When the world of work is changing so fast, what should workers be learning?

May 22, 2018

Takeaways

L&D leaders must shift how they've traditionally approached their jobs - from gatekeeper to facilitator of learning.
Put employees in the driver's seat with self-service resources, satisfying both immediate and long-term needs.

At a time when workplace transformation is accelerating, building skills for the future can feel like an impossible task. Keeping up with what we need to know right now consumes our time and attention, and who can even predict what new technologies and tools we’ll need to adopt tomorrow?

The answer isn’t to give up, of course. Instead, learning and development (L&D) leaders need to shift how they’ve traditionally approached their jobs—from being the gatekeepers of knowledge to being facilitators of learning. It’s time to put employees in the driver’s seat with self-service learning resources that satisfy both immediate hard-skill needs as well as the soft skills they’ll use and refine over the course of their entire careers. 

Though no one has a crystal ball to tell you exactly where to focus, here are some core principles to follow as you set up a learning culture where employees are free to learn and upskill on their own terms.

Power to the People

In a true learning culture, access to learning resources is open to everyone. Business often moves too fast to wait for an employee to submit a request, wait for manager approval, and get onto L&D’s training calendar. Implementing a self-service platform of educational content can remove friction and enable employees to learn and apply new skills as needed. Meanwhile, L&D is freed up to strategize on the best ways to support business objectives with more thought-out curricula on the most important skills and topics.

This can only work in a learning culture where it’s safe to request upskilling support, which isn’t always the case. In fact, my company recently conducted research into workplace distractions and found that, while distractions cause stress and disengagement, 66% of employees have never spoken to a manager about the problem. 

This didn’t actually come as a surprise to me. In too many organizations, I’ve seen requests for skills training get employees flagged as possibly underperforming or managers push back because they think “training” should happen outside regular work time. In an open learning culture, however, it’s a good thing when people ask for help. It means they want to get better at their jobs and become more valuable contributors. This also presents an opportunity to share the best practices that drive your specific business and culture.

I’ve also known some companies to be quite rigid in what they’ll “allow” employees to learn. In their new roles as facilitators, L&D has to trust people to know what and when they need to learn, thereby democratizing knowledge across the organization. It’s belittling and disempowering to tell someone they can’t pursue their learning interests.  

Cross-Discipline Learning

Another organizational mindset that needs to be discarded is the idea that people should only be entitled to learn skills directly tied to their current job function. This outdated thinking doesn’t make sense in a world where technologies like automation and artificial intelligence are changing job descriptions with regularity.

Career paths aren’t linear anymore either, so a more fluid approach fits today’s dynamic workplace better. Why wouldn’t you want a marketing manager who can build campaign landing pages in HTML and also knows a little something about running SQL database queries? 

We tend to think of the skills gap mostly in terms of a worker bee needing to stay on top of the latest technical skills, but leaders and managers can’t let their skill sets lapse simply because they’re not in the trenches anymore. You can’t lead a team effectively if you don’t have a basic understanding of the tools and technologies available to your team in order to execute your strategy and plans. In fact, I’d argue that virtually everyone could benefit from picking up basic coding skills these days.

Data-Driven Decisions

While it’s true no one can predict the next hot skill with complete certainty, companies can leverage data to make informed investments in talent development. One of the advantages of online learning platforms is being able to detect patterns in what, when, and how people learn and then using that data to guide other employees to the right resources.

For example, analyzing search data from a learning platform can show companies where skills gaps exist, so they can be more proactive in delivering needed training content. Or, based on past employee experiences, L&D can anticipate what others in a similar function will need to learn next. Similarly, data analytics can reveal what employees are neglecting in their own development, such as valuable soft skills that may fall by the wayside when hard skills feel more urgent.

Keeping skill sets current and relevant should be the shared responsibility of employers and employees. We may not know exactly what that next sought-after skill will be, but we can say with certainty that the ability to learn and adapt will be what separates successful companies and individuals from the rest. L&D has a critical part to play as the bridge that connects people to skills, whatever they may be.