New Learning Technologies Drive Reskilling Initiatives

By Dave Zielinski August 27, 2019
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​A tight labor market and the changing nature of work is causing more companies to "build" rather than "buy" skills to close gaps in the workforce. As new jobs emerge and existing positions expand to include emerging technical or data analytics skills, HR and talent acquisition leaders are competing to hire rare talent.

As a result, employers are opting to train existing employees. Amazon recently announced it was investing $700 million to reskill 100,000 of its employees in areas like machine learning and robotics. AT&T is in the midst of a $1 billion investment to retrain its workforce as it transforms from a company focused on fiber-optic cables and telephone switches into a digital business. Countless other midsize and smaller organizations also are retraining to keep their workers' skills current in the digital age.

Many are turning to new digital learning technologies to help employees acquire skills in ways that are minimally disruptive to their daily work lives, to create more-personalized learning paths, and to help coach and mentor workers in more efficient ways.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employee Career Paths and Ladders]  

Reskilling Needs Grow

Recent research underscores the need for reskilling. A study from the World Economic Forum found that 54 percent of employees will need significant reskilling by 2022, largely because changing technology will add new demands to their roles or make current job descriptions obsolete.

In its 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report, consultancy Bersin, Deloitte found that while some jobs are disappearing due to technology—38 percent of survey respondents expect to eliminate certain jobs due to automation in the next three years—many more roles are being transformed by technology.

Eighty-four percent of respondents to the Bersin study who said automation would require employee retraining reported that they had increased funding for such reskilling, while 77 percent said they also were increasing the headcount in their learning department, making learning the second-fastest-growing role in HR.

"If you consider that the length of careers is increasing as people work longer at the same time the half-life of job skills is decreasing, you can see why companies are focused on reskilling existing employees," said Julie Hiipakka, vice president of learning research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting. "Organizations are recognizing that the best way to get the skills they need often is to help the people they already have evolve and adapt."

New Ways to Learn

Training methods of the past that relied on one-size-fits-all approaches to educate employees—or that required workers to take significant time away from jobs to attend courses—are being abandoned in favor of digital learning platforms that can deliver just the learning workers need at the right time and place, experts say.

"We're seeing more organizations look to technology as a significant part of their reskilling conversations, which has translated to a larger investment in content-related learning technologies," said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics for Sierra-Cedar, a technical consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga.

While the venerable learning management system (LMS) remains the backbone of many technology ecosystems, its role has diminished as new content-driven technologies help organizations deliver training in more user-friendly and agile ways. 

"Organizations are increasingly looking to complement their LMS and push it further into the background," Hiipakka said. "The LMS still plays an important recordkeeping and compliance role to document that certain training has been completed, but it's become a less visible part of what employees engage with to learn."

Many forward-thinking companies are adopting learning experience platforms (LXPs) as an alternative to the LMS, experts say. Rather than specializing in compliance issues or learning course catalog management, the LXP is more of a content-delivery system that can incorporate things like video-based learning or enable content to be integrated into mainstream work systems to offer on-demand learning.

"More learning leaders we talk to today are using an LXP rather than an LMS," said Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, a human capital research and advisory firm.

Companies are increasingly mixing and matching learning technologies from different vendors in "open" ecosystems designed to capitalize on the strengths of disparate systems. For example, an organization might employ a mix of learning vendors that includes providers like Axonify to deliver five- or 10-minute micro-learning to front-line employees within their flow of daily work; a platform like WalkMe to help employees learn new or complex software systems in short timeframes; or a system like Degreed to connect employees to curated learning resources like courses, videos, articles, books or podcasts.

Experts say there's a renewed focus on enabling employees to learn on the job in small doses through micro-learning, via collaboration tools where they can easily pose questions to peers and through on-demand content libraries.

Hiipakka calls this focus "learning in the flow of work," an understanding that learning and work are two constantly connected sides of every job. That's why she thinks micro-learning, for example, should be integrated into mainstream work systems so employees aren't forced to log into a separate learning system to access it.

Johnson also is seeing more learning technologies geared toward creating and tracking certifications as well as platforms focused on coaching and mentoring. Sierra-Cedar's 2018-2019 HR Systems Survey found growth in technologies that track industry certifications as well as those that help employees created personalized development plans.

Given the burgeoning number of learning options, organizations often need guidance in choosing the best technology platforms for their needs. Companies like Conduent Learning Services in Asheville, N.C., help HR leaders sift through the choices.

Conduent assesses a company's regulatory climate, the demographics of its employees, the technology environment, which workers have regular access to what devices—along with the specific business challenges the company faces—to prescribe a mix of learning technologies, said Leo Blankenship, vice president and learning offerings leader at Conduent.

"Ultimately the goal should be to help your employees learn when they want to, where they want to and how they want to, whether that training be digital or analog," Blankenship said.

The Human Element

Some learning content providers believe the human element still plays a crucial role in learning effectiveness. One such company is AVADO, a London-based learning content provider, which in its online courses for subjects like data analytics or leadership development uses a purposeful mix of self-directed and group-based techniques involving facilitators or online instructors.

"Self-directed online learning alone doesn't meet learner needs in all types of scenarios," said Niall McKinney, global president of AVADO. "Our approach is you need a blend of different experiences, such as combining on-demand content with some live classes that are streamed and involve group work. We find many people still learn better in environments where they learn with other people."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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