Article: Can unlearning address the skills gap?

Learning & Development

Can unlearning address the skills gap?

Learning and unlearning complement each other in the era of innovation. A post-pandemic world of work calls for learning new skills while unlearning the older ones to build resilience and productivity.
Can unlearning address the skills gap?

A study by McKinsey, titled Five Fifty: The skilful corporation, revealed that about 87% of the companies were facing a skills gap or expected to confront it in the next few years. This comes at a time when businesses have struggled to survive through the pandemic. The threat of a skills gap in the face of growing talent scarcity, and therefore a veritable war for the same, could prove to be a double whammy for organisations looking to emerge from the covid-led crisis. Interestingly, 43% of the respondents said that they were facing the skills gap now, while the number of respondents expecting it to hit them in the next two years, and three-five years was  22% each. 

Today, talent management is a tricky business, one that requires resilience and innovation.  As remote work became central to business survival, technology and innovation were recognised as the two most important factors. Though the initial months of remote working following last year’s Great Lockdown posed several challenges, organisations as well as employees soon overcame the challenges and adapted themselves to the new reality. People have adjusted and organised their life around remote work, with preferences slowly veering towards a hybrid mode of work. To achieve business continuity as well as productivity, employees had to learn new skills needed, along with unlearning the ones that were relevant in the pre-pandemic era.

Skills, resilience, and agility are interconnected and complementary to one another, and the common thread that ties them all together is learning. But,  learning new skills and techniques goes hand in hand with unlearning the old ones, bridging the skills gap. Rohit Iyer, Director & Head, Learning & Development, PwC (India Acceleration Centers), said, “Unlearning in the context of innovation is a lot like our ‘10-day meditation/yoga retreat’. You come back feeling fresh, rejuvenated, feeling more optimistic about what lies ahead instead of focussing on what happened in the past. Unlearning allows one to explore new possibilities without the baggage of how things were done." 

 Unlearning is a significant part of adapting to innovation and is not easy. He said, e for instance, that a test cricket player needs to unlearn the skills to fit into the scheme of things of the shorter formats of the game.

Unlearning by its very definition may seem simple but in the world of continuous innovation, it doesn’t simply refer to forgetting what we know. In the context of the skills gap, the process of taking a step back and looking at things differently to understand innovation is unlearning. Over the last eighteen months, the work model has undergone dramatic shifts across industries, increasing dependence on technology and fuelling the need for new skills. In order to effectively respond to the evolving situation, people had to master the art of unlearning and leaders were no exception. According to Anurag Adlakha, Chief Human Resources Officer, Yes Bank, “Leaders will need to work upon their agility first to be able to identify the skill gaps, talent shortages and the ways to bridge these gaps. The primary thing that leaders should unlearn would be the fact that existing frameworks of skilling that they are so used to, may no longer hold contemporary significance.”

The current disruption is nothing short of historic. But experts see this change as the next wave of the industrial revolution. Despite the rising skills gap, it is convenient to draw skills from the global pool. As the world gets flatter with work being done remotely, addressing the skills gap get easier. However, Adlakha pointed out that leaders need to look beyond and unlearn the pre-existing skills to deal with the disruption. This calls for the right evaluation of the desired skills. “As a first step, organisations should conduct a comprehensive skills gap analysis to identify their problem areas. They should then map the skill sets of their current workforce and decide on their upskilling plans,” said Adlakha. 

On the importance of unlearning in skills mapping and building,  PwC’s Iyer said, “Unlearning is a crucial element to this. Many organisations invest millions of dollars in upskilling their employees on skills that are relevant now. Many large organisations also enable ’agile learning policies’, where an employee can choose what/where/when & how he/she wants to learn.” 

While the Gen Z employees come ready with contemporary skill sets, the contribution of the experienced employees as the pillars of the organisation must be acknowledged. So, besides hiring new skills, launching learning programs for the existing employees brings a balance, helping the company swim through the high tides of the skills gap. To make this successful, “These employees should be given personalised learning opportunities to learn the latest skills and tools in their respective domains. Unlearning and relearning will happen on a continuous basis when learners are given the freedom to choose what they learn as per their career and work needs,” Yes Bank’s  Adlakha said. He added that fresh hiring with blended learning opportunities for the existing employees depending on the ‘lifecycle and skill maturity levels of each organisation is key to skills gap resolution’.

The new world of work calls for continuous innovation as well as learning and unlearning. Skills requirements will continue to evolve, and so will the methods to address them. As  Adlakha said, “Upskilling or reskilling the workforce is a very critical requirement for continued success. To remain agile,  it is imperative to ‘unlearn’ what has become redundant.”

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Topics: Learning & Development, #TheSkillsConundrum

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