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How to build a self-reinventing workforce

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Nine principles that underpin skills transformation at IBM

When we asked 5,000 business leaders what core skills they look for in the workforce, technical, digital and data skills featured prominently in their responses. As businesses wake up to the reality that data, automation and artificial intelligence will not just feature in but shape their futures, it follows that the people they employ will need to possess the skills to harness this technology.

But the number-one skill these business leaders coveted has nothing to do with a candidate’s ability to navigate code. Adaptability – a willingness to be open, flexible and agile in approach – loomed large in our respondents’ wish lists. They understand that an employee’s AQ or “adaptability quotient” can be a better measure of their ability to thrive in any particular business environment than their qualifications.

Considering the year we’ve all been through, this may not be a surprise.

But this survey was conducted in 2018.

The need for a workforce that can innovate and collaborate amidst uncertainty and volatility has only been exacerbated by the twists and turns of 2020.

It should also come as no surprise that adaptability is so desirable in light of the fact that the practical skills people need to do their jobs today become irrelevant very quickly. As the pace at which technology evolves quickens, the half-life of technical skills is diminishing – and the time it takes to close the skills gap is growing. An engineering graduate joining the workforce today may find her skills obsolete in just three or four years’ time.

This reality is alarming for employees, but it’s nothing short of a ticking time-bomb for employers. They already face a skills shortage; only 41% of organisations say they have the people, skills and resources required to execute their business strategy. The market for talent is competitive. But perhaps a more accurate way to frame the problem is that these businesses have plenty of people – but not enough relevant skills.

Organisations are reeling from the economic shock of Covid-19, rethinking how they go to market and making tough decisions about the skills they need to survive. All of a sudden, skills are a strategic issue; they are the core currency of your business.

The answer is to look inwards and build a self-reinventing workforce. Or to put it another way: you need every employee to understand that, like Dr Who, they will need to undergo several regenerations during their career.

And organisations have to play their part by nurturing a culture of regeneration ­- or ‘continuous learning’ – in which employer and employee share responsibility for building in-demand skills. While employees take on their learning, organisations need to nudge them forward by creating an environment where the desire to learn can thrive; a psychological safety net in which people are not just expected to upskill, but supported and consistently encouraged to do it.

In the last five years, IBM has reinvented its approach to learning and transformed its culture. It has tripled the amount of learning employees do at half the cost, reinvesting the amount saved across other parts of the organisation. As we look back at the regeneration of skills we have achieved in our organisation, we call out nine principles that have enabled us to build a self-reinventing workforce – and could offer other organisations a blueprint for success.

1. Make it accessible

IBM has created YourLearning, a learning experience platform that’s easy to access through any device. It’s designed to make learning seamless; like Netflix, it allows users to dip in and out to pick up learning when it suits them. Rather than having to dedicate a full day to a training course, IBMers can consume content in small chunks. Even if they have just five minutes available, they can make some progress, and employees have really embraced it. Our clients have too. Originally created as an internal platform, YourLearning now has over one million users outside of IBM due to client demand.

2. Be transparent

Leaders must be upfront about the skills they are asking employees to develop. Across the global IBM organisation we have identified and promoted a number of critical skills people need if they want to progress within the business – among them, AI, analytics and blockchain. We have also laid out ways of working and industry areas to focus on. By putting this information out there, we’re being clear that this is the future of our industry and the future of their skills.

3. Personalise it

IBM’s learning platform takes in data about its users – their role, geography, skills and learning done in the past – and makes intelligent recommendations. It understands the details of job roles and can identify trends in what peers are learning to point the user in new directions. It is the polar opposite of top-down, traditional learning in which every team member is ‘sheep-dipped’ through generic training.

4. Incentivise it

When IBM employees complete a particular course or training topic to attain a new level of competence, they can receive a badge that they can take with them as they progress within and beyond the business and share on LinkedIn. It creates a tangible learning path; if they click on a particular skill they can see all the badges available, from basic to guru status. This simple incentivisation has accelerated the amount of self-learning people do right across the organisation – by November 2020 we had issued more than 3 million badges.

5. Measure it

When users open the learning platform, an icon pops up to show how many hours’ learning they have done. This gamifies the effort and gives people something to aim for. Our original goal was for every IBMer to complete 40 hours each year; now the annual average is nearly 80 hours – and rising rapidly. We have some “super learners” who routinely complete 200 hours annually. This success is down to the fact that people can easily fit small chunks of learning around their day job.

6. Reward it

When it comes to end-of-year salary reviews at IBM, managers use a tool called CogniPay. It looks at all the data about employees, assessing their skills alongside their performance to recommend a salary increase. It analyses the skills they have developed that year, how in-demand their skills are and what the market rate is for those skills. By basing the salary review around the employee’s future value as well as their past performance, we have changed the nature of the conversation around pay and given employees more incentive to make self-development a positive action to pursue, rather than a New Year’s resolution to forget.

7. Champion it

At IBM, continuous learning is championed from the very top and throughout the organisation. As a business, IBM has had to anticipate and adapt to market shifts over the years, and we understand that individual reinvention is a part of this.

8. Support it

A virtual agent – a cognitive chatbot supported by intelligent workflows –  is on hand 24/7 in multiple languages to support learners and managers.  Over time the chatbot learns from interactions with learners and constantly improves the recommendations and guidance provided.  Real-time analytics can track learning searches and thousands of items of feedback per day, routing the information back to content owners so they can improve the training provided.

9. Refresh it

Any business that is serious about skills reinvention must invest in a strong learning and knowledge team that can constantly provide and refresh content, supported by an ecosystem of expert learning providers. At IBM we go a step further, encouraging IBM subject matter experts to co-create and update this learning material where possible to keep it evergreen.

Ultimately, the responsibility for skills transformation must be shared between the business and the employee. Technology is changing, industries are changing, jobs are changing; individuals must seek to regenerate and reinvent themselves if they want a fulfilling, stable career path. But it’s in organisations’ interests to create an appetite for learning and enable it among their own workforce.

It all comes back to adaptability. A workforce made up of people who understand the business’s goals and look continuously for ways to upskill and stay relevant, in which learning is built into the flow of work, is the foundation for a business ready to take on whatever the future throws it.

Senior Partner - IBM Talent & Transformation, IBM Services Europe

James Cook

Senior Partner, Global Business Services, IBM

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