The 5 most important upskilling and reskilling questions answered

By Billy Roberts

7 minute read

A 2018 McKinsey survey revealed that 66% of businesses saw reskilling as a top 10 priority, with 30% putting it in their top 5. This was a big enough scoop to merit an entire article. But, fast forward to today and a recent survey found that 93% of businesses see reskilling and upskilling as the number one priority for 2021.

There are a few reasons for this. First is COVID-19. Nothing in recent history has so drastically changed the way people work. And most businesses will never fully return to their pre-pandemic set-ups.

Second is digital transformation. As technological innovation accelerates, businesses find themselves constantly adapting. Consequently, upskilling and reskilling are being reconceived as continuous processes, rather than individual shifts.

Third is because the term has become a buzzword. This doesn’t mean that reskilling and upskilling are being exaggerated. Instead, it shows that people have finally settled on the answer to a question they couldn’t quite place until now.

Despite this, upskilling and reskilling haven’t settled into static meanings. Some, like McKinsey, choose to use them interchangeably, or with one as a subsection of the other. Equally, some like to put in variation. For the purposes of this article. Here are our upskilling and reskilling definitions:

Upskilling is giving people new skills to improve at their existing job

Reskilling is giving people new skills to succeed at a new job

Although there are differences between the two, in practice there’s more overlap. And this article is about practice. Now that upskilling and reskilling are firmly set in the business vocabulary, L&D teams need to think hard about how they can move beyond the buzzwords and make the two happen.

This article is about answering some of the most common practical questions businesses ask around upskilling and reskilling. We definitely don’t have all the answers. It takes a business wide shift to make effective upskilling/reskilling happen. But, having worked for years with businesses of all sizes, from all industries, we’re equipped to provide some practical advice.

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How do I get upskilling started?

A huge number of businesses are stuck on the start-line. They now know that upskilling is a priority but they don’t know how to get started, or their current efforts have fallen flat. There are a number of business and industry-specific challenges. But, our advice, and the advice shared by most analysts, is to make it situation-specific, structured and loud.

The first stage is diagnosing where upskilling will actually improve your business. This can be done by pinpointed the roles that need to be filled and building out from there - like this Apprenti programme does. Alternatively, you can align your upskilling by identifying new products or processes that fit in with your wider business direction - as detailed in this McKinsey advice for pharmacy companies (it’s pretty interchangeable so well worth stealing). Either way, any upskilling launch should be identifiably tethered to these business specific goals.

After these business goals have been identified, businesses need to standardize and structure their upskilling efforts. The most tried and tested method is a skills framework - a structured documentation of the skills a particular business needs which includes how skills relate to specific roles as well as each other. By setting this up, you can be sure that the whole organisation understands skills in the same terms. It can also be used as a standardised measure of what skills you currently possess and where the most work is needed.

This second stage allows you to get granular. A data-backed skills framework can ensure that upskilling and reskilling are tied to organisational realities alongside broader business ambitions.

data-backed Skills framework

The third stage is making waves. Without a culture supporting them, upskilling initiatives don’t have the momentum to succeed. Getting engagement is a whole topic in itself. But, for sharp, eye catching initiatives, a good start is generating a sense of urgency and, more importantly, getting senior staff to buy-in.

How do I get leadership buy-in for my reskilling?

Upskilling and reskilling require sustained, widespread commitment. It’s almost impossible to achieve this without senior buy-in. Most learning departments chalk leadership buy-in (or its more common absence) to unchangeable organisation realities. But, it’s not as immovable as you might think. There’s a technique to getting management to listen.

There are a lot of tricks you can use, but here are a couple of key ones:

Speak your organisations language

Studies have found that middle managers who put forward ideas in a company’s ‘language’ are more likely to be listened to.

This ‘language’ can refer to the metrics that matter most to your business, the organisation's ‘speak’, or commonly sought after skills.

Time it right

Business change works in overlapping cycles. Knowing when to capitalise on the momentum of an internal or external shift will determine whether your initiative catches attention.

With big external changes (technological, cultural, political) it’s best to ride the peak of their urgency. Alternatively, it pays to get on at the ground floor of internal launches/shifts. The open-endedness of these early stages give you an opportunity to code your learning into the DNA of the end product.

High and low framing

The matter of actually being persuasive when you come to pitching your idea is its own challenge. Studies have found that framing the right points as high or low makes an idea more appealing to stakeholders (this technique was used to shift the narrative on drunk driving).

In a business context a good blueprint is: high reward, high urgency, high threat; and low damage, low admin, low complexity.

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How do I upskill and reskill for digital transformation?

Reams have been written about solving this problem (we’ve had a go ourselves). Different answers will work for different businesses. However, the best advice we can give any company looking to upskill to digitally transform their products, services, or offerings, is to curate. The vast majority of organisations are suffering from content overload, both in terms of digital incentives and the learning material to make them happen.

This abundance sounds like a good thing. But, most directions available to your businesses are not relevant to business goals or they're counterproductive. And, more frustratingly, there are also too many good choices. There are so many productive digital directions to go in that, if you tried them all, you’d waste all your resources moving forward an inch in each direction.

So, our advice is to filter. Decide what digital skills your business will prioritise (usually via a skills framework) and cut the rest. After that, only keep in learning content that fits those specific skills. To optimise the success of this curation, we advise being as specific as possible in terms of skills. By nuancing the exact skills you need, you can avoid burdening learners with semi-relevant content.

While skills are the main issue, this ruthless curation should extend to digital software, new initiatives, and learning communications. The challenge with digital transformation is the abundance of possibilities. Half the battle is picking one.

How do I upskill for agility?

For a huge number of industries, things need to get faster. For some, like the food and beverage or logistics sectors, this comes from the need to keep up with the speed of new products and processes. For others, like telecoms and utilities, it’s to rise to the kind of efficiency that Amazon/Google generation customers are used to. Upskilling learners to build this agility requires changing three things: the tech, the learners, and the culture.

The tech

New process and communications software are key drivers of organisational agility. But, it’s rarely a case of “build it and they will come”. Often, employees are happy to keep plugging away with familiar but inefficient systems. Learning has to drive adoption.

One good way to do this is to involve employees before the new software launches. If you get employees to play a part in choosing the processes software for the company you’ll 1) get a key on-the-floor perspective on which programmes will work best for you and 2) immediately develop a set of internal stakeholders.

The learners

In some sectors (the tech sector especially) technology and skills are evolving so fast that individual learners need almost complete autonomy over what they learn. They need to be able to respond to changing demands too fast for L&D to have the time to work out what direction to set. The key problem they tend to face is content discovery. So, to allow this kind of learning agility to develop, businesses need to ensure that their content is well tagged, so that their search and personalisation can be accurate.

The culture

A culture of getting things wrong is essential to transforming skills. It’s the heart of the agile/scrum method that businesses use to iteratively test digital ideas.

A celebration of failure should extend to employees throughout an organisation. A McKinsey report found that, when employees try out their own digitising ideas, transformation efforts are 1.4x more likely to succeed. Encouraging this level of innovation requires de-risking risk. L&D can help ensure that this thinking is dominant in a company’s culture.

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How do you make sure reskilled people succeed in new roles?

As Fosway analyst Fiona Leteney pointed out in our recent webinar, there’s a difference between having the skills framework for a specific role and being good at it. The reality of any job is too complicated to exactly match even a well planned out framework. So, an essential part of reskilling is to ensure that an employee is able to succeed at their entire role. There are a few good solutions available.

Be holistic

Deloitte argues that people transitioning into new jobs should be provided with holistic support at the beginning. This includes “temporary income support, career counseling services associated with transitioning to a new industry, as well as psychological support”.

Build mentorship programmes

As part of its Upskilling 2025 initiative, Amazon is holding the Amazon Technical Academy boot camp where its software engineers are giving nontechnical Amazon employees coding training.

This type of training is perfect at filling the gaps more formal learning can’t. However, depending on your business, mentorship doesn’t have to be that formalised. Some of the more prevailing mentorship programmes are deliberately informal so that they can more easily slip into an organisation’s culture.

Use tech to invest in social learning

Employee-to-employee learning doesn’t have to be vertical. In fact, communities of practice are great mechanisms for employees to stay ahead of the curve. These learning communities can also help employees adapt to the realities of new roles.

Remote working provides a novel solution here. New communications software can allow more solid communities of practice to develop. Indeed, Falguni Bhuta, Head of Partnerships and Communications at Kahoot, says that Microsoft Teams can formalise communities of practice.

Upskilling and reskilling in the future

After the dust of the pandemic settles, the learning curve organisations are struggling to climb will level off a little. But, neither upskilling or reskilling are a single step. Once the current wave of learning has concluded no business will be fully optimised.

Instead, learning new skills will likely have to become a part of each business’s culture for good. Interestingly, the Future of Skills report by Pearson suggests that “soft” skills will have to increase at the rate of technical skills. It found that, as more and more skills are subsumed into the realm of automation, demand for interpersonal skills will rocket in the next decade.

So, like businesses, employees themselves will be under greater pressure to upskill for their individual careers. If L&D can harness these dual incentives from learners and the business, it can ensure that continuous learning is a part of organisations for good.

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