How to Build a Successful, Scalable Reskilling Program at Your Company

October 21, 2019

According to the World Economic Forum, more than half (54%) of all employees will require significant reskilling or upskilling by 2022. But while many companies are pledging to train their people, some experts caution this may not be enough.

“When we talk about learning and development, a lot of people think about training,” says James Engel, chief learning architect at the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Center (SEAC). “But training is just part of what you need to do.”

For James, the biggest issue with training is that many companies view it as a one-and-done event. But learning is much bigger than that — it’s a journey that needs to be carefully planned, executed, documented, and scaled. 

At SEAC, James works with companies and learners to build that journey. The organization offers a range of flexible in-person and online classes in both Thai and English, and it partners with universities like Stanford to create custom, contextualized courses for individuals and corporations that want to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date. The goal is to meet learners where they are and ensure they actually get where they need to go, rather than just passively engaging with the program. In the process, they learn how to learn — and keep learning. 

To help you do the same for your workforce, here are James’s tips for building a successful and scalable reskilling program. 

Start by encouraging a continuous learning mind-set — both with leaders and within the workforce

For James, successful learning begins with adopting the right perspective — one which recognizes that learning is an ongoing experience rather than a onetime event. This outward-focused, growth mind-set has to be shared by employees and leaders alike. 

The organizations that James sees flourishing are those that will collectively embrace a lifelong learning mind-set and infuse their leaders with an unshakeable commitment to learning, sharing, and development. He adds: “The ones that see this as ‘I have to reskill right now’ are working to survive, not thrive.”

To change the conversation around learning at your organization, James recommends removing the word reskilling from your vocabulary — at least when communicating your goals to employees. He believes the word has started to develop negative connotations, similar to the backlash that business process reengineering (BPR) had experienced by the mid-1990s.

“People are going to say, ‘Oh, you think I’m too stupid to do something so you need to reskill me,’” James says. “Because of the speed of things, we really need to have a smart dialogue and reposition these efforts as part of a lifelong learner mind-set and journey.” 

Work with leadership to identify goals and start outlining a pathway to achieving them, then ask employees to weigh in 

Once your company’s leaders are on board with the idea of continuous learning, the next step is to work closely with them to figure out what needs to change at the organization. This will require a thorough analysis of how your industry is changing. 

“What’s the new game we’re playing here?” James asks. “Who are our real competitors? What’s changed in the marketplace? And who do we need to be now for these customers, or to deal with our new competitors?”

As you’re considering these questions, it’s equally important to think about what’s still to come. This can help you start thinking about the skills and capabilities that your company most needs to develop for the future. In doing so, you can avoid the biggest mistake that James sees companies making — overreacting to what their competitors are doing and trying to copy them. 

“Sometimes, you don’t know who your next competitor is going to be,” he points out. “You really have to make sure that when you’re doing reskilling, you’re actually meeting a potential future market challenge or customer need, as opposed to reskilling in reaction to what your competitors are doing.”

Once you have a clear destination in mind, you can backtrack and develop a plan to move employees from point A to point B. James says it’s a good idea to ask employees to weigh in here. But he cautions against doing this before you know what you actually want to accomplish. 

“There are things that are coming,” James says, “that your employees aren’t going to know about. The company has to have a fairly good idea of where they need to become more effective and efficient. And at that point, it’s a requirement to get employees who are going to be impacted involved in helping evaluate, design, or even build out the new processes, systems, and technology that are going to affect them.”

Start small by building a pilot program and making adjustments along the way

Whether you work for a 20-person company or a global enterprise, trying to teach too much too soon to too many people can really set your efforts back. 

James recalls one client who spent millions on an ill-advised reskilling app and tried to put 10,000 employees through it at once. The plan backfired — employees treated it like a joke. 

“It hurt them more than it helped them,” James says, “because they weren’t thinking about the people and what they need.”

Instead, James recommends starting small and focusing on just a few employees. Launching a limited pilot program allows you to try things out, make a few mistakes, and iterate based on what you’ve learned — before every employees’ eyes are on you. 

Use early adopters to help other employees understand the benefits, and give everyone a choice to participate

To choose the right employees for your pilot, James recommends looking at what he calls the “20/60/20” breakdown of your company. The first 20% are the employees who immediately see the benefit of reskilling and are eager to get started. 

By moving these early adopters through your program first, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Their successes will encourage and inspire the next 60% to get involved — employees who are a little more resistant but still recognize that reskilling is something they need to do. 

“You have to create a community where people are going through it together,” James says. “You have to have them help each other, so that the early adopters are in a position to help the people who are slower.”

The final 20% of employees, however, may question why they have to change at all. These employees will be the most difficult to convert. But James advises against trying to push them through the process, as this will only make them more resistant and resentful. 

“It has to start with a lot of empathy,” James says, “and a lot of support — painting a clear picture of what the end result is and the benefit to them, and providing them with a choice. Not everybody is going to come along, but how you treat the people who don’t come along will impact how the people who stay feel.”

Track your successes and learn from your peers because you’re not the only company going through this

To measure the success of your efforts, James recommends focusing on both business metrics (like whether your customer acquisition costs have gone down) and employee sentiment metrics (including your voluntary turnover rate and how people feel about the change). You may also want to track whether the program has improved your ability to hire given that many candidates want to work for companies that invest in their growth and development

“We were talking to one company who, up until five or 10 years ago, was one of the most highly regarded companies in Thailand,” James recalls. “And they realized that their reputation scores were dropping a lot — they weren’t a cool place to work anymore. If you’re not a place that young people want to go because you’re not doing anything new or different, that’s going to show up in your brand metrics.”

While you’re measuring your success internally, James also encourages discussing what you’re doing with your industry counterparts. This can be a courageous step, since many companies feel they need to keep their cards close to their chest to remain competitive. But by fostering a community of like-minded people who are trying to do the same things that you’re doing, you can learn from each other and make progress much faster. 

“Wherever you are, there are other companies that are going through this,” James adds. “You can’t do it alone, and you can’t do it with one consulting firm coming in and redefining your organization. You really need people who are going to be with you every step of the way.” 

Final thoughts: For continuous learning to become the norm, leaders must let go of their misconceptions about training 

Helping employees to continuously learn and evolve will help your company meet any challenge the future brings. But this can’t happen until everyone shakes the idea that a single training session will bring about any real and meaningful change — a lesson that can be especially tough for leaders to grasp. 

“If leadership doesn’t realize that reskilling takes more than training,” James says, “then leadership is the group you’ve got to start with.”

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* Photo from SEAC