Building the necessary skills for digital transformation

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The skills and capabilities needed to undergo digital transformation are in high demand as every company jockeys to gain a competitive advantage. Some companies are prioritizing reskilling and upskilling to address the skills gap. However, in order to be successful, learning and developing must undergo transformation.

According to Daniela Proust, global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens, learning and development is at the core of digital transformation. She says that in light of major business transformations, such as new business models or new technologies driving forward a business area, it is important to support that structural change, that structural workforce transform, in order to drive business innovation.

Traditional training methods must also change. Multi-day offsite training is no longer feasible due to technological change and business agility. It is possible to use the same technologies that drive digital transformation in other areas of your business to transform learning and development.

“People learn more often and for shorter periods of times, but training is much more tailored to their needs in that moment, and technology allows that to happen,” says Proust.

A modern learning and development platform can provide valuable insights. Proust says, “A platform-based learning environment with a learning experience portal at the core allows you to gain insights we never had in our past.”

This new approach to learning benefits both the company and its employees. They acquire skills that will help accelerate the company’s digital transformation and drive their career growth. This episode of Business Lab was produced in association with Infosys.

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Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace. Today’s topic is learning and development. Businesses in every industry are eager to take advantage of technological advances to bring new innovations to the market. Cloud computing makes it possible to access many of these technologies. However, the problem is finding and keeping those who are skilled in using them.

Two words: upskilling and reskilling.

My guest today is Daniela Proust, who is the global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens.

This podcast is produced in partnership by InfosysCobalt.

Welcome, Daniela.

Daniela: Hi, Laurel.

Laurel: According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, upskilling and reskilling were the top priorities for 59% of learning and development professionals in 2021. Do you think this is a trend that we can expect going forward?

Daniela: Absolutely, yes. And to be honest with you, when I read this World Economic Forum’s report, I was surprised that it was only 59% of L&D professionals putting it as a top priority, because I was thinking it should be at least a hundred percent. It could be that all the topics at number two, three and four had to do with creating an environment that allows people to learn and grow.

Laurel: And some of that is predicated on the fact that learning is traditionally a back-office role, right? Executive buy-in is required to support learning and development programs. Another interesting data point is the Workplace Learning Report in 2020 said only 27% of learning and development professionals felt their CEOs were active champions of learning. But then in 2021, we know what happened, right? Sixty-two per cent are now champions for learning. This is a huge jump in one year. What is it that these CEOs are beginning understand? What are they learning that we may not yet know?

Daniela: If you ask me, I think it finally gets on stage where it should be. It’s perfect. These statistics are very encouraging to me. Reflecting on the journey at Siemens, I see that learning has evolved over the years from being an important topic in HR to becoming a core topic in HR. Then, it became a core topic and part of the overall business strategy. It has changed a lot in terms of its importance and how much attention it receives from the executive leadership.

Laurel: Being a champion to employees when it comes to learning and development is so important from executives, but what does it take to get to the point where learning drives business transformation?

Daniela: I think it’s a very important question, and that is one that keeps me up at night. Learning is a key driver of business transformation, according to me. Why? We see that change is everywhere and at a speed that we could not have imagined. We simply don’t know what the next jobs are to come tomorrow, in five years, 10 years. You must adapt your roles to ensure success and drive your business. Right? That’s what I see in the talent acquisition industry. I see that almost every job listing is new. If that is true, then we are constantly looking for new jobs, new skills, and new competencies. We all need to continue learning and growing. Only then will the business be successful. A major transformation is required for businesses, whether it’s new business models or new innovations and technologies that drive a particular business area forward. You need to support that structural change, that workforce transformation, in order to drive business success. It’s the heart of it for me.

Laurel: There’s certainly many challenges when we’re talking about digital learning and business transformation. And the covid-19 pandemic certainly had a significant effect on how and where people work. It also forced employees to reevaluate their work life balance and career goals. What effect has this had on learning and enterprise? Why is it so important for enterprises to review their learning programs now?

Daniela: Yeah, I think the covid pandemic has accelerated a transformation that was already happening. I believe we had major drivers of change in digital transformation as a whole. These drivers were already radically and disruptively changing the approach to learning or learning to platform-based ecosystems. Thinking in experiences, not traditional courses that are taught in a classroom setting.

Technology allows us to offer completely new, personalized learning experiences at a large scale to our employees. When the pandemic hit, I was thrilled that we were able to quickly transform the way we teach learning to our learners. Our people can choose the learning experience that is most relevant to them. This allows them to be able to pick and choose the information they need, while still being able to work efficiently.

This sounds simple, but it is a huge shift. Three, four years ago, we conducted a survey to find out what people thought about learning. As a technology company, Siemens has always valued expertise and competence. We also had a very traditional approach to learning. We attended a lot of classroom trainings. It was almost an incentive to discuss with your manager what had worked well over the year and then receive a training course to help continue your journey. Technology has enabled training to be more personalized to the needs of individuals. People learn more frequently, for shorter periods of times, but it is easier to tailor training to their specific needs.

The pandemic caused that to happen so that people, I would even say were forced to try it. These experiences were made available to them so they could test them and say, “Oh, it doesn’t hurt.” It’s actually helping me. This is something I should do. It was a great booster for cultural adjustment. It was a boost to take more ownership and be curious about what is important for you. Then, embark on that journey yourself, as well as in teams or with your manager.

I believe it has changed significantly in a short time period, about two years. When you ask how this is affecting the overall work environment, the answer is simple: the topic of learning and developing. There is a significant shift taking place.

We also hear from our people that they are much more conscious. What is the best environment for me to work in? What type of environment do you want? How often do you really need to visit the office? It’s only two times per week. I can do everything else in virtual settings and still be connected across the globe. This is probably the best way to come out of difficult times. It forces us to reevaluate our work style and how we want it to grow.

Laurel: That’s a great way to kind of frame what traditional learning was. You might meet in a classroom or fly to another city. You would meet up with your colleagues and take long learning classes away from work. But now, as you say, with technology and with the ability to work where you are and learn where you are, that learning has kind of moved, not just from in-person, but to online and where you are in the flow of work. This idea is unique and very important for learning and development. Correct?

Daniela: Absolutely. These concepts that we saw emerge from industrialization in certain industries are what I find so fascinating. Porter then gave you different strategies to choose from. Either you would be a mass supplier of commodities or you would differentiate yourself through certain things you can tailor and personalize and get a prime. These things like mass customization began to emerge. You can think back to how jeans were made in the past. You could order jeans online and have them produced in the same factory. I believe that this is the same thing happening here: We have a wide range of learning opportunities and can tailor them to each individual through algorithms and matching mechanisms. It’s about personalizing learning experiences at scale. That is what I find fascinating.

Laurel: I also like that choosing of words very carefully, which is continuous learning, right? Learning is not something you do only at a specific time or place. We are constantly learning new skills, new ideas and new ways to work. It is a great idea to seamlessly integrate this knowledge into your work life. How can we make online learning exciting and interesting, even after two years of working remotely and fighting digital fatigue?

Daniela: That is a very good question and super important. It’s all about relevance. You need to provide the right learning opportunities for the learner at the right time. This is also a great experience for the individual. Although it sounds easy, everyone learns differently. Podcasts might be your favorite, while videos and hybrid interactions are preferred by others. Or a complete learning path. You have the entire range at your disposal so you can choose what makes sense for you. That is what I believe makes it so powerful.

I agree that technology has advanced rapidly and we have created new experiences. People are becoming tired of looking at the screen all day, with many more meetings. I don’t know whether you’ve read this. There is a study. I think it was a 250% increase in the number of meetings in just one year. This is crazy. It is something I can easily replicate. That’s what I feel, too. Digital fatigue is a result of everything becoming digital and virtual. What we are competing for is the time of our people. This is the most important and common denominator. This is why people will prioritize this type of learning experience. It must be really good, relevant, and help them. That is the key to success. Although it sounds simple, it isn’t. Technology is the key to this revolution. Yes, technology is revolutionizing learning. But the experience is the real key. Gamification is a way to integrate social components into a platform, set challenges, reward and recognize people, and make it a great experience.

Laurel: What are the other benefits of a modern learning program? I’ve seen companies take on engineering challenges. Hackathons can be a great way to learn. As you said, everyone learns in different ways. Do you think companies are considering distributed learning and continuous education as a way of bringing about change in the way we think about learning?

Daniela: Absolutely. It is a great driver of innovation. You can bring together many learning opportunities through one point of entry.

There are so many great people and organisations that can offer their latest insights and topics to the people. This has never happened in the past. Imagine a company like Siemens. It is a large technology company that is active in many industries. This means that we must bring together learning opportunities from a functional perspective. If you work in finance or supply chain, you will need to complete it by, what we call, cross-functional learning opportunities. These are topics that are applicable for everyone like communication or languages. There is a lot of information available on technology topics. We also have market-specific topics. There is a lot of information available, so everyone needs a subset. Everybody needs a very specific subset. It’s a huge advantage to be able tailor it to your needs. This approach is also more productive and efficient, as it saves money and time. You can have access to the whole universe. They don’t need to travel and they don’t have have to encounter programs that are only relevant to them. It is really important to drive overall business success.

Laurel: And part of that business success is digital transformation, right? Adopting and rollingout new technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation. This will result in a new division between humans and machines that will impact jobs worldwide. As these jobs evolve, new roles will emerge with people who have specific advantages over AI and machines like managing and making decisions and communicating and interacting — all things that humans are great at. How can business prepare and prepare employees for the shift to automation?

Daniela: Yeah, I think it is something that accompanied us already since quite a few years. However, both the speed and the skill level required have increased tremendously. It’s almost like a collection of things you can do and should. As a company, you need to create an identity. First, let’s say that learning and individual growth are very important. This is a priority for your company and you must give it a positive spin. It is there for your success, it is there to help you, but it all starts with you. We have therefore launched a company-wide campaign called MyGrowth.

It’s more than just a campaign. It’s a whole concept and approach. It is meant to encourage and engage people to explore the different experiences we offer and help them navigate and give orientation to what they can and should use. We also set a goal for learning hours to motivate people. ”

Based on the skills you mentioned around automation and digitalization we can then include specific strategic topics in our communications to our employees. Through learning opportunities, we drive awareness campaigns. These can be targeted at specific audiences, as people have different skill levels. We can also push it at scale. This system is highly flexible. Let me give you an example: We have one pocket within our businesses called Digital Industries Software. It is very similar to what you mentioned. Last year, the CEO of this business stated that we are a software company and that AI is a major driver in everything we do. My entire organization must understand what artificial intelligence is. Let’s just say that it is a broad term. People need to be able to see how we use it internally as well as as a driver for software solutions and business. We created learning paths for different expertise levels, so that we could bring the entire topic to thousands of people in our Digital Industries business.

Laurel: So, you are doing two things. You’re promoting what you believe everyone should know and learn, with artificial intelligence being a major topic. How do you assess people’s skills and align learning programs with business strategy? Profit is the ultimate goal, but so is return on investment. Because you’re also growing.

Daniela: Yes. I can tell that the skills topic is very hot. It’s all over and comes from many different perspectives and uses. Technology plays an important role. Platform-based learning ecosystems with a learning experience platform at their core allow you to gain insights we have never had before. We can see what people are interested in. We can see what people are interested in learning. Multiply that number and you can see the trends in the workforce. This is evident in certain communities. There are certain communities that we call digital talents. You can already see the future topics. Then we can match as learning functions. Do we have the right learning opportunities to learn about the topics being searched for? That is one thing. It is the bottom-up aspect that is most important.

From a top-down perspective, we also have a very strategic approach to that, which we call NextWork where we see areas of major workforce transformation, and usually the levers are either disruptive new business models or/and technology that is driving change.

We do targeted workforce transformation analysis. We look at what jobs are available in this area today and where do we see them evolving. There are possibilities of some being eliminated completely or new roles emerging that we didn’t know about. We then match that with our workforce to see how we can help our people get from A to B. You must then go beyond the initial conceptual level of analysis to apply it to the individual in order to make it meaningful. Then you need to match the appropriate learning interventions and development paths for the individual. Assessments play an important role in this process.

In our learning platform, My Learning World we have a functionality we call My Skills. If a manager tells you that there are significant developments in this area, you can assign a role and say, “Look! Let’s see if this is the right path for you.” Then you will get a skill assessment that will show you the most important skills, capabilities, and competencies required for the role. You can then self-rate yourself in alignment with your manager, and get very specific learning interventions mapped. It gives an individual a good idea of where to start and where they should focus.

Laurel: What do you see as the future of learning and development? What is your passion?

Daniela: I’m really passionate about people. The whole topic is very exciting to me. Technology has the potential to revolutionize learning and development. It is already happening. Learning is never finished for me. Learning is never complete. We all need to continue learning, unlearn and relearn. It is important that people realize that they are in control of their own employability. I believe this awareness will be more widely shared. It excites me. It is important to use concepts such as curiosity, inspire people, and ignite a passion for learning. People are naturally curious.

Laurel: At some point we’ll have to talk more about what unlearning means, because that is certainly an interesting idea. We learn a lot in our lives, and this helps us to think differently about ideas and methods that may not be the best. It’s also a way to retrain your brain. There’re better ways of doing math now than there were 20, 30 years ago.

Daniela: It is. This topic of unlearning is a paradox. People sometimes think it’s paradoxical. However, once you have learned something, it is deeply embedded in your brain. You start with hypotheses about how you see the world. Right? This is why you always start with the same frame of reference. If the outside world is changing so much that the frame of reference needs to be adjusted, you will need to delete your initial reaction and begin afresh and be open to new ideas. This is a lesson that all of us need to learn and do more.

Laurel: Absolutely. Daniela, thank you so much for this wonderful episode of the Business Lab.

Daniela: Thank you so much. It’s great being a part of this.

Laurel: That was Daniela Proust, the global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review overlooking the Charles River.

That’s it for this episode. Laurel Ruma is your host. Insights is the custom publishing division at MIT Technology Review. I am the director. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can also find our imprint at events around the globe and on the internet. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at This show is available wherever your podcasts are available. We hope you enjoyed this episode and will rate and review us. Business Lab is a product of MIT technology review. Collective Next produced this episode.

Thank you for listening.

This content was created by Insights. Insights is MIT Technology Review’s custom content arm. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.

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