Forward to the Past—Reflections on How Our Profession Evolves (Or Not)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’ve been struggling this past year with the profession’s new focus on upskilling employees for future needs. I have been trying to understand two things:

  1. How future needs can be reliably identified now, and
  2. Assuming needs can be identified, why would anyone want to provide training now, when the skills and knowledge will not be needed or applied for years to come—resulting in scrap rates of 100%.

To me, this seems to go against everything we have learned over the last 20 years in terms of good performance consulting and designing with application and impact in mind.

I was excited to see multiple topics on upskilling and reskilling at a recent CLO Symposium. I looked forward to learning more about this topic, given its incredible popularity.

During the sessions, I had expected to learn that the identifiable future skills would be tangible skills—like programming or new manufacturing techniques (which would be difficult to predict with enough specificity to train for today). Instead, the future skills identified by the presenters were all soft skills like communication, teamwork, innovation, creative thinking, and problem solving. This reminded me of current research that cited soft skills are very important to future success.

That same research also indicated that employers are looking for those same soft skills in their employees today. If these skills are needed today, we can use our performance consulting tools to identify the gaps and design learning to address them. This all means that these soft skills can be applied today, which means we are really not talking about future skills—we are talking about skills to meet current needs, which are considered important for the future.

The CLO Symposium presenters shared these skills in the context of  being ‘new’—as in organizations should start to train employees on them. This is where I felt I was fast forwarding to the past. When Caterpillar U was founded in 2000, we had a brand new LMS containing hundreds of courses. In the ‘old days’ training organizations used to brag about how many courses they had in their ‘paper’ catalog. Guess what was in that catalog…soft skill courses like communications, team building, writing, and problem solving. The catalog also included a lot of job function skills too, but the point is, soft skill courses are not new. They have always been in demand and always will be. So, can we please apply a little historical context and be more careful about how we define  ‘future skills’? What we are really talking about is ‘forever skills.’

As I reflect on the past, it’s interesting to note what happened to learning leaders bragging about how many courses they offered. Company executives began asking for results. They wanted to know how these hundreds of courses specifically aligned to business goals and needs. Executives demanded measures beyond how many courses were offered. This led to ‘strategic alignment’ where the emphasis is how courses proactively and specifically align to meet the goals of the enterprise.

For many years, strategic alignment had been a hot topic at industry conferences and many books have been written on the topic. How many times did I hear strategic alignment mentioned at the CLO Symposium conference? Zero. I understand that focus areas change and evolve, but we don’t seem to be building on our past. Instead, we’re re-inventing it as with identifying soft skills as future skills. We will advance more quickly and soundly as a profession if we have a sense of our past and can skip the re-learning phases.

Let’s remember that soft skills will always be important as will strategic alignment. There is no need to cycle back and forth and rediscover the value of each. A holistic future can include all that we have learned which will provide the strongest foundation upon which to build, and then we can focus more of our energy on inventing what is truly new and special.

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