I conducted four annual training needs assessments at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Office of Personnel Management directed all the Federal government agencies to survey their employees to “identify performance requirements and the knowledge, skills and abilities needed by an agency’s workforce to achieve the requirements.” Agencies were told that an “effective training needs assessment will help direct resources to areas of greatest demand.”

However, it took a concentrated marketing effort to compel over 10% of the 15,000 employees to complete the training needs assessment. We experimented with a number of open-ended and closed-ended questions, sequence of questions and marketing strategies. After each iteration of the assessments, I wondered if there was a better way to help the agency determine what skills the workforce needed to help the agency thrive.

Upskilling and Reskilling: What’s the Difference?

According to Susan R. Vroman and Tiffany Danko, the COVID-19 pandemic taught many companies the value of reskilling. However, reskilling is a short-term solution. As the pandemic triggered the Great Resignation, organizations looked to upskilling as a long-term investment in the remaining employees and attracting new employees.

Reskilling helps employees learn new skills to perform their work better. For example, when organizations sent their workers home in 2020, training departments had to quickly teach workers how to use online collaboration tools to do their work. Employees received crash courses in effectively using webcams and microphones to participate in Zoom meetings. I remember teaching a mini course on how to use lighting to help participants be more visible on camera. As workers return to the office, they may not have to rely much on their online video production skills.

In contrast to reskilling, upskilling helps employees deepen their existing skills and knowledge. For example, you may have employees proficient in accounting. These employees used to work with paper spreadsheets and performed manual calculations. With the advent of electronic spreadsheets, employees must learn how to program spreadsheets to perform calculations. Today, with tools like Microsoft’s Power Platform, accountants can build mobile apps by assembling bits of code to capture, analyze and visualize data automatically. Modern accountants can perform the work of a team of accountants from decades ago.

Reskilling and upskilling are powerful tools for engaging and retaining employees while also helping the organization become more productive and effective in meeting its strategic goals. The vital question is, how can organizations determine what skills are needed now and in the future?

The Key to Effective Reskilling and Upskilling: Scenario Planning

I completed the third U.S. patent and trademark training needs assessment around September 2019. After a week of analysis, I prepared reports for all the stakeholders, which they received the first week of October 2019. My research demonstrated that little had changed from the 2017 and 2018 assessments. Five months later, much had changed as the U.S. patent and trademark office sent most of its workforce to work from home. The 2020 assessment dramatically differed from the previous training needs assessments. A lot can happen between yearly assessments.

For the 2019 training needs assessment, customized pulse surveys for different departments were introduced. These pulse surveys were highly focused and targeted with three to four questions to help the departments determine their most immediate skills needs. We had three pulse surveys that were beneficial in determining training needs. The pulse surveys were a partial solution to helping the training department be more responsive in meeting the organization’s training needs.

In 2020, I suggested using scenario planning to help envision possible futures for the organization. The advantage of scenario planning is that it predicts a range of alternate futures. When building the scenarios, I looked for common themes in the future that indicated which skills I should prioritize. For example, most scenarios involved the workforce using artificial intelligence (AI) tools, which meant that we needed to help the employees develop skills in using AI automation.

Scenario planning is a step up from yearly surveys that try to capture future skill needs. However, even annual scenario planning exercises can suffer from being “too little, too late” in the face of rapidly changing events. Instead, what is needed is a more rapid cycle of assessing training needs.

Continuous Training Needs Assessments

Capabilities are a mix of skills, knowledge and experiences that are unique to that organization. And learners’ demand for new skills can signal future skill needs for the business. With scenario planning, your organization can have a customized needs assessment to guide your organization’s reskilling and upskilling efforts. And since digital transformation and the adoption of new technologies has revolutionized our world of work, imagine how continuous needs assessments, upskilling and reskilling can revolutionize how our organizations find future success.

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