Using Collaborative Learning to Reskill and Upskill Your Workforce
October 15, 2021
Regardless of what business sector you operate in, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely altered demand for your products and services, impacted your supply chain, or forced operational changes. These developments may have created challenges, opportunities, or both. Perhaps you’ve had to re-imagine your entire business, similar to how General Motors temporarily shifted North American manufacturing capacity from automobile production to manufacturing of ventilators and face masks. Or maybe your organization is part of the food industry that has radically re-organized itself in ways where restaurants have moved from in-person to delivery services, farmers sell directly to consumers, and grocery stores have adopted e-commerce models that nobody took seriously before the onset of the pandemic.
Whatever the nature of the challenge you’re facing, one thing is certain: your current workforce, trained to operate in a pre-pandemic environment, will need new capabilities for your company to thrive in our changed world.
Your current workforce, trained to operate in a pre-pandemic environment, will need new capabilities for your company to thrive in our changed world.
Below we look at the reskilling and upskilling priorities that have emerged for many training programs as a result of the pandemic. You may recognize your own company’s new focus or need to adapt in these trends. We also explain why targeted online collaborative learning experiences are the best approach to workforce retraining, offering an engaging format that can scale to benefit the entire organization.
Reskilling and upskilling to respond to new business conditions
Reskilling refers to learning new skills for a changed job function, while upskilling is learning new skills within the same job function. Before COVID-19, reskilling occurred most often in response to automation displacing a worker’s role. Since the pandemic began, though, reskilling and upskilling have both increased due to changed economic conditions, an acceleration in business transformation, and a need for skills to meet the demands of constant business pivots.
Reskilling refers to learning new skills for a changed job function, while upskilling is learning new skills within the same job function.
In response to the pandemic closing stores in China, store associates at a Chinese beauty company reskilled to become online influencers. As Korn Ferry recounted, these associates learned social media skills that enabled the company to actually grow sales during the pandemic.
At other companies, workers have upskilled to take advantage of digital technologies. As Gartner observed, supply chain professionals have had to upskill to learn new technology as companies digitize their supply chains. Similarly, sales workers who used to meet face-to-face with prospective clients have upskilled to learn new digital outreach tools and methods for generating sales.
The line between reskilling and upskilling has become increasingly blurry. When a professional’s tools and tactics change so dramatically, is their job function really the same? As Randstad recently observed, when you virtualize your workforce, their job functions change significantly. Workers must master digital programs and virtual management processes. Such dramatic changes might qualify as reskilling even when employees retain their titles.
Regardless of how we label the above examples of retraining, they are further evidence that the pandemic is accelerating the digital transformation of companies. McKinsey research also confirms that broad-based digital training for employees is a major focus at many companies as they respond to the pandemic.
Broad-based digital training for employees is a major focus at many companies as they respond to the pandemic.
McKinsey’s survey also found that many companies’ retraining efforts right now are focused on training managers to effectively manage remote teams, training sales teams in virtual and digital sales methods, and training leaders in rapid decision-making. In addition, the McKinsey team reported that IT, marketing, and supply chain departments are the ones most commonly receiving upskilling.
All these reports from the learning and development front suggest that organizations are not only retraining their workforces in technical programs but also in how to think, behave, and decide. In other words, the pandemic is causing companies to train their workforces in new mindsets and behaviors. And achieving this kind of cultural shift requires a specific, strategic approach.
Meeting the COVID-19 retraining challenge: focus on results and the needs of learners
It’s one thing to teach your workforce the basics on how to use Microsoft Teams, for example. Traditional approaches to e-learning, such as an hour-long webinar, might work just fine for that. However, training workers on how to think differently and collaborate effectively requires a more sophisticated approach than what you can achieve with basic e-learning approaches.
Training your workforce to collaborate effectively or think differently requires a more sophisticated approach than what you can achieve with traditional e-learning approaches.
To effectively train your workforce in both new technology and new ways of thinking, you must first consider both how your culture must change as well as the needs of your employees as learners. For example, you might ask the following questions of your company:
In light of the changed circumstances brought on by the pandemic, what is the company’s vision for the future?
What changes are needed in the organizational culture as the company responds to the pandemic and beyond?
What kind of customer experience does the company want to provide?
You might also ask these questions about your employees as learners:
What skills do learners need to realize the company’s vision of the future?
Are these skills something learners can pick up on their own or do they need to learn from each other?
How can learners come to understand and practice the company’s new cultural values?
What capabilities will learners need to realize the desired customer experience?
The answers to these questions, of course, will vary for each organization. But to further illustrate the process for developing new training, consider a company that determines it wants to move from a hierarchical leadership culture to a more inclusive leadership style in which more voices are heard before leaders make key decisions. In this case, instead of offering generic leadership training, you might want a course that taught this new leadership style and provided opportunities for leaders and their direct employees to practice this new style of decision-making. Thus, once you know how you want your organization to change, you can then work backwards to create a tailored leadership development program that will help you achieve that new culture.
Of course, to develop the skills needed to achieve a new culture and way of operating, learners must interact socially and practice new behaviors and mindsets. But how is such retraining possible when people can’t meet face to face, and when the thought of another Zoom call causes shudders? The answer is to leverage best practices from learning design and modern technology to create experiences that are online, collaborative, and stretched over time.
Using collaborative learning to reskill and upskill
With social distancing continuing for the foreseeable future, in-person class experiences are not an option. But, even when in-person classes again become possible, does the prospect of spending several marathon days in a conference room retain the appeal it once had? Concentrated classes and workshops offer little time for deep reflection, practice, or collaboration (not to mention bathroom breaks), resulting in an experience that is often an ordeal.
In our new era of Zoom call fatigue, a strictly video conference approach to online learning is equally unappealing. People can speak over one another accidentally, strong personalities may monopolize the discussion, and some participants disengage, frustrated by the experience. Plus, remote workers’ schedules might not align well for a lengthy video conference, and the alternative of training each person individually would take too long.
In contrast to these synchronous approaches to learning, modern online learning can be social and collaborative, even if it is asynchronous and self-paced. By taking advantage of advances in technology and learning theory, designers can support learners and drive engagement and collaboration across the learning experience.
The ideal online learning experience can be asynchronous, self-paced, and yet social and collaborative.
Why is collaborative learning so effective? As noted in this research paper, several decades of research have shown the benefits of collaborative learning in student achievement, effort, persistence, and motivation. Moreover, as Cornell University has observed, research shows that collaborative learning experiences, which are active and social, lead to deeper learning; develop higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills; promote the sharing of diverse perspectives; and prepare learners for real-world situations.
Well-designed collaborative learning experiences can support retraining efforts by providing the context and support learners need to drive the changes in mindsets and behaviors needed for the next, new normal.
Learners can actively practice and apply new skills in the context of real work.
Learners can engage with peers, share perspectives and feedback, and come to a common understanding of the best path forward.
Learners collaborate on group projects, training in teams, just as they will later work in teams.
With its emphasis on extensive social interaction and idea exchange, collaborative learning is also a great way to re-establish your organization’s sense of community, which may be suffering right now. After working at home for months and seeing a steady stream of bad news, remote employees are eager to connect with others and contribute to something bigger than themselves. They would welcome the opportunity to help build your organization’s learning culture and develop new capabilities that support your mission.
Collaborative retraining initiatives can contribute to employee morale as well as business resilience.
Collaborative retraining initiatives can contribute to employee morale as well as business resilience. Learning that is contextualized and social can enhance team-building and bonding, giving the learner the sense that they are not being tossed into the retraining process alone. This social approach can supply learners with both the motivation and satisfaction that come not just from improving their own skills but also contributing to the growth of their fellow workers.
Successful digital transformation is about people, not technology
While technology is a critical enabler of digital transformation, it is not the driver. For sure, technology helps, but ultimately the human capabilities for creativity, problem solving, and collaboration have provided the basis for business resilience and charting a path to our next, new normal.
Work has been redefined over the course of the pandemic: as many of us work remotely, it has become increasingly clear that work is more about what we do, not where we go. In that context, the social skills that emerge from collaborative learning are increasingly seen as the engine for business growth and competitive advantage—whether or not, people are working in the same location.
At the end of the day, talent—not technology—will be understood as the main driver of the resilience and innovation that supports those companies who successfully emerge from the current crisis. The challenge, right now, is how to cultivate talent by reskilling and upskilling rapidly to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
The NovoEd platform is purpose-built to support the collaborative learning experiences that build business-critical skills at scale. You can learn more about how NovoEd can help you quickly reskill and upskill your workforce to meet urgent challenges and opportunities by visiting our solutions page.
Rishad Tobaccowala discussed his new book, Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, and stories from his career as former Global Strategist and Chief Growth Officer of Publicis Groupe in this Book Club recording.
The NovoEd Video Practice feature empowers administrators and learning experience designers to create interactive scenarios with video- and/or text-based prompts that learners must respond to in the moment by recording their response with their webcam or phone. After their session, learners can continue their immersive experience by exploring others' work.