How to Meet the Upskilling Need in Times of Disruption
How to Meet the Upskilling Need in Times of Disruption

The current global pandemic is upending corporate learning. L&D programmes, just like schools and universities, need to adapt and move entirely online.

As chief learning officers (CLOs) scramble to respond, they should keep things in perspective. A deeper understanding of recent trends, technological possibilities, and pedagogical best practices is essential to ensure learners’ long-term success.

L&D leaders now have a chance to establish a sustainable learning culture and to prepare their organisations for future disruption.

Top multinationals Nestlé, Johnson Controls, Repsol, and PMI as well as academic experts advise on how to adjust learning programmes and drive engagement and performance at a challenging time.


A dire need for upskilling

Upskilling is a critical need for most companies today, and this need is exacerbated by the current global disruption. Training is now even more necessary to ensure organisations’ resilience.

A 2019 PwC survey found that, out of over 470 CEOs worldwide, 96% thought the lack of necessary skills impacted their business performance. 44% were unable to pursue a market opportunity because of a skills gap; 22% even had to cancel or delay a key strategic initiative. More than half of CEOs reported they had trouble innovating because they could not hire or develop people with the necessary skills. As some sources of revenue may dry up during the current pandemic, unlocking new business opportunities through upskilling becomes crucial.

The workplace should be a learning place, said Dr Nick van Dam, CLO, IE University (Spain) during a masterclass at the 2020 global MERIT Annual Summit. If your people are working from home, they should also be learning from home. As an added bonus, learning is a way to keep employees engaged and foster a sense of community during a period of social distancing.


Learning communities

How can L&D meet the vast need for upskilling? One effective strategy is to nurture learning communities.

Ten years ago, CLOs were founding corporate universities, said Ernesto Barrios, Head of Learning, Repsol, at the 2020 MERIT Annual Summit. Today, the goal is to instil a culture of learning. Training should be part of the way people relate to their jobs and organisations.

This shift is aligned with the way people actually learn. We gain new skills “through observation, imitation, and modelling”, said Andy Lancaster, Head of Learning, CIPD, in a workshop at the 2020 MERIT Annual Summit. Children develop new competencies by playing with their peers. Unfortunately, over time, standardised curriculums hamper their motivation and creativity.

Throughout history, learning has always been social, Andy said. For example, in the Middle Ages, masons’ lodges were close-knit groups who lived, trained, and worked together – and achieved impressive innovations such as the Gothic cathedrals.

We’re addicted to courses in the HR community,” Andy cautioned. Rather than imposing top-down programming, HR and L&D should channel people’s desire to lift each other up. Corporate research bears this out: at Philip Morris International (PMI), surveys of over 4,000 employees found that 82% of people would like more opportunities to share knowledge, according to Dr Nina Kreyer, PMI’s Global Head of Learning.

How are companies managing to establish learning communities? Here are some examples.


1. User-generated content

Ernesto Barrios stressed the importance of allowing employees to share their own learning materials on Repsol’s learning platform. Company executives took the decision to allow anyone to upload lessons without prior approval or moderation. Rather than maintaining control, “we assumed that our employees are responsible,” Ernesto said. His team often features user-generated content in curated collections. This opportunity to share knowledge is helping foster a culture of trust.


2. Giving back to the community

Going a step further, French author, academic, and entrepreneur Dr Idriss Aberkane recommends actively encouraging employees to teach others. Each person should be given time to study or work on a personal project, he advised in an interview with MERIT. In return, employees should present what they learned to others – for instance, by preparing a webinar for their team. LinkedIn, among others, already has such a policy in place.

Social learning can create a positive spiral of upskilling at the organisation. Even more, giving back to the community creates a sense of purpose, and according to Dr Nick van Dam, people who find purpose at work are 2.3 times more likely to be engaged.


3. High-stakes projects

Social learning is even more effective when employees collaborate on high-stakes projects, said Jim van Hulst, Director L&D, EMEA and LATAM, Johnson Controls.

In an award-winning leadership development programme he launched, international teams collaborated online to create new products, and they pitched them to executives. This experience improved learners’ communication and problem-solving skills. It also generated a ROI “in the millions”, as collaboration and competition between teams led to real innovation. Some of the experimental projects were successful and are now being scaled by the company.


On-demand upskilling

Upskilling through learning communities works, but it is not enough. CLOs should also develop on-demand content that easily interfaces with people’s everyday work processes. Learning should be “simplified, bite-sized, anytime, anywhere”, said Anna Walther, Senior Global L&D Lead, Nestlé.

Ernesto Barrios also recommends removing any barriers to learning: for example, employees should be able to sign themselves up for a course and access any content without asking for permission. Managers should also be able to automatically sign up their teams.

But what makes learning truly user-friendly, according to Dr Nina Kreyer, is listening to learners. She recommends involving crowd-sourced ideas and feedback at all stages of learning design. Executives’ assumptions of what learners need may be very far from the truth: for example, Nina’s team found that most PMI employees did not wish to learn on a mobile device, in spite of expert advice to develop multi-platform solutions. In fact, even 88% of employees under 25, who are digital natives, preferred to learn on a laptop.

As many people are now working from home on their own, involving them in surveys and focus groups would be even more welcome. Engage your employees in deciding what and how they should learn, and you can boost their motivation and sense of purpose.


Weathering the storm means planning for what comes after it. Use this time as an opportunity to engage people in upskilling programmes: listen to their needs, provide on-demand content, and encourage social learning in virtual teams or learning groups. If you invest in a culture of learning, you will be better positioned to meet the growing skills gap and ensure your organisation’s future success.


To catch up on the latest innovations in corporate learning and exchange with other CLOs and CHROs, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris on 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event is co-hosted by LinkedIn. Passes are limited. Reserve yours now to guarantee your place.


By Ani Kodjabasheva ‚Äč