Skills are the currency of the expertise economy, and managers have a vital role for building successful learning cultures.
What’s the biggest threat facing businesses today? When PricewaterhouseCoopers polled CEOs across the world about this at the end of 2018, the top three responses were virtually tied: overregulation, policy uncertainty, and availability of key skills. The data shows that for many global leaders, the concern over skill gaps outranks trade conflicts, cyber threats, geopolitical uncertainty, and other issues that regularly dominate the news cycle.
To me, this finding came as little surprise. As chief learning officer of Degreed and coauthor of The Expertise Economy, a book about the urgent need to upskill and re-skill the workforce, I travel across the world working with businesses and professional organizations. Executives are worried about how to build an agile workforce that’s constantly developing new skills so that they can respond to the changing technologies and dynamics of business.
One of the most important suggestions I offer them: It’s time to revolutionize how we think about and manage skill development in the workplace.
A new survey by Degreed and Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning shows just how much change is needed at the managerial level. Only 40% of workers agreed that their manager helps them to understand what skills they need to advance in their careers. More than 1 in 5 (22%) workers said their managers do not encourage or enable learning at all, and just 17% said their managers help create a plan or set goals for developing skills.
These figures are dismal, but not surprising. While companies talk more and more about the importance of skill-building initiatives, many simply don’t know what actions to take. With change in the workplace happening so fast, managers can no longer focus on multiyear development strategies directing employees to climb the corporate ladder.
Today, individuals are owning much more of their development. But there’s also a vital new role for managers.
A commitment to learning needs to begin at the top, with C-suite leadership communicating a vision and mission for skill development. For any plan to be successful, employees will need to see the value and embrace it. It’s up to leaders in the organization to support that commitment and make sure learning happens. That’s why managers are really the linchpin of a successful learning culture.
Establish Learning Plans
Managers should meet individually with their reports to discuss plans to upskill and re-skill. It may be helpful to focus on the kinds of skills that the company is looking for and the skills that employees are most interested in developing. Then allow those plans to come to fruition.
Actively plan for your employees to spend a dedicated amount of their time on skill development or coursework (and make that number concrete). Check in frequently to see how their efforts are progressing. Bring in people with expertise in these skills to give employees feedback. In the Degreed-Harvard survey, less than 40% of workers said their managers currently check in on their development initiatives or offer regular feedback.
By staying engaged in employees’ progress, managers send the message that the organization values their development, reinforcing the long-term relationship between the business and the employee. After all, it would be a loss for an organization to invest in employee development only to see those employees go elsewhere with their new skills.
Let Employees Choose What and How to Learn
While managers should be “hands on” enough to build cultures that support learning for their employees, they should also be “hands off” in ways that go against the old norm. Outside of compliance training, managers should refrain from choosing which skills their employees learn and how they go about learning.
People are more motivated to spend time learning when they’re pursuing skills that they’re passionate about. And every individual is a unique learner. With all of the content available to them, from videos to articles to podcasts, people gravitate toward whatever works best for them. Often, they turn to their professional networks, mentors, or peers for learning. So, it’s also crucial that managers allow their employees time to teach their skills to others.
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Model Learning Behaviors
Finally, managers should set good examples by engaging in learning activities themselves. Tell your reports about the skills you’re working on and how you’re approaching the learning process. Include blocked-off time for learning on your calendar for everyone to see. One method for knowledge sharing with your team might be creating a recommendation list or channel with books or articles that have been helpful for you in building new skills.
To make all this work, executives should add learning to the metrics they use to judge managers, such as the number of employees successfully developing new skills.
We’re entering a whole new paradigm when it comes to the skills required to thrive in the future of work. To compete in the global economy, businesses need expertise not only in putting new tools to use, but also in the uniquely human skills that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technologies currently can’t provide — things like empathy, creativity, and relationship building. Skills are the currency of the expertise economy, and organizations should always be building their reserves.