Why upskilling is critical to digital transformation

Meeting the challenges of the future of work requires a new attitude to workplace learning. So how can organisations develop programmes to meet the digital requirements of the post-Covid era?


One of the great challenges for businesses over recent years has been the impact of digitisation on the world of work. Whether the automation of processes on production lines, artificial intelligence and chatbots in customer service or continued innovations in technology, digital transformation is accelerating and a key priority for the C-suite.

And with good reason. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete by 2025 due to the impact of technology, with a further 97 million new roles set to be created. Just four years from now, the time taken by humans and machines to complete current work tasks will be roughly equal. To meet this challenge, 84% of the employers surveyed by the World Economic Forum were already digitising their working practices back in 2020. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated this process. As employees moved remote and customers bought online, organisations were forced to rapidly adapt processes they were previously reluctant to. 

Digital acceleration

A 2020 survey of 899 executives by McKinsey found that the digitisation of customer interactions and internal operations by organisations had accelerated by an average of three to four years since the start of the pandemic. The share of digital or digitally-enabled products in their portfolios had accelerated by a staggering seven years. 

So how are organisations meeting the skills needs of this new digital world? And how are they ensuring their existing talent pools are prepared for the upcoming challenges?

“Broadly speaking, there are two main responses, with a large middle ground. There are organisations that haven’t prepared for digital transformation and are trying to find talent in a panicked, kneejerk way. They’re going to market and spending a lot of money on people in other roles who have the experience they need. Their view is that they have a problem, so they need to go and buy a set of new talent to deal with it,” says Stuart Mills, vice president Trailhead & Ecosystem EMEA at Salesforce. 

“At the other end of the spectrum are those organisations that had a good idea about digital transformation pre-pandemic. They are acting quickly and are agile in how they pivot, realising that with technology changing so fast, experience can mean lots of different things. Why go for a hire with 10 years’ experience when the technology is already 30 times different from then?”

Instead, advanced organisations have decided that training their people to learn and adapt in this new digital world is the way to go. This can mean skills development for talent already working in digital roles, alongside reskilling employees from other areas into technology. Doing so allows companies to focus hiring on particular gaps in knowledge, rather than wholesale changes, says Mills.

“Upskilling allows you to see hiring in a different context, in that you don’t overdo it and expect too much from new hires. You’re already looking under the hood of the skills you need,” he adds. 

Developing a growth mindset

Creating an environment where employees are able to learn requires a mindset shift. Much of the previous century was about building efficiency into working practices, reducing waste and managing employees’ schedules. 

This reduced the space and time for employees to learn new skills and to think creatively about the future skills they might need. Dealing with the challenges of a digital, post-Covid future requires leaders to break out of efficiency and develop a growth mindset, which is a willingness to embrace change and develop. Employees need the space to learn.

Secondly, leaders need to think about how their people want to learn and how to make training as widely accessible as possible. 

Mills gives the example of Trailhead, Salesforce’s online training platform to empower anyone to skill up for the jobs of today and the future. It includes online tutorials for beginner and intermediate learners who need to design, code for, use and administer the Salesforce programme, alongside partnerships with leading education providers.

“As skills move on so quickly, you need to break things down into bitesize content that people can get excited about. We simplify things and get people to want to continue learning,” he says. 

“There also needs to be reward, which is where things like micro-courses and micro-credentials come in. Gamification is built into the Trailhead platform, which allows learners to gain badges for milestones reached.”

Finally, the role of a teacher or guide can’t be discounted. Learning needs to be curated, not just consumed.

“We have a platform with thousands of pieces of content, badges and more. You could just do it all by yourself, but the reality is that learners go through phases of learning and need to be guided,” says Mills. 

“All learning requires a hybrid or blended approach. Social learning and guided learning, where a professor or teacher pushes you and guides you through the content in a shared experience is very important. 

“You can do a lot of learning at home, but arguably you want to have that creative, social element to learning too. The good news is that this fits with the hybrid future of work, where we’ll alternate between remote and in-person working,” adds Mills. 

Building a learning culture

Creating an environment where employees are both motivated to learn new skills and provided the space to do so takes time, but Mills has some key starting points for organisations looking to do so. 

“Firstly, remember the purpose of your organisation. Refresh and think about that from a stakeholder perspective, rather than a shareholder one. From a learning perspective, build agility and resilience above all, as they’re key to success in an uncertain world,” he says. 

Next, think about the needs of your people and make your learning offering as widely available as possible. 

“Some people are natural lifelong learners, while others stopped at school and the idea of learning new things is hard. Be aware of the need to have different approaches.

“Only then think about your focus, as this will evolve as you go through the reorganisation. If you don’t do purpose and culture first, you’ll end up back on the road to efficiency. Most of all, make learning exciting again.”

Covid-19 has rapidly accelerated the impact of digitisation on the future of work. To meet this challenge, organisations need to foster a culture of lifelong learning and skills development in their people, creating the time and space for them to learn. Doing so is the key to thriving in our new working paradigm.

To find out how Salesforce is powering the workforce of tomorrow, visit trailhead.salesforce.com.