How learning and development teams can help organisations emerge stronger

Digital transformation will be the platform that enables organisations to thrive after the turbulence caused by coronavirus. But skills will be the factor that ultimately determines success or failure, says Thomas O’Reilly, head of group strategy at QA

There is no doubt that we as a nation are in unchartered territory. Against the backdrop of a long-term issue of low levels of productivity in the UK, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every organisation in the country, ushering in a recession that looks set to be even worse than the one caused by the global financial crisis of 2007-8.

Research conducted by the New Statesman in July found 82 per cent of UK-based business leaders expect the economic impact of COVID-19 to be more severe than the last recession, which itself was the worst in most people’s memories. In fact, the scale of contraction seen as a result of the pandemic has not been seen since the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, some 300 years ago, albeit with more potential to bounce back if and when an effective vaccine is hopefully deployed.

If there is a ray of light for UK firms, it is the potential of digital, whether through broader and better adoption of online payment and finance systems, cloud, advanced artificial intelligence or big data as a means of boosting productivity and developing new products and customers.

According to Boston Consulting Group’s Digital Strategy Roadmap 2020 global study, more than 80 per cent of companies regard accelerating digital transformation as a strategic necessity and for many operating online it has become essential for survival as lockdown has restricted other channels.

But such projects and companies will succeed or fail as a result of the talent available. The digital talent shortage, which was already in evidence, is now turning into a drought as organisations scramble to identify those with the right skills to help them move forward. The reality is there is simply not enough talent to go around and the situation is set to get worse.

Bridging the gap

Those in human resources and learning and development (L&D) roles are in a prime position to create an effective talent pipeline that will enable and drive digital transformation. Here at QA we believe there are a number of actions organisations can take to start closing this gap.

Firstly, they must conduct detailed skills mapping at a technical level, assessing the specific skill levels of their employees and comparing them with what is required by the organisation to support digital transformation. This needs to be the priority for L&D professionals. Educating themselves in the latest technology trends and working with the right business partner is essential to success. L&D professionals need to maintain an open mind, and also assess aptitude and attitude to learn as much as possible about staff’s pre-existing tech knowledge and skills.

Talent will be the determining factor of success in a digital transformation

The second step is to recognise shortcomings in the quantity of staff available. The ability to foresee capacity issues in specific areas, such as cybersecurity or data engineers, requires a clear understanding of both the business needs and timeframes involved for programmes of all sizes across the organisation.

The third area to consider relates to widening the talent pool. With everybody looking for more tech talent, organisations can’t keep recruiting from the same talent pools with the traditional qualifications and recruitment process. Instead, they need to look proactively into new pools of talent. Relaxing the constraint of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degree, or comparable academic and technical qualifications, as a requirement is one way of increasing the number of potential candidates. This approach also supports greater diversity in recruiting, helping to increase BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and female representation in the tech workforce.

Targeted selection

Taking this a step further, it’s also possible to select candidates using assessments and algorithms, which look beyond background and education to get to the underlying attitude and aptitude that matters. This is the approach we take at QA when recruiting for digital bootcamps, an intensive 12-week training programme, which transforms participants from a complete novice into ready-to-go junior-level talent

These can take people who may not have a tech background and in a short period of time, usually three months, help them become work-ready in a tech job, such as software development or robotic process automation. This allows firms to assess individuals on their attitude and aptitude to learn new skills, rather than existing knowledge, and gets them to a point where they are productive quickly.

Another route is tech apprenticeships. These are longer programmes than bootcamps, but take those who have taken alternate paths into employment, potentially from a more socially diverse background, and build up their skills over a period of 12 to 24 months.

At the same time, organisations need to reskill staff that no longer have roles. In 2013, AT&T reinvented itself as a digital business and reskilled more than 100,000 employees to create that tech talent. We’ve recently worked with Nationwide, taking those from areas where there is now less demand and moving them into tech positions. Not only does this approach reduce the need for redundancies, it is also much more reliable because these individuals have already worked for, and are known by, the organisation. It means they can inject new skills without necessarily changing people.

Here, firms must take a rigorous approach to skills assessment, using an L&D platform to help managers identify skills and monitor development. This not only supports skills development, but also helps L&D teams to demonstrate tangible results of the reskilling programmes put in place.

Finally, HR and L&D professionals must lead discussions at a strategic level. It can take six months to make a successful hire and 18 months before they reach peak productivity, so taking a long-term view is essential. If tech talent is integral to the future success of the organisation, and let’s face it, there are few organisations where it is not, those leading the process need to be looking at a three to five-year horizon.

In a world digitalising fast, most organisations change too late and too slowly. So now is the time to act. Talent will be the determining factor of success in a digital transformation and, as is hopefully now clear, there are a myriad of ways for HR professionals to broaden the skills of the organisation and bring diversity to their talent pipelines.

However, don’t try to do too much. Capacity is scarce and, as any good strategist will tell you, a successful strategy is as much about what you don’t pursue as what you do. So line up talent initiatives with the organisation’s big bets, then make big moves to support it. Those moves will support true transformation of talent and position the organisation to emerge stronger from the 2020 pandemic.

QA is the UK’s largest tech skills and talent provider. It works with organisations to help identify skills requirements and develop the talent needed to emerge stronger. In the last year, it has trained more than 293,000 individuals and served more than 5,000 corporate clients. To find out more please visit

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