Europe is currently experiencing a labour and skills shortage with demand for labour, as measured by job vacancy rate, reaching pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021 with particular shortages of digital skills required in the information and communications sector.* This has been exacerbated by the mobility constrictions imposed by Covid-19. Organisations desperate to fill vacancies are likely to have to consider candidates who will not have the perfect skill sets to match the jobs on offer – so HR departments will need to find ways for employees to upskill, or learn a new skill, quickly.
My recent work with global organisations as Learner Experience Architect at Insights Learning and Development has focused on this problem. We have found that focusing on ‘Awareness’ has been the most impactful thing that organisations and employees can do to accelerate the acquisition of new skills.
So what do we mean by ‘Awareness’ and how can organisations incorporate this new approach to successfully upskill their workforces rapidly?
The HR and L&D industries tend to focus on learning content and method of delivery, looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of these areas in an attempt to support effective and efficient skills development. Recently, the focus has been on designing learning that incorporates research-informed approaches such as spaced learning, social learning, micro-learning, learning journeys, gamification, 70-20-10 model, and learning in the flow of work.
Equally, corporate learning is primarily dominated by the “course.” When a person needs to learn a new skill, the most common organizationally driven response is to send them on a course. This is in contrast with the way that people tend to learn outside of the corporate world.
Think of the last time you needed to learn a new skill, no matter how small or large. Maybe it was how to install a dishwasher, or how to launch a podcast; or how to lead a hybrid team. How did you approach learning this skill or skillset? There are many different answers to this question, and your answer will be driven by your innate awareness of how you learn best in each situation. Maybe you learn best by reading, or watching a demonstration video, or being coached by a peer or an expert. Your decision of how to gain the new skill will also be driven by your awareness of your current level of expertise, and your awareness of what specifically you need to learn to achieve your goal.
This is how people are quickly learning things every day, and awareness is front and centre. The Awareness” approach is the difference between just pressing ‘start’ on an assigned training module compared with taking a moment to consider four things:
- Strengths – What is this person’s starting point? What do they already know about this skill? What related skills do they have that are transferable or will be useful in helping them gain the new skill? Where along the learning pathway should they begin? This alone can accelerate time to performance by not wasting time on unnecessary training.
- Obstacles – What will be the biggest challenge for THIS employee in gaining the new skill? This could be related to the skill itself or a pre-requisite skill, OR could be related to the environment. Will they be able to take the time to prioritise learning this skill? Will they have a chance to practice and use this skill to reinforce the learning? Identify the most likely point of failure for this employee.
- Resources – Identify how the employee will overcome the identified biggest challenge or possible point of failure. This is usually not immediately evident, but taking the time needed to identify the tools or resources or support necessary to overcome their personal obstacle before starting the skill journey is an enormous accelerator and confidence booster, and well worth the investment up front.
- Mode – There are many ways to learn any skill. What is the best way for this employee to learn this skill? In designing learning pathways, multi-modal is the way to go. Offer documents, videos, case studies, practice opportunities, and access to an expert; and support employees to select the method(s) that work for them.
To put this in the context of a practical example. If a job requires the skill of coding using Python, rather than sending the employee on a ‘learn to use Python course’ consider what they already know (e.g. Java), what will be their biggest challenge (e.g. prioritizing this learning amidst their other responsibilities), how to overcome that challenge (e.g. incorporate the learning into the workflow), and how they learned this kind of skill in the past (e.g. working with a peer mentor). The most efficient learning for this employee could therefore be to assign a work project similar to what they have done previously with Java, but that uses Python and provide a coach/mentor who will get them started and be an in-the-moment resource.
This is an ideal, but for some organisations this is not yet scalable. However, finding ways to support employees to activate awareness can still have an impact, even if the employees must complete the same (untailored) training program. Any employee who starts a standard, one-size-fits-all course or learning program with awareness will gain more out of that experience than an employee who plows through without awareness. With that in mind, here are four suggestions for HR leaders to adopt to accelerate necessary upskilling:
- Look for ways to activate awareness in your employees at the beginning of any upskilling program. Preference-based profiles and personality assessments such as Insights Discovery, along with skill audits and peer/manager feedback, can help activate awareness and identify personalized strengths, gaps, and resources.
- Encourage employees to take an active role in their upskilling. Rather than designing a one-size fits all approach, prepare for a polysynchronous, hybrid approach to enable you to support employees if they request a non-standard approach to upskilling.
- Build in awareness activators throughout upskilling to maximise impact; help each employee notice what they are learning along the way or when they overcome their biggest obstacle
- Find ways to build awareness as a global employee competency to have the broadest impact on upskilling and other training and development needs
About the Author
Dr Tanya Boyd is Learner Experience Architect at Insights Learning and Development. She brings over 15 years of consulting and teaching experience to her role on the Insights team. She has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and has worked as an internal and external consultant, as well as a university instructor.