How to train workers in the age of digital transformation

Microlearning, gamification and self-paced instruction are some of the trends reshaping professional training as organizations wrestle with the IT skills gap.

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It’s clear that companies in the throes of digital transformation are struggling with a glaring skills gap. What’s also clear is that the traditional approach to employee training and upskilling is another major hurdle, prompting many organizations to overhaul their strategy for talent development and continuous learning.

As technology advances at a rapid clip, organizations are actively seeking out IT talent with critical digital skills, from cloud to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Yet finding the right IT talent continues to remain a challenge: Respondents to the 2019 State of the CIO reported significant hurdles locating candidates with the appropriate background in areas such as data science and analytics (42 percent), security and risk management (33 percent), artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (31 percent) and cloud services/integration (22 percent).

Tech skills aren’t the only void — 40 percent of State of the CIO respondents were also clamoring for employees with change management and strategy building prowess, project management acumen (32 percent) and proficiency in business relationship management (25 percent). Data scientists, business process experts and cloud architects are among the titles in especially hot demand, the 2019 State of the CIO research found.

Given the tight labor market, organizations are turning attention to new forms of training to upskill employees and prepare the ranks for the future of work. According to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study, the No. 1 trend for 2019 is the need to change the way people learn — a goal cited by 86 percent of responding organizations. Twenty-four percent of execs responding to the Deloitte study cited a need to reskill their workforce. In addition, the Deloitte study identified three ways companies should evolve their internal learning and training practices — via personalization, integration with work and towards lifelong models.

“The challenge being a business leader is that not only do you have to plan for jobs you can’t fill now, but the landscape is changing, and you have to plan for positions and categories you haven’t yet anticipated,” says John Karren, digital workforce leader at PcW. “What that does to the learning ecosystem is that instead of training for specific skills, you have to look at the capabilities you are trying to drive.” PcW’s digital workforce practice has defined the core capability set as data visualization, data analytics and automation, he says.

A moving target

As automation technologies alter the nature of work and the pace of change accelerates, the skills required to stay current is a constantly moving target. Companies want employees to be fluent in data science or 3D printing skills, but the technologies are evolving so quickly that a traditional classroom-style training curriculum relevant six months ago can become outdated in short order.

At the same time, fewer organizations have the budgets or time to send employees off to weeks-long, in-classroom training. Moreover, the ubiquity of cellphones and other digital devices has upended how people want to consume content. Increasingly, employees want access to enterprise business content in digestible chunks, including short videos, much like what they access in their personal lives. This has spawned a whole new chapter in corporate training, including digital learning platforms that use gamification and social techniques to foster anytime, anywhere, self-directed learning. There is also a shift to micro learning initiatives that allow employees to take in specific bursts of information in support of the concept of around-the-clock learning.

“You have to understand your audience from an employee perspective and craft content that matches their ability and their needs on how to consume it,” says John Morhous, chief experience officer at US Flight Centre Travel Group, a global travel agency brand. “If you’ve got younger people, you can’t provide a 20-page policy document — if you’re an organization full of lawyers, a 20-page policy document works fine.” To solve its training needs, FCTG, with 23,000 people worldwide, has implemented a workplace learning platform that mirrors the Facebook user experience to allow its employees to consume information in a social media style, through 30-second video clips, quizzes, and other bite-sized chunks.

Players in the corporate training space are doing their part to deliver new forms of digital skills training. QA, a leading learning company in the UK with both traditional online and classroom courses, recently acquired U.S.-based Cloud Academy, an enterprise digital skills development platform. The Cloud Academy platform provides skills assessment capabilities to help organizations garner a good understanding of the skills they have and the skills they need. It also delivers learning pathways that help people assess where they need to burnish their IT skills in the context of their job and desired career path. One of the key differentiators of the platform is a lab environment that lets people test what they’ve learned in a work-like environment; gamification engages learners with features like leader boards, scores, and the ability to compete and work as a team.

“We’re building a platform and way of delivering learning and skills that creates a fast desire to learn,” says Lisa Harrington, managing director of learning at QA. “It’s about building confidence.”

Despite their emphasis on automation, tech giants like Amazon and Salesforce are also making major investments to shore up the human workforce with skills for the digital age. Amazon recently unveiled a major plan to invest $700 million in digital skills training for 100,000 employees by 2025. Amazon’s Upskilling 2025 initiative will fund programs to serve company employees in a variety of backgrounds, including Machine Learning University where those with tech backgrounds can enroll in an onsite training program to acclimate to machine learning skills along with AWS training and certifications.

Related: The digital transformation debate: It’s about people AND technology

For its part, Salesforce launched Trailhead, an online learning platform that serves up free, self-paced, bite-sized content to empower IT professionals wanting to upskill their Salesforce credentials. Developers and users can tap a series of interactive, online 10- to 15-minute tutorials that helps them learn what they need when they need it while providing assessments to give the learner instant feedback. Like many next-generation learning platforms, Trailhead fully embraces gamification, awarding points and badges on successful completion of the curriculum.

“Similar to how enterprise software evolved to match the look and feel of consumer apps like Uber and Instagram, the learning experience must also grow — moving beyond the whiteboard to deliver a digital experience that mirrors what employees do in their personal lives,” said Kris Lande, Salesforce’s vice president of marketing, Trailhead.

The modern learning experience must also be flexible enough to account for employees’ need to continuously learn and grow. According to QA’s Harrington: “Organizations need to fuel the power to keep on learning. This isn’t like you’re going to do this once or learn this one time. The train is going faster, and people need to keep on investing in their own skills and knowledge.”