Using Content Strategy to Fill the Skills Gap

March 19, 2015

What do some of the world’s most successful training organizations, or High Impact Learning Organizations, have in common? They are unapologetic advocates of development-focused approaches to their talent challenges. In an industry where Learning & Development has forever been on the losing end of the budget, these organizations view their learning content as a strategic asset and invest boldly to exploit that content for continuous human capability development.

Today, we’re finally starting to see other training organizations follow suit. According to Deloitte University Press, learning and development issues exploded from the 8th to the 3rd most important talent challenge this year in their Global Human Capital Trends survey. Of those surveyed, 85% rated learning as a “very important” or “important” problem.

Sounding the alarm

While the concern regarding the skills gap has been simmering for some time, it was the annual “Talent Shortage Survey” by the Manpower Group that brought the issue to the forefront when they published that 39% of US employers reported difficulty filling jobs due to a lack of available talent. While there’s been a lot of debate regarding the validity of these claims, we are in a situation where the number of hires each month is not rising as fast as openings.

What do we mean by “Skills Gap”?

Like many things, skills gap is a term that can mean different things to different people. In his HBR article, “Employers Aren’t Just Whining - the ‘Skills Gap’ is Real”, James Bessen tells us that skills are often hard to measure and manage because new technologies frequently require specific new skills that schools don’t teach and that labor markets don’t supply. In other words, complexity is growing faster than expertise and the skills we had yesterday are not the skills we need today. Skill shelf-life is decreasing to the point where traditional ways of training are becoming obsolete.

Short-term poaching vs. long-term development

An obvious way to close the skills gap is for employers to increase training and produce the skilled workers they want themselves. However, as the chart above alludes to, investing in employee development often takes a backseat to hiring. According to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, two-thirds of manufacturing companies are bridging the skills gap through increased recruiting, while only 56% are training existing staff.1

Harvard Business School lecturer Joseph B. Fuller rightfully decries this practice of poaching vs. developing talent. He argues that too few American businesses have developed a sufficient understanding of how dependent their competitiveness is on the skilled labor supply. Fuller contends that when businesses think in the short term, relying on the spot market for talent rather than cultivating talent pipelines, they create a major threat to ensuring their own long-term competitiveness and that of the U.S. as a whole.

It looks like companies are paying a tremendous price for this short sightedness. Deloitte University Press goes on to say that while senior business leaders increasingly see shortages of skills as a major impediment to executing their business strategies, only 28% believe that they are “ready” or “very ready” in the area of workforce capability. This is truly frightening.

Caterpillar: doing it right

Caterpillar undeniably has one of the most admired and successful training organizations in the world. Decreasing time-to-competence through employee development has been a top priority for the company for years. In 2011, faced with an aging workforce and the realization that the gap between complexity and expertise was continuing to widen, the company introduced the concept for a new learning program called Expertise Unleashed. The program will bridge the skills gaps by reducing the time it takes to reach an advanced level of competence from the 14 years it takes today down to only 5 years.

At the heart of Expertise Unleashed is a content strategy. Developed over a period of two years prior to the program’s launch, the content strategy upended Caterpillar’s old way of developing and delivering learning content, moving them from large traditional courses to bite-sized learning objects. The content strategy sets the stage for anywhere, anytime delivery through content that is:

  • Searchable: so knowledge is easy to find
  • Mobile: so knowledge can be accessed in the field
  • Flexible: so students can interact with material in the manner they prefer
  • Social: so they can share additional knowledge gained on the job with each other

It often comes as a surprise to many training organizations that Caterpillar has such a laser focus on content strategy. However, it really shouldn’t because, as Deloitte reports, learning content capability can predict 83% of the difference between High Impact Learning Organizations (HILO), such as Caterpillar, and those not considered High Impact. And considering that HILOs grow their profits three-times faster than other organizations, that’s a big deal.

Below is a timeline of the Expertise Unleashed Program along with some videos that Caterpillar put together at each stage of the program to manage the change and market their progress to the entire company and extended enterprise of dealers. Caterpillar released these videos separately, but when you bring them all together, it shows a fascinating journey. By viewing their learning content as a strategic asset and having the foresight to develop a content strategy around creation and delivery, Caterpillar is able to meet the skills gap head-on with a world-class learning program designed for sustained competitiveness.

2011 & 2012: Six Sigma team establishes content strategy and selects technology solutions.
2013: Implements single-source and begins creating content as small learning objects.

2013: Implements multi-generational project plan across the table.
2014: Launches new instructor-led and eLearning framework: video creation & streaming, gamification, and mobile delivery methods via responsive design.
2015: Will utilize analytics to evaluate performance & tie results to learning needs, and social components for real time collaboration.

2016 & beyond: Evolve to individual and non-linear training across devices for predictive, prescriptive and personalized learning.

Not every organization will put together a Six Sigma team to look for ways to reduce waste in their content manufacturing process, however, every organization can and should reflect on their current practices and assess the importance of learning content to their organization and its impact on their future success.


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