Learning and development (L&D) leaders face an interesting balancing act this year. On one hand, many organizations are increasingly recognizing the benefits of continuous learning, particularly given recent workforce shifts and incoming automation. On the other, economic uncertainty is causing many business leaders to tighten their belts and reconsider how best to spend their resources. This situation poses a challenge — and an opportunity — for learning leaders: They will have to achieve more with less, but they can also categorically prove learning’s value to the bottom line.

The Urgency to Upskill

In 2020, budgets were cut across the board, including, according to Gartner, average cuts of 5% or more to human resources (HR) budgets. Gartner predicts a further cut of 0.6% to 1.6% for HR and learning in 2021. At the same time, demand for new skills has increased, with six in 10 employees and leaders stating that the pandemic increased their need to build new skills. Meanwhile, 55% of European workers say that their work tasks have changed due to the pandemic and global lockdown, and 26% say that the skills they need for their job will be permanently different as a result of the pandemic.

While some organizations are cutting their upskilling investment, others are doubling down. These forward-thinking companies quickly pivoted their learning resources last year to recognize new skill needs (like learning how to work remotely and manage virtual teams) and to maintain motivation and well-being during a difficult time. As Govind Srinivasa, global L&D lead at Conduent, explains, “We [quickly turned] our attention towards creating learning content within no time. We started deploying that content to people. Health and safety, remote working, business continuity, leading in crisis, keeping your mental balance, all of that.”

How Skill Data Helps

The key to knowing what to cut, where to pivot and where to allocate resources is understanding what learners need. What skills does your organization need to succeed in 2021, and where do those skills align with the aspirations of your people? You can answer this question (and more) by delving into your skill data.

Indeed, taking a data-driven approach is known to produce cost-savings and productivity returns in other areas of the business. Deloitte researchers found in 2019 that “organizations with the strongest cultural orientation to data-driven insights and decision-making” are twice as likely to significantly exceed business goals. Likewise, looking at skills data leads to action, which leads to business outcomes.

Defining Skill Data

In short, skill data is the measurement of what your people can do. It comes from many different sources, including:

    • Direct input from an employee telling you about his or her skills.
    • Résumés and HR and recruitment systems.
    • External sources, such as social media.
    • Manager feedback, peer reviews, self-reviews and skill certifications.
    • Accreditations and degrees.
    • Learning activities (the courses employees have completed and the content they’re consuming).
    • Information on personal career goals.

Making Data Actionable

That list is broad, so there is some groundwork involved in consolidating these sources and making the data actionable. Beyond cleaning, processing, storing and analyzing all of the data, it’s a good idea to focus on creating an intelligent, integrated ecosystem that can access and enrich the data coming from different sources.

The payoff of using your skill data is significant. It’ll become a single source of truth for your organization’s skill “health.” You’ll be able to see your strengths and competitive differentiators as well as areas of improvement. In granular detail, you can pinpoint where your upskilling strategy should focus for the next 12 or 18 months and where learning is adding tangible value to the bottom line. Skill data insights will also prevent you from overlooking the critical skills needed to achieve your mid- to long-term business strategy.

Another aspect to consider is how people learn. Learning data will help you tailor content to individual preferences, and you may uncover resources that you aren’t fully leveraging. For example, you may discover that employees are engaging more with blogs and video content than instructor-led training (ILT) sessions. Knowing this information enables you to focus more resources on formats that resonate with your audience. In turn, they will be more likely to engage with learning, which can lead to higher returns on your investment.

Building a Data-driven Culture

Once you start using a data-based approach, you’ll find it relatively easy to update your plans based on what the data tells you. Upskilling needs are continuously changing, especially now, as markets and businesses remain in flux. The skills needed in a role will quickly change depending on the needs of your team, your products and services, market pressures, and macroeconomic conditions. Taking a data-led approach will help you pivot quickly and move beyond annual performance reviews (which still have a role but aren’t agile enough for today’s business pressures).

Expect your understanding of skill requirements to evolve as your analysis matures. You’ll understand more about your people’s skills and skill gaps as time goes on, which may lead you to tweak your strategy.

Of course, embedding skills analysis into your regular work may require a cultural change. Your learning team might need some upskilling in data literacy to be comfortable using reports and dashboards. Still, if you lay the foundation for this approach now, you’ll enjoy its benefits for years to come.

The Next Evolution in Learning

In a short time frame, learning has evolved to keep pace with external changes and workforce needs. This momentum can help you transform, to make changes that will lead to long-lasting gains for your organization. Becoming more data-driven is one such example, and it unlocks the door to many other evolutions, such as improving internal mobility. The steps you take with skills data today will lead your organization to be leaps ahead tomorrow.