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Top Risks: Fighting the Upskill Battle

By Samantha Beavers

Whether it’s to buckle down on cybersecurity or chase after sustainability and innovation, organizations around the world are turning to the latest tools and technologies. And while many of them offer great promise, they also present a unique challenge: how do employees keep up?

It’s a question that organizational leaders are increasingly asking. That’s why, in a survey conducted by Protiviti and NC State University, 1,453 C-suite executives and board members identified “adoption of digital technologies requires significant efforts to upskill/reskill existing employees” as a top risk – for both now and the future.

“I don’t think there’s any company that isn’t focused on improving technology right now,” explains Garrett Petraia, chief security officer and vice president of global security and resilience at Levi Strauss & Co and member of NC State’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Initiative Advisory Board. “Even if they’re not in a technology-related field, most are realizing that they have to embrace new tools and technologies in order to survive and compete.”

With the current speed of change, it will be impossible for businesses to dodge the upskilling challenge or even control it, Petraia says. What they can do, though, is build resilience by creating risk themes, planning for the future, focusing on their strategic objectives and fostering environments of intellectual curiosity.

Putting it into context 

Notably, the upskilling challenge overlaps with other people and culture-related risks identified in the survey – including succession challenges and shifting expectations around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. 

“Upskilling and reskilling intersect a lot with DEI, as they can provide new and potentially nontraditional career pathways for many people. As companies diversify the experience and skill sets they’re looking for in their employees and in specific roles, that can really help accelerate DEI initiatives,” Petraia explains. 

Additionally, companies focused on acquiring and retaining the right people are increasingly embracing hybrid work models, which requires them to bring their technologies – and their employees – up-to-date.

“Companies not only need the right people, but the right tools to access and equip those people. They need technology that enables their work, maximizes their productivity, protects sensitive data and prevents cyberattacks on home networks,” Petraia says. “But in upgrading these technologies, companies have to upskill and reskill employees to use these digital tools.”

Beyond people and talent concerns, companies across various sectors are being pressed to adopt new technologies in order to mitigate against other long-term risk concerns. Two big ones identified by leaders in the Protiviti survey include “rapid speed of disruptive innovation outpaces our ability to compete” and “entrance of new competitors and other industry changes threaten market share.”

Accordingly, companies are pursuing a host of new tools to drive innovation, keep up with competitors and defend their market position. These run the gamut from automation and analytics tools to enable data-driven decision-making and consumer-facing technologies like mobile apps and frictionless payment.

Connecting the dots

In that sense, upskilling and reskilling employees involves more than making sure employees are familiar and comfortable with new tools. More so, it’s a matter of making financial investments in new technologies worthwhile. Employees not only need to know how to use these technologies – but how to get value out of them.

“A few years ago, most employees were expected to be conversant, but not necessarily fluent, with various technologies. That’s changing now. Regardless of what your primary accountability is – whether it’s technology or security or HR or finance – employees are expected to have a level of fluency,” Petraia says. 

Because of the overlapping nature of these risk concerns, a lot is at stake – and businesses working to bring employees up to speed must keep this in mind in order to manage their risk effectively. 

“In today’s world, there are very few risks that are separate from other risks – if you take a look at the risk maps in the World Economic Forum’s annual risk report, for example, you’ll see this very clearly. Everything is interconnected,” Petraia explains. “Upskilling is no exception. How businesses manage this risk will also have knock-on effects for their talent and innovation risks – which is why they’re best treated as a bundle.”

By bucketing these risk concerns into themes, organizations can manage their risk in a way that saves time, maximizes their resources and creates new opportunities rather than new challenges. 

Playing the long game

In addition to managing the upskilling challenge in tandem with other risks, organizations must maintain a long-term approach. Because upskilling often emphasizes bringing employees up to speed, this can be a challenge. Organizations that look further down the line, however, will make a bigger impact.

For many organizations, this means thinking outside the box – or breaking down existing boxes entirely. Rather than depending on old job descriptions and responsibilities to determine what skills they need to develop, they’ll need to think creatively about the future.

“It’s not that useful to focus on what you’ve leveraged for the last 10 years, because what got you to where you are now may not be what gets you where you want to go. You can be informed by what you’ve done and seen before, but you can’t rely on it,” Petraia says.

“You have to look ahead and start thinking about what’s needed most for the next five to 10 years. Then, you can start reimagining your teams and the skills they’ll need to be successful moving forward. You might realize that you need your team members to bring something different than you may have thought about before,” he continues.

Maintaining a long-term approach not only helps organizations understand what skills they need to develop – it also helps them build organizational resilience. And in a competitive global marketplace where so much can happen so fast, this is crucial. 

“Though a lot of what companies face is outside their span of control, at least in terms of prevention, building resilience is something they can control. So it’s important for leaders to look down the road, imagine some potential scenarios and create resilience around the disruptions those scenarios could cause,” Petraia says. 

Putting strategy first

To be truly future-focused, organizations must also be careful to let their strategic objectives drive their decisions.

“Smart companies look at their strategies first and their risks second. So rather than starting with their perceived skills gaps, companies should start by considering their macro-level goals and then drilling these down to functional goals and team goals. Then, they can best determine which skills gaps will impede them from achieving those goals,” Petraia says.

A cutting-edge skill may feel monumental at first, but when held up against a company’s long-term goals, it may diminish in importance. Plus, companies fixated on filling a gap rather than meeting a strategy are more likely to put all their eggs in one basket. And with technology accelerating every day, that’s too dangerous.

That’s why the upskilling challenge isn’t best managed with quick fixes and short-term solutions, but with a commitment to take the right steps at the right time – with the company’s strategic goals and long-term success in mind.

This requires leaders to take a long, hard look at their strategies, industries and competitors. What skills are necessary for meeting their objectives? Which are important to develop in order to avoid becoming obsolete? Who should have them? And what can wait?

Creating a culture

Finally, companies must be intentional about instilling a culture of continuous learning within the organization.

“What companies most need are lifelong learners who are agile enough to navigate a shifting technological landscape,” Petraia says. “If they want to be successful in the future, they need to prioritize building resilience and cultivating a growth mindset – at both the individual and entity levels.”

When it comes to upskilling and reskilling, then, there’s obligation on both sides. Companies must carve out time and devote resources to upskilling their teams for the future – whether through in-house bootcamps, online educational experiences or university programs. At the same time, employees bear a responsibility to develop the technical skills needed to succeed in their chosen fields.

“Being a lifelong learner is such a critical part of navigating today’s workforce, and so employees also have a role to play in seeking out new experiences and skills. What can you do to get better? What skills do you need? Where can you get them? These are the questions employees should be asking,” Petraia says.

“What companies can do is create a culture of intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning that leads their employees to ask them. And moving forward, I think that’s a key part of how they manage this risk.”

This post was originally published in Master of Management Risk & Analytics.