Reskilling and Upskilling: A Call to Action for the Industry

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In the L&D industry, we don’t have an authority who sets the meanings of terms and strategies we see in learning and performance. You can ask 12 people the definition of something (in this case, reskilling and upskilling) and get 14 different answers. The purpose of this article is to demystify and get to the real power of what reskilling and upskilling are, and how to use them to achieve business outcomes.

Let’s start with the definition: Reskilling and upskilling are similar; context is where they differ. Reskilling is learning entirely different skills for a new role while upskilling is learning skills that support or improve a current role. For example, you would reskill someone on soft/human skills for a promotion into a managerial role while you might upskill someone on a new programming language or product to use in their existing role.

Overcome the cult of skills

Now let’s talk about the word “skills.” This is my warning to us in the industry—skills in themselves are not good enough. We tend to get lost in our best efforts to determine what skills, competencies, tasks, and knowledge to put into our reskilling and upskilling efforts. We forget context, outcome, and criticality. Tasks without connection into a workflow are meaningless. Skills without outcomes that benefit the system won’t work. To do reskilling and upskilling (or any learning) well, we can’t stop at the skill level; we have to move up into the process and workflow that those skills support.

Here’s an example. Consider these two “skills” from a recent reskilling and upskilling effort:

  • Complete and submit the customer information

  • Support the sales rep by completing and submitting the customer information

The first is a generic task with no ties into a greater workflow, no line of sight to the outcome, which is for the sales rep to have the information they need for their next step in the workflow. The second is less generic and specifically gets to the outcome the employee needs to achieve for the workflow to, well, work.

As an industry, we need to get better at involving context and outcomes in reskilling and upskilling. When determining the delta between where an employee/workforce is and where they need to be, we cannot stop at the list. Tasks are done in performance of the workflow required to do the job. The call to action for us as L&D professionals is not to stop at the task or skill level, but to move up into the workflow, process, and system level that those skills support.

Start building a performance support environment

What happens once you’ve launched and successfully completed a reskilling or upskilling event? The rate of change is so great that we are in ever-changing contexts. Reskilling and upskilling cannot be one-and-done. How do you keep up with that change? Will you send out more learning, retrain, send nudges? Or do you have an environment set up where people can remain skilled?

We cannot continue to skip from event to event. We’re burying ourselves in work and can’t keep up with the pace of change. The answer is to build an ongoing performance support environment where learners can own their upskilling and reskilling as it happens. This can look like resources, learning in the flow of work, and blending modalities that support sustaining change over time.

Those are pretty standard. It can also look like giving permission and space for people to learn in scattered ways at work (since learning is an intrinsically scattered and human activity), encouraging people to learn from each other or even using champions to support skills, and encouraging employees to take on their own reskilling and upskilling. Cohorts and communities are other ways to sustain reskilling and upskilling.

To be clear, the suggestion here is not to leave it all to your employees, but rather to think of the environment that surrounds (and extends!) your formal reskilling and upskilling events.

Bringing it together

Hopefully three clear points have emerged:

  • Reskilling and upskilling are similar, but the context is different. Reskilling is learning entirely different skills for a new/different role. Upskilling is learning skills needed to support or improve a current role.

  • We need to think about the whole performance context and outcomes. Skills without context, tasks without processes and workflows, and behaviors without outcomes are problematic. We have to carry learners all the way through the journey to the end goal.

  • Training events for reskilling and upskilling have their place, but only delivering events isn’t enough. We need to focus on enabling a performance support environment, one where employees feel empowered and capable of owning their upskilling and reskilling as it needs to happen.

With these three critical calls to action—the right definitions, the right mindset for thinking about skills, and the right environment, reskilling and upskilling are incredibly powerful tools to keep up with the pace of change and drive real results in your business.

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