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4 Big Ideas to Boost Productivity

American workers don't have the skills they need to stay relevant. It's our responsibility as business leaders to train our workers and make our nation more productive.
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Why is it that we all accept planned obsolescence in product design, but not the design of our and our employees' continued learning on the job? It seems obvious that people working within a national economy dependent on the (increasingly) rapid replacement of products should be adding new skills just as rapidly.

But who among us is keeping up? The current national skills gap, which the IMF says accounts for a quarter of the currently unemployed, would indicate that a large percentage of U.S. workers are not adding the skills they need to avoid their own career obsolescence. What's our responsibility as business leaders to ensure that our people stay trained for productivity in the future? I'd suggest four key tactics:

Make new skills count. 

Here in Silicon Valley, Twitter is famous for having raised a large fortune in venture capital, having shown incredible growth, but not yet having made a profit. It’s a fair bet that the VCs behind Twitter are confident that their investment will pay off in the long run. You should measure your training investment with the same time frame in mind. Other than sales or new-product training, it’s not realistic to expect a measurable return from training in a quarter, and perhaps not within a year. I'd advocate applying the traditional R&D investment success metric to your training program: 20% of each year's revenue should come from employee's application of skills they've gained from training they've received in the last two years. Got that? Examples might include: sales from a new mobile application or from leads generated from social media channels, new software or products built on new languages or technologies. A company deriving that level of income from newly acquired skills is keeping itself ahead of what I see as our current five-year half-life on innovation.

Keep training rapid and relevant.

Now let me quickly say it is not my suggestion that you spend wildly on training. You should spend up to the level where you achieve that 20% metric. And the good news is that training is following a Moore's Law of its own: great training can be delivered with fewer people and dollars than ever before. To get onto the virtuous circle, though, business leaders have to abandon the goal of keeping an iron fist on training content creation and delivery. Centralized training development is too slow and too expensive to meet the needs of our high velocity economy. Rapid and relevant training is possible when leaders identify the internal experts (aka Native Cannibals) encourage and train them to spend 10% of their time creating and delivering training to their colleagues, and follow-through to measure and reward results. I call this Facebook-style training for hopefully obvious reasons:  eer communications are typically well-received, you’re taking full advantage of network effects, and feedback mechanisms can provide near-real-time information on quality. I’d estimate that 10% of our company’s Yammer feed consists of peers sharing new tools they’ve found that can help boost productivity. 

Involve everyone in business development.

I'd like to someday see the original internal email sent by a New York Times staffer when WordPress launched that said, "Wow, this WordPress thing is pretty amazing! Could totally change how people get their news." I'm betting that it exists…and that it got an immediate reply email from some manager saying, "People will never trust news from bloggers." 

One tactic to avoid such myopia is to ensure that you and the other leaders in your organization are the ones bringing disruptive ideas to the organization. And when those new technologies, markets, partnerships are vetted, that you follow through on internal or external training on those topics. Leaders who demonstrate awareness of—and the willingness to invest in—the most potentially disruptive technologies in their industry are the ones creating a culture that values open-minded innovation. They are the ones who have the greatest chances for success.

Empower your best people.

It's crucial that your employees understand that they are personally responsible for their own career planning, and the training that will enable them to attain those goals. Your role is to train them for success in their current role, and the next role(s) within your organization that best meets your company's needs. It is the employee’s responsibility to determine and prepare for the next role(s) that best meet his/her needs. It can be a difficult conversation for leaders to have. But I encourage you to openly discuss the fact that you are unlikely to offer lifetime employment, but that your goal is to ensure that every alumni of your organization to be an advocate (and recruiter) for it, long after they may leave. 

The good news is that powerful tools exist to help your people evaluate, plan and implement a dynamic, personalized career path. I’m thinking of LinkedIn (consider using the Droidin mobile application) and BranchOut, but also great sources of inspiration and education like the new book, The Start-Up of You, by Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn founder, and Ben Casnocha, my favorite blogger (sorry again, New York Times). It’s full of actionable ideas on how to plan a successful career, as well as get free advice, training, and experience in your next role…without quitting your current job. 

The whole process feels to me like the transition from using a travel agent or stockbroker (remember them?) to using Expedia or Charles Schwab. We're all now self-directed on planning vacations, making investments, and planning our careers. Because in a market that's fragmenting and reinventing itself as rapidly as ours is, you, as a business leader, need to have the responsibility to plan training to be successful in that environment—for both your company and your employees.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Mar 22, 2012

DONNA WELLS | CEO, Mindflash.com

Donna Wells is the CEO of Mindflash.com, a leading platform for online training. She was previously CMO of Mint.com, the online personal finance service. For more, check out The Daily Mindflash blog.




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