Why Companies Are Still Struggling With Digital Upskilling

Now more than ever, ensuring that your employees are ready for the challenges of tomorrow is one of the most critical demands in corporate learning and development. Change and unexpected disruptions are inevitable in any industry. From the introduction of a new technology to the outbreak of a global pandemic, sudden and critical changes in the workplace are always right around the corner. Investing in the skill development of your employees is the first step to creating an adaptive and agile workforce. Not only do we want our employees to be great in their current roles, but we also want to prepare them for future roles and whatever challenges may lie ahead for them.

In the digital age, and especially during times of remote work, digital upskilling has taken on a new prominence in the world of corporate learning. Companies are purchasing shiny new Learning Management Systems and content libraries with thousands of hours worth of content in an effort to keep their employees up to date with all the latest trends and industry developments. In fact, the digitalization of employee learning has made access to learning content easier than ever. For any particular skill, there are more than ample resources available in your company’s content library, or even with a quick Google search. If content is abundant, then why are companies facing higher than ever skill gaps in the age of digital upskilling?

The Four Quadrants of People Development:

Here at Adaptive, we’ve spent years studying this question of why, despite seemingly unlimited learning resources, companies are still struggling to develop their people in ways that meaningfully affect busines results. We have simplified our findings into this graph which depicts four quadrants that represent the four zones of people development in the age of digital upskilling: the Dead Zone, the Burnout Zone, the Fantasy Zone, and finally, the Adaptive Zone.

As the name suggests, the Dead Zone is the worst place an organization can be in terms of its attitude towards people development. Unfortunately, many companies unknowingly still find themselves in this zone of chronically low engagement and accountability in the development process. In the worst case, organizations stuck in the dead zone offer few opportunities for employee development and rarely if ever have progress check-ins or conversations about future goals. These types of organizations are plagued with high turnover, lower-than-average productivity, low employee engagement, and most importantly, bad business results. When employees realize that their leaders place little to no emphasis on helping them meet their long-term career goals, they are likely to jump ship and begin looking for another employer with better opportunities for development and advancement.

The next zone in digital upskilling is what we call the Burnout Zone. In this zone, organizations have begun to make a serious investment in people development: they’ve bought a content library, and perhaps they’ve even bought an LMS. All of this new content creates high top-down expectations, but the logic is fundamentally flawed. Spending a fortune on a ton of content won’t create results if manager buy-in is low and there is no way to hold people accountable for consuming content and applying learned skills to their everyday work. The fundamental problem in this zone is a belief that technology alone can foster people development. While digital upskilling undoubtedly comes with new and innovative approaches to development, you can’t remove the “people” from people development and still expect high-caliber results.

The third zone, or the Fantasy Zone, is characterized by high engagement but low accountability. In this zone, leaders are providing their people with an abundance of content but still finding it hard to hold them accountable to actually developing skills. Leaders may even create competency models in an effort to create accountability, but most of the time this just ends up being another check-the-box exercise where employees are sprinting to consume the mandated content before their next performance review. Put simply, the energy is being expended, and more often than not leaders genuinely care about developing their people, yet results are sparse at best. Although people are consuming content and maybe even learning a thing or two, the outcomes are not related to the needs of the team or the company, or even to the individual’s direct development goals. Once an organization has landed in the Fantasy Zone, frustration is high and leaders often believing their people are the problem: “We’re spending a fortune on content and an LMS, we gave them all detailed competency models, and yet no one is getting results. They must not be invested in their own development.” But when it comes to people development, people are never the primary problem. People inherently want to get better and become skilled enough to earn a pay raise or promotion. So what’s the solution?

All three of these zones are crippled by either low engagement, low accountability, or both. The solution is to focus on the personal and career motivations of your people—which is the context—and hold them accountable for acquiring the skills that produce better business results in their current and future roles. The solution essentially comes when management comes to the realization any digital upskilling effort is bound to fail absent the purely human element of development. Technology can be a wonderful tool, but without true engagement and accountability of people, development is a lost cause.

The Adaptive Zone is characterized by this harmonious system of technology supporting a people-based development process. Content libraries and LMSs are supplemented with regular team and one-on-one check ins, clear expectations, and high visibility to results. Skill development is inherently and specifically linked to the current prioritized needs of the team and the company, along with being in line with the development and career goals of the individual. In the Adaptive Zone, people aren’t aimlessly consuming content just to check boxes for their annual performance review. Instead, they are focusing their energy on key competencies that team and company leaders have identified as being critical for their success in their current and future roles. For example, a Sales Rep shouldn’t be learning about leading a team just for the sake of knowing how to lead a team. He or she should be guided through this learning knowing that it is to prepare them for their next role as a Sales Manager, in which they will be in charge of leading a team. Likewise, the Sales Rep shouldn’t learn about conversion tactics just to say something impressive in the next sales meeting. He or she should be learning conversion tactics that will be implemented, tested, and measured for results.

In the digital (and now remote) age of working, its increasingly easy to lose sight of some of the more human elements of professional development. It is all too tempting to assume that with a large enough digital content library, development should be a seamless process. But the reality is that without a regular cadence of discussion, feedback, and leaders’ support, even the best-intentioned development initiatives have only a slight chance of creating real behavior change.