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Upskilling Your Way Through Workplace Hierarchies

As part of its 2022 annual meeting in Davos, the World Economic Forum published findings that included this startling revelation—42% of the core skills required to perform existing jobs are expected to change between 2022 and 2024. Taken in combination with the ongoing Great Resignation, this glaring imperative for enhanced upskilling initiatives is setting off alarm bells in boardrooms and HR departments across the globe.

Successful upskilling in the age of AI and machine-learning (ML), however, isn’t as straightforward as deploying more of your company’s standard training tactics to teach employees new algorithm-based tools and skills. Sure, it’s about imparting the technical know-how, but it’s also about systematically understanding and accounting for workplace pecking orders that come into play during skills transformation efforts.

MIT Sloan Professor Kate Kellogg

In one of her recent articles in MIT Sloan Management Review,Why Workplace Hierarchies Matter in Skill Transformation,” MIT Sloan Professor Kate Kellogg cautions, “Upsetting fundamental status hierarchies can impede learning, particularly when senior employees perceive that those junior to them are benefiting the most from a workplace transformation.”

Kellogg and co-researchers Jenna Myers (MIT Sloan School of Management), Lindsay Gainer (Mass General Brigham), and Professor Sara Singer (Stanford University School of Medicine) have spent the last few years studying the dos and don’ts of 21st-century upskilling. Drawing on the group’s deep dive into technical skills training at five primary healthcare sites, Kellogg offers guidelines that enable organizations to invest in upskilling that promotes future competitiveness while strengthening the capabilities and cohesiveness of existing workforces.

Three categories of skills transformation

“At the outset,” says Kellogg, “you must understand what type of skills transformation you’re targeting—upskilling, reskilling, or ‘newskilling.’ Each category has distinct goals and variables that should inform your approaches.”

The point of upskilling, as Kellogg defines it, is to enable employees to remain relevant and valuable to your organization by learning new tools and processes related to their existing roles. Successful upskilling efforts are characterized by personalized peer-to-peer training in which both senior and junior employees rotate through the trainer roles.  By contrast, reskilling is aimed at workers whose jobs are evolving (but not disappearing) because of AI, robotics, and advanced analytics. During the Great Resignation, employers have been increasingly dependent upon reskilling existing staff rather than hiring new employees in categories such as technical customer service and IT support.

“Employees with greater tenure in an organization tend to be warier of reskilling programs than staff who are relatively new,” Kellogg explains. “What one sees as a threat to job security, the other sees as an opportunity for advancement.” Leaders have greater success with reskilling programs when they speak to the concerns and ambitions of each demographic. Managers must also play a role by encouraging their frontline staff to extend themselves beyond existing individual comfort zones.

For newskilling initiatives—preparing employees for new roles that arise in conjunction with the deployment of new technologies—you must consider the existing status of employees within your organization. Kellogg notes that high-status employees are understandably resistant to role redesign or reassignment, particularly when such changes require collaborative experimentation among managers and staff.

“Creating separate meeting spaces for supporters of change across status positions can remove much of the friction that often impedes or imperils redesign,” she says.

Skills transformation dos and don’ts

Kellogg’s research suggests some dos and don’ts to consider when upskilling for both profitability and retention.

  • Allow Employees to Choose—Identify the skills and capabilities your company needs, develop the training modes to deliver those skills, then create opportunities for your existing employees to choose which skills they want to learn.
  • Promote Visualization of Future Roles—Workers in low-skill roles, like warehouse labor, can have a more difficult time visualizing their next steps within the company. Testimonials and videos showing others in those new roles can help convince them that the opportunity to upskill is real and that they can make a success of it.
  • Create Personalized Online Content—Remote and synchronous upskilling opportunities will deepen the pool of potential participants at the lower end of the skill and pay scales, especially those who have a harder time traveling to a regional hub or central office.
  • Allow Room to Experiment—Successful online training modules typically are developed by internal working groups focused solely on developing new routines and success metrics for online programs. Running pilot projects in “greenfield” settings enables refinements and validation of new approaches before programs are offered to the broader employee population.
  • Avoid Relying on “Digital Natives”—When most peer-to-peer trainers are younger, tech-savvy employees, senior staff members are more likely to resent and resist learning new skills and technologies. This also can frustrate younger staff because it sets them up to fail in their roles as trainers.

A more successful implementation Kellogg and her colleagues see in healthcare settings occurs when the first workers to be trained on a new technology are continually rotated across a range of existing tenure levels. That approach allows a greater variety of people to be the first in-house expert in something new, which broadens the skill base and the peer-mentoring activities across the organization.

 “This approach may appear on the surface to be a little less efficient, but the end result is increased levels of proficiency and sense of worth,” she says. “Those are very good outcomes in today’s hypercompetitive labor market.”

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