By | Abhijit Bhaduri |Keynote speaker, Author and Columnist
We need to celebrate the self-taught learner, who can be as good as the best formally-trained employee
I was consulting with one of the major automotive giants. The frequent changes in the competitive environment were making it harder for them to retain their prime spot. The government had introduced new regulatory standards for emission with a deadline that loomed large. This could have a huge impact on the annual profits as well as create an adverse impact on the next year’s balance sheet.
Electric vehicles were going to become a rapidly growing share of the business. Mechanical engineers had formed the majority of their engineering talent pool. Electric Vehicles would need a different engineering skill set. The factories would need to undertake a massive re-skilling effort at the shop floor and the supply chain. The sales team would need to be re-oriented. They would need to re-skill even the dealers and distributors. The marketing team would need to re-imagine the brand.
Your organisation is probably facing the same challenges — competition that is more nimble and agile; start-ups that are born digital; lack of skilled talent, etc. You are no different from anyone in your peer group. Your approach to re-skilling the organisation must be understood for the new context.
Re-skilling the corporation has to become a board agenda. Re-skilling is the entry ticket to stay competitive. What makes it hard in the digital world is that competition does not come from the peer group alone. Automobile manufacturers have to compete with Waymo’s autonomous vehicles and the electric vehicles being built by Dyson, the UK-based company, best known for its vacuum cleaners. Competition is now boundaryless. Skill building has to change from a periodic event to an ongoing model.
Content does not build skill
Several leaders are dismayed that while they have invested in making content available, there is no visible shift in the proficiency level of the employees. Access to abundant content does not help re-skill. Having access to a library of books does not mean that someone will emerge well-informed. Too much of content overwhelms. Content is available in abundance. There are several providers who use a Netflix-like system to automatically curate a steady stream of content. That needs the leaders to be the alchemist who can turn content into skills.
There are three steps for the leader to address:
- Identify a business problem that is already a part of the employee’s daily role. The content must form the additional knowledge necessary to solve the problem.
- Create a cross-functional cohort of peers to work on the problem with the help of the new knowledge. Learning is a social process. By encouraging the cohort to learn by teaching each other, the organisation is building the capability to scale up skill dissemination across the organisation.
- The manager serves as a coach for the cohort who helps them implement a solution that leverages the new knowledge. The manager helps the cohort to refine their solution continuously. Skills are built over time. Refining a solution is a powerful way to embed the skill deeply.
Learn from the musicians
Many of the performing arts follow the learning model that is perfect for adoption by corporates. The novice works with a guru who not only teaches the skill but also provides context based on conversations and reflections. Once the students achieve a certain proficiency and perfection in the performing art, they are expected to be able to improvise based on the existing rules and add to the body of knowledge by creating a new instrument or singing style or a new raga. When the person starts teaching other disciples, the musician or artist is given the honorary title of Ustad or Pandit .
The manager as a skill builder
If re-skilling is not done on a continuous basis, employees will keep solving problems the way they have always done. The role of the manager is to help them stay curious.
- That happens when the managers can turn issues into questions. “What will make the customer pay a premium for our product or service?” and letting the cohorts do their own research to find options and ideas is a good way to keep them curious
- Build time during the workday to read and update skills.
- Managers must become role-models for updating their own skills. Letting a less experienced employee teach them a skill helps everyone else add to their knowledge and skills.
Eklavya was a mythological character in the Mahabharata. He was a commoner who was denied the opportunity to learn archery from Dronacharya — the royal teacher. The unfazed Eklavya went back to the forest and built a statue of the guru and began practising archery. The self-taught archer became as skilled as the princes who were being taught by the master.
Upon discovering that the skilled archer was as good as Arjuna, his best student, the guru asked Eklavya to offer his thumb as guru-dakshina, knowing that would render him useless as an archer. That ensured no commoner would be better at archery than the prince.
Even today, the highest award given by the Indian government to a sports coach is called the Dronacharya Award. Since 1961, the government gives the Arjuna Award to outstanding achievers in sports. We now need to celebrate Eklavyas who can create several Dronacharyas. That gives us the opportunity to build a new kind of superhero.
Written for Business Line newspaper dated 25 April 2019
Read my previous column on how technology is reshaping work <click here>
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