As digital adoption accelerates across society, organisations need to keep up. One of the most important factors is whether their workforce has the right skills, capabilities and knowledge to thrive in a more automated and digital world. But as many companies have discovered, a fast-changing world can quickly leave behind their reskilling, upskilling and learning programmes.

When there is a big change such as the arrival of Covid-19, it forces us to change and adapt to technology, e.g. Microsoft Teams, online meetings and working remotely. The difficulty is that it takes time and money for organisations to automate. In these situations, we need to steer clear of hiring the right skills, but be quick in upskilling our employees. If we don’t, our headcount will increase and we will have more redundant positions at once.

As McKinsey notes, new ways of working and new technologies were already disrupting jobs and the skills employees need to do them before COVID-19. A recent McKinsey Global Survey found that 87% of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps in the workforce or expected them within a few years. However, less than half had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

The role of leadership is imperative in communicating this urgency to all employees and then guiding employees on this journey. As much as the future is unknown to us, we take part in creating it. Our strategies need to speak to this urgency and we should equip management with the capabilities to know what the future requires and communicate, teach and coach our employees on this journey. And we will be taking on this task remotely!

“The need for some skills, such as technological as well as social and emotional skills, will rise, even as the demand for others, including physical and manual skills, will fall. These changes will require workers everywhere to deepen their existing skill sets or acquire new ones. Companies, too, will need to rethink how work is organised within their organisations,” says McKinsey.

Teaching employees to learn on the go and to think outside their current job description is important. “Swimming in your own lane” is a cringe-worthy notion and employees are so much more than the job title that they find themselves attached to. Employees may have exceptional skills that they use in communities outside of work that may be of benefit to the business.

Wasting time on irrelevant learning

Ahead of the current pandemic, there was already a widespread sense that many organisations were getting the retraining and reconfiguration of their workforce wrong. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran an article with the headline ‘Why Companies Are Failing at Reskilling’ in 2019. The article looked at how companies were failing to prepare their people to integrate more data and automation into their jobs.

There is a need to create an environment where employees are rewarded for behaviour that aligns with integrating data and innovative ideas on how to automate. It has always been true that the people doing the job know exactly where the shortfalls are, they just need to be prepared to tell you.

Recent data from Gartner appears to confirm this trend. According to Gartner, the number of skills required for a single job is increasing by 10% year over year, and over 30% of the skills needed three years ago will soon be irrelevant. Yet employees are applying only 54% of the new skills they learn, indicating that HR is playing catch up with a fast-changing digital environment.

On-the-go learning is essential. By the time you have sent someone for a course or they have completed a degree things would have changed significantly in the workplace, reducing the % of what employees can implement from the certificate or degree.

One reason for this, in Gartner’s view, is that two-thirds of HR leaders take a reactive, backwards-looking approach to addressing skill needs, taking direction from demands from the business. Yet Gartner also cautions against pre-emptive development programmes. Gartner’s research shows that with the predictive approach, employees apply only 37% of the new skills they learn.

The collaboration between HR and leadership has to improve. Leaders need to be equipped to guide employees through short practical learning paths that become real-life experience. This is how our organisations will be best equip an existing workforce.

“HR is often wasting time and effort on irrelevant learning that won’t ever be used to further the business or the career of the employee,” says Gartner, arguing that “skills development must be relevant, fast and effective” and enterprises need “a dynamic skills strategy more appropriate for fast-changing conditions.”

Time to be more agile and dynamic

Both Gartner and McKinsey advocate taking a more agile and dynamic approach rather than betting big on a course of direction that cannot easily be changed. The Gartner “dynamic skills approach” is about anticipating skill shifts as they are occurring—rather than trying to predict the future—and adapting to those shifts in an iterative, course-corrective way.

“Move beyond traditional learning and development tactics like classroom training and e-learning libraries. Instead, identify and implement skill accelerators—strategies that leverage existing resources (e.g., content, people, skill adjacencies) to develop new skills solutions at speed,” advises Gartner. It also recommends working with employees to pursue mutually beneficial and flexible skills development.

McKinsey notes that its research shows that reskilling programmes at small organisations are often more successful than those at large ones. It attributes this to the fact that smaller companies are often more successful at following agile principles—making bold moves more quickly. “They also may be more willing to fail, because they have fewer layers of approval to go through.”

Preparing their workforce for a digital age is one of the most critical challenges South African enterprises will face in the next five years. This time of accelerated digital adoption and experimentation could be the ideal moment to start experimenting with dynamic new ways of training that support agile, continuous learning. Companies that get it right will be best positioned with a future-ready workforce for the years to come.


[Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels]