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Workforce Readiness: The Learning Metric that Leads to Real ROI

If it wasn’t obvious before, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of organizational agility. 

Indeed, the ability to anticipate, adapt, and act on change is no longer a nice-to-have. And as the Institute of Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) research has consistently revealed, an essential component of agility is establishing and fostering a culture of continuous learning.  

This need for ongoing learning will continue to accelerate. Consider these two findings revealed in the latest World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report  (published in October 2020). The report asserts that by the year 2025:  

  • 44% of skills that employees will need to perform their roles effectively will change.
  • Companies hope to internally redeploy nearly 50% of workers displaced by technological automation/augmentation.

These findings further validate the workforce upskilling, reskilling, and/or new-skilling efforts i4cp sees among so many of the high-performance organizations with which we work. The need is real, accelerating, and requisite for organizational sustainability and worker relevance.

Take, for example, i4cp member Accenture. With nearly 500,000 employees globally, the firm is at the leading edge of ensuring its global workforce is ready—in both skillset and mindset—to enable the agility that will allow the firm to deliver on the ever-evolving needs of its customers.

As shared during a recent meeting of the i4cp Chief Learning and Talent Officer Board (an exclusive working group of senior-most organizational learning and talent officers), every team member at Accenture is expected to have a personal priority around skilling. In essence, this describes what each person will be able to do in six months that they cannot do (or do so well) now.  

To be promoted and to progress at Accenture, employees must show progression and alignment with those skills. And people managers are now expected to promote individuals who are aligned with those skills. The firm has developed a platform that leverages artificial intelligence and other advanced automation to analyze Accenture’s massive skills data and make recommendations to employees about skills they might develop to take on more (and different) work that will be most relevant going forward.

Time to move from efficiency to readiness

While the need for continuous learning cannot be more clear and compelling, the traditional mindset related to measurement of learning and development simply gets in the way. Want proof? Answer these questions:

  • How much does your firm spend on training programs in a typical year?
  • What percentage of your workforce has completed a specific training program (e.g., compliance, ethics, bias)?
  • How many hours of training do your employees complete in a typical year?
  • It’s likely that your company tracks—or even discloses—this traditional learning data. Yet this merely reflects learning efficiency and does not suggest even a modicum of business value.

Now, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your organization’s talent risk? In essence, what’s the gap between current technical and professional capacity and the capacity it will require in the next one-to-three years?
  • How will the jobs at your firm today be augmented or perhaps replaced by automation in the next three-to-five years?
  • What’s the specific inventory of skills, capabilities (including languages spoken, backgrounds, subject matter expertise), and relevant experiences among your entire workforce?

Those are a few of the questions that must be asked and answered.

It’s time organizations redirect the resources they apply to track learning activity, and instead focus on tracking and enabling workforce readiness—the real driver toward sustainable organization success.

Just how agile and adaptable is an organization without the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to power—let alone keep pace with—an ever-evolving business environment? Workforce readiness is critical and should be viewed and managed as a key organizational success criterion.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), like Accenture, provides another excellent example of leading-edge upskilling/reskilling/new skilling. Several years ago, the firm saw the changes that digital technologies were bringing to both business and individuals. While talent upskilling was already proceeding in an organic way, company leaders understood that this approach alone would not be enough to sustain desired business growth.

Accordingly, TCS shifted focus to upskill the entire workforce, concentrating on its 300,000 technology consultants, with a goal that, on average, each would possess at least six digital skills (such as cloud, DevOps, visual analytics, AI, and machine learning skills).  

To measure the upskilling effort, the TCS team developed a robust competency framework that included a large body of knowledge as well as a taxonomy that defined each specific skill, with proficiency levels from E0 (awareness) to E4 (a leading expert). Learning accomplished both inside (including on-the-job) and outside the company was tracked.

TCS believes that the digital era needs neither generalists nor specialists exclusively. The company develops its employees to be well-versed in a broad range of digital technologies, with specific expertise in one (or more) disciplines. TCS visualizes this approach in a T-shaped chart, where general knowledge topics are outlined horizontally across the top of the T and area(s) of deep expertise are represented by a longer vertical line. To confirm whether an individual’s skillset has a true T shape, TCS developed a T-Factor scale to gauge skills profiles. Click here to read the i4cp case study. 

Looking ahead, the importance of tracking workforce readiness is undeniable

The ability to track and actively manage workforce readiness for the future is powerful. It will also be greatly appreciated by those whose job it is to lead and govern organizations.  

When i4cp queried chief executives and public company board members about the workforce-related insights they’d find most valuable for positioning their organizations in the next three-to-five years, their responses were resounding. Overwhelmingly, they wanted more (and better) insights into their firms’ risks and readiness, with particular emphasis on the health of organizational culture. Leaders also wanted to monitor whether their organizations had—or were positioned to have—the capabilities required to effectively execute and compete in the future.  

Those business leaders recognize that talent risk equates to business risk. Or put another way, talent advantage equals business advantage. This exact sentiment is what has led so many influential stakeholder groups—including the United States Securities and Exchange Commission—to require disclosure of human capital metrics that are material to the business.

How ready is your firm to lead with workforce readiness? Consider these actions:

  1. Walk before you run. At a minimum, align with the human capital metrics identified by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), which suggest tracking total development and training costs.
  2. Identify your organization’s talent risk—the gap between the current technical and professional capacity of your workforce and where it needs to be in one-to-three years. This article on How Cisco Uses a Data-Driven Approach to Strategic Workforce Planning offers a great corporate example.
  3. Prioritize new-skilling, reskilling, and/or upskilling efforts. Leading organizations (including Accenture and Tata Consulting Services) have made this a central component of their future of work and/or evolving business strategies. Want an important side benefit? i4cp research on workforce well-being clearly shows the strong connection between career health (i.e., one’s happiness with job advancement and/or development opportunities) and the level of workforce well-being.
  4. If it’s not already underway, start the dialogue with your executive leadership and board about the metrics and indicators (and related methodology) which denote workforce readiness. Also, make sure those leaders are not only proponents of continuous learning, but are regular participants in development opportunities.
  5. Heed the advice of these two leaders:
    1. Ellyn Shook, CHRO at Accenture, told i4cp: It's not just about training people, it's about training leaders and really making sure that you can immerse them in understanding what the real opportunities around these technologies are. HR people can really take the lead and do that.
    2. Janardhan Santhanam, head of digital talent development at TCS, told i4cp: Think scale and think two steps ahead. Technology is overtaking us faster than we can change ourselves. Leverage the rapidly growing ecosystem and focus on change management, otherwise you will be left far behind.

If you or your team are spending energy and budget tracking simple learning activity, i4cp suggests redirecting to measure workforce readiness. It will narrow your attention to efforts that matter more in creating greater talent and business advantage for the organization. Just as Dr. Patti Phillips, chair of i4cp’s People Analytics Board and CEO of the ROI Institute, once told me: “Workforce readiness leads to the ultimate ROI in learning; ongoing organizational growth and sustainability.”

For access to more resources from the Advancing Workforce Readiness study, click here.  

Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin is the chief research officer at i4cp. A highly sought-after international keynote speaker on all aspects of human resources and talent management, Kevin has been recognized as a “Top 100 HR Influencer” by HR Examiner, is a renowned keynote speaker, and has been published in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and HBR.