Key Questions for L&D Leaders: How to Evaluate Employee Training Gaps

When there’s a big push from the C-suite or Learning & Development (L&D) to train their workers, many leaders immediately think of some technology platform that will do X and Y amazing thing. But the truth is it may not. Some enterprise challenges are more fundamental than what technology alone can address.

Below are some questions for L&D leaders to consider when addressing employee training gaps before immediately jumping to technology to magically solve your problems.

What’s getting in the way of tackling skills gaps? Knowledge

In back in 2019, learning leaders at major companies bemoaned the challenges of plugging skills gaps amid a
talent shortage. The writer begins by saying that there’s a pool of talent for which executives wouldn’t have to spend a dime recruiting: their own workers … “if only they knew how to reskill them.”

And then 2020 happened. It seemed the talent shortage was over. And then 2021 happened — the shortage came right back. Same problems, different day.

So, what was the challenge for these enterprise leaders? There are many, but it comes down to knowledge. In other words… training, not technology.

As the economy has become increasingly centered around knowledge, it seems there’s less of it: Many executives don’t know what skills their people have, and their people often don’t know how to learn the new skills they need in the future. But no one really knows what skills will be important in the future since the business environment changes so quickly.

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT cited in the WSJ article, said, “Human capital is quantitatively a much bigger share of the capital in the economy than physical assets like plants, technology and equipment, and we understand it less well.”

Here’s how the WSJ journalist put it:

Instead of teaching new skills to their current workers, employers often choose the disruption and high costs of layoffs or buyouts. Why? Sometimes the required skills aren’t easily taught to existing employees, experts say. It’s also often because companies have only a hazy sense of what their internal talent is capable of, and migrating large numbers of employees into new positions requires time, money and commitment.

Employers are still trying to master the challenge of mapping the skills of their current workers, identifying the skills required of their future workforce and filling the gaps between the two. By the time many companies figure out exactly who they need, it s often too late to invest the necessary time and money into retraining.

It’s crucial that L&D leaders overcome this knowledge asymmetry. That is, they need
to first seek answers for the larger business strategy, the skills required to get there,
and the ability of their workforce to adapt to these new requirements.

However, one skill can help move knowledge efficiently throughout the organization: communication through storytelling.

Let’s look at a few questions L&D leaders can ask themselves, their vendors, and their employees to begin tackling these important challenges — and none of them has to do with technology.

Consider these 5 key questions to find training gaps

When analyzing your investments before and during an RFP process, consider setting aside some time to thoroughly address the following questions.

  1. What is the overall business strategy you’re really trying to achieve? No, really?

It’s painfully obvious that the organizational strategy is often buried in obscurity. What is it you’re really trying to achieve as a business? The answer isn’t always obvious.

Perhaps your mission is to be the market leader in apparel manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, or electricity generation. How does that corporate strategy align with your business units, functional teams, stakeholders, and operations? Are there communication breakdowns within the value chain, especially in light of the disruptions experienced over the last year?

This line of reasoning is an opportunity to align business strategy and skills required to enable strategy, identifying the gaps that exist in your workforce’s capability to execute on your imperatives.

  1. Do our people have the time to learn?

The greatest obstacle to learning in a modern organization, according to Josh Bersin and many others, is a lack of time. This is the elephant in the room. We’ve heard from many leaders over the years that this is the crucial element when it comes to skill development and communication. Here are a few quotes you’ve probably heard or even said yourself:

“I have five million things to do. I don’t have time to spend 20 hours editing and re-editing this PowerPoint deck.”

“Nobody has any time, so it’s really critical that you get your message moving forward the first time.”

“I’m trying to teach our team to be compelling. I would have 4-5 prep calls before a client meeting.”

Many L&D initiatives have great intentions, but they often fall flat in execution because managers don’t have the time to implement the project and employees don’t have the time to learn.

Ask yourself this: Do you want real behavior change or knowledge transfer? Be real with yourself and know that some things simply cannot happen in a short time. You may want behavior change, but you may also want shorter training formats, but the two often conflict.

So, before starting any training regimen, it’s imperative that you first clear out enough space for your people to learn in the first place.

  1. Are your current communication practices serving your purpose and strategy?

Now that we’ve thought through the corporate strategy and the time required to change people’s behavior, we must consider the value in streamlining and clarifying your communication.

The knowledge asymmetry mentioned above drains an enormous amount of value from today’s organizations. Efficient information movement can actually unleash untapped potential.

This may be a bit heady, but think about the market system and its prices. One of the hallmarks of capitalism is the price mechanism to signal information around the world quickly and easily. When a good’s price rises, that indicates it’s in demand somewhere else, which affects your decision making in real time. You don’t need to know why or how — all you have to know is the changing price. This is how economies flourish and move trillions of dollars in capital to the most-needed place.

Organizations that efficiently manage knowledge in this way are able to use their resources to effectively serve the broader mission and strategy. But they first must learn how to communicate efficiently to do so. One article in Harvard Business Review, for example, noted cost and time savings gained by just changing the language the organizations used.

Before implementing a new training initiative, therefore, first consider how communication practices could hinder or enhance that initiative.

  1. Do your data-driven decision-makers know how to find insight in their data?

Much of the problem with today’s data-driven cultures isn’t a lack of data, but a lack of insight from that data.

Across the data science industry, for example, you’ll see a recurring theme: Even the most technical jobs like data scientists need soft skills to find insights hidden in their data. You can read comment after comment in fora, threads, and communities like r/datascience or Kaggle that extol the virtues of business and communication skills as foundational to more technical skills.

Why? Not all data is relevant to the problem at hand. So you can do a linear regression with Pandas or build a market sizing Excel table from scratch. Does it actually tell you anything important about your business?

Finding the insight in your data with industry-specific knowledge or a little business sense can often go much further than programming knowledge.

Yet even more important than finding insight amid a sea of data is the ability to communicate that insight in a compelling way. This leads us to our final question.

  1. Do your people know how to be compelling?

This is a deceptively simple question. We’ve heard from many of our clients over the years that their people lack clarity in their messages, or that they struggle to create a compelling pitch succinct enough for executives to make decisions.

You may have the best technology and the best processes in place to maintain your competitive advantage, but if your people can’t communicate effectively, it may all be for naught.

The purpose of your data and communications is to either a) inform your audience or b) spur them to act. However, without compelling, succinct communication, your audience may now understand what you’re saying or what they’re supposed to do with that information.

Learning how to be a compelling communicator is a lifelong skill, but there are a few basic principles that can exponentially increase your effectiveness.

Be honest with yourself, and seek help when you need it

The “Reskilling Revolution has firmly taken root, but so has the “Great Resignation and other societal shifts. It’s not easy to implement training initiatives and reskill your workforce. Thankfully, L&D budgets are growing and learning leaders are gaining a seat at the executive table.

We hope these questions can help you make wise decisions regarding those investments.

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