Upskilling and Reskilling: Is It Just Good L&D or Something Different? | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On December 4, 2018

Is upskilling and reskilling little more than a thinly disguised attempt by HR departments to rebrand Learning and Development (L&D)? The answer, as one practitioner pointed out at a conference in Poland, is “no.”

I recently presented to the Association of Business Services Leaders (ABSL) Chapter in Krakow, Poland about the talent acquisition challenges that digitization poses to Shared Services Centers (SSCs.) The argument runs roughly like this:

  • Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is replacing human agents in transactional roles, freeing up capacity in the workforce. This can mean lay-offs at worst, or unqualified internal candidates reapplying for roles at best
  • There is greater demand for people with new skills both technological (design thinking, robotics, autonomics, analytics) and soft (pattern-recognition, complex problem solving, leadership, intuition) than can be met by simply recruiting externally
  • As automation takes care of transactional processes, organizations can enhance the value of their brands and the service they provide by having more people in roles which emphasize first contact resolution, emotional intelligence, listening, etc.
  • This new value chain focuses on outcomes: people are measured against quality of outcome rather than throughput (for instance, a shift from average handling time to CSat), which in turn requires new management thinking around staff incentives, culture, and business model.

The data in the presentation was based on the Everest Group survey of 81 SSC leaders in Poland, the Philippines, and India, published earlier this year (see “Building a Workforce of the Future – Upskilling/Reskilling in Global In-house Centers.”)

So obvious was the message that emerged from the survey that one or two skeptics in the audience questioned why retraining that part of the workforce most affected by the trend of automation was even worthy of discussion. Is it not just good L&D practice? And surely survey respondents would not admit to anything other than good practice when asked the question?

Not quite true: there were survey respondents, albeit no more than 10 percent of them, who said that they were not planning to undertake upskilling and reskilling as a means of addressing talent shortages. A small majority, 58 percent, said upskilling/reskilling was the highest priority in addressing this same problem, while 10 percent, possibly the same nagging 10 percent, said it was a low priority.

The discussion continued after the presentation. Without experience as a practitioner, I wrestled with an explanation as to why this 10 percent stubbornly refused to fit the theory. Thankfully, the HR head of a Krakow-based SSC rode to my rescue and gave the answer.

This is the group, she said, which understands that reskilling and upskilling is indeed good L&D practice but remains wedded to external hiring of permanent and temporary staff. It is the group that fails to see that existing employees must be recognized as the key pool to meet scarce talent requirements in SSCs.

Her explanation, thankfully, echoed our contention that successful application of reskilling/upskilling to talent acquisition needs:

  • Senior leadership backing to ensure adequate resource and profile within the organization
  • Implementation of a skill-specific talent acquisition strategy to identify both critical areas of shortage and those most suitable for reskilling/upskilling
  • Quick roll-out of pilots in critical areas of shortage to build confidence and to learn
  • Breaking down of functional barriers and giving employees wider exposure to functional roles
  • A combination of effective duration and appropriate method (job rotation, on-the-job training, mentoring, peer-to-peer learning, and specialist external providers)
  • Clear communication of career paths, internal opportunity, incentive, and compensation
  • Patience and persistence!

She explained further. In her experience, the real difference between reskilling/upskilling as good L&D practice and reskilling/upskilling as a talent acquisition solution is simple. The talent acquisition solution approach is not considered aspirational, “something that HR does,” or nice to have. Rather, it is a strategic imperative.

How nice to have somebody who really knows what they are talking about answer a difficult question on my behalf!

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