5 Steps to Powering Continuous Learning in an Evolving Workplace



As automation and digitalization continuously reinvent work, employers and employees alike face the urgent challenge of keeping up with ever-shifting skill requirements. Doing so effectively in an endlessly evolving workplace, however, requires that organizations move from episodic corporate training to continuous, on-demand learning.

It’s a formidable challenge. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), by 2022, no less than 54 percent of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling. Of these, about 35 percent are expected to require additional training of up to six months.

To keep pace with changing skill requirements, HR leaders must understand the changing nature of work.

Today, work is being deconstructed into elemental tasks. These tasks are deployed to the optimal source of work (automation, alliances, gig talent, etc.) and the remaining and new tasks are reconstructed into reinvented jobs. For this reason, HR needs to make continuous reinvention of work a core capability - and set the stage for continuous learning.

How prepared are HR leaders and their organizations to respond to this challenge? Findings from a global joint research initiative between HR People + Strategy and Willis Towers Watson on the evolving role of the chief people officer (CPO) reveal a gap between HR executives’ awareness of this issue and their readiness to implement continuous learning across their organizations. Almost all participants (94 percent) in a series of CPO focus groups indicated that in order to handle the changing nature of work, it’s become a priority to move from episodic training to perpetual reskilling. Yet only 18 percent indicate they are prepared to truly drive significant reskilling of the workforce.

Our study uncovered five critical steps that will help HR leaders pivot from episodic training to continuous learning:

  1. Move to a skills-based talent architecture. It’s time to transition from traditional career ladders based on fixed jobs to reskilling pathways based on tasks and reinvented jobs. Moving to a skills-based talent architecture, which requires mapping skills to tasks and jobs, will be critical to ensuring that talent remains relevant. CPOs as well as other senior leaders need to stop thinking about headcounts and number of employees and start thinking about skills and skill pools.
  2. Ensure learning is ongoing and part of the business plan. HR leaders must integrate learning and reskilling into everyday workplace activities in an ongoing –rather than episodic – manner. In this context, it will be important to promote self-motivation and encourage talent to seek out experiences that will help them grow and thrive.
  3. Build a talent pool for the future.  Organizations have begun hiring and training people in specific skill areas in anticipation of future needs, that is, before jobs are even available. For instance, United Rentals hires people out of high school and college in this way and finds that this approach reduces ramp-up time when jobs do become available. To ensure access to critical skills at all times, the HR leader must cultivate diverse work relationships and partner with various collaborators, or risk finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage
  4. Take a multipronged approach. It’s important to provide transparent and multidimensional development opportunities. CPOs need a multipronged approach to understanding the organization’s learning needs and developing paths for continuous learning.
  • Engage in ongoing conversations with business leaders to understand how skill capabilities align to evolving business needs and develop learning modules to bridge growing skill gaps.
  • Develop learning paths based on an individual’s learning objectives and build on their current skills and previous experience. Because individuals have different learning styles it’s important to provide learning content in a range of formats and media, including mobile. Learning options can include videos, podcasts, virtual/augmented reality, online and in-person courses. Organizations may also seek out external learning partners ranging from community colleges to online course providers such as Coursera or Udacity. 
  • Establish manager involvement and organizational support; establishing continuous learning as a priority for the leadership and the company is essential for making it a reality. Seventy-five percent of employees report that they would take a course suggested by their manager[1]. CPOs need to empower managers to monitor employee progress against goals and ensure that learning activities are bridging skills gaps.
  1. Ensure continuous learning is at the heart of the new deal. Skills are the new currency of the labor market. CPOs must put continuous learning and reskilling at the heart of their organization’s employment deal to attract and retain the critical talent needed to succeed in the new world of work.

Going forward, an organization’s competitive advantage will come from ensuring the continued competitiveness of its workforce. At the same time, security for the individual will come from preparing for opportunity, wherever it might be, and remaining relevant in a world of shifting skills premiums.  It is the role of the CPO to bring the organization and talent together in a mutual commitment to continuous learning and reskilling, enabling talent to thrive and the organization to prosper.

About the study: HR People + Strategy (HRPS), the Society for Human Resource Management’s Executive Network and Willis Towers Watson undertook a global research initiative to explore the rapidly changing role of the HR executive in March through August 2019. This research consisted of in-depth interviews with CPOs, CEOs, corporate board members, other C-suite executives and academics, a series of CPO focus groups and a survey of senior business leaders from organizations across a range of sizes, industries and countries. The Future Chief People Officer: Imagine. Invent. Ignite, a comprehensive report based on this work, will be published in December 2019. Readers can also look forward to complementary pieces exploring the key themes and findings, including blog posts, presentations, articles and podcasts.

The Authors:

Simon King is a senior HR executive with more than 25 years of experience in the Bio-pharmaceutical industry. King started his career in Research and Development at AstraZeneca holding increasingly senior positions culminating in being the Head of HR for Research and Development. In August 2019, he moved to Daiichi-Sankyo, Inc. where he serves as Chief People Officer. Simon has been a volunteer for HR People + Strategy since 2007, lectures at Cornell, and is an active member of the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. This content represents his personal opinions and not those of his employer.

Ravin Jesuthasan is an author and Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson. Jesuthasan is a recognized global thought leader and author on the future of work and human capital. He has led numerous research efforts on the global workforce, the emerging digital economy, the rise of artificial intelligence and the transformation of work. Jesuthasan has led numerous research projects for the World Economic Forum including its ground-breaking study; Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society and the recently launched Creating a Shared Vision for Talent in the 4th Industrial Revolution.



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