People capability development is traditionally thought of as a linear process aligned to career pathway, but the changing nature of jobs and the skills required to succeed in today’s workplace require companies to rethink the way they build people capability. Organisations need to move away from unidimensional interventions to a flexible and continuous learning and development approach.

In my practice as a learning professional and former Head of Learning, I have observed that most people capability development practices have a pattern in common: people capability development is thought of – and approached as – a linear process. Learning and development is designed and aligned to career and learning pathways and expressed in curricula and programs. For example, the journey from a call centre consultant to resolutions consultant to team lead is prescribed in a career pathway. Learning is aligned to this route and often development opportunities are restricted by these roles. Instead, the ultimate goal should be to create a system that allows, in this example, the call centre consultant to understand and innovate customer service capability as he transitions to the next role or prepares for the changing nature of work. Companies often allow very little room for people to manoeuvre left and right from the traditional pathway and this hinders employees’ ability to acquire skills beyond their jobs and prevents companies from breaking existing silos and creating more value.

Effective capability development today requires companies to move away from the transactional, curriculum cookie-cutter approaches. There are three key reasons why:

Digitisation requires new capabilities

Digitisation is altering the nature of jobs and the shape of corporations. It is hollowing out a core of easily automated jobs and middle management posts and creating new business models that are shifting employment, creating new roles and opportunities. Companies are adjusting to this by relying on smaller core teams that are highly collaborative, utilising a growing contingent workforce and introducing an agile way of working.

This new business environment requires not only technical and cognitive capabilities but also broad relational and problem-solving skills applicable across roles. It also asks for learning agility and the ability to apply knowledge, experience and expertise to new, unfamiliar situations.

In this scenario, companies need a different set of capabilities than what’s currently prioritised in organisations and this is not something that can be achieved with linear, job-to-job capability development. The required capabilities have evolved laterally but, in most businesses, the methods for building those capabilities have not.

“In the most advanced companies, teams are learning to be more agile, to work with distributed and remote teams, and to scale up and down to adapt to ever-changing conditions. This is the future of work.” World Economic Forum.

Automation and AI: The future of work?

Technology and automation are constantly accelerating and boosting productivity. Freed from more mundane tasks, people can be more efficient and innovative, ultimately creating greater value for their organisations. But many people could be shut out of the workforce, as more work is automated and technical skills are commoditised, fewer clerical and manual positions remain. A recent OECD study found that 47 per cent of total US employment was at risk of being computerised within the next few years[1]. The same methodology has been applied to the Australian job market and found the up to 40% of jobs are at risk. The OECD report also highlights that emerging economies like China and India are facing “premature deindustrialisation” which is also affecting jobs.

In addition to the moral and social issues of unemployment, organisations need to understand that machines and new technologies have only a limited ability to create value. Technology does not create itself. It does not prompt greater efficiency in isolation. Human capital remains the greatest value creator available to organisations. A recent Korn Ferry research and economic analysis into the future of work demonstrates that for every $1 invested in human capital, $11.39 is added to GDP. The return on human capital—value versus cost—should give a clear signal to CEOs: Investing in people can generate value for the organisation over time that significantly exceeds initial financial outlay. But organisational leaders are not making the connection now between people (their workforce) and value generation. The research also shows that there is a clear trend among leaders to magnify the relative importance of technology in the future of work: 67% of CEOs responding to the firm’s survey said they believe that technology will create greater value in future than human capital will. In response to their obsession with technology, organisations continue to prioritise the development of technical skills in their workforces.

CEOs and business leaders need to understand the great worth and potential of their workforce and focus on L&D to release it. People with the right capabilities are the cornerstone of superior performance, but organisations are not investing the time or resources needed to unleash it. L&D leaders need to step up and align the L&D function with broader strategic business goals and ensure their organisations are fit with the capabilities they need for the future of work.

Change is the norm

At Korn Ferry, we coined the term ‘digital sustainability’ to refer to the organisations’ ability to continually change to respond to the dynamics of the digital world. This requires more than keeping up with the latest technology. Your company may have successfully automated their call centre, introduced a global HRIS model or a new ERP system. But the next change may be just around the corner and it may not even be driven by the latest IT. It may be a new business acquisition, a new market opportunity or a demographic change in the workforce. Companies need to weave the ability to continually transform into the very fabric of the organisation: into their culture, ethics, values, beliefs, processes, and practices, and into the mindset of their entire workforce.

The problem is that traditional L&D departments often only focus on immediate capability development relating to existing services and products, rather than using a predictive approach that addresses future development needs. Capable L&D professionals need to understand the bigger picture and have greater workforce and market insight to enable the business to become digitally sustainable.

It’s time to re-think capability development

Most organisations and their learning departments I have worked with are not yet prepared to address today’s capability requirements. They are still banking on highly transactional learning and development activities, such as curriculum and content design and development. Some L&D departments are moving into content curation to address emerging capability development needs in a cost-efficient manner. However, these initiatives are not usually setup to address future capability needs through strategic alignment with the organisation’s objectives and future ambition.

We must think more holistically about business needs and move away from single learning interventions and towards a constant stream of learning and development opportunities, broadening the mindset and capabilities above and beyond current role requirements. Re-thinking capability developments, ultimately means to reset the way learning & development departments operate today and instill a culture of learning across the organisation.

“A more radical approach to education must be adopted if the world is to keep pace with future demand for skilled workers as we are migrating towards the curation of education – an environment of accelerated learning, based upon a modularised approach.” Dr Mona Mourshed, World Economic Forum

In my experience as a L&D practitioner I have observed another development common to all organisations: L&D will be more critical to business success than ever, as intellectual capital and the ability of people to use technology and digitisation in a meaningful, innovative and value generating way will soon become the only competitive advantage for many businesses.

To learn more about know how your organisation can re-think capability development or to assess if your learning department is setup to address future requirements, get in touch.

Read our latest report Rebuilt to last: The journey to digital sustainability to learn about the leadership and organisational capabilities your company needs to become digitally sustainable, and how to embed them in your business.


About Contributor

Mathias Otte is an Associate Client Partner with the Strategy, Execution and Organisational Design Consulting Practice. He has deep experience in people development, learning strategy, organisational transformation, collaboration and digital enablement.

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