HRDs: Create ‘awareness’ first, and new skills will follow

As we all know, and as latest US Bureau of Labor statistics prove, America is currently experiencing an acute labor and skills shortage. Demand for labor, as measured by job vacancy rates, remains stubbornly high, at above 11 million.

The outcome of this is never a good one. As organizations become ever-more desperate to fill vacancies, they will be increasingly forced to consider candidates who do not have the perfect skillsets to match the jobs on offer.

So what’s the answer? To me it’s this: HR departments need to find ways for employees to upskill, or learn new skills, and quickly.

Of course, saying this is the easy bit. What organizations actually need to do to achieve this is probably the trickier bit. But that’s where my recent work with global organisations as a ‘Learner Experience Architect’ has focused. And what I, and my colleagues, have found is that starting with ‘awareness’ is often the most impactful thing that organizations and employees can do to accelerate the acquisition of new skills.

How can ‘awareness’ solve skills shortages?

So what, I hear you cry, do we mean by ‘awareness’, and how can organizations incorporate this new approach to successfully upskill their workforces rapidly?

First we need to step back a bit. Historically the HR and L&D sector has tended to focus on two things: content and method of delivery. In doing so they’ve sought to look at ways to increase effectiveness of these areas in an attempt to support effective and efficient skills development.

Recently, the focus has been on designing learning that incorporates research-informed approaches, such as spaced learning, social learning, micro-learning, learning journeys, gamification, the 70-20-10 model, and learning in the flow of work.

Equally, corporate learning is primarily dominated by the “course.” When a person needs to learn a new skill, the most common organizationally-driven response is to send them on a course.

But both these things are in contrast with the way that people tend to learn outside of the corporate world.

Let me explain: Think of the last time you needed to learn a new skill, no matter how small or large. Maybe it was how to install a dishwasher; or how to launch a podcast; or how to lead a hybrid team. How did you approach learning this skill or skillset? It’s my guess your decision depended partly on your starting point, your awareness of what you were already able to do, and what specifically you needed to learn to do in order to achieve the goal.

This is how people are quickly learning things every day, and if you notice, it’s awareness that is front and center.

The “awareness” approach is the difference between just pressing ‘start’ on an assigned training module compared with taking a moment to consider four things:

  • Strengths: What is this person’s starting point? What do they already know about this skill? What related skills do they have that are transferable or will be useful in helping them gain the new skill? Where along the learning pathway should they begin? This alone can accelerate time to performance by not wasting time on unnecessary training.
  • Obstacles: What will be the biggest challenge for THIS employee in gaining the new skill? This could be related to the skill itself or a pre-requisite skill, OR could be related to the environment. Will they be able to take the time to prioritize learning this skill? Will they have a chance to practice and use this skill to reinforce the learning? Identify the most likely point of failure for this employee.
  • Resources: Identify how the employee will overcome the identified biggest challenge or possible point of failure. This is usually not immediately evident, but taking the time needed to identify the tools or resources or support necessary to overcome their personal obstacle before starting the skill journey is an enormous accelerator and confidence booster, and well worth the investment up front.
  • Mode: There are many effective ways to learn any skill. What is the best way for this employee to learn this skill? In designing learning pathways, I often find multi-modal is the way to go. Offer documents, videos, case studies, practice opportunities, and access to an expert; and support employees to select the method(s) that work for them.

Here’s how these steps look in a practical example:

If a job requires the skill of coding using Python, instead of sending the employee on a ‘learn to use Python course’ consider what they already know (e.g. Java), and what might be their biggest challenges. These might include things like how they prioritize this learning amidst their other responsibilities; how to overcome this challenge (e.g. incorporate the learning into the workflow), and how they learned this kind of skill in the past (e.g. working with a peer mentor).

The most efficient learning for this employee could therefore be to assign a work project similar to what they have done previously with Java, but which uses Python. Maybe also consider providing a coach/mentor who will get them started and be an in-the-moment resource.

Anyone can do it

Some HRDs will, of course, suggest that this approach is not yet a scalable solution. However, finding ways to support employees to activate their own awareness related to needed skills can still have an impact, even if employees must complete the same (untailored) training program. Any employee who starts a standard, one-size-fits-all course or learning program with awareness will still gain more out of that experience than an employee who plows through without awareness.

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With that in mind, here are four suggestions for HR leaders to adopt to accelerate necessary upskilling:

1) Look for ways to activate awareness in your employees at the beginning of any upskilling program:

Preference-based profiles and personality assessments such as Insights Discovery, along with skill audits and peer/manager feedback, can help activate awareness and identify personalized strengths, gaps, and resources.

2) Encourage employees to take an active role in their upskilling:

Rather than designing a one-size-fits-all approach, prepare for a polysynchronous, hybrid approach to enable you to support employees if they request a non-standard approach to their upskilling.

3) Build in awareness activators throughout upskilling to maximise impact:

Help each employee notice what they are learning along the way or when they overcome their biggest obstacle.

4) Find ways to build awareness as a global employee competency:

Do this to have the broadest impact on upskilling and other training and development needs.

Dr Tanya Boyd is Learning Experience Architect at Insights. She has a PhD. in industrial/organizational psychology, and has worked as an internal and external consultant, as well as a university instructor. Tanya has co-authored several published articles on learning and contributed to a book on leadership published by the Center for Creative Leadership.

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