Countless articles have been published in the past three months espousing the need to invest in upskilling and reskilling the workforce with new 21st-century digital skills.

Around the world, data-rich organizations are struggling to realize the potential of the data that they have at their disposal — data that can improve decision-making, data that can multiply operational efficiency and productivity, data that can accelerate radical innovation, and data that can enable an organization to thrive in unpredictable times.

Today, more than half the Fortune 1,000 are investing more than $50 million in data analytics technology and infrastructure, yet 95% still cite people and skills as the key barrier to data application.

Getting Ready

As companies begin this transformation, the first hurdle they face is whether to build or buy data talent. Quickly traversed, the laws of supply and demand drive a stark realization. In 2017, IBM commissioned a study by Burning Glass, which predicted that by 2020:

    • Job postings for “director of analytics/data” would increase by 26%, with 59% of all data science and analytics (DSA) job demand being in the finance and insurance, professional services, and information technology (IT) industries.
    • Annual demand for the quickly growing roles of data scientist, data developer and data engineer would reach nearly 700,000 openings.
    • The number of jobs for U.S. data professionals would increase by 364,000 to 2,720,000 openings.

What this report did not predict, however, was COVID-19 and the impact a global pandemic would have on accelerating business transformation, an economy in which organizations are forced to transform rapidly.

New reports from LinkedIn suggest a much higher increase in demand for these skills over the next five years. The number of data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) roles globally is currently 4,659,242 and projected to increase by 337% to 20,392,505 by 2025, while the number of cloud and data roles globally has a similar growth rate of 287% by 2025.

Sounding the Alarm

As a response to this seismic shift, on June 30, Microsoft announced a $25 million workforce retraining program. In that announcement, the company revealed that its “data shows that two years’ worth of digital transformation have been concentrated into the past two months” and that “the pandemic has shined a harsh light on what was already a widening skills gap around the world – a gap that will need to be closed with even greater urgency to accelerate economic recovery.”

“This longer-term disconnect between supply and demand for skills in the labor market,” the announcement continued, “appears to be driven by three primary long-term factors: (1) the rapid emergence of AI-powered technologies that are propelling a new era of automation; (2) the growing need for technological acumen to compete in a changing commercial landscape; and (3) the drop-off in employer-based training investments over the past two decades. Navigating these challenges to close the skills gap will require a renewed partnership between stakeholders across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.”

Getting in the Game

With any new critical undertaking comes a sea of questions. Whom should we reskill? How do we assess learner progress? How do we measure learning? These questions are common and important, but the real question everyone wants to ask is whether the investment will drive innovation and impact — quickly.

As you think about ramping up skills within your organization, keep these three considerations in mind:

1. Learning Is Not Academic

Adult learners are navigating a lot, especially now. Growth is still important to employees, but the speed at which they learn and apply what they learn has increased dramatically. Employees want to learn something one day and bring it back to the business the next. They want challenges that address real problems — or, better yet, urgent problems — in their team. They want someone who can support them and help them bridge the gap between learning and application. And, they want leaders to recognize the journey they are on and its broader, strategic role in transforming the organization.

2. Throw out the Sandbox

When it comes to digital skills, creating a safe space to experiment is great, but learners who are encouraged to work within the real world bring new skills back to work quickly. Often, organizations invest in generic training, but the ability to bring it back to work fails because they didn’t establish the right environment for learners to apply their skills. Doing so takes time in the beginning, but if you do it once and do it right, you can rapidly accelerate your ability to drive results.

3. Shift the Focus to Business Impact

While impact is often an ambition, rarely is it embedded into learning objectives for fear of not meeting that goal. When you purposefully align impact goals with the learning journey, you can create a powerful win-win: Employees rapidly grow through a combination of new skills and behavior change, and the organization benefits by future-proofing the organization in the long term and driving impact and change in the short-term.

When you set goals high, learners enthusiastically meet them — or push them higher. Like learners who have:

    • Used Python and clustering techniques to identify costly vulnerabilities within a power plant.
    • Automated reporting to save a team over 300 hours of work.
    • Applied image recognition to build an automated system to accelerate product development and quality assurance.
    • Found hidden patterns in absenteeism data and developed a program to increase productivity.

By focusing on impact, opportunities emerge across business lines, enabling employees to harness the power of data in decision-making at all points of the business and creating a culture of accelerated change. Once that culture is in place, you have the foundation to adapt to a rapidly changing world.