5 Upskilling mistakes you can’t afford to make (and what to do instead)

How to avoid the skills strategy pitfalls that hold most businesses back

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By Nicole Schreiber-Shearer, Future of Work Specialist @ Gloat

March 3, 2022

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At this point, most executives understand that skills are the new currency of work. Many people leaders are aware that knowledge gaps are widening, that the half-life of skills is shrinking, and that they need to do something about it. In fact, Gartner reports that CHROs have identified building critical competencies as their number one priority for 2022.

Yet, there’s a lot of confusion about what a successful approach to skill-building really looks like. 2 in 5 leaders acknowledge that they don’t know what skills they have in their workforce and only 17% believe they can anticipate the competencies that their organizations will need in the future.

With so much uncertainty, some leaders fear that their skills strategies could be doomed from the start. But the good news is that devising an impactful approach to upskilling is well within reach—as long as you avoid a few common pitfalls

What Is upskilling and why is it important?

Before you set out to launch or improve your skills strategy, it’s important to understand exactly what upskilling is and how it differs from other ways to build competencies. To put it simply, upskilling describes any process that helps someone answer the following question: “What additional skills do I need to progress in my current career?”. It’s about enabling employees to accelerate their progression up linear career paths.

Other common terms include reskilling, which supports employees who are interested in switching lanes, and cross-skilling, which focuses on helping them develop the competencies that everyone will need to thrive in the new world of work. The most impactful skill-building initiatives offer opportunities to upskill, reskill, and cross-skill so that everyone is empowered to keep growing in a way that aligns with their long-term career goals.

All types of skill-building initiatives are linked with significant benefits, including improved retention, better performance, enhanced engagement, and an uptick in output levels. In fact, PwC reports that 93% of CEOs who introduce upskilling programs see an improvement in retention, in addition to productivity gains. The same source also found that launching digital training and education programs led to significantly better employee engagement rates.

5 Common upskilling mistakes (and how you can sidestep them)

Once you are aware of all this, knowing about the most common upskilling mistakes will help you safeguard your strategy. So here are some of the worst upskilling obstacles you could encounter, and what you should do instead:

#1. Leaving out experiential learning
Even the most compelling L&D content won’t be enough for employees to fully master new concepts. If you want to empower your people to expand their skillsets, this information should be paired with hands-on experiences like projects and gigs.

Experiential learning gives employees the chance to put their lessons into practice and develop the confidence needed to take ownership of related tasks. Many leaders are leveraging talent marketplaces to match employees to hands-on opportunities that align with their career ambitions and the skills they wish to hone.

#2. Overlooking reskilling and cross-skilling
If you want to maximize the impact of your skill-building initiative, you need to look beyond upskilling. While some employees may be interested in developing competencies that relate to their current career, many others would be eager to learn the skills that could help them switch lanes in the future. Additionally, there’s some knowledge that every member of your workforce needs to have in order to remain competitive in the future of work, which is where cross-skilling comes into play.

#3. Limiting the scope of your initiative
Upskilling can’t be reserved for specific employees. Everyone from your most junior hires to senior executives needs to develop new competencies, especially as the half-life of skills continues to shrink.

Rather than limiting the scope of your skill-building opportunities, take advantage of a talent marketplace to empower everyone to get involved. The platforms democratize access to opportunity and ensure your entire workforce has an equal chance to participate in projects, gigs, mentorships, and shadowing.

#4. Losing sight of business needs
There’s little value in having your people build skills that aren’t relevant to your business. Consequently, the best skill-building strategies must take both enterprise-wide objectives and personal goals into account. This is where career pathing emerges as an essential tool. Employees can explore the various directions their careers could take within your organization and even identify the skill-building opportunities that will help them bridge crucial knowledge gaps. Workers should be encouraged to discuss their goals with their managers, and agree on next steps that benefit both the individual and the business.

#5. Overlooking the changing nature of supply, demand, and desires
Today, many leaders are taking a two-dimensional approach to building new competencies. If you fall into this category, you might be thinking about skills on one side and your workforce on the other. You probably analyze the skills your business needs and find talent to develop or contribute to these capabilities.

This inventory mindset would function well if the world of work were static or slow-moving, and you just needed to grow a specific set of skills. However, it doesn’t hold up in our dynamic world. Beyond skills and individuals, leaders need to account for a third dimension: change over time, applied to both their business and their people. Over time the skills your business needs will change, the combination of skills required in specific roles will change, and your employees’ interests will change. This is why an agile approach to skill-building is crucial: by leveraging AI-powered tools, leaders are able to align these three dimensions, put them in context, and identify what skills to grow today to be ready for tomorrow.

One of the biggest challenges associated with building critical competencies is that there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for success. Instead, skills are a moving target, and employees must be equipped with the tools and resources needed to continue to learn to keep pace. If you’re looking to find out more about what an agile approach to upskilling and reskilling looks like, download our ebook, The ultimate guide to the skills-based organization.

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