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Higher Education May Be the Answer to Bridge the HR Digital Skills Gap

October 15, 2020 Learning and Development
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

When HR focuses on skills gaps, they usually are thinking about employees. This should be no surprise: The skills gap has been a persistent problem for employees and employers. In the context of the pandemic, it is even more severe. Some early studies out of the University of Chicago suggest that more than 40% of COVID-induced layoffs may be permanent

While governments, educators and private enterprises have tried to solve the skills gap riddle, including this year’s poorly timed Find Something New campaign, there may be one surprising place for HR people to start: themselves.

HR Leaders Have Left Themselves Behind

While there have been HR conference sessions on upskilling employees since I started my career nearly two decades ago, very little has been studied about the skills HR professionals must possess to be future-ready workforce leaders. 

One of the largest studies on the subject should be worrying to the people largely responsible for navigating an organization’s people through digital transformation. 

DDI, The Conference Board and EY’s Global Leadership Forecast is nearly two years old at this point but it still offers a bleak picture of the digital skills gap that exists in HR. The survey is enormous, gauging the viewpoints and experience of more than 27,000 business leaders across the world. 

The data shows that, on average, HR leaders lag far behind other professionals when it comes to operating in a highly digital environment. Just 11% of business leaders trust HR to use data to anticipate and help them fill their talent needs, a decrease by nearly half of the 20% that believed the same thing in 2015. Specifically, some of the key authors, writing about the survey in the Harvard Business Review, found HR data skills in particular need honing, but that a full digital skill set was often lacking. 

Call it a case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot, but the study also makes it clear that HR professionals who leverage advanced analytics are more than six times more likely to have upward mobility in their organizations. 

The message is clear for HR leaders who feel behind: It’s time to get your skills right, both for your own good and your organization. But there may be a path forward that could help both. 

Related Article: Digital Transformation Came for HR. Where Do We Go Now?

Traditional Learning Is Limited

Many organizations look to traditional corporate learning programs to fill key knowledge gaps. And whether it’s an HR analytics MOOC offered by Wharton through Coursera or one from Mannheim Business School through openSAP, there are a number of short course options if you already have broad familiarity with some of the foundational data and digital skills. 

These seem like fine courses with high ratings from attendees. But we have to admit that, like with many of our employees, these aren’t a perfect fit for every learner.

In many cases, the digital skills gap in HR is far too wide to be supplemented by short courses which do little to connect larger, thematic changes happening in the broader world of HR. They also don’t capture the macro-changes happening in the business world and the evolving expectations of a modern HR leader. 

A Higher Calling

What can bring that full context into view? Higher education, which immerses itself in big thinking and contextualized curriculum that gives students a full view of the opportunities and challenges ahead of them. 

Of course, a consistent criticism of higher education over the past decade is that institutions are themselves falling further behind in preparing students for careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, just a third of students expect to graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the workplace. 

In short, higher education and HR leadership find themselves in a similar position. A partnership between the two could be the key to helping both succeed.

In research released this summer, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) surveyed HR leaders with decision-making authority over recruiting, training and education benefits along with in-depth interviews with higher education professionals. 

Their primary finding was that this was a unique opportunity and time for higher education. In the report, John Farrar, industry leader for education at Google, said, “COVID-19 has propelled institutions to remove inertia, accelerating their ability to innovate and experiment. Credential stacking will be the currency of the future for lifelong learners. This is a first mover advantage, and you have all the tools in your toolbox to capitalize on it.”

The key is deep collaboration between employers and academic institutions across the entirety of the employee learning cycle, from skills needed to enter the workforce, consistent upskilling to stay ahead of trends and reskilling when job functions become redundant. 

BCG suggests that a partnership could ultimately provide value to all parties involved: companies, academic partners and learners. Nearly four in five leaders say there is an unmet need for continuous, lifelong learning due to the pace and scope of innovation, according to the research. The time is ripe to take these first steps into this new world.

Related Article: Raise Your Organization's Digital IQ: The Timing Has Never Been Better

HR Must Lead With Confidence 

I would implore companies and higher education to take it one step further to get initiatives like this into the mainstream: Start with HR leaders as a test case for the model. 

Not only will it reduce the broad digital skill gaps in HR, it will also make them more capable to be leaders of the program that will upskill and reskill the next generation of workers. 

Closing the skills gap globally represents trillions of dollars of opportunity. Instead of being satisfied with table scraps, it’s time for HR to move to the front of the line so that they can usher in a new way of solving the challenge every organization and industry can’t escape: progress.


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