A learning strategy requires a comprehensive environmental scan. Without such work, deploying resources is largely an exercise in groping around in the dark. In the current world of rapid change and innovation, the result is more likely to be dangerous than successful.
Consider two critical types of learning — formal education and targeted skills training. Accredited colleges and universities are the main provider of formal education, while a huge smorgasbord of courses and programs targeted at skills development is available to address the latter. Training is changing rapidly while the academe changes slowly, with a history of inward-focused energy. Both forms of learning are needed, but for very different reasons.
Let’s begin with targeted skills training. There are several important forces that tend to push corporate learning expenditures toward this option. Corporations like targeted skills development for several reasons, the first being that it has a more rapid payback. The key drivers are not internally sourced but come from elsewhere in the organization or from outside forces impacting the enterprise.
Take logistics, for example. The explosion in global markets and international sourcing makes this skill a very high strategic priority for virtually every manufacturing and distribution company. The external driver is globalization of all aspects of business. Without excellent supply chain skills, the very survival of the enterprise is at risk.
A second external driver is the impact of computer networks on all organizations. The urgency to create and maintain a dynamic internet presence drives skill needs even for such classic functions as marketing. Depending how aggressively the firm is deploying its web-based strategy, such specific skills as Apache Cassandra, NoSQL and Teradata database analysis may all be needed, and certainly Google keyword analysis skills are a must.
A related skill is network security. The prospect of having millions of customer records hacked can keep even the most competent CEO awake in the middle of the night.
The pace at which these external factors are emerging has moved critical skills development initiatives from “nice to have” to the top of the strategy list. Companies need these skills now.
Another driver of targeted skills learning within the enterprise is the fact that most of this learning is manageable in cost and scope. But making key employees available to take the training has become a resource burden that is often greater than the direct out-of-pocket expense to develop and deliver the training.
Yet another factor impacting this learning is the speed at which entrepreneurial providers are developing and delivering learning modules. This program creation is occurring at a speed and scope that the academic world is unlikely to ever achieve.
But here is the down side on targeted skills development. The extremely useful site O*NET OnLine, a tool for career exploration and job analysis, now lists more than 175 technology skills in its comprehensive database. This list is growing rapidly, and with the current pace of innovation, it will no doubt continue to do so. The paradox is that not only are new technologies being added continuously, but with those new additions, older skills are being displaced. For example, computer programming language COBOL is not even on the current hot technologies list, yet billions of lines of COBOL programs remain running in background processes across thousands of enterprises. As the old COBOL programmers retire, someone must retain the skills to maintain that code.
Targeted skills development is not just a need but a strategic priority driven by the powerful external changes impacting every enterprise. The learning of these skills will be financed and managed largely within the enterprise. The academic world is simply too cumbersome and slow moving to be the primary supplier of such targeted skills learning.
This is not to say that colleges and degree programs have no role to play — they do. But that role has very different strategic implications.
Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC and author of “Your Future Is Calling.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.