Training & Learning

Why Reskilling isn’t the Magic Trick We Think it is

Most people’s ideas of reskilling sounds a lot like recycling.

“Reskill” implies that you look at people like robots that you can update by pushing some buttons. Our people have the wrong skills, so let’s reboot and recycle them into something better. It’s actually dehumanizing. You can tell because the term reskilling is seldom used to talk about individuals; rather, it’s used to refer to workforces of thousands.

Reskilling is a popular concept in the learning and development world. But it’s an old-fashioned concept that’s disconnected from the reality of how people learn. It’s the right goal: a skilled workforce ready to take on the challenges of a new era, but it’s not the right means. It’s too top-down and too generic.

Re-educating a global workforce will take more than slick software or a “Netflix for Learning” interface. It’s a serious undertaking that requires a budget, focus, and at least three to five years of work. Reskilling doesn’t work because it implies a quick fix; in reality, the only way to move forward is to build a new corporate culture that prioritizes learning.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at some common illusions around reskilling.

Most people’s ideas of reskilling sounds a lot like recycling. Our people have the wrong skills, so let’s reboot and recycle them into something better. It’s actually dehumanizing.

The dream of easy reskilling

Companies across the world are currently undergoing significant technological shifts.

For example, insurance companies were built on the COBOL programming language, and have continued to use it for the last thirty years. Now that they are shifting to big data, COBOL infrastructure needs to be replaced with Python. A company might find themselves with thousands of programmers who all need to upgrade their outdated technology skills with something new.

The solution the C-suite comes up with is reskilling. So easy — like installing an updated OS on your iPhone, right? Just install new knowledge in your workforce. Just buy a software — Netflix for Learning, sounds great! After all, people go crazy for Netflix. We replace Game of Thrones with Intro to Python, and boom! Reskilled!

Only that’s not how learning, or people, work.

Zoom in on reality: why reskilling doesn’t actually work

Using the term “reskilling” implies thinking of people as skill profiles we can update, with a click of a button. Mass reskilling sounds perfect in the abstract. You can imagine it might work with a group of 10,000 willing workers.

But what happens if we zoom in?

Think of one of your real-life co-workers. A specific person. Jane. Jane is probably really good at some things and less skilled at others. Maybe if Jane worked on those areas, she would be able to advance and achieve great things.

That’s an everyday situation we can all understand. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The problem is your co-worker, Jane, probably doesn’t know what those weaknesses are yet, and neither does a faceless computer program.

Can a piece of learning technology change Jane into a person without her current blind spots and weaknesses, and with all the skills you believe she needs?

Probably not. It’s going to take more than that to get Jane to advance. And that’s just one person. If it won’t work for only one person, how is it going to scale to 10,000?

Most companies are still struggling to map the skills set of their workers and find better ways to do a training needs analysis. How can we expect one “reskilling software” to upskill your workers - all with varying degrees of skillsets and needs - properly?

As Ulrik Juul Christensen says, “Inevitably, it is a ‘one-size-fits-none’ approach that may leave some people behind and while others are forced to sit through instruction on what they already know.“

The real problem isn’t skills, but culture

You can’t solve your reskilling problem with a traditional “reskilling software” because your problem isn’t skills at all: it's adapting your company culture to a new era.

And I don’t just mean your learning culture; I mean the entire corporate culture in most companies.

Most of us work within a culture that is top-down, lacking transparency, a clear motivating mission, and flexibility. Leaders who ask employees to execute tasks as quickly as possible. A focus on results, not initiatives.

This culture results in a workforce with stagnating skills. That in turn leads to missing key business pivots and market innovations. Eventually, you won’t just need to retrain certain workers, you’ll need to reset the entire workforce.

Poor corporate culture is what leads to a skill deficit, and the need for reskilling.

How we enable our team - with the right corporate culture - will define our employees’ ability to reskill themselves. And it doesn’t work the other way around. Reskilling software and hacks won’t fix a poor corporate culture.

In the best case, turning to reskilling means “we already lost on the people front, and now we’re hoping for a magic bullet.” In the worst case, it says, “I don’t understand how to help people learn, stay motivated, and work at my company over the next 10 years.”

But if we develop a democratic culture of collaboration early on, the company enables people to learn from each other continuously. A low-authority leadership model allows people to make their own mistakes and learn from them. A culture of empowerment encourages employees to own their learning goals.

Do this, and you will never need to reskill anyone because they will be continuously learning every day.

Need a real-life example? During Covid, Scandinavian Airlines retrained its cabin staff to act as nurse assistants. It saved the company from bankruptcy. The airline could do this with agility and speed, thanks to the Collaborative Learning that already existed in the company culture. This pivot is the opposite of reskilling; it’s adaptation.

How we enable our team - with the right corporate culture - will define our employees’ ability to reskill themselves. And it doesn’t work the other way around.

Banish reskilling and invest in people

Reskilling is a relic of the old corporate world. It’s evoked by the same executives who pay an HR consulting team millions to create a skill matrix that becomes obsolete after a year or two. (Or in the case of 2020, every few months.)

Instead, invest in people. Employees who are continually learning will never need reskilling. They render your skill matrix useless. They’re motivated to obtain marketable skills and achievements that help them advance their careers. People want a mission, to make a positive impact, and to jump in with all their energy and individual strengths.

Once you reach that point, your reskilling problems will fade away. To be clear, I’m not saying this is easy. Shifting your learning and corporate culture to fit into this new area is much harder than turning to the reskilling gods and hoping for a magic spell. But, it will drive results you'll be proud of in the end.

You may have a lot of employees, but they are still individuals. Companies that want to reskill a workforce for the post-Covid world need to rethink their learning culture instead. Collaborative learning is probably the place to start. Curious? Head to our Collaborative Learning post to learn more.

Wanna save this article for later or share it with your team? Get it in an ebook!

Reskilling ebook