Article: Building digital skills to thrive in the next normal

Learning & Development

Building digital skills to thrive in the next normal

Kelly Palmer, Chief Learning Officer at Degreed and Guy Dickinson, Global Head of Digital Capability at Novartis shared tips to fashion an effective upskilling strategy at TechHR 2020.
Building digital skills to thrive in the next normal

Kelly Palmer, Chief Learning Officer at Degreed and Guy Dickinson, Global Head of Digital Capability at Novartis at People Matters Tech HR, spoke on building digital skills to thrive in the Next Normal. A fascinating talk with numerous practical insights and tips to fashion an effective upskilling strategy, here are just a few highlights: 

Making all Learning Matter

First off, Kelly says, make all learning matter. People learn from a variety of sources - podcasts, books, articles - she says, so “why not make that part of your learning journey?” 

Crucially, give people a chance to put their learning to use. “Once people actually build skills and have done all the learning they need to upskill their portfolio of skills, what people really want is to get new opportunities using the skills they have. That may be in the form of projects, spec assignments or even completely new opportunities and jobs at the companies.” 

Personalised & Individualised learning 

Secondly, realize we’re all at different places in our learning. Rather than thinking about “throwing training at people so they can learn digital skills,” Kelly says leaders should “back up a second and ask people ‘what are your career aspirations? Are you trying to get better at the job you have today or are you trying to get ready for the next part of your career that may require skills?” 

Think about it from an individual perspective: this gets people excited, engaged, and motivated about their own learning. 

Learning during COVID and beyond 

“Since people have started working remotely, they’re actually accessing learning from a variety of sources - 64% more than before,” Kelly says. “Over the weekends, that number has skyrocketed to 500%. People are realizing now is a great time to start working on their digital skills.” 

To build on this, Kelly wouldn’t recommend simply uploading hours of classroom-style learning for employees to view. “There is another way,” she says. “We can use technology to build amazing learning experiences that include: 

  • Curated content pathways 
  • Working with peers on projects 
  • Collaboration in virtual chat rooms
  • Facilitators synthesizing how we learn digital skills 
  • Feedback and reflection on skills we’re building 

“It’s an exciting time,” Kelly says. “Technology is making new things possible. We can learn almost any topic from any device almost anywhere in the world at almost no cost.” 

Guy agrees this is an exciting time. “While we’ve definitely changed where we work,” he says. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to change how we work - for the better.” 

Learn from the tech companies 

Guy worked remotely for thirteen years between 2001 and 2014. In his role at Novartis, he spends his day working with teams across three countries in three different time zones. He understands how to enable collaboration between dispersed teams better than anyone. In his opinion, how can we operate best in the Next Normal - one which has simultaneously become the reality for so many of us? First off, Guy says, look at the tech companies. 

In this sector, giants like Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all had distinct responses to COVID-19. From extending work-from-home almost indefinitely, to declaring the age of the office over, to expressing concerns over mental health and wellbeing, reactions have been varied and bold. 

“One thing is clear,” Guy says. “Tech companies think hard about remote working and think hard about how they work.” 

Furthermore, says Guy, tech companies: 

  • have arguably designed the most effective collaborative working practices.
  • hold sophisticated metrics of individual and team productivity. 
  • have a view into current and future collaboration tech.
  • access to preference data generated when this tech is being used. 

Guy divides the way tech companies think differently about skills into three categories: 


Tech companies are built around ‘writing to think.’ As Guy says, “software engineering is literally writing. What they write is code, filled with comments to each other or their future selves, explaining what it is the code actually does.” 

Writing to think in this way, “updates and activities and decisions, and supports asynchronous collaboration, resulting in less meetings, meaning teams can truly distribute their work which results in more effective work. Writing also forces thinking and deeper consideration.” Quoting David Ogilvy, Guy says: “those who write well, think well.” 

Guy cites Amazon’s famous six-page memos as an example of effective writing with precision, and understanding, gathering data to engender clarity in communication. 


“Tech companies have less and better meetings,” Guy says. “They shift a lot of their updates and discussions into asynchronous tools like Slack and Teams.” As an example, Guy points to the ‘together alone’ model that Novartis has been using, with shared real-time virtual collaboration tools such as NERO. Through this, “we’re seeing much broader and equal participation,” he says. 

“By writing down their thinking, tech companies are able to scale their collaborations. Teams don’t need to meet to understand what they’ve been working on,” he says. “That frees them up to have meetings centered on high-quality conversations  and sometimes even silent collaboration.” 


“Tech companies are definitely talking less,” Guy says. “They’re designing meetings that are structured with clear intent and upfront requests, designed for quiet participation which turns out to be more effective and participatory for remote teams. Agile creates an effective way for teams to talk to each other, communicate effectively over their work, talk about their progress, and what they need from each other to be their best.” 

Guy closes with a quote from Aaron Levy, CEO at Box, who says “when we moved to be fully distributed, the first question we asked was: how do we replicate the in-office experience while working virtually. Soon we realized this was the wrong question to ask. We should be asking: how does being in the Cloud enable us to work differently?” 

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Topics: Learning & Development, #TechHRIN

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