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How companies can help their employees become “future ready”

By teaching their workforce technical, human, and learning skills, organizations will be better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow

How companies can help their employees become “future ready”

It used to be that the mortgage process was filled with mundane, paper-pushing tasks handled by junior loan officers. These days, however, much of that work—from managing pages and pages of documents to gathering the reams of data required to process loans—is automated.

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Where have those junior employees gone? At some firms, they were casualties of a more automated and AI-powered world. But some companies took a different strategy, opting instead to teach those employees the skills they needed to handle the work typically reserved for their more senior colleagues. In an increasingly fast-changing and competitive landscape, businesses that take proactive approaches to managing their workforces will not only pay dividends in the near term, but also set them up for future success. “If I can give these employees additional skills, I don’t have to lay off loan processors only to hire, train, and onboard new loan processors who are doing largely similar work,” says Aaron De Smet, a senior partner with global consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s People & Organizational Performance Practice.

THE THREE KEY SKILLS

Figuring out how to help employees build new skills and new capabilities is a pressing issue—and an especially important one for companies to ponder now, says Angelika Reich, a partner at McKinsey & Company. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated not only the trend toward automation, but also a more digitized world that has affected how customers are served and how employees work. “You have so many examples where simply the nature of the job has changed because of digitization,” Reich says.

Alas, there’s no silver bullet for reskilling or upskilling workers. As a result, leaders need to help their employees—and the organization as a whole—adopt a more strategic approach to learning and skill-building. With the pace of change only increasing, the value of building a learning muscle will continue to grow over time. That predisposition toward learning increases the market value of a company and of each employee able to transform their skillsets on a regular, ongoing basis.

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With that in mind, what skills are most important for companies to focus on to confront not just today’s challenges, but also the challenges and disruptions that may come tomorrow? De Smet suggests that companies start with three: technical, human, and learning skills.

  1. Technical skills. The push toward automation and digitization has created the need for more technological fluency in areas such as data science and analytics. At the most basic level, employees who aren’t used to having a digital component to their job need to at least be able to take full advantage of those technologies, such as customer-relationship-management platforms. “These are skills that are in more and more demand,” De Smet says.
  2. Human skills. The simple, routine, and even repetitive tasks that used to be done by the junior loan officer are now being done by a computer. So, what’s left for humans to do? Take the mortgage loan officer: they can work with borrowers, discussing their options, reviewing their financial life, and assessing their creditworthiness using information that may not appear in their paperwork. A financial advisor could learn about a client’s personal financial goals. In short, De Smet says, this is work only humans can do—work that “requires inspiration, emotion, innovation, creativity, judgment, human interaction, collaboration.”
  3. Learning skills. Yes, learning is a skill that employees as well as companies need to develop. “As the pace of change gets faster and faster, the ability to learn is more important than ever,” De Smet says. “Even if a specific technical skill may eventually become obsolete, that ability to learn each new skill remains a critical differentiator.” That may mean more adaptable and emotionally ready to tackle new—and perhaps even intimidating—skills. For organizations, it means having a broad understanding of how skills are built. For instance, you can teach an accountant about the tax code by giving them a textbook, but teaching them leadership skills probably requires a more hands-on approach.

BUILDING A CULTURE OF LEARNING

Reich notes that organizations can’t just focus on one of these skills. For instance, an employee may need to burnish the technical chops required to take on a new role at the firm, but at the same time that position may require building stronger skills around being a manager and a leader.

That’s why it’s important for supervisors to better understand each individual’s abilities to tackle new skills—including skills they already have that might be transferrable. For example, an employee’s coding hobby during college may come in handy as they’re being trained on new technologies. Or someone with a degree in advanced music may be a good candidate for more STEM-oriented tasks.

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In many cases, companies aren’t aware of these interests that fall outside the traditional scope of an employee’s current role. Companies should devote resources to finding out which employees have hidden talents that can add value elsewhere in the firm. They also need to be willing to spend time creating a culture that supports skill-building and education, including through mentorship and coaching programs and other initiatives, to help ensure that employees are constantly pushing themselves to gain new skills.

Ultimately, learning must be a consistent goal at any company that wants to ensure its workforce is able to pivot to meet whatever challenges might come along. “So many clients ask, ‘How do I build a learning culture?’ ” Reich says. “There’s no instant solution where you can just make it happen with the flip of a switch. The essence of building a muscle is that you have to commit and practice. Making learning essential, meaningful, and accessible requires a commitment from leadership and employees to be propelled by lifelong learning.”

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