As learning and development (L&D) professionals navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, industry leaders have implored colleagues to keep their eyes focused on the future. Essentially, once businesses return to some semblance of normalcy, these sources argue, the actions taken today to prepare workers will ultimately pay off.
Yet, it's not enough for L&D teams to merely state that the future is important. Employers must also be able to project the talent and skills they will need to remain competitive in the future, an activity that includes identifying gaps that exist now.
That's the philosophy behind an upskilling initiative launched in February by Lincoln Financial Group, a Fortune 500 firm based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Over the course of two years, more than 300 of the company's U.S.-based actuarial employees will be able to take part in an educational program to improve their knowledge of two emerging trends in the space: big data and predictive analytics.
Lincoln first began its planning process around the program with the "future of work" in mind. "When that was the hot topic on the HR circuit, my team did a lot of research into, 'what does the future of work mean to Lincoln?,'" Jen Warne, the company's SVP and chief talent officer, said in an interview. This spurred a focus on Lincoln's biggest skill needs first: "The top on that list actually was data analytics."
Lincoln already had an actuarial development program in place before 2020, but it wasn't until a short time ago that Warne brought the subject of data analytics to an annual meeting of the company's targeted governance team. Company leaders wanted to know how the development program could be improved, and Warne found that they were receptive to her team's idea of an upskilling element.
"We were able to make the case that we would focus on this actuarial population with the goal of upskilling them," Warne said, noting that the result was perhaps surprising given the difficulty HR teams can sometimes experience in securing funding for new learning programs. "They were 100% bought-in. They funded it."
A key part of the team's proposition lay in the fact that Lincoln, as an insurance and risk management company, recognized the potential of being able to harness data, Warne said. "Maybe in other areas, I might not have had such an easy sell."
Find the right partner
It was also important to have a strategic partner on deck that could provide resources and capabilities that Lincoln couldn't. Luckily, the team discovered that the Society of Actuaries (SOA), a global professional organization, was in the process of training new actuaries in data analytics, Warne said.
But a disconnect began to emerge, she explained: Students exited the SOA's program, having developed a data analytics skill set, to work for more experienced actuaries who were already credentialed.
"The more experienced talent didn't know what to do with [the data analytics skill set], because they didn't share a common language or a common tool set," Warne said. It was the "perfect opportunity," she added, for Lincoln to help bridge the gap between experienced and new talent.
So Lincoln asked SOA to partner on the company's upskilling program, with learning vendor Udemy providing additional virtual and online support for the program. Warne said her team also pulled together a group of internal subject matter experts to test different technologies and determine which ones would best fit the Lincoln program's specific needs.
But it was an advantage to have a professional organization like SOA to support the program, Warne said, particularly in a learning environment where employers do not always know what to expect from certain providers. "If you can go to the best in that area, that's the ideal strategy," she said.
It's also important for L&D programs to engage organizations like the SOA that might be able to assist them in talent development, Warne said. "We could have looked at the SOA and said, 'oh darn, they don't have anything we could leverage,' but we didn't do that."
Instead Lincoln took the time to propose a partnership, an approach Warne believes other employers can mimic. "We would have been at a real disadvantage if we just assumed, 'well they don't have it,' and didn't push and at least try to have that strategic partnership."
Learning programs that demand too much of a time commitment are likely to see a higher drop-out rate, Warne said, particularly during a pandemic, so employers may need to balance the time spent to ensure training doesn't get in the way of work priorities. "You hear about bootcamps, which are wonderful," she noted, "but I do think you have a high dropout rate sometimes where you expect your learners to be all-in."
Lincoln's implementation of the new program wasn't without hurdles, however, including the pandemic. "The original plan was definitely a more immersive learning experience bringing people together with some virtual components," Warne said, noting some of the complex training components required an in-person approach.
But COVID-19 forced the team to step back and pivot; "We had no choice but to go virtual or delay the program." So it focused on specific elements, like breakout sessions, that could be translated to a virtual experience. Lincoln took a module-by-module, material-by-material review to initiate the redesign, according to Warne.
The shift hasn't impacted engagement too much. Warne said the upskilling program "has a 95% satisfaction rate" among participants, "which I think is exceptional, recognizing the program originally wasn't intended to be virtual and these participants thought it would be in-person."
Keep a forward-looking lens and know the business case
The program's initial run will last two years, one for each phase. The first covers data and analytics and was originally scheduled to be six months long, but it has since been extended to nine months.
Three cohorts of participants are participating; the earliest group began the program in February, and the last group will begin in September. The second phase explores predictive analytics and will start in early 2021, as soon as all participants have completed the first phase.
Lincoln will allow both experienced actuaries as well as newcomers to participate in the program, although some slight adjustments have been made for the latter. The company is in the process of determining whether it will be able to have on-site virtual training in the future, or whether it will need to send new participants to the SOA directly. Warne said the company prefers the current setup due to its use of case studies that are tailored to what Lincoln employees experience.
As for feedback, the company is conducting participant surveys after each section of the training and monitoring its social collaboration tools to see how learners are deploying the skills they acquire through the training. "Not only did we train them on Lincoln's specific use cases, but now we're actually capturing use cases of how the training is already making a business impact," Warne said.
L&D teams need to have a fundamental understanding of where they can build versus buy talent, Warne said: "You have to have a more forward-looking lens to understand where those emerging skill needs will be and what labor force is available to fill those needs."
Lincoln applied this lesson directly to its own situation. The company would have struggled to recruit the data analytics skill set that it needed, Warne noted, and it felt that not investing in the skill development of its own actuaries might have led those employees to look for opportunities elsewhere that did provide the training.
"I think HR practitioners really do have an inside look into what is brewing in the environment," Warne said. "Where some business leaders will only see their piece of it, an HR practitioner can see the enterprise needs, and can see the enterprise environment external." Keeping an eye on the business case for training is also critical, she added. "When you speak that language, I do think it's an easier sell."