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How To Empower Your Employees To Learn New Technology

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Here’s the irony. Our new “data-driven world” has created unprecedented demand for workers with skills in collecting, processing, analyzing and understanding data. But it has also done the opposite. More than ever, businesses need people with skills at the other end of the spectrum, such as creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy, and collaboration. These were once called soft skills. Now, they’re “power skills.”

This is happening because of advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. As these new technologies take over certain types of jobs, the uniquely human skills built around our ability to understand and work with each other are in greater demand.

And because of the constant change in how business is done, with new digital platforms sprouting up, new currencies becoming available, and startups disrupting major industries, the most important skill of all is learning agility. Organizations need people who are good at picking up new skills, and who are passionate about doing so.

How can business leaders empower their teams to build these skill sets? The key is to create a culture of continuous learning.

For starters, this means going beyond compliance and “necessary” training — the kinds of sessions that HR, legal departments and corporate executives require all employees to take part in. The fewer of these, the better.

As my co-author David Blake and I explain in our book The Expertise Economy, learning new skills should be a part of your employees’ everyday work. They may watch videos to build knowledge on a particular topic, read articles that help them learn how to solve problems, or listen to podcasts. Work cultures that value continuous learning encourage employees to do this.

The business should offer guidance as to where its skill gaps lie and what skills it’s looking for. It’s generally much cheaper, faster and better to get employees inside a company to learn a new skill than it is to go search for and hire someone from the outside who already has the skill.

But organizations should also give their employees flexibility to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Our research shows that employees are more motivated and engaged when they’re learning the skills they’re passionate about — and that they gravitate toward skills that help the company and help advance their careers.

Employees also often learn about new, emerging tools and technologies before executives do. When you give your teams freedom to decide what they learn, you’ll often find that they’re a step ahead of the game — and come to their managers with ideas about how to harness these new opportunities.

It takes a mental shift to build a culture of continuous learning succeed. If a manager sees an employee watching a YouTube video, does the manager assume the worker is goofing off and wasting time? Does the employee quickly change screens to an Excel spreadsheet? We should empower our employees to learn, not stifle them.

Today’s best managers view their employees as professionals who will get their jobs done. These managers are approachable. Employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and discussing the things they want to learn. These managers help their employees establish learning paths, and they check in on progress.

Unfortunately, right now many businesses are failing to build cultures of continuous learning. In an upcoming report, Degreed (where I serve as Chief Learning Officer) and Harvard Business Publishing will share the results of a survey of 800 workers, managers and leaders. We found that those surveyed currently gave their employers’ learning and development opportunities an overall Net Promoter Score of -25 — a substantial negative.

The good news is that because of all the data available these days, companies have the ability to make vast improvements. They can collect information on which types of learning their employees are engaging in, which skills they’re building, what resources they need and how they feel their workplace’s development offerings can and should be improved.

Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told me (in an interview for The Expertise Economy) that while data-driven companies have the necessary resources, they “aren’t using the data to help them personalize their employees’ workplace experiences” — and that includes learning. So today’s organizations have an incredible opportunity to change the paradigm.

In the Degreed-Harvard survey, 80% of business leaders and learning and development specialists said we need more innovation in L&D. I agree. To create the workforce of the future, there’s nothing more important than the urgent need to upskill and reskill the workforce so that employees can remain relevant throughout their careers.

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