Training & Learning

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

Most people’s ideas of reskilling sound 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 to your current employees. You can tell because the term reskilling is seldom used to talk about individual learners; 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: reskilled employees are ready to take on the challenges around the future of work, but it’s not the right means. Oftentimes, reskilling efforts are too top-down and 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 the learning experience.

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 a significant digital transformation.

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 itself with dozens of programmers who all need to adopt new skills to address changes in technology.

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! The workforce is reskilled and our retention rate is high!

Only that’s not how skills development, or people, work.

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

Using the term “reskilling” implies thinking of individual employees as skill profiles with competencies we can update with a click of a button. A mass skills training program 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 using artificial intelligence.

Can a piece of learning technology asses Jane’s current skill level, retraining her into a person without her blind spots and weaknesses?

Probably not. It’s going to take more than a training program built on automation to get Jane to advance her career path. 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 gaps 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 skill sets 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, one based on lifelong learning.

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 based on the bottom line. Usually, it’s a top-down hierarchy that looks at employees purely as human capital. It lacks transparency, a clear motivating mission, and flexibility. The focus here is on results, not high performance or 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 the Covid-19 pandemic, 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 programs 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. Plus, when new technology and new soft skills inevitably surface, your workforce will be prepared.

Once you reach that point, your reskilling problems will fade away. Current employees and new hires alike will reap the benefits of your investment in a learning culture.

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.

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Reskilling employees ebook cover | 360Learning

Skills are nothing without the right culture.