The 11.5 trillion dollar question, how will we address the future skills gap?

How can we accelerate skills transfer to keep up with the rapidly shifting nature of work?

One of the hottest topics in the world of business today is the dire need to address the current and future skills gap. In a recent report by PwC, 34% of CEOs rated upskilling and reskilling as one of their “top three threats to growth”.

The consequences of not addressing the skills gap are enormous. Accenture estimates the potential economic loss from not filling the skills gap at USD 11.5 trillion within the G20 economies over the next ten years.

So we can all agree, from the C-suite to the economists, that the skills gap is a pressing issue, but how ready is the corporate world to meet this challenge?

The short answer is… not at all.

In 2016, the Harvard Business School reported in a meta-analysis of corporate learning that 90% of training programs weren’t able to transfer employee learning into changes in individual and organization behaviour or improved financial performance. There is overwhelming evidence that our current methods for developing people don’t work during a time when it’s never been more important to have functioning learning systems that are responsive to the market demand.

The root issue with corporate training is we treat learning as an event, not a process.

Think back to the last time you started building a new skill? Be it learning a new language, mastering how to play an instrument, or picking up a new sport I bet you understood it was going to take a lot of time and a lot of practice.

The two primary ways we deliver training, instructor-led learning and e-learning, don’t work as a solution for repeated practice. Paying instructors to run practice sessions is cost-prohibitive and e-learning doesn’t provide the necessary hands-on experience for building skills.

We’re not helping our employees with our one-off workshops or pure online learning approach. We need a new approach to talent development that incorporates opportunities for continuous practice.

Not all practice is equal.

Before diving into imagining a solution for our practice problem, it’d be worth pausing to consider what makes some types of practice wildly effective while other types are only good for reinforcing bad habits.

A good place to start would be the research of Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist, who has dedicated his life to understanding how people develop deep expertise through practice. His work was the foundation for the popular book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

He found that with a certain type of training, deliberate practice, anyone can develop mastery over a domain. 

The core principles of deliberate practice are:

  1. There is a clear and trackable goal in mind
    Let’s say you wanted to improve your public speaking skills. You would need to chunk that larger goal down into smaller trackable goals like did you avoid filler words, maintain open body posture, and start with an interesting hook that captured your audience’s attention. These micro-goals give your practice sessions greater focus and allow you to track your progress.
  2. It’s challenging
    Think about trying to gain strength through weight training. If curling a 1-pound weight was no challenge, no matter how many reps you got in, you would see very little improvement. But failing to curl a 100-pound weight once will leave you with nothing more than maybe a sprained wrist. Each practice session should find you working on something challenging yet doable.
  3. Immediate feedback is available
    Accurate feedback is essential to knowing whether you’re developing in the right direction or perpetuating bad habits. Ericsson says, “without feedback, either from yourself or from outside observers — you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.”
  4. Short and focused sessions spaced out over time
    People are flawed beings. Research has shown that if nothing is done with newly learned knowledge within a week up to 90% of it could be lost. The best way to tackle this issue is by having short, but intense, practice sessions spaced out over longer periods.
  5. Practice like you play
    When our practice feels like the real thing there are several benefits. We increase learners’ intrinsic motivation as they better appreciate the “why” behind the training and how it will benefit them. Additionally, we increase the likelihood of knowledge and behaviour transfer from the classroom to on-the-job performance.

The benefits of incorporating more effective practice is immense. Anders Ericsson sums it up well with the following quote.

"Imagine what might be possible if we applied the techniques that have proved to be so effective in sports and music and chess to all the different types of learning that people do, from the education of schoolchildren to the training of doctors, engineers, pilots, business people, and workers of every sort. I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice."

The way forward.

If you’re convinced that we need to start incorporating more practice into our learning programs then you may be asking where do I start?

The methods and tools we choose to build out our company’s practice programs will undoubtedly depend on the type of skills the program is trying to build. For example, a practice program for a front-end developer will look very different than one for a salesperson. Even though there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some principles of deliberate practice that we can look to for guidance. Here are a few questions to ask yourself while designing your practice programs.

  • How will you and your learners track their goals and progress?
  • What systems of accountability will you create to ensure people keep practicing?
  • How will you reward and recognize learners’ accomplishments?
  • How will learners receive immediate, direct, and constructive feedback while practicing?
  • Is there a safe place for failure? Learning on the job is practicing with live ammunition.
  • How will learners progressively increase the difficulty of the practice to remain challenged and engaged?
  • Is the right subject matter expertise within your company or do you need to bring in external people/resources?

If organizations don’t intentionally build systems for continuous practice the burden will fall on to managers. This produces an inconsistent employee experience as managers’ ability and interest to promote healthy practice habits can vary greatly.

Many companies are realizing the need for a more consistent and impactful way to offer all employees the opportunity for continuous practice. Technology will be a major driver behind this shift towards continuous hands-on practice; in fact, many tech platforms are already emerging like CodeMentor a marketplace of external mentors for developers, STRIVR a VR platform that provides immersive hands-on learning at scale, and 10,000 Coffees a tool that matches employees from different departments who can learn from one another.

One company taking a radically new approach is Benji. Our platform facilitates teams through hands-on activities like role-plays, pitch challenges, and simulations so they can regularly apply best practices, receive constructive feedback, and ultimately build their skills. Learners get the opportunity to engage in deliberate practice with their team, whenever and wherever on a myriad of skills ranging from leadership development to sales.

The future of work will be a race between education and technology. As the nature of work shifts, we need to build better learning systems that will empower the workforce to be more adaptive and agile. Our new learning systems have to be built with the understanding that learning is a process, not an event. We have to find a better way forward because the financial and human cost of the failing status quo is too high.

On a hopeful note, I leave you with another quote from Anders Ericsson.

“In pretty much any area of human endeavour, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.” — Anders Ericsson

Matt Parson

Over the past 6 years, Matt has been in the field of Higher Education getting his start at UBC then launching Canada's premier design and technology school, RED Academy. As an avid chef, you can find Matt either cooking and learning more about the future of education or eating and learning more about the future of education.
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