employees who are committed to success and innovation. Thus, the U.S.-based organization mentioned in the example above could find that defining candor as an act of service rather than critique may be more widely accepted within its population.  

Chill: Responding to the rapidly changing skills landscape

Technology and globalization have contributed to how quickly new skills categories are defined and adopted. Consider machine learning and design thinking. These two skills areas were highly specialized just three years ago. Now they are pervasive and industry agnostic. Hence, talent practitioners working with skills models that are more than three years old are underprepared and less competitive. IBM suggests that technical skills have a relevancy of about two and a half years, and nontechnical skills last up to five years. These lifespans apply to the way skills are defined; hence, skills assessments need frequent, industry-aware updates. AI that aggregates industry research, role trends and organizational practices can help create dynamic models, but change management and adoption remain strategic components that require a human approach.

Thrill: People-focused talent professionals

Talent development lies at the intersection of employee retention, engagement and training, making it the most people-centered strategic area of many organizations. While efficiency and results are invaluable metrics for evaluating learning program effectiveness, when over-emphasized they can handicap professionals’ abilities to be responsive and innovative. A skills-development strategy that balances technological prowess, speed and agility with interpersonal intelligence can be a competitive advantage. Hence, partnering learning professionals with subject matter experts and practitioners is a best practice proven to lessen the risks involved in creating and applying skills models. Practitioners should be leveraged to inform, validate and endorse skills-based training. A strategic partnership between SMEs and talent developers can advance change management and adoption efforts for skills frameworks.  

Skills-based development promises to shape talent strategy and workforce development approaches for the foreseeable future. It has surpassed the confines of learning and human resources departments to infiltrate the priority lists of CEOs and become a linchpin of organizational strategy. The critical nature of skills frameworks mandates that they be quickly produced, highly accurate, adaptable and rapidly adopted. That’s a lot of pressure for learning teams that are traditionally understaffed and under-resourced. Thankfully, the same technological advances that demand response can also inform the approach. Learning professionals can be buttressed further through the strategic use of DEI initiatives. Demographics-informed skills approaches result in increased options for customization and improved relevance of skills programs. In conclusion, people-focused, results-driven, AI-powered talent strategies are fortified to meet the needs of organizations that seek to remain competitive in the rapidly- changing global workforce.