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Upskilling the workforce: The new Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Harnessing upskilling to navigate the evolving landscape of corporate social responsibility.

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Technology and automation are changing the job landscape faster than ever.
Technology will be a key player in enhancing upskilling efforts.
Partnerships can play a crucial role in implementing effective upskilling initiatives.

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Remember the days when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was all about planting trees and donating to charities? Well, times have changed, and so has the definition of CSR.

Gone are the days when a company could plant a tree, pat itself on the back, and call it a day. Now, CSR is about integrating social, environmental, and economic concerns into a company’s activities. And with the rise of AI, one area predicted to trend this year is workforce development and investing in future employability.

What’s upskilling and why should you care?

Upskilling is like giving your employees a software update – but instead of software, it’s their skills, and instead of your IT department, it’s your human capital. It’s about teaching your workforce new skills or enhancing their existing ones to keep up with the ever-changing job market. Think of it as preparing them not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs of tomorrow.

The world is changing, and so are jobs

Technology and automation are changing the job landscape faster than ever. If we don’t keep up, the grim reality is that we might find ourselves out of a job.

And despite 2023 layoffs, the skill gap is real, both globally and locally. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs Report, 44% of worker’s skills will be disrupted in the next five years and a staggering 1.1 billion jobs are liable to be radically transformed by tech in the next decade.

“There is a great danger [sic], we will have a whole society that is disadvantaged. We must work together as business leaders, as policymakers, as governments to solve for that,” Peter Brown, PwC and WEF Agenda Contributor.

Anyone waiting for the education sector to solve this problem is going to be disappointed.

Integrating employee development into CSR is like hitting three birds with one stone. It’s about aligning the growth of your employees with your company’s strategy as well as its commitment to social responsibility.

Business benefits of upskilling

When employees learn new skills, they don’t just get better at their jobs; they feel valued and engaged. It’s like telling them, “You matter to us, and not just because you make us money.” This leads to increased loyalty and reduces the chances of them swiping right on other job opportunities.

A company that proudly invests in its employees’ growth can also stand out in the eyes of its customers and the public. It’s like wearing a neon sign that says, “We care, and we show it.” This can significantly boost your company’s reputation and brand value. After all, who doesn’t like a company that’s as committed to its people as it is to its profit margins?

A company that proudly invests in its employees’ growth can also stand out in the eyes of its customers and the public.

It also benefits both employees and businesses from an economic perspective. Imagine you’re a developer at a company. Through upskilling, you enhance your expertise in AWS technologies. The result? You’re now more equipped to handle complex projects, contribute to innovative solutions, and drive your company’s tech-forward. But here’s the kicker: as an upskilled AWS developer, your market value and future employability skyrockets.

On the flip side, companies that fail to invest in employee upskilling may find themselves having to fire and rehire to acquire the skills they need.

I recently met the CEO of a large company part way through a massive digital transformation faced with the very real prospect of having to do just that. Until now, her IT team had been experts in their incumbent tech. If she lays the team off, their skills are 10+ years out of date and they’d struggle to find equivalent roles. She realises she’s played a role in the erosion of her employee’s skills and damaged their future employability. It doesn’t feel good.

Case studies

Let’s take a page out of the books of those who’ve done it right. Several companies have already successfully integrated upskilling into their CSR strategies. For instance, in Australia, NAB (a large bank) launched a program to train 500 women AWS skills as part of their commitment to encourage more women into careers in tech.

The founder of the Atlantic newspaper in the US wrote an open letter to staff encouraging them to learn about and embrace artificial intelligence, despite the inherent threat to writers.

And Ikea provided a master class in upskilling, by turning 8,500 call centre reps into interior designers. Not only did they boost sales by an estimated EUR1.4bn, they also demonstrated their commitment to lifelong learning and the future employability of their workforce.

Where to begin?

Integrating upskilling into your CSR strategy might seem daunting but to take it back to “old” CSR, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.

Start by identifying the skill gaps in your workforce and the areas where training would be most beneficial.  For example, is there an area of your business likely to grow or undergo change? Are there parts of your workforce that are vulnerable to the impact of automation? Or perhaps this can be incorporated as part of an existing DEI agenda, in line with what NAB achieved.

A willing senior stakeholder is also a must.

And there’s a decent chance your workforce might resist, especially if your company doesn’t create the time, space and emphasis on learning and skills. There’s also little point in upskilling unless you’re also willing to let employees test drive their new capabilities either via projects or in new roles.

To counteract this, engage your workforce in the process – you’d likely be amazed at all the informal “upskilling” likely going on unnoticed that could scale with little effort. It could be as easy as mentoring or simple lunch and learn sessions (with the added benefit of decentralising learning rather than relying on the L&D team to drive it all). Be sure to highlight success stories, like promotions, innovation or new client wins that will no doubt result from your efforts. If employees are clear on what’s in it for them, your chances of success increase significantly.

Partnerships can play a crucial role in implementing effective upskilling initiatives. Collaborate with training providers, vendors, or even other businesses. Google, AWS, IBM, Adobe and Meta all offer amazing FREE learning content. There are also government grants available if cost is a concern.

How do you measure the impact of upskilling? It’s not always about numbers and graphs. Sometimes, it’s about the qualitative changes – like improved employee morale or enhanced company reputation. Still, having some solid ROI figures can be handy, especially during board meetings. Refer to the above AWS example for your business-case.

Upskilling isn’t just the smart thing to be doing to prepare your workforce for what’s to come, it’s also the right thing to do.

The role of tech

Technology will be a key player in enhancing upskilling efforts. From online learning platforms, automated employee skill-mapping to AI assistants, the possibilities are almost infinite.

Employee skills mapping technology: This innovative technology helps companies visualise their workforce’s skills and identify gaps (and some can even infer skills without any employee interaction). By mapping out existing skills and comparing them to future needs, organisations can strategically plan, prioritise and monitor their upskilling initiatives without running blind.

E-Learning platforms: From MOOCs to LXPs, these digital platforms transform traditional learning methods, offering a diverse array of courses accessible anywhere, anytime. You can also use tools like HowToo to create your own content.

Internal talent marketplaces: These are like matchmaking services for your employees’ skills and company projects. By leveraging platforms like GoFIGR, companies can identify internal candidates for new roles or projects, based on their skills and career aspirations. This not only aids in employee development but also ensures internal talent is utilised effectively.

AI-Powered personalisation: By harnessing AI, the learning experience can be tailored to individual employee’s needs or even act as your own personal virtual assistant. Microsoft Copilot is probably the largest and best known in this category, but take a look at the Ikea case study too.

The future of CSR is likely to see upskilling playing an even more significant role. As technology evolves, so will the need for new skills. The truly socially-responsible businesses know they have an important role to play in ensuring the relevance and employability of their workforce and it’s not just byline in an annual report.

Upskilling isn’t just the smart thing to be doing to prepare your workforce for what’s to come, it’s also the right thing to do.

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