9 Best Practices for Upskilling the Workforce

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9 Best Practices for Upskilling the Workforce

The pandemic, combined with the global skills shortage, has pushed upskilling toward the top of HR’s concerns. According to a McKinsey survey, 69% of respondents want to build more skills than they did two years earlier. This concerns skills such as leadership, critical thinking, digital skills, and quantitative skills.

McKinsey suggested nine best practices for upskilling the workforce and then tracked organizations that applied them. Those that implemented all nine were two and a half times more successful compared to organizations that were unsuccessful at implementing at least one practice. These practices are:

  1. Assessing the need of the workforce
  2. Determine the current supply and level of employee skills
  3. Analyzing the skills gap
  4. Designing tailored learning journeys
  5. Designing a learning portfolio of learning interventions
  6. Deciding on learning technology
  7. Launching a skilling hub
  8. Delivering skill transformation at scale
  9. Implementing dynamic tracking of impact

Here’s our perspective of these nine best practices. As a practical process, these nine steps need to be implemented so they can enhance skill development within your workforce.

1. Determine the need of the workforce

All upskilling journeys start with a demand for skills that will help the business advance. Triggers include changes in strategic focus, the implementation of new technology, or external disrupters like a pandemic. Adapting to these changes often requires new skills.

A large multinational retail company that we’ve worked with quickly grew its presence through multiple acquisitions and mergers. To professionalize HR, all HR business partners (HRBPs) needed to operate at the same, strategic level. This required skills such as business acumen, but also the ability to communicate with data, apply design thinking to develop customer-centric solutions, and leverage storytelling to create impact.

These skills were identified through interviews with senior leadership and HR managers. The result was a clear role description of the HRBP as well as a list of skills and behaviors required to be proficient in the role.

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2. Assess the current level of employee skills 

The second step is to determine the current level of employee skills. The skills identified in the first step serve as inputs for this assessment. Relevant populations are assessed on their current skill level. This can happen through individual assessment, interviews, or interviews with team managers.

The retail company mentioned earlier found a significant difference in how the HRBP role had evolved in the different subsidiaries. An HRBP in one part of the company could have a much more strategic role and had a different skill set than in another part of the organization. 

Determining the current proficiency level was done by mapping current behaviors of the different groups of HRBPs based on an HR competency framework. With this, the organization was able to analyze the skills gap.

3. Analyzing the skills gap

The skills gap is the difference between the current and the desired skill level. All following steps in the process are aimed at resolving this gap. Part of analyzing the skills gap is the creation of a business case as not all skill gaps are equal. Skill gaps that cause disruption or fail to create the desired value have to be addressed.

For the retail organization mentioned earlier, inconsistencies in skills and roles inhibited business performance. Skilled HRBPs were strategic partners that helped drive the business. However, HRBPs with lower skill levels often took a much more operational role and failed to create strategic impact. This was not only a missed opportunity for value creation, it also affected HR’s reputation within the organization.

We also see alternative skills gaps. HR professionals working in shared services often lack an understanding of digital HR. As a result, they fail to spot opportunities for automation, which can lead to process improvements and cost reductions. Professionals working in an HR center of excellence (COE) may benefit from design thinking because it will help them draft more customer-centric HR solutions, which in turn, will drive adoption and impact of HR policies.

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4. Designing tailored learning journeys

Different individuals have different learning needs and effective interventions offer a tailored learning experience. Oftentimes, these learning journeys are created per role or persona. A senior HR business partner will receive more advanced training compared to an entry-level HR generalist, and an HR specialist’s training will focus more on their functional specialization.

It is not unusual to train everyone on a number of core skills before providing room to specialize. Consider the T-shaped HR professional. This individual has a broad set of core skills (the horizontal part of the “T”) while specializing in functional competencies (the vertical part of the “T”). Based on this model, everyone in HR requires a minimum understanding of data and the business. But depending on their role, some should develop a more advanced proficiency level.

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5. Designing a learning portfolio of learning interventions

Learning is multifaceted. It may consist of online courses, blended group sessions, practical challenges, assignments, evaluations, and other learning initiatives. This means that you will have to go beyond the usual learning program to create a portfolio of interventions that build knowledge and skills, and nudge the employee into the behavioral change needed for the training to be successful.

One company implemented a number of offline events next to an online training program. During these events, employees would present projects and initiatives derived from the learning. This was not only an exercise to apply what was learned but the best projects were also approved and later implemented, which further reinforced the learning while creating value for the organization.

6. Deciding on learning technology

Learning technology, such as learning management systems, is also a key success factor in employee learning. A great system encourages learning, allowing learners to practice skills in a virtual environment, and helps build a sense of community. Weak systems, however, are not user-friendly and leave learners disengaged. That’s why choosing the right technology will greatly enhance your upskilling impact.

The retail company mentioned earlier decided to host its learners on our AIHR platform because of its active HR community with peers. This motivated learners to engage with others and come back to learn more. The CHRO who was actively involved, also actively posted in the community and commented on lessons, which helped to further boost engagement. 

7. Launching a skilling hub

Traditional upskill projects are passé. Successful professionals continuously educate themselves to become better and more competent over time. IBM puts the half-life of skills at about five years, meaning that it only takes five years for half of your knowledge to be outdated. The half-life of more technical skills is put at two and a half years.

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The only way to counter this constant inflation is to push for continuous education. The most successful organizations launch skilling hubs that are dedicated to providing learning and push employees to continuously educate themselves. This means that upskilling becomes a continuous process rather than a one-time project.

8. Delivering skill transformation at scale

The delivery of the transformation at scale is arguably the hardest part. It may be easy to train a few local business partners in a classroom setting but for large multinational organizations, it will be much harder to deliver the same quality of training on a global scale. That’s why for large organizations upskill programs need to be carefully planned and timed.

Best practices include structuring the upskilling program, the creation of a widely communicated timeline, and organizing a centralized kick-off. All of these activities help to align everyone in the organization and work towards a common learning goal.

A key asset of the delivery of upskilling at scale is the learning technology that was selected earlier. Being able to learn anywhere and at any time while also having the opportunity to ask questions and have them answered quickly are key to learning success. Other best practices include connecting learners through an online learner community, adequate technical support, and a well-designed online learning program that helps to build skills.

9. Implementing dynamic tracking of impact

Peter Drucker famously said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. The changes in the workforce and impact of your upskilling initiatives can be actively measured in multiple ways. Our retail company measured impact through a pre- and post-assessment and by measuring the number of spin-off projects from training exercises. 

Other interventions include evaluating post-training manager ratings or measuring objective performance outcomes. This topic is extensively covered in our article about training evaluation.


All nine practices offer a clear, effective, and understandable process for upskilling – whether it is in HR or the broader business space. When these practices are implemented successfully, your upskilling effort will be up to 2.5 times more effective. 

In the end, any upskilling process aims to create impact and not waste resources while failing to achieve its objectives. So, if you are considering upskilling your workforce, take the time to plan the effort and apply each of these nine best practices.

For more information about how to build competencies in HR, check our HR competency framework.

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