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Ops 4.0—The Human Factor: The need for speed in building skills

Rapid upskilling requires support in the moment, not just in the classroom

Passionate about the “human factor”: helping people develop broad skills and deep functional expertise. Experienced operations practitioner, faculty member, and author.

In volatile times people need to pick up new skills, and quickly. The past two years have already seen one huge wave of rapid reskilling, as COVID-19 forced millions of workers to master the challenges of digitally enabled remote working. Now the adaptability of the workforce is being tested once again. The ongoing energy-price shock could be the catalyst for a dramatic acceleration of efficiency improvementinitiatives in manufacturing industries, for example. The race to build the infrastructure of the net-zero economy requires construction and energy companies to get faster, slicker, and more effective in the delivery of complex capital projects. Repeated shocks and disruptions are encouraging companies in all sectors to rethink the design of their supply chainsand operating models, with a new focus on resilience and agility.

All these efforts require people to grasp new analytical techniques, understand new technologies, and use new tools. Developing such skills usually takes time, however, and that’s a luxury that many companies simply don’t have.

As we have discussed before in this blog, successful capability-building programs are built on a clear understanding of exactly which individuals need which skills to meet the organization’s goals. The need for speed in many of today’s programs requires as much focus on exactly how those skills are built. More specifically, the best programs are designed with a performance-first approach: their goal is to find the most efficient ways to help people perform better in their roles.

This way of thinking aims to make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing in any work environment. That starts with understanding and agreeing to new requirements and expectations, a willingness to learn, and the adoption of an intentional learning mindset. Once those things are in place, skill building can happen, leading to changes in behaviors, actions, and outcomes.

Approaching the capability challenge from a performance-first perspective often means that today’s most common methods, such as classroom training or e-learning modules, are no longer the default choice. Instead, organizations emphasize approaches that help people during the execution of their work (exhibit).

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For example, they might:

  • Eliminate the need for learning. Can a task be automated, or designed to be as intuitive and error-proof as possible? There is a good reason why the simple checklist is a standard tool used to support complex tasks in surgery and aviation.
  • Provide resources at the moments that matter. The best time to learn something well is right when you need it. That might be the first time somebody uses a new approach, the first time they hit a problem, or when established processes change. By embedding learning resources—such as quick-start guides, videos, or animations—into the tools that people use every day, companies can ensure that focused, context-specific help is just a click away at these key moments.
  • Offer experiences and apprenticeship, not courses. In other situations, people may not realize they need new capabilities or that the work they do will be changing. Moreover, some skills are too complex, too different, or too risky to learn on the job. That’s when experiential learning can be invaluable. At a digital capability center or model factory, for example, people can try new tools and approaches that show what’s possible, in an environment designed to be a safer and faster version of the real world. Over the longer term, learning at the side of an expert is the oldest capability-building approach of all. And it works. Companies are now adapting the traditional apprenticeship model to the needs of the modern organization, giving everyone in their organization the responsibility to learn and the responsibility to teach.

The relative importance of these complementary approaches to learning and development is difficult to overstate. Since the 1980s, many organizations have followed the maxim that managers learn 70 percent of their skills on the job, 20 percent through social interaction, and only 10 percent through formal training courses. In a world where rapid upskilling is an imperative, that principle can be applied to everyone in the workforce.

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