The Need for Continuous Reskilling: It's Time for HR to Act

Sometimes reading the HR press can make you feel like you’re Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day. As a profession it feels like we take a long time to adapt and evolve, and when you attend the many HR conferences that are out there, you often hear the same messages over and over again, year after year.

For example, I just did a google search for “HR moves to the cloud” and there are several articles that have been written in the last year with advice on how HR can move to cloud-based platforms, yet some of the most popular cloud-based HR solutions have been available for 10+ years. Even though a lot of companies have now moved to a cloud-based HR system, and you’d think we could stop talking about it, 40% of organisations still have one or more HR applications deployed on premise according to the 2018-2019 Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, so there’s still quite a long way to go.

So while I think it is great that we have seen some progress in this area, it goes without saying that this is slow progress, and as someone that spends a lot of time talking to HR leaders and HR tech startups about some of the latest innovative technology that is out there, it makes me realise that if it is taking HR such a long time to move through the technology adoption lifecycle when it comes to the move to the cloud, what does this mean for some of the other trends that HR needs to embrace?

We need a reskilling revolution

One such trend that I feel we’ve also been talking about for quite a while now is reskilling. There was a fantastic HBR article recently that talked about how employees are far more prepared for the changes that automation and other factors is bringing than their employers are. One of the most interesting findings from the research behind the article was the following:

“Workers are seeking more support and guidance to prepare themselves for future employment than management is providing”

While most workers in the research were prepared to take ownership for their careers and their own development, they cited a lack of support from their companies and a gap in their knowledge about their options to help them to reskill and prepare for the future.

There seems to be a large disconnect between the eagerness of employees to learn, upskill, and manage their own careers and how much help they can get in doing this from their employers.

It doesn’t really matter which prediction ends up being correct about the impact of automation on jobs. The evidence is clear that technology and automation will have a significant impact on a large proportion of the work that humans currently perform. As the research above shows, very few companies are prepared for the changes that are coming and even fewer have a clear understanding of the skills that they have within their organisations and how that compares to the skills that they will need in the future. As a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted:

“Employers are still trying to master the challenge of mapping the skills of their current workers, identifying the skills required of their future workforce and filling the gaps between the two. By the time many companies figure out exactly who they need, it’s often too late to invest the necessary time and money into retraining.”

However, maybe we are starting to see a shift in mindset. According to the latest Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte, the number one trend for 2019 is the need for organisations to change the way people learn, with 86% of respondents citing this as an important issue. So what should companies be doing to help better prepare their employees for the inevitable changes that are coming and the skill gaps that they will need to bridge?

Creating a culture of lifelong employability

One area that we have seen a lot of interest in is the concept of lifelong learning, or as Mckinsey calls it, lifelong employability. It’s not enough to think about training or reskilling as a one-off activity, where one training course or a workshop fixes the problem. Companies need to take action that enables their workforces to continually adapt to change and remain employable:

“Rather than focusing on retraining and reskilling as ends to themselves, we must reframe these topics as a means to the specific end of remaining employable for as long as one desires to be a part of the workforce.”

However, instead of looking at their internal talent base and creating an environment that supports the reskilling of their current workforce, many employers choose to layoff employees (often without really understanding if they could have been retrained) and spend huge amounts of money on hiring in the new skills that they require. Even though HR has been talking about getting the right people, in the right place, at the right time, for as long as most people can remember, the type of workforce planning that is needed for today’s digital world is still a real challenge for most organisations.

While there are some really impressive stories out there, like AT&Ts initiative to retrain nearly half of its workforce, they are still few and far between, and most companies haven’t even begun to tackle this issue. One of the main reasons is that even with some of the new technologies out there, it is still really hard! There are several areas that companies should keep in mind when trying to adopt a skill-based talent strategy:

  1. Usable data - Most of the internal systems that companies have in place have data that is out-of-date and incomplete when it comes to an employee’s skills. They also lack data on people’s career aspirations and struggle to track a lot of the learning that is happening outside of traditional learning systems. In order to combat this, companies are increasingly looking at how to infer or derive skills data from other sources (which means employees don’t have to fill it out)

  2. Adoption - Even if a company does have a database with skills data in it, they don’t ususally provide a good reason for the employee to use it and improve on it. People keep their LinkedIn profile up-to-date because it helps their brand and they might get hired. Most internal systems don’t have a similar benefit. However, we have recently seen companies like Microsoft and IBM build in-house platforms that can not only infer skills data from other sources, but can also use that data to match employees to jobs or training in an effort to drive adoption. It is imperative that such systems are designed with the employee’s interests as the primary driver, or they’ll just become another system with incomplete data that nobody logs into.

  3. It’s about all workers not just employees - A lot of the efforts around reskilling or understanding workforce skills often focus on permanent employees and don’t extend to contractors or contingent workers. In order for companies to truly understand the talent that they have access to, for now and the future, then really they need to look at their total workforce, not just permanent employees. By tapping into a broader talent source, and understanding the skills of all their workers, then companies have the ability to create a workforce plan that includes a much broader pool of talent.

It’s time for HR to act

Even though this is a hard problem to solve, it’s one that with new and innovative HR technologies available and the maturity in people analytics increasing in many large (and small) organisations, HR finally has a chance to solve, but it needs to act fast.

There is a real opportunity for HR to take the lead in the call for continuous reskilling, lifelong employability, whatever we want to call it - it’s the need for companies to promote a strategy that provides transparency on the skills of its workforce, invests in the development of its people, provides workers with visibility into potential career paths and the skills they should develop, and where there is an equal focus on developing internal talent through both training and experiential or project-based learning as there is in hiring external talent.

While working at Cisco, I led an initiative called the “Talent Cloud” which aimed to create transparency on the skills of the workforce and allow employees to take control of their careers. In every conversation that we had with managers and employees about this project, they were always extremely excited about the work and the value it could add. However, one of the biggest challenges was aligning this to other HR priorities. Sometimes in HR, we can get in our own way and lose sight of what will truly add value to the Business. We can’t let reskilling become another Groundhog Day topic that we’re still talking about in 10 years time, it’s one we have to take action on now.


Ian Bailie is the Managing Director of and an advisor and consultant for start-ups focused on HR technology and People Analytics, including Adepto, Worklytics and CognitionX. In his previous role as the Senior Director of People Planning, Analytics and Tools at Cisco Systems, he was responsible for delivering the tools and insights to enable and transform the planning, attraction and management of talent across the organisation globally. Ian is passionate about HR technology and analytics and how to use both to transform the employee experience and prepare companies for the Future of Work.