L&D Key to Building a Workforce Ready for the Challenges of the Future

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David Rice
09/28/2020

future capable workforces

The future of work as we know it is changing right before our eyes every day. Technology is playing a key role in the way work gets done and evolving the roles humans play within the organization.

New roles require new capabilities, which means that one of the biggest challenges facing HR and learning and development teams is the cultivation of future capable workforces. At our recent HR Exchange Live: Corporate Learning event, Lauren Bidwell, a Senior Research Scientist with SAP SuccessFactors, led a discussion examining how learning and development can help companies cultivate the talent they need.

The SuccessFactors team is comprised of applied psychologists that work on product strategy. They examine the way that work is changing and consider what those changes mean from a psychological perspective for SuccessFactors technology. Their research is extensive, touching on a variety of topics ranging from human experience management to supporting field workers, fostering wellbeing and building dynamic teams. In terms of building a future ready workforce, Bidwell outlined a yearlong research study that surveyed both HR leaders and more than 1,400 employees from 14 different countries.

“We really wanted to dig into what does the impact of technological disruption look like?” Bidwell said. “How does that differ across different industries and organizations of different sizes? What were the organizations current understanding of the skills that their workforces possess, what were the skills of they’ll need for the future and what is the gap in between there. We were particularly interested in what tools or solutions companies are using to identify that information and do they feel that it’s working?”

WEBINAR: Building Future Capable Workforces: Taking a People Centered Approach

As they dug into the data from the surveys, it became clear that skills management and developing competencies continue to be problematic. Many HR leaders interviewed expressed frustration with competency models being too static and quickly outdated. Additionally, employees lack the incentive to self-assess skills and chart their own course toward reskilling and upskilling.

Other feedback focused on the increasing importance of soft skills, but noted that assessing and developing them has become continuously more difficult. Skills assessment in general presents a significant challenge as it is labor intensive, subjective and inconsistent.

“Particularly when you become global and you throw in those cultural and geographic differences in addition to general performance expectation differences from one manager to another, it becomes really difficult to do assessments,” Bidwell said. “A lot of customers are trying to balance the need and want for rigorous assessment that has accuracy and validity with the fact that doing this is very difficult, time consuming and expensive. That’s even more true for softer skills, so we see people trying to do it in different ways such as crowdsourcing it.”

The Paradigm Shift

To address these challenges, Bidwell then outlined a paradigm shift that needs to take place in how we think about jobs as the basic unit of analysis and what the organization is constructed around, to people being at the center of that focus.

“Understanding people at a deep level doesn’t begin and end at their skills and skills alone,” Bidwell said. “People are really dynamic, they’re constantly learning, changing and increasing their capabilities and understanding over time. Understanding them and how to assist them requires knowing more than just their technical and professional skills. You have to understand what they are interested in, what are they motivated to do and what are their personality traits that give insight into what they could potentially do.”

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To create this shift around designing work, processes and systems around people, companies have to have a clear idea of what they want to do with the skills and competencies data they collect on people and plug it into workforce planning efforts. SAP research and a poll done during the session indicates leaders see matching people to opportunities as their top key strategic opportunity.

That means learning has to evolve toward creating learning experiences for people and tracking how they grow through those experiences. The reason is that experiences can prove remarkably effective at identifying and validating what skills people possess and helping them to develop new skills.

A Culture of Construction

But this requires a shift in mindset. Where in recent times, many companies have had a “buy mentality” when it comes to talent where acquisition is the focus, companies have to move to a “build mentality” focused on development.

“We know that having an effective learning culture is just as important as having the right tools,” Bidwell said. “You can have the best tools and content in the world, but culture is critical.”

The research team asked employees to rank their organizations on five elements of learning culture. They were:

  • Management relations and style
  • Time to develop new skills
  • Opportunity to develop
  • Autonomy and responsibility for learning
  • Resources available to learners

People who ranked their climate as conducive to learning across these five areas reported high engagement, believed that their jobs make good use of their skills, understand that they need new skills for the future and believed that the pandemic was not significantly impacting their key work needs.

In conclusion, Bidwell left the audience with a few key pieces of advice. The first was that employees have to take control of their own learning. But in order to be successful, Bidwell’s second piece of advice was to help everyone in the organization understand that learning is a journey and employees need a map to get to where they need to go.

And finally, she left the audience with this: “Take a people centered approach to development. When we think about what the most innovative companies that are doing around this, it’s grooming people with the right inclinations to be what they need for them and the business to succeed. You’re currently buying talent, but you can redesign your L&D to ensure that you don’t need to that in the future and it’s really about assessing people with the right potential.”

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