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

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  • Many leading companies are focused on digitally upskilling their workforce, which will become critical to pandemic recovery efforts.
  • Giving employees more control over what, when and how they learn and apply new digital skills can help your investments pay off faster and more handsomely.
  • PwC’s own citizen-led upskilling efforts provide a roadmap for other companies to achieve similar success.

Upskilling strategy that works: business-led, people-powered, results-driven

Many high-profile companies are investing in ambitious upskilling programs to give their people the right expertise to help grow the business now and into the future. Your company may be doing it too, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, which spotlighted the need for a digitally skilled and resilient workforce. As pandemic recovery efforts gain momentum, CEOs are now looking forward to better days ahead. PwC’s latest Global CEO survey found that 76% of CEOs believe global economic growth will improve in the next 12 months.

Not only that, but effective upskilling initiatives have the potential to help create 5.3 million net new jobs globally by 2030, according to a new study by PwC and the World Economic Forum. Beyond those economic benefits, the report also shows that upskilling your people could give them the tools to actively participate in the economy even if their current jobs disappear. That, in turn, would reduce inequality and lead to greater social stability.

Here’s one way to boost your company’s odds of success. It’s called citizen-led innovation, an approach built around equal parts leadership and employee crowdsourcing. 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. We believe that without it, you simply can’t deliver the innovation, productivity and change at the 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 were the skills and license to take their newfound expertise in building bots, automated workflows and data visualizations and use it 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.

This people-led approach is at the heart of the digital journey unfolding with our own employees. And we’re getting results. Three years into the program, 55,000 PwC employees in the US have been upskilled and regularly use the Digital Lab, a collaboration platform where people are crowdsourcing and sharing solutions they’ve built themselves, like bots, data models and automated workflows.

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

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.

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 increase 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. In our firm, for example, we’ve seen around 7,000 contributions to our Digital Lab.

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  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. For another, it might mean joining other digitally savvy team members focused specifically on improving processes for clients in certain industries or streamlining workflow for specific client engagements.

In the US, PwC employees have applied thousands of staff-built digital assets to their daily work, automating 6.5 million hours of what used to be manual tasks. This improves the quality of that work by eliminating human error while freeing up time to focus on activity that provides more value to the firm, our clients or both.

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.

When people think about upskilling, they often jump to the conclusion 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 by automating certain jobs. It’s about helping your teams grow with their jobs. People become more knowledgeable, but not in a way that will be obsolete in three years. Instead, they become 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 upskilling 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 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 want or 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 are committed to giving people permission to experiment, play with what they've learned and try new things. And that they have 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 they 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 customized portal where they can do a quick self-assessment on their skills and knowledge and map out a learning program that fits them.

Meanwhile, on the Digital Lab, employees can find all manner of tools created by their peers to solve challenges encountered in their day-to-day work, many of which have also been customized for use on more than one client engagement. What’s more, the team that runs the lab can track what the most popular platforms and formats are so we can target our upskilling dollars and continuously improve.

It plays to cultural strengths

A people-led approach isn’t only about trying to get employees to behave differently. It’s also 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 providing each person with choices.

The payoff

Crowdsourced 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 digital 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.

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Suneet Dua

PwC Products & Solutions Leader, PwC US


Carrie Duarte Steele

Partner, Deals Transformation, PwC US


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