What are academies in the context of corporate training? A few years ago, Josh Bersin used the term “academy” to describe an emerging zeitgeist in corporate learning and development (L&D). At its core, an academy is a place to develop internal talent that goes beyond content access and self-directed learning.

A few years have passed since then, and training academies are gaining momentum as a modern twist on the legacy of corporate universities. Now, more than ever, as companies are faced with the growing skills gap, learning academies are emerging as the metaphorical bridge.

The best part? Companies, no matter their size or resources, can start assembling their internal training academies right now — brick by brick.

The Problem: The Skills Gap is Widening

Why does this matter? Businesses are spending more now than they ever have on all things learning and training for their employees, and yet the skills gap continues to loom and grow. In 2020, Training Industry market research found that companies spent over $165 billion on corporate training in North America, and more than double that globally at over $350 billion; both of those represent an increase of more than 30% from only 10 years ago.

At the same time, the percent of chief executive officers worried about the availability of skills has also increased: 74% reported being worried about the skills gap in 2020, up from 53% in 2012. As the World Economic Forum (WEF) continues to warn, we face a “reskilling emergency” with more than 1 billion jobs (nearly one-third of all jobs worldwide) likely to be transformed by technology over the next decade. In the next three years, 87 million jobs are expected to be lost to automation, and 97 million new jobs will demand skills that don’t even exist yet.

Companies have invested in a wide variety of technologies and resources to try to tackle this problem. They have deployed solutions from the learning management system (LMS) and traditional training to the learning experience platform (LXP) and self-directed learning, and seemingly everything in-between. And yet we still face the daunting task of bridging the skills gap. What we need to solve for — what’s been missing — is deeper skill-building, at scale. That’s what academies are for.

The Goals of an Academy

The need to build deeper skills in a targeted way is why companies need to build internal learning academies. Whether you call it a corporate university, talent academy or learning academy, academies work to:

  • Build deeper skills to cross the skills gap.
  • Develop holistic and long-term learning that goes beyond a single task or process.
  • Attract and retain top talent, and engage and advance employees.

These are goals that require work. While no one is going to cross the skills gap in a day, the beauty of academies is that a company can invest and build at its own speed … brick by brick.

The Building Blocks of an Academy

The first step to creating an academy is knowing all the building blocks. Once a company knows these elements, it is just a matter of assembling them.

Use the following blueprint and building blocks to create a successful training academy in your organization:

Content

Knowledge and skills require know-how, and content can enable that. In a recent survey by Learn In, content was one of the most popular solutions for L&D.

But if companies want to expand or invest in this building block, consider the quality, breadth, depth and relevancy of the content. Are companies giving employees the best of the best or one-size-fits-all solutions? Is it aligned with employee interests and the company’s needs or is it generic? Does the content enable deep skill-building or is it more about breadth than depth? Content libraries can only do so much, and deeper skill-building is often better enabled by longer-form programs.

Wraparound Support

Along with content, for any deep skill-building to take place, employees need support: They need time, money and community. If you want to build a robust internal academy, here are some key supports to update or invest in:

Time

Time is the biggest barrier to upskilling. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to job-related learning, Learn In found that nearly one-half of the employees surveyed (47%) focused on time. So, it’s not surprising that a survey of learning resources found that only 19% of companies scheduled learning time each week, and only 15% offered career breaks or learning sabbaticals.

If companies want their employees to acquire new skills, they need to enable their employees to devote segments of their work schedule to developing those skills. This is especially true if you value diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as an organization. Because guess who has even less time to devote to upskilling outside of work? People who are primary caregivers (of children or aging parents), people with long commutes and any number of factors that may overlap with employees from underrepresented groups.

Money

Many companies need to rethink their approach to this particular building block. Several studies (e.g., Josh Bersin’s “Rethinking the Build vs. Buy Approach to Talent”) have found that upskilling an internal employee is more economically compelling than hiring externally. However, while 90% of mid-size and large companies offer some type of tuition assistance, less than 10% of employees utilize these programs.

One way to drive engagement is to better understand the strategic value by tracking their return on investment (ROI). One company found the ROI of investing in their talent offered substantial returns across improved wage gains, promotions, transfers and retention, and expanded their program.

While most tuition assistance programs (TAPs) are well-intentioned, they are often not equitable when done on a reimbursement basis. An estimated one-half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and would not have the financial resources to pay upfront for a $3,000 coding bootcamp and wait to get reimbursed. This is why many companies are increasingly switching from a reimbursement model to something simple and equitable, like prepaid learning stipends.

Community

Community can be a key driver of learning outcomes, which is why the academy model enables deep skill building by structurally supporting collaboration, cohorts, feedback and coaching. Human resources (HR) consultant, Susan Heathfield considers cohorts and expert feedback as essential supports for employees to upskill. Many of us have experienced first-hand how learning deepens with peer support and expert feedback (versus learning in isolation). A thriving academy is often built on a culture and community of learning.

A Roadmap for the Future

The final building block of a successful learning academy is to think big and about the future. Deep learning, the kind of learning that leads to internal mobility, requires more than a one-off course or a two-hour seminar. Deep learning requires hundreds of hours, applied practice and building skills and competencies over time. This dedication of resources and approach to skill-building has the capacity to transform anywhere from one to every employee. Context is key.

Companies need to invest time in thinking about the future of their organizations and what skills and capabilities their employees will need. Self-directed learning requires too much guesswork for employees: “Would I be more valuable to my company if I read this article or watch this video on digital analytics?” Instead of guessing, companies can empower their employees with clear guidance, offering career roadmaps and encouraging managers to help employees develop the skills they need to advance.

As expected, this is perhaps the most underdeveloped academy building block for many companies. It is also an essential piece to deliver transformative results for employees and companies.

Building Your Internal Talent Academy

A true solution for bridging the skills gap (a successful training academy) requires each and every one of these building blocks. While there are quite a few components, companies can build their academy at their own pace and with the resources they have. In the end, the flexibility and strength of these building blocks provide a solid structure so that any company, no matter its size or resources, can cross the skills gap.

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