For the past few years, conversations about skills gaps and reskilling have been front and center in the broader workforce transformation dialogue. Most research — from respected entities such as McKinsey or the World Economic Forum — indicates that organizations close their skills gaps by establishing the needed skills, assessing the gaps, laying plans for closing them and addressing the gaps through training. Learning and development (L&D) professionals are typically responsible for implementing these critical, organization-wide changes, but it’s only recently that they’ve been invited to the planning conversations.
There’s an increased recognition of the role L&D plays. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report, 72% of respondents say that L&D has become a more strategic function in their organization; and 62% agree that L&D is focused on rebuilding or reshaping their organization. RedThread Research found that in 2022, 59% of L&D conversations were focused on workforce discussions, while 48% focused on business strategy. Like an airplane catching speed on a runway, L&D is taking off.
As exciting as these numbers might be, one can’t help but worry that L&D pros aren’t quite ready to handle everything that’s headed their way — and their under-preparedness will keep them from helping learners and their organizations. Not only do L&D professionals need to shift their mindsets from content creation to enablement of skills and knowledge, but they must also understand the shift from role-based training to skill-based learning experiences.
L&D Professionals Aren’t Set Up for Success
Consider, for example, skills-based talent management, which perfectly demonstrates the need to shift from content creation and role-based training to learning that happens overwhelmingly on the job and in project teams. This strategy helps organizations define the relationships between tasks, skills and qualifications. It’s about knowing your people’s abilities. L&D pros are expected to create the infrastructure to identify skills an employee needs to develop to succeed in their role.
Working in the L&D function requires strong knowledge of instructional design and adult learning theory. But today’s L&D professionals must also be able to lead strategic workforce transformation initiatives, drive learning targeted at improved team effectiveness, connect learning and business needs, analyze data and have solid business acumen. Are they prepared for all this?
According to McKinsey’s 2021 Global Survey, 23% of all workforce transformations fail during the planning phase. The failure rate jumps to 35% during implementation. The survey suggests that failure is partially due to the fact that transformation efforts aren’t tied into the day-to-day. It’s quite possible that these transformations don’t reach their full value because employees leading these initiatives aren’t equipped to do so.
To return to the airplane metaphor, think about the flight attendants’ pre-flight show. In case of an emergency, passengers are advised to put on their oxygen masks before they help others. Not that L&D professionals are careening toward an emergency, but to help their organizations, they must think about themselves first.
Bringing Future L&D Skills in Focus
The question then becomes, where should L&D professionals focus their skill development? To return to LinkedIn’s 2022 Learning Report, operations saw a 54% growth year over year. Corporate training is at 38%, followed by 29% for HR management, and 24% for people development. Learning management systems are at 19% year over year, followed by 14% for analytical skills and 13% for engineering and finance. In “Future-proofing L&D: Developing the Right Skills,” RedThread Research recommends that L&D professionals should focus on skills within the following categories:
- Leadership: Leading inside and outside the L&D function.
- L&D core: Building the capabilities of the workforce.
- Business core: Understanding and aligning with business strategy.
- Data and decision-making: Using data for making better decisions.
- Managing relationships: Building and maintaining relationships, internal and external to the L&D function.
- Personal readiness: Helping individuals and functions readily adapt to changing environments.
- Technology: Leveraging tech to upskill the workforce.
This list isn’t surprising. With the increasing need to support workforce transformations, L&D professionals are actively upskilling. How does this look for leadership, the L&D core, the business core, and data and decision-making?
Upskilling in Action
Acquiring or enhancing skills doesn’t have to be cumbersome or time-consuming. It’s best to start small and add one new tool, model, framework or resource at a time. It’s about sharpening the professional arsenal while keeping modern learning approaches in mind. Additionally, L&D professionals must remember that, as a general rule, more is never better. Run from content-heavy course offerings and head toward curated, relevant, quality content.
Consulting, coaching, leading others, and motivation and engagement are high up on the leadership skills category list. L&D professionals are not only leading significant workforce transformation initiatives, but they are also becoming much more involved and intentional about employee development. This is shown in the inclusion of more learning methods and the integration of more development opportunities into the workplace.
This benefits learners in more ways than a broader opportunity. As organizations move from being reactionary to being proactive, from just-in-case to just-in-time, L&D professionals can guide the hearts and minds of both leaders and employees through these transitions using skills such as consulting and coaching.
Even though L&D professionals are now a part of workforce transformation conversations, the original job of creating employee learning experiences remains. It’s not surprising that L&D core skills are on the list. What is surprising are some of the other skills listed within this category — such as the ability to upskill the workforce and human-centered design — pointing to a more holistic approach to training and learning that supports adaption in a changing work environment.
Because designing learning experiences with the help of empathy maps or learner personas puts the learner at the center of everything we do, the learner benefits. Instead of thinking about what content needs to be taught, we look at the person to find their emotional connection to the work and create upskilling experiences that are in line with the project-based work they are tasked with.
Rather than simply serving the business, L&D professionals are now part of the business. Business acumen and marketing top the skill list in the business core category, followed by change management and creativity and innovation. When L&D professionals are asked to build a skilled workforce, they must understand organizational goals and strategy, business basics, and speak the same language as the business. Then there’s innovation: When L&D pros think outside the andragogical box, they can position themselves as trusted business partners; learners reap the benefits of thoughtful, engaging experiences.
Data and Decision-making
On all fronts, data leads the way. With the move to skill-based talent management, data analysis is a crucial tool to identify skills individuals need to succeed in the organization. Data refers to sources such as learning management systems (LMSs), learning experience platforms (LXPs) and other learning data, but also information outside of L&D, such as engagement data. Identifying data sources isn’t enough though; L&D professionals need to use strategic thinking, problem-solving, research and data analysis to support their efforts in this area.
When L&D recognizes learning happens not just in the LMS but rather occurs constantly on the job, learners benefit from learning experiences that are dialed into their true needs. Extracting engagement data from tools and platforms that employees use every day is the key to better understanding the impact that learning initiatives have.
Setting the Mind to Shift
No amount of upskilling will help if L&D professionals’ hearts and minds aren’t ready for this change, and if they’re not ready to push it through to the learning experiences they produce. Mindsets must shift from content creation to enablement of skills, knowledge and abilities. It is not enough to simply train on new skills — learning offerings need to be connected to performance objectives and business goals.
Upskilling in a vacuum won’t be successful. Just like L&D professionals have to expand their skill sets, training and learning needs to expand beyond the traditional, order-taker borders that organizations are used to. In other words, a workforce transformation goes hand-in-hand with a learning transformation. L&D professionals must focus on the connection between ongoing reskilling efforts and actual work. It’s about leveraging data and integrating learning into the flow of work; it’s about identifying the right moments of learning need and offering content that’s purposeful and relevant. It’s up to L&D professionals to stay relevant by understanding opportunities and challenges, new thinking about upskilling, how to work with HR and talent management, stakeholder needs, activating managers, listening to learners and never stop learning themselves.