Leveraging technology to up skill the workforce

All businesses face the need to harness new technologies for improved performance. It can be challenging but technology-enabled training and learning is one area that businesses should look at early on: it can build employee motivation and deliver tangible results.

Written by: Jim Rogers, Thames Valley and Southampton Practice Lead, Grant Thornton UK LLP

The Thames Valley is widely recognised as a growing hub for tech development, with many exciting and innovative businesses investing in next generation products and services.

I was delighted to see two Reading businesses make it into the Megabuyte Emerging Stars List this year, recognising emerging tech companies for outstanding performance. Cloud software provider for recruitment, Invenias, featured highly. Securecloud+, who specialise in securely managed ICT services within Defence and the Public Sector, also made the list and won the ‘Fastest Growing Company’ award, which Grant Thornton sponsored.

We have a thriving marketplace for technology innovation, and this year’s Thames Valley Chambers of Commerce International Technology Conference, held recently at Microsoft’s UK head office in Reading, showcased yet more of the pioneering activity going on in our region.

But how far does this tech sophistication reach through the rank and file businesses that make up the backbone of our local economy?

The signs are that many companies still have some way to go. In an extensive piece of research that Grant Thornton recently published, Planning for Growth, we found clear signs of a ‘tech crunch’. Businesses are well aware of the importance of technology as a potential accelerator of growth – but at the same time it is a barrier for many as well. In fact, a higher proportion of businesses in the South East see it as a significant barrier (47%) than as an accelerator (34%). However, on the positive side, over half of South East respondents are broadly confident that they can overcome this barrier.

Clearly, integrating new technology into the business whether that be information management systems, cloud services or digital channels and mobile apps, is not straightforward and requires investment, planning and resource.

However, one area that businesses may be able to act on quickly, and that does not need to involve higher capital outlay than before, is the delivery of skills training through technology solutions.

We all know that the UK has a productivity issue and the upskilling of the workforce could play a significant role in addressing it. But what can hold businesses back is the time and expense involved in the organisation and running of traditional ‘chalk and talk’ training sessions for staff. These will often be off-site, requiring travel time that compounds the disruption to work schedules and sometimes accommodation costs too.

Face-to-face training will always have an important place in skills development – in some instances, there is no substitute for direct human interaction. But at the same time, increasing numbers of businesses are exploring eLearning solutions, as standalone activity or as part of a more ‘blended’ approach that combines digital training with classroom elements. In a report that we recently published, Skills in the New World, we gathered the views of an expert panel of training providers to assess these trends.

Innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), simulation and gamification are changing the way the world learns. This allows greater access to high quality skills training and increases companies’ return on training investment to help create a more diverse and productive workforce.

Intense competition in the training provider sector means that companies have the buying power and the potential to negotiate attractive rates.

Meanwhile, investor interest in the online skills sector indicates that it is an industry with strong growth prospects. CVC Capital Partners, for example, recently acquired one of the UK’s largest IT training providers, QA Limited, from Bregal Capital in a £700 million deal.

One clear consensus amongst our expert panel was that in today’s workforce – especially with the influx of millennials coming through – the move to a more technology-driven environment for training delivery actually works better. In fact, according to one piece of research, 70% of employees are motivated to learn more through mobile learning. There is also a growing expectation that training and learning will be a continuous process through a career rather than an occasional, discrete event – 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.

Consider also that, globally, 35 million people are already signed up to MOOCs (massive open online courses) that allow unlimited numbers of users to take part in open-source sessions at no cost.

Quite simply, eLearning solutions fit with our times and for many employees will be more productive than an old-fashioned formal classroom event. Social learning for example has become an impactful way of upskilling. Social technologies allow learners to develop their skills by participating in online discussions and presentations focused on their personal interests and activities. And this has a demonstrable impact on learner engagement and performance.

Meanwhile, gamification is now widely accepted as one of the keys to making learning more effective and engaging: 80% of learners say they would be more productive if learning was more game-like.

In the challenging market conditions facing businesses today, organisations need to review their learning and development strategies and ensure they are driving productivity and delivering return on investment. If your programmes are not achieving this – do you need to increase your focus on taking a tech-enabled approach?

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