Future Skills 101: Five Critical Components of a Successful Upskilling Strategy


Posted by TFI on March 27, 2019

Increasingly, HR leaders are being tasked with building their organization’s future workforce – one with the skills needed to effectively leverage rapid advancements in technology, to propel their business forward in today’s progressively competitive environment. 

While acquiring new talent continues to be part of the solution, upskilling, a key talent development strategy, has become more important than ever. As the adoption rate of technology intensifies across organizations of all sizes and in all industries, we are witnessing the convergence of key in-demand skills required by multiple sectors simultaneously. This has led to heightened competition for technically-skilled talent, and a widening skills gap.  Organizations that place a renewed focus on the development of their existing workforce as an integral part of their human capital strategy will come out on top.   

A recent Toronto Finance International (TFI) report entitled Unlocking the human opportunity: harnessing the power of a mid-career workforce recommends five critical actions that organizations can take to cultivate the future-proof skills they need through upskilling:

1. Make lifelong learning a priority for everyone

A recent digital transformation study by Deloitte and MIT found that 73% of employees in top performing companies are updating their skills every six months, and 44% are updating them continuously. 

Employees are responsible for their own upskilling.  However, organizations can help, by fostering a culture of lifelong learning within the workplace.  This begins with executive-level support, demonstrated through various methods, such as formally identifying continuous learning in the organization’s overall business strategy and modeling positive upskilling behaviors. 

Other approaches include fostering a growth mindset and ingraining learning into the daily workflow.  Managers can do this informally, by incorporating lessons learned into review meetings and providing job shadowing opportunities, and formally, by integrating upskilling expectations into performance plans.

Finally, an effective upskilling strategy should be inclusive and accessible for all, regardless of role, tenure or age.  RBC, for example, hosts a live podcast series called RBC Disruptors which delivers insights through monthly conversations about disruption and innovation.  While every episode may not be pertinent to every listener’s work, RBC believes that expanding knowledge and thinking is relevant to everything their employees do.

2. Identify critical future skills

Leaders need to work together to (i) identify and prioritize the key skills that will be required in their organization in the future to drive both business and talent results, considering both functional- and organization-level requirements; and (ii) conduct an honest and realistic assessment of current capabilities to determine the largest skills gaps.  This process is far from simple, yet it’s worth undertaking. 

To help identify skills gaps, digital self-assessments, which are useful when evaluating data and digital acumen, and peer-to-peer assessments, which are more appropriate for assessing soft skills such as learning agility, curiosity and empathy, can be very effective. 

Data analytics tools, particularly predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used successfully by some organizations to more effectively identify and assess employee skills gaps.  IBM’s Your Learning is an example of an AI-driven learning platform that has been employed with great success:  70% of IBM employees today have the skills they need for the future compared to just 40% five years ago.

3. Apply a multi-faceted approach to develop critical skills

Once an organization identifies its critical future skills and existing gaps, it can design upskilling activities that will have the most impact.  Leaders should develop a multi-faceted approach based on the unique needs of their employees, the degree of skills development required, and how quickly they need to scale.

One approach is to “raise the water level” to enhance the organization’s baseline level of skills.  Many firms are using this approach to “level up” the core data and digital literary skills of their workforces, leveraging technology to provide employees with a personalized experience. 

The above approach should be balanced with a targeted upskilling strategy to differentiate the experience for specific groups of people, and to develop pockets of proficiencies.  An example is helping employees performing reporting roles to improve how they use data to tell compelling stories. 

Finally, every organization has individuals who create, protect or enable the greatest proportion of value.  Investing in the critical few by providing tailored upskilling opportunities is the third approach, and includes “influencers” who can help champion upskilling and continuous learning.

4. Empower people to embrace upskilling

Employees who are provided with clear communications, sufficient information (e.g. overarching business goals, the skills needed for future success, and the value of upskilling activities to organizational objectives), and appropriate supports are more likely to take ownership over their individual learning and growth activities.

Managers can help guide employee learning by communicating how their work is likely to shift in the future and the skills needed to be successful, and by supporting employees to curate their upskilling experiences and build their own training plan.

To that end, organizations also need to empower their people managers to become learning champions so they can proactively model and guide their teams along upskilling paths, and provide ongoing feedback to support their progress.

Investing in digital and social learning tools can significantly enhance an organization’s upskilling strategy, providing a more personal anywhere and everywhere model.

TD Bank, for example, recently introduced TD Thrive, an upskilling initiative leveraging the learning platform Degreed, to provide its employees with access to curated learning content, assessment tools and learning paths to support upskilling.

Similarly, Sun Life Financial recently piloted the use of virtual reality to create emotional connections through client experiences, a critical soft skill.

5. Up the ante on experiential learning

Experiential learning is essential to upskilling. It can help individuals retain learning by providing them with opportunities to practice skills and embed behaviours into their day-to-day activities. 

Job rotations and gig (short-term, outcome-specific) assignments are examples of experiential learning.  They require a conducive organizational culture – one that supports and removes barriers to talent mobility.  To do this, leaders need to think differently about employee utilization, develop practices that encourage talent sharing, and become more open to talent movement across their organization.

Experiential learning does not need to be limited to job rotations, job shadowing or secondments.  Many organizations are thinking creatively about how to offer different and meaningful learning experiences such as hackathons, external rotations, skill-based volunteering opportunities or sabbaticals that allow employees to broaden their experience.

PwC’s Digital Accelerators Program, for example, enables employees to accelerate their digital skills development, a key component of the organization’s upskilling strategy.  The firm has released selected individuals from their “traditional” work for approximately two years, so that they can rapidly apply learning skills and champion organization-wide changes.  

Upskilling is a business imperative for organizations to close the growing skills gap. Successful strategies go beyond the development of specific skills, by creating an organizational culture that fosters curiosity, cultivates a growth mindset and supports employees with the leadership, meaningful experiences, tools and other enablers needed to inspire a commitment to lifelong learning and build organizational capacity for the future.

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