• Business is coming around to the need for upskilling, but learning at work can be difficult and easily forgotten.
  • Learning and management practices can create an environment where skills and habits become entrenched and progress celebrated. 
  • Six key concepts, from shared reality to spaced repetition, are key to the success of digital learning approaches.

In every industry, in companies large and small, and at every level of the hierarchy, the need has never been so great for proficiency with digital technologies and the new ways of working that they require. 

The best approach to ensuring your business is ready begins with assessing the current environment and identifying skills gaps and job mismatches. Once that assessment of individuals is complete, a future-proofing strategy must be designed to fill the current and future skills gap and start the training and developing for performance. The adult learning component is tied to the need to embed upskilling into the corporate culture: if the cultural foundation supports the upskilling efforts, the digital learning model will flourish. Finally, it’s necessary and important to be able to measure success.

The below six elements have a diverse heritage in learning and management theory, and the way they are implemented will vary from one organisation to another. Together, they create an immersive workplace environment that makes it easy to build new habits and learn new skills, continually reminding people of the progress they’ve made and the learning yet to come. And there will be more to come: to fulfil the talent needs of a rapidly changing digital economy, people’s capability and employability must stem from developing learning as a lifelong practice. In short, people need to become infinite learners.

 

Shared
reality

One of the most enduring ways to ensure long-term impact is to establish a culture and climate for shared reality. Shared reality — which is the moment when teams, units and enterprises connect and acquire common ways of seeing things — is a powerful way of harnessing collective engagement and coordinated performance around vision and strategy. Every component of an upskilling initiative takes advantage of this aspect of human nature, but the shared reality must be defined right at the beginning. That’s why it’s important to get buy-in from the top of the organisation.

The compelling nature of a shared reality starts not with its substance — what is being said — but with its context: who is saying it and why that person or organisation is credible. In the case of an organisation, this suggests a baseline of comfort and commitment that senior leaders don’t just talk about, but embody. People pay close attention not just to what leaders say, but to what they do and, most importantly, to where those leaders are directing their own attention.

In announcing the new experience, members of the C-suite need to clarify how much of a commitment they are making by talking up the investment, in money and senior management time. They must be visible models of the digital culture, building their own skills and knowledge. There needs to be a common language built around a consistent message that is clear, frequently repeated and able to be discussed.

Spaced
repetition

One strong contribution that cognitive psychology has made to digital learning is the concept of neuroplasticity. This concept says that repetition of a particular practice, focusing attention in the same way each time, reinforces the neural activity associated with those practices. In effect, the focus of attention rewires the brain circuits. As the new behavior gradually becomes habitual and automatic, the person’s ways of thinking and acting change accordingly. 

That’s why it is powerful to have what cognitive psychologists call spaced repetition: the continual practice of new activities, ideally several times a day or more, but with enough time between them to prevent the new behavior from being forced or rushed, and to allow the brain circuits to have a chance to rewire themselves. 

Repetition can happen through a variety of channels, tailored to the habits of employees at a particular company. For example, employees could browse a library of articles and videos related to advanced technologies, listen to a podcast or watch YouTube videos. Online collaborative workshops are also possible, as are face-to-face digital labs where cross-functional teams solve problems together.

Citizen-led
innovation

The term “citizen-led” suggests that every individual is a decision maker, choosing the projects that he or she will work on and participating in a community of innovators. But a free-for-all is the wrong approach. There needs to be a dedicated platform for collaboration. People should be encouraged to propose new ideas for tools, post prototypes, recognise the value of one another’s submissions, refine them in a transparent way, and gain digital skills.

Letting employees decide what they are going to work on and what features they will include involves a leap of faith for many enterprise leaders, but there is more at stake than just motivation and engagement. Employees who innovate their own projects will create solutions that no one else would create, and that may turn out to be invaluable.

Authentic informal
leaders

Nearly every employee of a business can learn to be digitally proficient, capable of mastering advanced technology in a significant manner. But some will get there sooner, if only because they are prepared to make the effort. Thus, each year of a digital future initiative, some percentage of the workforce should be recruited as explicit early adopters. One name for this type of staff member is an authentic informal leader (AIL).

Different companies may call them by different names, but these employees are always understood to be cultural exemplars. They are people who adopt the requisite digital mindset right at the beginning of the effort (they’ve probably already held it), immerse themselves in knowledge, and dedicate themselves to teaching others their skills and helping reimagine how work can be done more productively.

Don’t confuse AILs with supervisors or managers. What defines them, more than any formal role, is their attitude and their influence on the feelings and behaviors of those around them. People rely on AILs for advice and guidance, and most of them are already attuned to the organisation’s priorities and culture before an upskilling initiative starts. 

Social
learning

An immersive upskilling initiative should go beyond digital interaction. It is important for people to be in continual contact with peers going through the same learning process and using the same tools. They can trade ideas, learn from trial-and-error experimentation, and see what others are coming up with.

Social learning is accentuated when the teams are diverse; members should be drawn from a variety of backgrounds. If they span geographic, functional, and even organisational boundaries, the team is more likely to approach problems with a fresh perspective and to solve problems more effectively. The team benefits from constructive conflict among the points of view they bring to bear. Interacting with one another enriches the group’s insights, bringing out advances in skills, thinking, and performance. 

Self-
awareness

Most assessments of learning progress are conducted to justify credentials — there’s a point at which the student passes or fails. But in digital learning, the engagement and improvement never end. Most people will be advancing their skills throughout their working lives. Therefore, the value of assessment is different: It exists for learners and their colleagues to understand what they have done, and what there is left to do.

Start by asking the employees what measurements matter most to them. Typically, these will include metrics related to productivity, skills and competencies, satisfaction with the initiative, and confidence in career opportunities. Some of the data will be gathered through surveys, others through observation of activity. A digital assessment app (at PwC, we have a Digital Fitness app) can become like a tracker, recording people’s online activity and the ways in which they use their new skills. The data can also be used in aggregate to improve the overall upskilling process.

First steps and
next steps

There will be quick wins along the way. PwC’s Global CEO Survey suggests companies further along in the process are more confident about their future growth prospects, for example. But do not give in to the temptation to only go after quick wins and abandon the transformation a year in. Businesses have to be prepared to invest in their infinite learners. The aspirations associated with this type of adult skill building are immense.

Initiatives like this will be employee rites of passage, perhaps as critical to their success as a college degree is now. Pioneering companies have reason to be proud of their efforts, and of the way they are unleashing the capacity for resilience and learning that seems to be part of human nature. That’s what will enable all of us to meet the challenge posed by our rapidly changing times.


This is an edited version of an article originally published in strategy+business. Read the original article to find out how PwC is addressing digitally upskilling its staff.