Ongoing Development

4 Big Ideas for Reskilling the Frontline Workforce

Posted on: February 12, 2020Updated on: January 18, 2024By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

Frontline employees are important. That point is not up for debate. Even the most foolproof organizational strategy will fail if the frontline does not execute as intended.

Unfortunately, many organizations are unable to provide frontline employees with the support they need (and deserve) to do their best work every day. Traditional training tactics, such as classroom sessions and eLearning modules, are near-to-impossible to deliver to large, dispersed, busy workforces. Industries such as retail, contact centers and hospitality also experience considerable turnover on their frontlines, which makes it even more difficult to provide each employee with the support they need to be successful. 

Screenshot from webinar with poll question: Do your frontline employees get the learning and development support they deserve?

Where this gap may have limited operational potential in the past, it is becoming a major strategic gap. Companies now compete based on their customer experience more than ever. As a result, they are redesigning roles and asking employees to develop new skills. At the same time, low unemployment is making it harder to find people to fill these roles. Lastly, technology is also having a major impact on these workplaces. A considerable number of job tasks currently handled by humans will be automated in the near future.

Screenshot from webinar with poll question: If you said no, why not?

What do you get when you fit all of these puzzle pieces together? It creates a very new picture of what it will mean to be a frontline employee. These roles may not go away, but they will change dramatically. According to the World Economic Forum, 54% of employees will require significant reskilling in the next three years. This puts L&D squarely behind the eight ball. They will still have to handle the basic stuff, including onboarding, compliance training, new products/services, etc. But L&D will also be expected to support reskilling initiatives, which will be essential for maintaining the company’s competitive advantage.

How can L&D balance the everyday needs of the business with future-focused skill development? And how can they reach their frontlines, who are already so difficult to develop? This is the challenge we explored in our recent Training Industry Webinar. 

#1 – Adopt a modern learning mindset

Reskilling is not a project. It’s the new norm for how employees must be supported in the always-changing workplace. Therefore, L&D must influence their stakeholders to think differently about the role of organizational learning. They must adopt modern learning principles that align with the everyday realities of how work gets done.

  • Modern learning is part of the workflow. L&D must find ways to fit support solutions into the everyday working experience and only require employees to take time away when absolutely necessary.
  • Modern learning takes advantage of the full ecosystem. L&D must leverage all available tactics, not just tools and content they administer, and partner with teams that are equally invested in employee performance.
  • Modern learning applies data to guide and accelerate decision making. L&D must fix their measurement challenges and gather data that can help them identify potential performance gaps and ask meaningful questions.
  • Modern learning provides a personal experience at scale. L&D must apply data and technology to provide right-fit support when and where each employee needs it.
  • Modern learning drives clear business impact. L&D must align their efforts with organizational priorities and use improved measurement practices to determine the impact of their solutions.
  • Modern learning fosters ongoing organizational agility. L&D must influence their peers and stakeholders to position continuous learning as a critical part of business performance, not just a check-the-box exercise.

#2 – Design solutions that fit the frontline persona

Frontline employees are eager to develop, but this enthusiasm comes with stipulations. They want a learning experience that is readily available when needed, easy to complete in the limited time they have available and personalized to focus only on topics that will help them do their jobs. If L&D hopes to stop chasing people down to complete their training, they must design solutions that fit their audience persona.

Diagram of the steps to designing a right-fit learning program: determine the right-fit solution, define the knowledge required to execute the expected behavior, define the observable behavior required to achieve the result, and agree on a clear, measurable business result.

Most companies don’t have $700 million to dedicate to employee reskilling. Therefore, rather than focus on content catalogs and program schedules, L&D must get targeted and apply their limited resources to address high-priority business challenges. In doing so, they must expand their toolkit beyond traditional courses and apply a wide range of right-fit tactics, including question-based learning, practice activities, on-demand resources and coaching.

#3 – Enable the most important people in workplace learning: managers

Speaking of coaching, L&D cannot transform its practices and enable wide-scale reskilling without support from frontline management. As I said at the beginning of this blog, even the best laid plans will fail without frontline execution. This is especially true for L&D, as frontline managers control so much about the everyday working experience for their teams. Managers are expected to achieve strict performance results with limited resources. Anything that conflicts with this priority is seen as a distraction.

Alignment with business priorities is absolutely required for manager buy-in. L&D must be clear with regard to how their solutions will help managers address their existing performance expectations. L&D should also leverage improved data practices to help managers improve their coaching activities by identifying each employee’s greatest areas of opportunity and achievement. Finally, managers are not immune from job transformation. L&D should provide them with the same reskilling opportunities as frontline employees but with a focus on the topics that matter most in their evolving roles.

#4 – Select tools that enable continuous learning

Traditional frontline training is relegated to the back room. If employees want to learn beyond their day-to-day experience, they have to step away from their jobs and use unfamiliar and inconvenient tools. L&D must shift the learning experience to fit within the workflow by leveraging the same tools employees use to do their jobs, such as mobile devices and point of sale systems. L&D must also select technology that can take advantage of expanded data and provide personalized learning experiences. This is just one way in which artificial intelligence (AI) will change what’s possible in frontline learning.

Chart of L&D technologies mapped by increasing value on the Y-axis and increasing adoption on the X-axis

AI-enabled technology is already making its way into the modern workplace. L&D must work with internal and external partners to leverage AI to improve their existing practices, such as administration and content development, while also introducing new tactics, including impact analysis and skill gap identification. AI will allow L&D to, for the first time, provide personalized, continuous learning and support to their frontline workforce at the speed and scale of their business. 

Modern workplace learning is a balancing act. L&D must execute familiar programs and processes that keep the lights on. At the same time, they must prepare employees for an uncertain future through continuous knowledge and skill development. These employees are the face of your business. They deserve support so they can do their best work every single day. But, for most companies, this will require fundamental changes in the organization’s workplace learning culture. Is your L&D team up for the challenge? 

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect's Headshot

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

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