SIX KEYS TO UNLOCKING UPSKILLING AT SCALE
strategy+business|Summer 2020
Research suggests that with the right mind-set, technological literacy, and community engagement, you can shepherd your entire workforce into the digital future.
DARREN LEE, MIKE PINO, AND ANN JOHNSTON

In late 2018, a PwC senior manager named Patricia Miller, age 32, learned about a new opportunity in her Florida office called the Digital Accelerators program. Her local firm was recruiting a group of about 1,000 employees, drawn from a base of more than 45,000 nationally, to become pioneers in advanced technology. These early adopters would spend two months in intensive training and return ready to help their fellow employees succeed in a world of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and digitally-enabled platforms.

Miller had worked primarily in project management and was just finishing an MBA. She didn’t have a technical background. But the notice didn’t specify one, so she applied and was accepted. “Here was a chance,” she recalls, “to rethink my potential. I saw where the world was going, and I was hungry to be part of it.”

Miller rapidly built up the skills necessary to understand and use digital tools, including data visualization and bots. One of the bots she developed consolidated and identified the specifications for automated data-gathering tools. “No more bulky spreadsheets [full of comparative evaluations],” says Miller. “We could just send out a link to the information the bot gathered and interpreted.”

A year earlier, this kind of work would have been delegated to IT specialists in the organization. Now, Miller and her newly educated peers were creating relatively sophisticated apps that could, for example, calculate changes in profitability on a week-by-week basis, find and fix annoying “fuzzy duplicates” on multiple spreadsheets, identify indicators of high business risk from masses of data, and summarize long documents in just a few cogent sentences. Approximately 6,000 such offerings have now been posted on the PwC US intranet and used by thousands of other employees. In aggregate, the apps are freeing up staff time for potentially more productive, creative tasks.

“I’m still hearing from fellow employees who’ve added to or expanded on my apps,” Miller says. “It’s really gratifying. And it sets me up to be what I truly want to be: an infinite learner.”

Hearing this story, you might think that these productivity gains were the primary purpose of this initiative. But in fact, they are a welcome side effect. The initiative has a more significant goal for the global PwC network: to facilitate the shift in attitude and ability that will build the kinds of skills, among a broad base of employees and others, that will help society make an effective transition into the digital future.

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 most established professions of the business world — including accounting, finance, operations, business law, and management itself — are changing dramatically. Employees at every level must keep up with digital concepts: robotic process automation, AI, predictive analytics, cybersecurity, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, industrial platform design, customer experience, electronic ledgers (blockchain), and drones.

PwC has been developing and strengthening an innovative learning program for more than two years. The Digital Accelerators concept is just one element of an approach to what is called digital upskilling. In short, at PwC, we are learning now to do what was previously considered impossible: to help thousands of adults become skilled technological leaders for whom digital proficiency is not just something taught in a classroom or through apprenticeship. It is a way of life.

The digital learning curve

Below, we explain the core concepts of this new approach to learning and why it is so effective and replicable. Today’s approach to adult learning — or what Miller called infinite learning — is a foundational element of the larger upskilling movement: the expansion of people’s capabilities and employability to fulfill the talent needs of a rapidly changing digital economy.

In a body of articles on workforce transformation, we explain what we believe are the five prerequisites of a successful approach to upskilling. The best approach begins with assessing the current environment and identifying skills gaps and job mismatches. Once that assessment of individuals is complete, a futureproofing strategy must be designed to fill the current and future skills gap and start the training. The adult learning component is tied to the need to embed upskilling into the corporate culture, as we explain later: If the cultural foundation supports the upskilling efforts, the digital learning model described below will flourish. Finally, it’s necessary and important to be able to measure success.

We acknowledge there are varying estimates of what it will cost to upskill millions of people around the world as digital technologies change the nature of work. PwC has committed to spending US$3 billion over the next five years to upskill its workforce of more than 276,000 people across the global network. Here, we look at how to lay the groundwork for a successful upskilling program. We believe that upskilling at scale is imperative to keeping businesses competitive, keeping societies stable, and providing a good livelihood for millions of people. And it starts with learning how to learn.

The six key concepts of the digital learning approach are as follows.

Shared reality: The establishment of a common understanding of which new skills are important to a given enterprise and how they can be learned

Spaced repetition: The sequencing of learning opportunities in a way that strengthens the right cognitive circuits and builds new habits and capabilities

Citizen-led innovation: The ability of employees to choose the activities — the skills and the means of learning them — that will make a difference to them and their work

Authentic informal leaders: The deployment of early enthusiasts to spark interest and emotional impact within the organization’s culture (in the example above, these were the Digital Accelerators)

Social learning: The use of small working groups, ideally composed of people from diverse backgrounds, to foster collaborative experimentation, mutual support, and collective intelligence

Self-awareness: The tracking and measurement of results in a way that accelerates the rate of improvement both for the employees raising their skills and for the initiative as a whole.

These elements have a diverse heritage in learning and management theory, and the way they are implemented will vary from one organization to another. Most or all of them are present, we believe, in every successful effort to raise the caliber of digital skills in an organization. When an initiative is designed effectively, the elements complement one another. Together, these elements 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. Just as learning a new language is easier if you move to a community where it is constantly spoken, learning digital proficiency is easier if you are surrounded by other people who are fluent with the relevant technologies.

But such widespread fluency is not the situation in businesses today. Training Industry, an organization and information source devoted to “the business of learning,” estimates that organizations spent more than $362 billion on employee training and education in 2018 alone, reflecting a growth rate of 1.2 percent per year. Yet as Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer had already pointed out in 2016 in Harvard Business Review, organizations “are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.”

The usual type of event-based learning, in which people are sent away to learn in training events, workshops, classes, or even hackathons, is so separated from the rest of their lives that it’s very difficult to carry the insights and skills from the sessions back into daily work. If the new skills are not practiced, they are lost.

A more effective model is continual learning: learning that is happening regularly, integrated with the rest of a person’s life, and oriented toward his or her own long-term aspirations. When learning takes place through day-to-day experience, it is far more relevant; employees can see the connection to the work they are already doing and the goals they (and their enterprise) already have. This means deemphasizing carrot-and-stick incentives such as bonuses for those who excel and poor performance reviews for those who don’t participate. Those incentives may be effective in getting people to take part, but they rarely generate interest or commitment.

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