Last November, I suggested that 2020 would be the year of reskilling. That prediction turned out to be quite correct, but not for the reasons we expected. The COVID-19 crisis has forced millions of people to develop new capabilities with unprecedented speed. The explosion in home working required people to master a wide range of novel digital tools, from video conferencing systems to remote access technologies. For some, this was the first time in their career that a keyboard became a primary work tool. And while work has looked very different, people have also needed new skills in their personal and family lives: navigating the novel requirements of physical distancing and enhanced hygiene, for example, and supporting children as they adapt to remote schooling.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this unprecedented wave of technology upskilling is just how effective it has been. Every organization faced teething problems, of course, but productivity at many quickly rebounded, sometimes even exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Many businesses are now turning temporary measures into more permanent arrangements. That success underlines one of the universal truths of capability building: When people care about a skill, they are always much more willing to master it.
If 2020 has demonstrated the feasibility of rapid, large-scale upskilling, it has also created new challenges for capability-building programs. Successful programs have always relied on in-person interactions to a significant degree: physical “go and see” visits to lighthouse facilities to see high-performing operations in action; hands-on learning tasks in model factories; on-the-job coaching and mentoring. With many of these approaches now difficult or impossible due to health-protection guidelines, companies are having to rethink the way programs are designed and delivered.
That has already unleashed a wave of innovative ideas. As much of Europe went into lockdown, one leading healthcare company was just about to start a three-week program on lean essentials for key managers. Rather than abandoning the project, the learning team scrambled to adapt the workshops for virtual delivery via video conference. To keep participants engaged, the trainers introduced new group activities throughout the program. Thoughtfully designed to reinforce key learning points, the activities prevented learners from becoming overwhelmed with theoretical concepts and helped to build team spirit and camaraderie.
At around the same time, a global industrial company was forced to postpone the start of a planned project. It used the delay to provide training to the project team in a range of relevant skills. This effort helped to maintain connectivity among project team members, assured them that their employer remained committed to the project, and meant a smooth, rapid start when normal operations resumed.
Elsewhere, we have seen new communications and collaboration technologies applied very effectively in all sorts of capability-building programs. Some companies are using 3D simulation systems to create interactive models of factories and production lines. Others have used virtual reality (VR) technologies to offer immersive experiences demonstrating the end-to-end digital transformation of a factory. “Model factory in a box” approaches allow individuals or small groups to participate in hands-on experiential learning. Video conferencing technologies allow learners to interact remotely with full-size model factory facilities. They can have their improvement ideas implemented by on-site staff, then observe the results of their changes in real time.
2020 has certainly been a year of turbulence and human tragedy, but it has also shown that people can often achieve much more than they give themselves credit for. With the right support, that could be a catalyst for the massive upskilling that the world sorely needs today.