- Nearly 40% of necessary skills in all occupations changed between 2017 and 2022.
- Many companies have switched their traditional focus on outward recruitment toward internal upskilling.
- Groundbreaking upskilling tactics include silo busting, immersive media and gamification.
When, in October 2023, Slack reportedly shut down operations for a week to focus on upskilling, it created a media frenzy with a mix of speculation about the state of training at the firm and some praise for its commitment to learning and development (L&D). In fact, Slack didn’t shut down. It simply cancelled non-critical meetings to help staff focus on training targets. But that initiative, and the media response, was symptomatic of the intense urgency around L&D many firms feel.
Talent shortages are vexing executives more than ever. Dramatic developments are pushing the need for radical new skills — including in generative artificial intelligence (gen AI); cybersecurity; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); and working round the clock in a globally distributed organization. 2022 research by the Burning Glass Institute found 37% of necessary skills in all occupations — not just techie ones — changed in the previous five years. So even if you have ample internal talent, they probably still don’t possess the skills your organization needs in future.
Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute, says these changes alongside tightening labor markets are forcing companies to switch their traditional focus on outward recruitment toward internal upskilling. Many companies are struggling to meet the challenge. But others are responding with more radical and innovative approaches to L&D.
“Some pioneering firms have become much better at knowing their employees’ transferable capabilities,” says Sigelman. “They’ve created talent taxonomies [a common language of skill needs across the organization] and inventories and linked these to workforce plans. They are investing in long-term L&D to ensure they have the right people now and in many years’ time. Others haven’t the faintest clue who works for them or what they’re capable of. They say they believe in training but don’t put much weight behind it. Then they are shocked to find they don’t have people to fulfill their skill needs.”
Let’s look at what six innovative companies are doing to supercharge their upskilling culture.
Deloitte shifts to data-led approach
Global accountancy and consulting firm Deloitte is investing $1.4 billion in upskilling, including supersizing its university and tech academy. Neda Schlictman — chief learning officer and managing director, Deloitte Leadership and Human Potential — says L&D initiatives have previously focused on upskilling for current roles and market demands with a top-down approach. Instead, her firm now takes a data-driven approach to anticipate future client needs and to tailor L&D to each learner’s needs better. For example, it mined over 120,000 datasets to understand more about what learners need.
Deloitte is also introducing more learning experiences — including immersive media that helps employees practice skills via virtual simulations of real-life client and market scenarios. This immersive learning has proven effective as it removes all distractions, says Schlictman. “We are catering to many more Millennial and Gen Z employees who like to learn in specific ways; and tend to want more input and choice in their curriculum, and more flexibility and learning options.”
Deborah Collier, president of educational publisher the Digital Skills Authority, adds: “I believe strongly in blended learning with mixed reality and mixed media. Immersive learning — such as smart glasses putting you in a ‘real-life’ situation — is exciting. Even better, link it to an actual real-life objective.”
Cannabiva gamifies to boost motivation
Cannabis product provider Cannabiva has gamified its L&D platform by, for example, creating badges for completing courses and leaderboards for the fastest, most completed, and most improved trainee performances. Co-founder Anders Blomqvist says these initiatives have motivated employees to learn new skills, improving employee engagement and completion rate.
Once employees reach certain ranks on the platform, the firm funds third-party accreditation, and allows them to apply for higher positions. Marion Devine, principal researcher in human capital at think tank The Conference Board says: “Gamification is here to stay. It makes sense, not just for the younger generations — older ones interact well with it too.”
Torani flips “demoralizing” performance reviews
Beverage maker Torani has been mixing up L&D by flipping the traditional performance review — which can be “demoralizing” — on its head. It puts the onus on future rather than past performance and on employee learning aspirations, rather than manager assessment. This has contributed to Torani’s employee tenure being 53% higher than the US average, says the firm.
Devine adds: “With today’s shift to agile working, some firms believe yearly performance objectives and appraisals are insufficient and inflexible. They need something more frequent, nimble, and focused on feedback, skills and future needs. But you still need managers to assess performance to justify and provide transparency on promotions and pay decisions.”
Salesforce uses AI to align skills and goals
Salesforce, which owns Slack, has created a platform that merges employees’ previously disconnected quarterly “check-ins,” individual development plans, and performance evaluations. Bringing all this data together will enable it to use gen AI to align check-ins more closely with the business, and with more measurable goals, says the firm.
Salesforce also tasked all employees with completing roughly 100 courses — including on AI-related topics — on the platform by the end of 2023. Slack may have needed its focus week to help staff get there, according to some reports, but Collier says that, regardless of this, scheduling time for learning is important for team morale. “Creating time for all staff to learn helps them feel they’re on a learning journey together and helps make it part of the culture.”
Devine adds that trailblazing companies that are investing big in e-learning platforms and gen AI will be revolutionary in enabling more personalization with data-led learning and career experiences.
Microsoft blends learning into the workspace
Microsoft is supporting workers across its organization gain skills related to AI — from non-techies to IT professionals and leaders. Simon Lambert, chief learning officer at Microsoft UK, says: “One lesson we’ve learned from our AI learning journey is that upskilling means far more than merely equipping employees with skills. It requires an ecosystem that fosters adaptability and continuous learning. In the face of AI-upskilling demand, employees need faster, seamless access to learning infrastructure. For example, integrating training platforms into their workflow — weaving a learning hub into a place where employees already spend their time — makes it easier to develop a growth mindset and harness any future advancement, not just AI.”
The Conference Board’s Devine says: “Microsoft have done a lot of research in neuroscience, looking at how people interact with AI and [other] new tools. So they’re coming at it from an interesting angle and it’s an exciting area of development.”
TeamUp implements “silo-busting” to raise productivity
Fitness software provider TeamUp recently implemented a cross-departmental L&D initiative to encourage employees from all parts of the organization to learn from each other, and foster collaboration and innovation. COO Tim Green says this was a direct response to client complaints indicating a lack of basic company knowledge among employees, which could impact service quality and client relationships. “We needed to enhance interdepartmental understanding and ensure all employees are well-versed in company fundamentals,” he says.
The program also identifies unique skills and knowledge in each department, then creates a platform where employees can learn about different areas of the business. TeamUp also organized workshops, webinars, and mentoring that aimed to break silos, foster collaboration, and broaden skills.
Green says the outcome has been improved ability to address diverse customer needs, leading to 35% higher productivity and 20% better customer satisfaction. Devine confirms the wisdom of this cross-departmental approach: “Breaking silos allows a more innovative approach to L&D. It means recruiters, talent developers, and managers can work together more efficiently to tie L&D to company strategy, match skills to opportunities, and enable career advancement for all.”