3 ways to accelerate your company’s speed to skill

by Catalina Schveninger in Partners   |    Last Edited: 08th April 2020

And yes, one is alumni: hire boomerangs!

Lots of ink has been spilled about the shortage of digital talent and how companies have to reengineer their recruitment and learning programs to attract and retrain staff for essential skills such as data analytics, UI/UX design, cloud computing, digital marketing. 

Whilst nobody has yet to find the silver bullet and with some countries faced with more than 20% of the workforce significantly under-skilled by 2030*, here are some options to consider:

Reskilling and upskilling your existing workforce

$2 trillion was spent on digital transformation in 2019, with the human side of the transformation claiming a big chunk of that investment. AT&T was among the first “brick and mortar” corporates to announce a significant multi-year investment in reskilling their workforce. They opted to train their own versus hiring for new skills. How and why did they do that? Firstly, according to Josh Bersin, a leading HR analyst, it can cost up to 6 times more to hire from outside than to build from within. Secondly, most in-house L&D departments lack technical knowledge and often can’t leverage internal experts due to business as usual priorities. AT&T set the bar high not just in terms of an unprecedented level of investment in learning, but also for transparency. They created a Career Intelligence portal allowing workers to see what roles are available, what skills are in demand, potential salary ranges and whether their roles might be at risk within the next couple of years. 

Others have followed suit with equally PR worthy announcements: Amazon, Microsoft and even McDonald’s launched a US wide program to reskill women in their restaurants as part of a big push for diversity. 

But reskilling programs take time and the return of investment only kicks in if the newly acquired skills are applied on the job.

Building the learning agility muscle on the job

Learning agility has emerged in recent years as one of the key predictors of potential and success in the role, overshadowing IQ. It doesn’t only translate into he-who-learns-the-fastest but also into “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”. Vague job descriptions and the freedom to create one’s role around his/her strengths are the ideal playground for agile learners. Give them full access to (unstructured) information, provide coaching and ensure the objectives are challenging,  and they will get from 0 to hero in terms of skill level and business impact. 

Like digital skills, learning agility is in high demand. The good news is that it’s a skill learned by deep practice on the job, requiring significantly less tangible investment than coding, for example. Learning on the job works best in an environment where leaders provide psychological safety and where skill mastery is celebrated in the same way high performance is. Microsoft under Nadella is a good example of this “learn-it-all” type of culture. 

Hire boomerangs

I am the last person to recommend hiring vs growing your own, but here I am declaring my preference for boomerangs. It takes external hires an average of 5 to 9 months to reach full productivity, mainly due to the time it takes to make sense of the new company’s culture. Often onboarding programs are suboptimal and the newcomers feel lost in a blur of acronyms, meeting rituals and company-specific powerpoint templates. 

Boomerangs, on the other hand, hit the ground running. All that pressure of making a good first impression in the first exec meeting disappears. They bring fresh new insights from the outside world, extra valuable as they are seen through a company insider lense. They are refreshingly realistic (been there, seen it, nothing’s changed) but challenging as they feel they’ve earned the right to do so since the company has reached out to them once again. They are super motivated: nobody wants to make the same mistake twice.

*McKinsey study commissioned by Industrial Strategy Council

Catalina Schveninger, FCIPD (@CSchveninger) | Twitter

Catalina Schveninger FCIPD  is the Chief People Officer at FutureLearn, a digital education platform with over 10 million users, founded by the Open University. She writes on the topics of life long learning and HR tech and is on LinkedIn and Twitter,