Upskilling 2.0: business-led, people-powered, results-driven

How citizen-led innovation can change a workforce from the inside out

Amazon’s doing it. So is AT&T. And likely your company is, too — investing in ambitious upskilling programs to help grow the business. With 79% of CEOs saying a lack of key skills is threatening the future growth of their organization, it’s easy to see why. But will these efforts yield the payoff you expect?

Here’s one way to boost the odds: it’s called citizen-led innovation, an approach built around equal parts leadership and employee crowd-sourcing. It’s part of our investment of $3 billion to upskill our entire global network and develop and share technologies to support clients. We’ve seen firsthand that our unique, people-led approach works — and believe that without it, you simply can’t deliver the innovation, productivity and change at scale you’re after.

Unlock the power of your people

Consider a recent financial statement audit: Over the course of the year, as we conducted our planning, risk assessment, testing, and so on, our team of auditors was continually looking for ways to tackle their work and save their clients’ time through automation technology. No one gave them a task list or told them where to focus. But what they did have was the skills and license to take their new-found expertise in building bots, automated workflows, and data visualizations and use them to solve day-to-day pain points. The result? Thirty-three automations built for their unique work environment, including several envisioned and created by junior staff members. That’s a single team. 

Now imagine what a company could do if every team had the skills and empowerment to innovate in such a meaningful way every day, and to share those inventions across the entire organization.

This people-led approach is at the heart of the digital journey unfolding with our own employees. And we’re getting results: a year into the program, 95% of our 55,000 US partners and staff are using our digital tools and platforms to learn, create and crowd-source. They’ve invented more than 1,500 bots, visualizations and AI models, shaving a million hours of repetitive work. With that time, they’re able to redirect those hours to the part of their job they love most: helping our clients solve their biggest problems.

So what exactly is citizen-led innovation? And what makes it a breakthrough approach that gets results? Here’s a closer look.

A breakthrough approach that gets results

The freedom to opt-in

In a nutshell, this approach starts with leading in a way that inspires people to want to boost their knowledge and skills. And it’s about giving people the autonomy to apply their learning right away in their day-to-day work, so it feels meaningful and relevant.

We like to think of our approach as a three-step process: up-knowledge, upskill and up-perform. Here’s how it works: Business leaders set the direction and goals, and provide the training, tools, and resources for people to learn and apply their skills. People then “up-knowledge” by increasing their awareness and understanding of new information as work changes, and “upskill” by applying their new knowledge and skills right away. With leadership guidance in place, employees are free to take the lead on innovating, building, sharing and test-driving solutions. They get excited to share solutions, and that enthusiasm gets other people invested. Change spreads quickly across the organization, helping to achieve efficiencies at scale, or “up-perform.” In our firm, for example, we’ve seen more than 3,200 contributions to our Digital Lab, a collaboration platform where people are crowd-sourcing and sharing solutions they’ve built themselves, like bots and automated workflows.

Nothing is mandated or required. Instead, it’s about giving people the resources and the parameters to shake things up from within. They have the power of choice — to decide what learning methods work best for them, and how much they want to opt-in. For one person, that might mean taking twenty minutes out of their day to listen to a podcast on blockchain or learn on the go through our Digital Fitness app. For another, it might mean joining one of our accelerator programs. And they don’t need to ask permission to invent a solution to a problem. For example, a consulting team recently helped a client shorten a manual process from two or three hours to less than five minutes. Not only did they automate a time-draining task, but they also improved the quality of their work by helping reduce the risk of human error from copying data from one place to another and freed up time to focus on higher-value work.

73% of employees say they know of systems or technology that would help them produce higher quality work

Here's another great aspect of this approach: People become emotionally committed. They want to get involved. They see more purpose in learning new skills and experimenting with different ways of working. They help create change while making their jobs better—73% of employees say they know of systems or technology that would help them produce higher quality work. That emotional engagement helps make this change lasting and sustainable, rather than a short-term initiative with limited impact.

When people think about upskilling, they often jump to the idea that it’s about preparing people for new roles as automation, AI and other technologies take hold. But a people-led approach isn’t about reducing headcount or moving people to other jobs—it’s about helping them grow with their jobs. People end up being more knowledgeable, but not in a way that will be dated in three years. Instead, they're infinite learners – opting into a program that helps them keep learning and growing as work changes and evolves. In a way, they’re writing their own roles for the future.

Why it works

Leading in a new way

Let’s be clear: this approach isn’t a free-for-all. It’s not about employees doing whatever they want or learning for the sake of learning. Instead, it’s a blend of thoughtful leadership, business and financial strategy, relevant tools and compelling incentives that tap into what people want and how they prefer to work. It’s about helping the business get people to work the way they need to while also helping employees develop the skills they need in order to help stay relevant as work changes.

Everyone's in it together

A citizen-led approach is bigger than individuals learning new skills or knowledge; it’s creating a shared movement that everyone is a part of. What’s more, inclusion builds a shared reality—a sense of community rooted in the belief that anyone can and will adapt to changing ways of work. When everyone buys-in, excitement and energy become contagious. And while not everyone in the business will need to upskill to the same degree, you can still scale the change you’re after if you have a platform to capture and share people’s ideas.

Business, not HR, owns it

The workforce changes companies are aiming for are too big to leave to HR alone. The business should own it, not only by tying upskilling goals to strategy, but also by showing support and leading in a way that aims to inspire people. That sends the message that top leaders really are committed to giving people permission to experiment, play with what they've learned and try new things—and the freedom to use time on the job to do so.

Rewards-based and crowd-sourced

People have to want to participate. So instead of requiring certain courses or mandating that people achieve specific outcomes, this approach offers incentives to encourage them to opt-in. In our case, we reward teams for developing solutions that positively impact the business, such as improving quality or creating a more digital experience for clients. We offer short-term incentives for learning, too, like extra time off, public recognition, and spot bonuses. Listening to your people is a key part of designing incentives; for example, our people told us they value extra time off, so our people earned a few additional days off when 80% of US staff earned digital acumen badges by completing a series of quests focused on real client needs.

No stuffy training rooms here

From shopping to technology, people want an experience that’s convenient, mobile, and personalized. So why would work be any different? A people-led approach makes learning fun and easy by giving people the kinds of tools they want to use in a social, collaborative setting. For example, everyone has their own personal Digital Hub, a customized portal where people can do a quick self-assessment on their skills and knowledge and map out a learning program that fits them. And they can learn on the go through our Digital Fitness app, which includes videos, podcasts, slideshows and interactive lessons. What’s more, these platforms help our leaders constantly assess what formats people like and use the most, so we can target our upskilling dollars.

It plays to cultural strengths

A people-led approach isn’t only about trying to get employees to behave differently; it’s about identifying what they already do well and playing to those strengths. For instance, our culture is one that celebrates entrepreneurial autonomy, so this approach taps into that. It’s structured enough to serve the organization as a whole, while also providing every person with choices.

The payoff

Crowd-sourced answers to real problems that you can reuse and scale. People who can innovate on the ground to solve problems immediately. A team ready and eager to learn, and keep learning, as work changes. A citizen-led approach can deliver this and more.

To companies that have struggled to see the business impact of their upskilling programs — such as stronger tech adoption, improved efficiencies, higher employee retention rates, and a workforce equipped with the digital skills you need — these results may sound like a fantasy. But we know it can happen. We’ve seen it. And we’re excited to help other organizations put it to work for themselves.

Are you ready to unlock the power of your people and finally get the results you want?

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Suneet Dua

Chief Product Leader, PwC US

Carrie Duarte

Workforce of the Future, Deals Leader, PwC US

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