Future skills. Upskilling. Reskilling. Power skills.

Talent development leaders are being bombarded with information about future skills. And in a word, it’s overwhelming.

Should we focus on upskilling? What about reskilling? Should we use AI? What about coaching? Can we really create personalized learning when we need to scale to hundreds of staff?

The questions cloud our minds when we think about the future. But what if we are using the wrong questions to inform our skill development strategies? That means our skill development strategies won’t work. At least, they aren’t likely to work.

Let’s shift our focus and ask the right questions so we end up with a skill development strategy that is tailored to our organization, meets our learners’ needs and is built on psychological safety and trust.

Question 1: What skills does our organization need in the future?

This is an important question to answer because the skills you focus on need to be aligned to your organization’s strategy and goals. What you don’t want is a skill development strategy that is based on a past organizational strategy. And you also don’t want a list of generic skills you found from your Google search about the future of work. That’s why it’s important to do an updated analysis of the skills your organization needs.

One way to do this is to create or update your organization’s competency model. The process of creating a competency model prompts you to focus on what’s most important to your organization.

While it often involves external research about current trends and potential disruptors to the future of work, it also involves reviewing internal documents, such as your strategic plan, mission, vision, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) commitments, organizational values and even job descriptions. It’s a thoughtful, intentional review process where you can start to identify the skills that exist and are needed to deliver on your commitments and achieve your goals.

In addition to this research, the process of creating a competency model also includes a lot of conversations with staff at all levels of the organization. This can be done through interviews or focus groups and allows you to identify what skills staff are using and what is challenging for them. These conversations help you identify the skills that exist, as well as potential gaps in skills.

By the end of this process, you should have a fairly clear picture of the skills your organization needs, so you can tailor your skills development strategy to those needs.

Question 2: What is the gap between the skills our staff currently have and the skills we need them to have?

A McKinsey study found that 87% of companies believe they have skills gaps now or will in the future. Your leadership might agree. And, while it’s helpful to see common skills gaps that exist, these lists aren’t informed by your organization’s needs or your staff’s skills and experiences.

The competency model process allows you to start identifying the gap between current skills and the skills needed in the future — for your learners in your organization.

Question 3: How can we design experiences to close that skills gap?

Once you’ve identified the gap you need to close, you can begin to design experiences to close that gap. This is where you want to move from strategic to compassionately human centered. Instead of chasing the latest technology (hello, chat bots), you can design experiences that truly meet your learners’ needs.

Take some time to understand your learners’ day-to-day experiences. What are they doing? What demands their attention? What is going well? Where are they struggling? What barriers do they face to do their work? How does it feel to be in their role?

While this helps you design learning experiences with the learner in mind, it also allows you to support staff well-being in the workplace.

In addition, the more you understand and empathize with your learners, the more likely you are to create learning experiences that build upon their existing experiences and expertise. Without this empathy, learning and development (L&D) teams can fall back on the “sage on a stage” type approaches. But, using this empathy, we can create experiences where adults thrive, where they can share their own experiences, learn from each other, discover their needs and consider how they can apply what they are learning.

We can build experiences that feel personalized while still being offered at scale. This doesn’t mean you can’t leverage new technology, but it does mean whatever technology you use will be used to improve the experience, not drive the experience.

Question 4: What needs to change in our organization to support learners as they close this gap?

L&D can create the best learning experiences, but none of it will matter if the environment isn’t right.

To create a thriving culture of learning, organizations must take into account the following:

  • L&D needs to be supported by leadership. This means leadership verbally supports L&D, provides resources and encourages staff to take time for learning.
  • L&D needs to enter a culture built on trust and psychological safety. Psychological safety fosters DEIB and enhances learning, among other benefits.
  • L&D needs to be holistic. Training isn’t a one-stop shop. If you want to see behavior change, ongoing support like coaching is needed.

If the organization is lacking support for L&D or doesn’t have the trust needed for success, L&D teams can work to create buy-in for L&D and partner with leadership to improve trust and psychological safety as a foundation for building the skills of the future.