Rethink capabilities to emerge stronger from COVID-19

In a new survey, leaders say the pandemic has alerted them to the urgency of getting learning programs right. Yet companies are falling short in delivering outcomes, and executives can do more to support capability-building efforts.

Months into a global pandemic, the way people work has changed dramatically—and continues to evolve as the COVID-19 crisis goes on. Leaders at all levels are being asked to do things differently. But how are their companies preparing them and their employees for these new demands?

In our survey of more than 1,200 businesspeople around the globe—most whom are in leadership roles—respondents ascribe great value to learning and capabilities and say their companies are investing accordingly. 1 But many organizations struggle to achieve the impact they seek, even as they target the capabilities considered most important for the future: leadership, resilience, and adaptability.

Capability building is more valuable during the pandemic than ever

Across the globe, company leaders 2 report that the value of capability building has increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 crisis (Exhibit 1). Nearly 80 percent say that capability building is very or extremely important to their organizations’ long-term growth, compared with 59 percent who say that this was true before the pandemic. What’s more, about two-thirds say their organizational cultures currently place a high or very high value on learning (Exhibit 2).

Capability building is much more important now than before the COVID-19 crisis began.
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Most companies place a high or very high value on learning.
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Many leaders also report that their companies value reskilling over other ways of addressing capability gaps: in fact, the share of leaders ranking it as the most useful way to close them (53 percent) is larger than the combined share who cite external hiring, redeploying people, and hiring contract workers (Exhibit 3).

To most leaders, building employee skills is the best way to close their companies’ capability gaps.
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Learning is in high demand, with investments to match

The survey suggests that respondents also ascribe great value to learning in the pandemic. Four in ten say they are spending more time on it than they did before the COVID-19 crisis began (Exhibit 4). Only about one-quarter say they’re spending less time and just 2 percent that they have not participated in any learning or skill-building programs at all during this time. Nearly all respondents (92 percent) say they have built capabilities on their own time—mostly informal learning efforts through commercial media. Company leaders, too, are prioritizing learning: 54 percent of them say they have engaged in self-paced learning, compared with 47 percent of all other respondents.

Since the pandemic began, respondents tend to spend more time on learning rather than less.
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For the most part, respondents say their companies are making investments in learning and capabilities (Exhibit 5). One-third of company leaders report that spending on capability-building efforts has increased since the pandemic began. Forty-one percent report no change—despite the other urgent, evolving priorities so many businesses have had to balance.

During the pandemic, most leaders say their companies have either increased their capability-building investments or made no change.
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And when asked about the capabilities they personally need to develop, leaders and all other respondents agree: leadership and the ability to inspire others, as well as resilience and adaptability, are most important.

The opportunity at stake for leaders

Still, many leaders say their companies are falling short in their efforts. Just one-third, for example, report that capability-building programs are often or always successful at achieving their objectives and business impact (Exhibit 6).

Only one-third of leaders say their capability-building programs achieve business impact.
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Our results also confirm the idea that senior leaders have a critical part to play in capability building—and room to improve in a few key areas (Exhibit 7). Respondents say that their senior executives support employees’ participation in capability-building programs but are less effective at role modeling learning for others. Sixty-five percent of all respondents believe their companies’ executives should participate in learning programs either as trainers and facilitators or as learners themselves. Only 52 percent say that their executives play either role now.

There are several gaps between executives’ current roles in capability building and the roles people want them to play.
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Respondents report that their senior leaders could also do more to demonstrate ownership of learning and capability building so that these become more relevant and applicable to people’s work. The survey asked about two ways senior leaders could do so. Thirty-seven percent of respondents say their executives link learning priorities to business outcomes, while 61 percent say that they should. And 40 percent say that senior leaders create opportunities for employees to apply new skills, versus 58 percent who say that they should.

According to the survey, there’s an opportunity for better planning as well. Forty-five percent of leaders say their companies don’t have a concrete plan for building the organizational capabilities they have prioritized (Exhibit 8). Nearly half of all respondents (49 percent) feel that they don’t have enough time to pursue more self-directed learning. Both of these findings may, in practice, reflect a feeling that employees don’t have enough opportunities to apply what they learn or that learning is not a company priority or a core component of their own work.

Nearly half of company leaders say they don't yet have a clear plan for building high-priority capabilities.
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In sum, the survey confirms that capability building is a business imperative and critical to help companies execute their objectives in the future. Yet organizations have many more opportunities to capture business value through capability building, to capitalize on the desire of their employees and leaders to learn, and to prepare today’s leaders to guide organizations through an uncertain future.

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