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Want to Close the Skills Gap? Fix the Learning Gap.

Senior Human Resource Executive

Jack Ryan

Senior Human Resource Executive

General Electric


Self motivated employees are essential for businesses to succeed (P1)

Enter the phrase “skills gap” in the search engine of your choice, and you’ll uncover nearly half a million matches. Year after year, employer surveys find that candidates are graduating college without the skills they need – whether in manufacturing, or engineering and technology, or leadership and other required skills – to succeed in the workplace.

More companies are partnering with universities, community colleges and even secondary schools to address the gap through training and apprenticeship programs, internships, mentoring initiatives, and stepped-up efforts to share more insights about “life on the job” during campus recruiting tours. This work is important and essential, but I think we’re missing a larger point: as the jobs of the future are created, the skills gap will grow, faster. More and more, with the acceleration of technology and product life cycles, employees will continually find themselves in situations where they need to build capabilities in real time. It’s a massive shift.

As Clayton Christensen noted in a recent conversation, in the past people had to “develop the skills to get the job,” but we are now in a place where many people “have the job and need to get the skills” because the requisite capabilities change and evolve so fast.

This doesn’t mean that business and academia should throw up their hands. Far from it. The real problem, however, is not merely a gap in skills… but a gap in learning, and the way we view it.

New work by Beth Comstock and Susan Peters on The Emergent Era and the implications for leadership provides good context. As organizations become less hierarchical and bureaucratic, teams must operate in a more dynamic, data-driven, self-directed fashion. This requires leaders at all levels to make learning part of the daily to-do list. The days of going to school and then expecting those skills to be sufficient over an entire career are over. Learning, in other words, is not a discrete event or something you do every now and then when required on the job. Learning is the job.

As you think about ways to build intellectual horsepower across your organization, here are a few ideas to consider:

Whats Next Black Board

The best leaders are those constantly stretching and investing in themselves and their teams (P2)

Develop a Core Group of Executive Champions

The democratization of learning rarely happens organically. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want a groundswell of activity you’re going to need support from the top.

Who are the best leaders in your organization? Chances are, they’re the ones who are constantly stretching themselves and their teams. They have intense curiosity. They are hyper-learners who invest time and money to help the people around them improve. You see the results in the level and type of innovation they introduce. If you have folks like this in your leadership ranks, make sure your culture celebrates and reinforces their commitment to learning. This reinforcement of their role-model leadership will amplify their impact and chart the course for people who look up to them. 

Online proffessional coaching

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online professional courses available for anyone to enroll (P3)

Build a “Classroom of One”

In the past, everyone had to learn the same skill at the same time; now, learners must be able to gain knowledge and skills at their own pace, all the time. This argues for a more personalized approach to learning, at every stage of your talent pipeline. Ed Hess and Katherine Ludwig in their new book Humility Is the New Smart note that, “Organizations will need their people to be hyper-learners who can adapt to rapidly changing environments.” This is necessary to add real value in our emerging world of AI and Machine Learning – what they call the Smart Machine Era.

Learning Library

How do you facilitate learning in your office? (P4)

Optimize Your Environment for Learning

To make learning a more visible element of your culture, you need to take a more comprehensive approach to setting expectations. Create an environment where employees are empowered to experiment and learn every day. Consider the fact that people like to learn in a variety of ways – formal and informal, classroom, hands-on, virtual. And don’t underestimate the power of building relationships and goodwill through learning. Encourage employees to learn from one another, and from colleagues in other functions and industries.

Next, think about the systems you have in place. Are your systems organized around your employees, or around processes? Do your systems integrate learning assets and experiences with development opportunities, or do they reinforce a compartmentalized approach? Do your systems help employees share what they learn, so that learning becomes continuous across the organization? At GE, we’ve replaced annual reviews with a real-time, app-supported approach to performance development that aligns employee growth with customer priorities and impact. This enables employees to more clearly see the connection between learning and productivity, customer value, recognition, and career growth.

The next step is to have the app make relevant learning recommendations that help employees learn as they go.

Finally, take a hard look at metrics and compensation with respect to performance. If your employees don’t see the very definition of meritocracy in what you measure and pay for, they won’t believe that you are willing to walk the talk when it comes to learning and development.

Return on investment

The right systems translate learnings into profits (P5)

Capture the Value Quickly – and then Reinvest

Businesses with a productive learning culture have 5% greater profit margins, according to research from the Corporate Executive Board. But really, the ROI of continuous learning is priceless – which is why you should encourage your people to apply the lessons they learn in a variety of ways. Start by helping them cultivate an “outside-in” perspective. We are only as adaptable as our point of view – and too often, we get stuck in our own silos. Developing the mental agility to adopt an external perspective – or multiple perspectives – helps connect the dots in times of extraordinary change.

Next, challenge your people to train their newly polished “outside-in” lenses on your organization. Ask them to identify problems and opportunities one layer up and one layer down, and work together to tackle them as mission-based teams. As an added enticement you could consider framing these efforts as productivity sprints, with the best ideas earning top recognition, but it’s likely that the potential gains in productivity and revenue will be incentive enough to keep your teams driving forward.

The trusty old interview question “Tell me about your education” has new relevance in The Emergent Era. No disrespect to your alma mater, but even if you graduated yesterday I’m less interested in what you learned there, and more interested in what you’re learning today– and even more curious to hear about what you plan to learn tomorrow. Maybe “Tell me how you educate yourself?” is the question we need to ask now.

The Emergent Era evinces a tipping point favoring companies that view learning as a strategic growth driver. There isn’t a field or function that’s immune to dramatic change and consequent skills gaps. Which is precisely what makes learning such a powerful competitive advantage. Let The Emergent Era be your call to action, and use it to unlock untold potential across your organization.

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