Should HR reinvent workforce development from the bottom up?

Workforce pathways might be more predictable when prescribed from the top down, but will that make your organisation resilient enough to survive the future?

Today’s large organisations have a lot on their plates when managing their workforces.

With hundreds or even thousands of employees to develop in line with the changing needs of a business, it’s understandable why creating highly prescriptive learning and development pathways would be seen as the best way to manage skills into an unknown future.

But what if the best way is asking employees what they want to do instead?

That’s one hypothesis put by Deloitte in its 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report. In Beyond Reskilling: Unleashing Workforce Potential, Deloitte argues that COVID-19 has shaken up how we should think about employee potential in the world of work.

“During COVID-19, leaders called upon workers to expand their roles to whatever needed to be done – and workers rose to the challenge, identifying critical needs and deploying their capabilities against them from the bottom-up,” the Deloitte report reads.

“The pandemic showed that, when given the chance to align their interests and passions with organisational needs, workers can fulfill their potential in ways that leaders may never have known they could, positioning the organisations to thrive in the long-term.”

Do we need to be reconsidering the value of overly manufactured employee pathways?


Giving workers more agency and choice

Even prior to 2020, Deloitte argues it was clear that workforce development approaches that were focusing too narrowly on skills alone were unlikely to help organisations, workers or leaders build the resilience required to navigate an environment of perpetual change.

Instead, it makes the hypothesis that empowering workers with agency and choice will create more value for organisations than overly prescriptive approaches in future.

“Organisations that afford workers the agency and choice to explore passion areas will be able to more quickly and effectively activate workers around emerging business priorities than organisations that take a prescriptive approach to filling skills needs,” it says.


From ‘proactive’ to ‘creative’ development

This will go against the grain for many HR and learning and development professionals. With established org charts, hierarchies, development pathways and skills maps, the creation of a clear, systematic and reliable structured pathway seems the best way to face the unknown.

If this is all flipped on it’s head, and a wider conception of employee potential is injected into workforce pathways management, does this not just create more complexity and more unknowns? Will our employee capabilities and passions take us in the right direction?

Deloitte suggests this is not a shift from ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’ – but to ‘creative’ instead. In a world where automotive workers are able to retool production lines using 3D scanners and computer simulations to manufacture ventilators, dare we rule out the power of possibility?


Managing people in a bottom-up world

The creation of ‘opportunity marketplaces’ could begin to integrate employee agency and choice into development pathways. By making defined opportunities like professional development, training, mentorship, project participation, networking, promotion available through platforms, they can match evolving project needs with employee passion.

Likewise, Deloitte suggests more widespread use of AI to understand markets, business opportunities and workforce skill requirements of the future would create more of a bottom up approach to informing workforce development over time, rather than relying on top-down, inflexible strategic approaches that confine development within preconceived limits.


The unstoppable global trends unleashed during VET’s toughest year

Vocational education had a tough time around the world in 2020, but the way it has adapted and changed also tells us a lot about the future.

Knowing you’re not alone can help people through all sorts of challenges and difficult times.

The same should go for Australia’s vocational education sector. A report from the International Labor Office of the The World Bank has showed that, when the pandemic of 2020 was sweeping around the world, the technical and vocational education sectors of many global jurisdictions were scrambling to adapt at pace, keep their operations running, and continue to deliver skills.

Australian VET providers, in the heat of this crucible moment, were far from alone. But what does this collective great global adaptation tell us about the future we all face together? Here are five international trends that The World Bank’s report suggests can’t be put back in the bottle.


1. Online learning is here to stay (and to grow)

The rapid and necessary shift to online learning was a case of ‘learning by doing’ around the world. Viewed on a global scale, few countries or providers had ‘a sufficiently strong basis of equipment, connectivity and remote learning software and platforms, pedagogical resources, or students and instructors with the necessary digital skills to be able to adapt their services smoothly’.

This has now irreducibly changed. ‘Respondents noted the pandemic had forced them to accelerate existing plans to expand remote learning options, and that expertise on the provision of remote training had increased substantially. Various respondents highlighted their experience of blended learning, noting the importance of its role and its potential value beyond the crisis.’


2. Some practical skills can be delivered remotely

The ability to impart practical skills and training – VET’s primary value-add – was the most impacted function during the pandemic, as face-to face modes like workshops disappeared. ‘For practical skills typically delivered in a classroom setting, similar challenges were reported. As a result, practical training requirements were often reduced for final year students and postponed for the rest’. 

This is resulting in creative innovation in delivering practical skills online. ‘Some countries have found partial alternatives, including through the use of simulation tools or encouraging remote project work’. Workplace-based or private sector-delivered learning – including in online formats – is also rising to the fore, as are strengthened systems for recognition and validation of remote learning.


3. Equitable access to skills is now a core VET issue

The crisis exacerbated the issue of inequitable access to education and skills in many settings, particularly in lower income countries and more vulnerable households. In the shift to remote, barriers including hardware and software, inadequate infrastructure and internet connections, and the capacity to deliver and receive remote learning locked some out of the ability to learn.

This has implications for Australia’s rural and disadvantaged groups. The report recommends the universal provision of internet infrastructure and affordable connectivity, developing and maintaining access to distance learning platforms and learning spaces, collaboration with education technology companies at the national level and increasing emphasis on equality and inclusion.


4. The private sector will become a bigger partner

Emergency partnerships with the private sector were forged around the world to support VET through difficult times, with examples including ‘the provision of digital equipment and tools to teachers and underprivileged learners, technical services to facilitate digital and distance learning, and support for the development of new approaches to the assessment and certification of skills’.

Partnerships with the private sector are expected to grow in number and importance as they seek to collectively build economies and skills ecosystems ‘back better’ around the world. ‘It will be critical to foster these investments at the corporate level and to promote the adoption of beneficial practices among other private and public sector enterprises or training providers’.


5. VET needs to deliver work-relevant skills faster

Never has there been a bigger skills wake-up call for the global economy than 2020. In jurisdictions around the world, many governments moved further towards policies encouraging the rapid re-skilling of workforces to deal with the fallout of COVID-19, changing the way we think about technical and vocational education into a more work-aligned vision of learning over a lifetime.

There is no going back on this trend, which will involve ‘the rapid assessment of labour market trends and emerging skills needs and the agile adaptation of training programmes in response to those needs, through such measures as widening the scope of short-term training and modular training programmes that lead to micro-credentials, such as nanodegrees’.