Why Workplace Hierarchies Matter in Skill Transformation

While new research suggests that workplace hierarchies can impede learning efforts, there are strategies to bolster the success of training initiatives.

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With the increasing availability of sophisticated analytics, AI, and robotics, corporate leaders are reconfiguring their workforces to meet changing technical demands. Indeed, by 2022, 54% of all employees will require significant upskilling, according to the World Economic Forum.

But leaders engaged in workforce transformation are running into unexpected roadblocks as they attempt to keep their employees’ skills in sync with rapid digitization and automation. The introduction of new technologies into the workplace often upsets existing status hierarchies based on tenure, role, or expertise — factors that dictate the amount of respect, assumed competence, and deference an employee receives from others in the organization. Upsetting fundamental status hierarchies can impede learning, particularly when senior employees perceive that those junior to them are benefiting the most from a workforce transformation.

With co-researchers Jenna Myers from the MIT Sloan School of Management, Lindsay Gainer from Mass General Brigham, and professor Sara Singer from Stanford University School of Medicine, I studied corporate leaders’ efforts to transform the technical skills of employees at five different primary care sites over the course of nearly two years. Frictions between digital natives at the junior level and their more senior coworkers initially led employees to struggle to pick up the skills they needed and slowed digital transformation efforts. When junior employees benefited more from transformation than did senior employees, this created backlash, especially among more senior employees who saw their status undermined. But at sites where leaders systematically attended to existing workplace hierarchies during skill transformation, employees were more successful in learning digital, critical thinking, and communication skills.

Our new study found that corporate leaders who are engaged in skill transformation need to be mindful of workplace hierarchies during three types of skill transformation: upskilling, reskilling, and “newskilling.” Here’s how.

1. Upskilling. Upskilling initiatives target employees who need additional technical training to remain relevant and continue to deliver value. Leaders can personalize learning for these employees by providing peer-to-peer training in new technologies and related work processes.

Most leaders’ first inclination is to choose as trainers those employees who seem best able to grasp new ways of working. Often, these employees are those who have grown up using digital technologies and are on the lower end of the organization’s hierarchy — which can ultimately result in senior employees feeling slighted.

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