Upskilling has become a deep fascination for much of the consulting and professional worlds. As the world and the workplace continue to change at a breakneck pace, more and more workers are using upskilling to advance their training/specialization, and to deepen their arsenal of professional tools. In this article we’ll look at what, exactly, upskilling is. Then we’ll help you identify whether and where to implement upskilling.
What Is Upskilling?
First things first: what is upskilling? The upskilling definition is the process of teaching and learning new skills that employees can use in their work. So, on some level, upskilling is as old as work itself. Humans and workers have always learned and expanded their knowledge & skills. Further, many professions involve not only constant on-the-job training but formal continuing education. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, often continue their formal education even after earning their MD or JD by taking classes or earning certificates in particular areas.
In fact, defined broadly, getting an MD or a JD in the first place is an example of upskilling. You are investing in yourself to learn skills and acquire knowledge to advance your career. But this is not really what we mean by upskilling. You literally can’t be a doctor or a lawyer without spending many years in school, earning these degrees, and passing a difficult final exam (i.e., the USMLE or the Bar). These degrees are not a matter of improving or building your skills to advance your career – they are critical defining characteristics of choosing these careers. They are also the barriers to entering these careers in the first place.
Getting an MBA is another possible example of upskilling. You are building a career in business, and you want to learn new things. It’s also a way of signaling to others that you are motivated and qualified. However, getting a traditional MBA doesn’t get at the heart of the matter either. It’s a better example than a JD or MD, but it is still a very formal way to go about advancing your education and the benefit is very much tied up in the degree itself relative to the knowledge you acquire. In addition, an MBA generally takes years.
The contemporary term upskilling is very much tied up with the notion of constant change due to technology. Upskilling is a process of teaching employees – or yourself – new skills that will aid them in their work. Technology has sped up the need for upskilling. There is a sense of urgency to continually provide training to help employees add value in a world where new analytical tools, advanced software, automation, and artificial intelligence is taking hold.
So, there is something meaningful about the term upskilling that differentiates it from other forms of education? In addition to the professional environment the term signifies, upskilling also refers to the contemporary environment. In our world, technology makes the acquisition of new skills easier but also more urgent all the time.
Nowhere is the pace of change faster than in the digital world. For example, a digital marketing firm, in the course of one year, may need, urgently, to teach all employees about a new Google Search Algorithm update AND provide training in a particular coding language to meet the needs of a new client. The constant battle of staying up to speed with digital technology may be the most important driver of upskilling in the business world today.
Benefits of Upskilling Employees
There are many benefits of upskilling employees, and managers would be well served to help upskill their workforce.
It’s a necessity that management helps employees remain ahead of the knowledge curve. How can workforces stay competitive – and how can employees be prepared for advancement – if workers don’t have the requisite skills? And how can workforces remain cohesive if they experience significant turnover in order to fill vacancies?
Upskilling benefits workers in very material ways by helping them earn advancement that may come with additional compensation. Upskilling also helps give employees a sense of agency and the tools necessary to excel. This deepens employee satisfaction and loyalty. It also minimizes the need for recruiting and training new employees, which are massive expenses for businesses.
It’s true that every company can afford to invest in digital upskilling. But it’s also true to say that the areas most in need of upskilling vary from company to company. To determine where to implement upskilling in your organization, first identify where the biggest and most impactful knowledge gaps lay in your workforce. Where are the skills lacking, outdated, or simply mediocre? Be sure to communicate with your workers themselves. Workers often have a very good sense of what they need to learn in order to perform better.
The knowledge gaps in your organization don’t just refer to intra-organizational conditions. The knowledge gaps are also determined by the state of the marketplace, including your partners and competitors. It requires some degree of vision and analysis to see how your organization is going to have to change in order to thrive in the future. What do you have to do to get out ahead of your competitors? What do you have to do to meet changing consumer demand? What do you have to do in order to be more resilient to unforeseeable threats?
Examples of topics one might invest in upskilling to learn more about could include, but is not limited to:
- Learning to code
- Managing large teams
- Building a business plan
- Developing a five year strategy
- Understanding digital search and marketing principles
- Using new analytical software
- Learning finance and accounting principles
- Building PowerPoint presentations
- Learning the principles of effective project management
Where to Upskill
There are a variety of interesting options for learning and gaining new skills. Most of these options involved self-paced, online courses. They tend to be a mix of video and text modules, complete with practice problems and quizzes. In some cases, one can earn a certificate of completion to promote on a LinkedIn profile. In other cases, one can actually string courses together and complete a “capstone assignment” and actually earn a degree from a partner academic institution.
One way to upskill is to take courses on Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms. The most prominent examples of MOOCs are Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and Future Learn. MOOC’s courses are primarily developed by highly regarded academic institutions. For example, Coursera offers courses from and degrees in partnership with Stanford, Princeton, Yale, London, Munich, Zurich, and many more highly regarded universities. On its website, it has sections describing how its courses can help students looking to earn credit for academic coursework, individuals learn new marketable skills, and organizations develop programs to build the skills of an entire workforce.
Other companies operate similarly to MOOCs in that you can enroll in online courses, but they are not driven by content developed by or partnerships with academic institutions. Instead, these companies are driven by individual experts developing courses. For example, Udemy describes itself as the global marketplace for learning and instruction. But anyone can build a course on the platform. There is little to no “filtering” regarding the content of these courses either. You need to rely on careful review of the author, reviews, and descriptions of the course before enrolling in courses on Udemy. The site covers many many topics: software development, finance, accounting, design, office productivity, photography, health and wellness, music, test prep, and much more. Other websites like Udemy include Teachable and Skillshare.
Another option is Linkedin Learning. Linkedin Learning operates just like Udemy, but within the very popular LinkedIn platform. Because it is tied to the core mission of providing connectivity and information sharing for business people, the platform is able to make personalized recommendations about what type of upskilling a person might benefit from, given their job title, role, and network.
Finally, even a platform like Kahn Academy is starting to offer what one might call Upskilling. In addition to academic subjects, Kahn Academy now offers test prep, career management, and personal finance content.
How Can Upskilling Help in Consulting?
Many consultants are leading the charge in the Upskill Revolution. It makes sense. Upskilling offers many potential benefits in consulting. For one thing, consultants should be aware of the need to use upskilling as they work to meet clients’ needs. A big part of the consultant’s job will be to identify the readiness of the workforce to implement necessary procedures for meeting company objectives.
On a more personal level, individual consultants benefit greatly from upskilling themselves. As a consultant, the more skills you have, the greater range of clients you can work with and the greater efficacy you’re likely to have in each case. And with the rate of change in the consulting landscape, any consultant who isn’t upskilling in some form or another may very well be falling behind.
In addition, consulting firms may be considering a move away from internal training to leveraging upskilling platforms to build their employees’ skills. Instead of taking a crop of new hires and building courses on accounting and finance, why not work with Coursera to develop a program that introduces these skills? And while you are at it, offer optional free ways for consultants to learn about project management, coding, digital marketing, etc.
It’s easy to un-hear certain buzzwords and jargon once they reach a particular level of currency. But Upskilling really does offer tremendous value to companies, consultants, and workers of all kinds. No company survives with the same practices into eternity. Even the most traditional workers go through some forms of change, development, and continuous education. Upskilling just means trying to be purposeful, proactive, and productive about building knowledge and best practices. Have you been convinced of the value in Upskilling yet?
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