Upskilling for sustainable systems

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler 

In an era defined by rapid technological advancements and evolving industry landscapes, organisations are recognising the critical importance of upskilling their workforce to stay competitive. Skills and the skills revolution are an integral part of any discussion about digital transformation and creating a culture to sustain what digital enables in organisations, namely bridging the gap between digital and human. This is a constantly evolving challenge, and we need to change the lens not only on skills development but also on how we nurture the talent we have in our organisations and teams.


If we want sustainable digital transformation, we cannot look at just one of these three aspects. We need people that will deliver and be involved in the transformation on a day-to-day basis. They will use tools and technology to enable what they want to do and will need to see a benefit for the process that will deliver a positive outcome. If we can marry these three and constantly create fluid movement and collaboration between them and the different speeds at which they evolve then we can deliver sustainable, long-term transformation.

Dell was already telling us five years ago that 85% of us who are in work will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet, and that what we are learning in terms of technology today will be superseded in the next 5 to 10 years. This is critical to supporting and managing transformation. The half-life of a skill has fallen from 30 years to 1 or 2 years, and what my son is currently learning at school may no longer be relevant in 10 years’ time. This presents a very different and much more fluid skills landscape which calls for a culture of always challenging both yourself and the status quo – always learning. Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF) tells us that the hottest skills for 2025 will include: augmented working, AI and automation; critical thinking and analysis; data skills; creative thinking; emotional intelligence; and, last but not least, lifelong learning. Leaders need to get to grips with these skills and organisations can’t afford to grow complacent.

Augmented working

As we have seen recently with the onset of ChatGPT, AI and automation are set to revolutionise many industries between now and 2030, leaving much greater scope for imagining different jobs and a different role for humans in the workplace. Augmented working is based on developing the ability to use automation to improve your own skills and abilities, leaving room to do things differently and concentrate on the more complex or human-centric side of your role. This may involve learning how to use AI to automate routine and mundane tasks, thereby freeing up your time to use your more innate human qualities. AI is currently becoming part of the more human-centred landscape as it is piloted in more and more fields, such as coaching. However, AI cannot yet transcribe silence, which is where the magic happens as people connect to their inner selves and listen to their intuition. 

Jon Gottfried, when talking about the evolution of developer skills in our recent podcast (listen here) tells us that we need to think differently about skills and talent and take a step away from organised methodologies. Companies on the bleeding edge think radically differently about talent and give people the time, space and absence of risk to experiment (e.g. hackathons). They look in different places for new hires, invest in the next generation and are future-focused in their thinking. Reskilling to focus on uniquely human abilities and the human experience at work means emphasising what keeps us human and intentionally training for soft skills like empathy, creativity, curiosity, and holding different perspectives. Redesigning work to empower employees to use these skills — while reducing the number of repetitive tasks through automation — will add meaning and sense to work and boost employee motivation as they find themselves in an environment where they can learn and grow more explicitly. Allowing humans to think creatively and use their intuition is key. Again, the WEF cites the ability to solve complex problems as crucial because it contains many of the most important skills of 2025, i.e. analytical thinking and innovation, critical thinking and analysis, creativity, originality and initiative, and reasoning and ideation.

Sustainable skills development

Creating sustainable change is about creating a new mindset, also for competence models – a continual process of creating awareness, intentionally experimenting with understanding, and coaching the organisation to a different level of maturity on the culture, skills and leadership necessary to retain their competitive advantage.

As hybrid models become more and more ingrained in the organisational landscape and the three circles of process, people and technology evolve together, having a sustainable strategy for upskilling and reskilling employees will prepare businesses and their people both for change and the rapid pace thereof. Hybrid working must be about really embracing opportunities and challenges whilst keeping a human-centric lens at all times.

Today, many organisations have academies dedicated to upskilling for both digital (hard and technical) skills and softer (harder to learn!) leadership and interpersonal skills. Housing these skills under the same strategic roof with the same amount of importance and investment is key to creating more sustainable models and a systemic culture of learning.

Sustainable working: more innovative models

As technology and industry landscapes continue to evolve at an alarming pace, leaders are recognising the critical importance of upskilling their workforce to stay competitive. Traditionally, upskilling models have focused on providing training and development opportunities to enhance employees’ existing skill sets. However, with the advent of new technologies and changing job requirements, there is a need for innovative approaches to upskilling that foster continuous learning, adaptability, and future-proof skills. Innovation in upskilling models involves reimagining traditional training methods and incorporating emerging trends and technologies to create effective learning experiences that meet the demands of the modern workforce. These innovative approaches prioritise agility, personalisation, and collaboration to empower employees to acquire new skills and thrive in an ever-evolving professional landscape.

With regard to agility, traditional training programmes often follow a linear structure with predefined curricula, which will become outdated in the face of rapidly changing technologies and industry needs. By embracing agile upskilling, organisations can adapt their training programmes and approaches to respond quickly to emerging trends and equip employees with the most relevant and cutting-edge skills. Agile upskilling also allows for the fundamental blocks of an agile culture to be explicitly learnt, practiced and honed. Skills education is different from developmental education of course and agile upskilling encompasses both. It is not just about learning skills to complete activities, but rather to intentionally change how we construct our self-identity and self-beliefs, how we hold different perspectives and essentially how we manage uncertainty and the complexity of our reality. Agility allows organisations to stay ahead of the curve and ensure their workforce is equipped with the knowledge and abilities needed to drive human-centred innovation and create a culture that allows us to sustain both success and well-being. Self-organised teams working across ecosystems make communities powerful. The most successful communities form longer-lasting relationships and can give rise to larger communities, or communities come together to work together. 

Everyone also has their own unique talent, perspective, skills, value and learning style. Recognising this and intentionally personalising upskilling programmes to tailor learning experiences to individual needs is massively enabled by digital. This approach goes beyond one-size-fits-all training and leverages technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics to provide personalised recommendations, adaptive learning paths, and microlearning modules. This allows employees to learn at their own pace and take responsibility for their own development – creating a deliberately developmental practice of learning.

Working to thrive

We spend so much of our time at work that ‘working to thrive’ as opposed to ‘working to survive’ is essential for well-being, productivity and innovation. However, this is not necessarily how organisational culture is currently formatted. As organisational design and models shift, so too do our habits and the habits of the systems we live and work in. The key here is to intentionally build human systems in which collaboration is the norm and not a result of the different environment created for a new ‘innovative project’.

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credit : lilia daffi

Collaboration is another fundamental aspect of innovative upskilling models. Recognising that knowledge and skills are often best developed through collective efforts, organisations are embracing collaborative learning approaches. This includes promoting peer-to-peer learning, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, and providing opportunities for employees to engage in real-world projects and get involved in creative problem-solving. An ideal environment for learning provides a transformational experience – one that is by its very nature dysfunctional compared to the status quo and often anti-best practices to boot. We recognise and feel familiar with the patterns and narratives of the system in which we think, act and interact. Whilst this comfort creates safety, it also stifles learning and innovation. An ideal environment forces creativity through different methodologies and creates a different space for people to build strong human connections, break down silos and constantly draw on different perspectives. By fostering a culture of collaboration, organisations create an environment where employees can learn from each other, share insights, and collectively drive innovation and growth.

Leveraging emerging technologies and digital platforms (such as virtual reality, augmented reality, gamification, and online learning) to deliver experiences that are accessible, engaging, and scalable enable organisations to create immersive and interactive training environments that simulate real-world scenarios close to peoples’ lived experiences and therefore enhance learning retention. By harnessing the power of technology, we can provide flexible and on-demand learning experiences that accommodate diverse learning styles and enable employees to upskill at their own pace. I often engage with leaders as to how simple this sounds, yet how complex it can be to enact. We need to change the conversation and upskill people to shift their mental model to one of abundance and self-unfolding, not one of deficiency, and self-improvement. This is often the paradigm organisations are in, and it is hard to reformulate this thinking and the narratives within the system without a simple, visual way of understanding the current system, which is why I am a big believer in the power of visualisation, in ‘seeing’ systems and understanding where the elements are overlapping, overlaying or overplaying.

Jayshree Seth visualises much of her thought leadership in acronyms, and one that I particularly like on this subject is SILOS. In our recent podcast (listen here) she explains that leadership is also about leading from where you sit in the organisation, interacting differently and rethinking existing ways of working. She tells us that leaders must ‘lead from their rung of the ladder’, be aware of their own privilege and break SILOS (social circles and spheres, informal and formal connections, local community and culture, opportunity creation and context, societal constructs and classifications). Intentionally creating the skills base to constantly drive systemic change is a tall order and requires focus, empathy, humility, care and resilience. We are all, whether we like it or not, interconnected and share the same need to be heard and valued, to learn, grow and feel like we belong to something bigger than us. This requires a more fluid system which not only acknowledges and respects the elements in the acronym above, but also connects them to a bigger system and purpose.

This reminds me of my ‘7C’ mantra of creating systems where people can thrive and inviting everyone to be an agent of change so that the ways of working become sustainable but not rigid, human-centred but not naïve, and where fulfillment (being) as opposed to “busyness” (doing) becomes the measurable outcome. The 7 Cs are:  

–      Connect on a human level

–      Cultivate compassionate check-ins to create an empathy-based habit

–      Challenge each other healthily

–      Concentrate on contextual agility for greater flexibility and relevance

–      Collaborate skillfully and intentionally

–      Coach each other with care towards collective business outcomes

–      Create the conditions for people to thrive

The key lies in finding the right balance between technology and these human capabilities and harnessing the strengths of both to create a harmonious and productive work environment. To successfully bridge this gap, several best practices can be followed: 

–      Foster a culture of cross-functional collaboration: knowledge-sharing allows individuals with diverse skill sets to learn from one another, create powerful communities and leverage technology to complement their expertise.

–      Constantly innovate models for upskilling and reskilling by providing continuous learning opportunities: create a perpetual learning mindset and invest in nurturing this through training programmes, access to online courses, workshops, and mentoring programmes that focus on developing both technical and soft skills to help equip employees with the digital skills and knowledge needed to thrive in an evolving digital landscape.

–      Encourage flexibility and agility: creating awareness, connecting, understanding across the team/organisation and coaching the organisation to a different level of maturity are the key to sustainable upskilling – flexibility in workflows, decision-making and end-to-end processes ensure that humans can adapt to the changes brought about by technology and utilise their skills in the most efficient and effective manner.

–      Promote ethical and responsible digital practices: as technology advances, ethical considerations become increasingly important and organisations should prioritise ethical practices and ensure that digital tools and technologies are used responsibly (protecting data privacy, promoting diversity and inclusion in digital systems, being mindful of the potential societal impact of digital solutions).

–      Emphasise human-centric design by involving people (users / clients / employees / shareholders) in the design process through empathy, feedback and iterative testing in order to create an experience and tools that enhance rather than hinder productivity and well-being.

Bridging the gap between digital and human elements is not about replacing humans with technology but about leveraging technology to augment human capabilities. Constant innovation in reskilling and upskilling is essential for organisations to equip their workforce with the skills needed to thrive in our digital-driven world. By embracing automated working, sustainable models of agility and upskilling, and a culture of collaboration where humans can prosper alongside technology, we can create effective upskilling programmes that connect and empower employees to continually learn, adapt, and coach peers to contribute to the organisation’s growth and success.

 Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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