Q&A with Krishna Kumar: Building and Retaining a Digital-Ready Workforce

Krishna founded Simplilearn in 2010, growing it from what started as a project management blog into what is now one of the largest players in delivering certification training for working professionals. Krishna recently sat down for a podcast interview and shared some insights on learning and development and about building and retaining a digital-ready workforce.

Q: Digital transformation is already sweeping through global companies and their workforces. How is this affecting incumbent employees?

A: First of all, digital transformation is a reality that most companies have to go through because businesses are going more and more digital. Why businesses are doing this is because employees and customers—every one of us—are spending more time in the digital world than in the physical world. Now, what does that mean to employees? I think the only option that most employees have is to get ready for that. Identify what skills you can add to your existing skill set and what kind of roles you can take in the future. 

The good news is that most companies are serious about making sure that their employees make that transition. Why is that? Because there isn't enough talent available in the market. If I am running a large corporation and I want to have a large number of employees who understand digital skills, there is no option for me to go to the market and hire those people because there aren't enough who know those skills. This whole phenomenon has only come about in the last couple of years. So, companies are investing heavily, and they are very serious about making sure that their employees make the transition. As an employee, you just need to cooperate and become part of the future. 

Q: What do you think are the most critical skills for organizations to nurture in their team?

A: There is a need to unlearn, relearn, and be open to learning new skills all the time. That is the most essential skill that employees should have, and that's the most critical skill that companies can nurture within their organization. If you look at today, data, AI, machine learning, and cybersecurity are some of the top skills required to be successful in the workforce. But, we don't know—maybe five years down the line we'll have a new set of skills that will be required. So, I think as long as employees are open to learning new skills, we are all good. 

Q: So, just having a general learning culture, where people know that they'll be learning new skills, that's important? 

A: The shelf life of skill has become 18 months. Most likely, something that you learn today will become outdated in 18 months because innovation is happening much faster today than the world has ever seen in the past.

Q: Well, the good news is that I think a lot of employees are onto this now. I saw that learning was rated as a top challenge in 2019's Global Human Capital Trends because people now say that the opportunity to learn is one of their top reasons for taking a job. Eighty-six percent of companies in this global survey rated the issue as important or very important. So, what can employers do to use training to improve not only their current employees but to make their companies even more attractive to future candidates? 

A: So, my first reaction to this is that we should also take some credit for this fact. The reason why I say we should take some credit for the fact that employees are giving more importance to learnability, or their ability to learn at their new job, as one of the key reasons for joining that company is also because of companies like us. We are continuously creating this message in the market—if you are continuously reskilling yourself, you have a great career ahead. If you're not learning continuously, then you don't have a great career ahead. 

So, I think this whole ecosystem of education technology companies have created enough noise in the market that it has become an accepted reality that the only way to thrive in today's world is through continuous learning. That's the reality—most employees want to join a company where they can learn and grow. So, companies have no other option but to focus on those. The good news is that most companies are serious about that. The large companies are serious about investing in reskilling and building a learning culture. 

I also have started seeing younger organizations—maybe three or four years old with less than 500 employees that are also serious about building a learning culture and trying to encourage their employees to learn something new every day. So, net-net, it's a good sign for the industry, it's a good sign for companies, and a good sign for employees. I only want to see this happening even more than what it is happening today. 

Q: The continuous learning culture, not just the idea that "yeah, we may have to learn some new stuff?" 

A: Yeah, there's nothing nowadays called "learn something, forget about it, and then, again, learn, if needed." Learning is no longer an event, and learning is an ongoing process. You need to learn something every day. At the same time, unlearn what you have learned in the past because what was true earlier might not necessarily be true in the future. 

Q: So, is there one type of learning program for everyone?

A: Unfortunately, not. See, everybody is different, and there's a lot of focus now on personalized learning. There's a lot of focus on accepting the fact that different people learn in a different manner. There are some people who are very comfortable—give them the right kind of curated content, and they will figure it out, they will learn on their own. There are a lot of other people who require more help. They don't know how to get started, and they need an instructor, they need a guide, they need an assistant who can help them get started and also help them to complete the journey. 

So, these are two broad categories: learn on your own or learn through assistance. And, there are a lot of models in between. Like, what kind of self-learning, what kind of assisted learning is the right combination? I think it depends upon the individual. The good news is that most companies have started realizing this fact, and they are now trying to provide multiple training options to their employees to choose what is right for them. 

Q: Aside from taking lessons, whether they're self-paced or with a live instructor, what else can improve people's learning?

A: I think another thing that we have seen is learning by doing. We see this catching on really very fast in the market, wherein companies are trying to introduce, even providers like Simplilearn, hands-on learning. So, let's say you're teaching some skills. While you are teaching that skill, at the same time, give them a platform to try those skills. Such kinds of platforms are called cloud labs. So, you provide an environment where people can write code, and where they can see the outcome of the code so they get more confident that what they learned they really applied—and, that they can really apply those skills on a real project, as well. In the last couple of years, I have seen many new vendors coming up in the market who are trying this level of involvement.

Q: Yeah, and that's much less risky than on-the-job training where you actually give someone access to your Google AdWords, for example, and try to make them campaigns because that can be expensive. When you're you're playing with real money, you can be a little less it's hard to be as experimental as you need to be to learn, and so these cloud labs sound like a great way to go.

A: Yes, and my experience is that most companies don't do that, so basically, you don't get an opportunity to do that at all. You start incremental and do something slowly, but on private platforms, you can pretty much go all out and try out everything, so it was definitely a great improvement.

Q: Well, what about traditional learning options like colleges and universities? What's their role in the upskilling of current and future employees? 

A: These traditional universities and colleges, for a long time, they were sitting on the fence, trying to see what was happening in the market. But now, what I have seen is that they are also participating very actively in this space. A lot of leading universities have launched short-term courses with an education provider like Simplilearn. Their aim is to expose their faculties; they want to expose the subject matter knowledge that these universities have. The fact is that a lot of these universities have great professors, and they have a lot of knowledge on learning, pedagogy, so they are using that expertise to launch short courses and let people benefit from them. So, they have become part of the ecosystem. 

They are also promoting the fact that degrees and full-time programs are not necessarily for everyone. For various reasons: people can't afford it, people don't have much time, and now learning is no longer an event like it used to be in the past—that you spend the first 25 years of your life studying, then you spend the next 50 years working, and then you retire. Now, it's going to be a mix and match of both—that you learn something, you work, you take a break to learn again, you start working again, and so on. 

So, since learning has become an ongoing process—the universities are also participating in this process, which is a good sign. Also, what I've seen is that professionals like the fact that they are doing a course from a leading university—maybe it adds to the prestige angle—that OK, I did 'XYZ' from one of the top five universities in the world. 

I think this whole thing is a good phenomenon. 

Q: Now looking at the future—2020 and beyond—what trends do you see in digital transformation regarding employee development? 

A: I see a lot of new trends coming. One of the early trends that I see is that most of the digital transformation consulting companies have started providing skill mapping and recommendations on what courses that employees can do to be ready for the digital world. Earlier, this role was primarily being done by the internal learning and development team or skilling companies like us, but nowadays, I see this as a very, very common trend where consulting companies are also participating in this process. 

Q: We all know that building an L&D program internally, from scratch, there's a lot of work. It takes a lot of time and money, and some companies are not even ready to commit to engaging with a third-party training provider to bring a learning program in-house. What's another option that companies have to help upskill their employees? 

A: One option that I see which is very popular is called a tuition reimbursement program. Many companies have this program wherein employees can decide what courses they want to take, from which provider they want, in what format they want, when they want to do it, etc. As long as they complete the program successfully, companies generally reimburse the fee. I think it is a great model wherein you can go lean, and at the same time, give complete flexibility to employees to do what they want to do. When employees select what they have to do, the great news is that the acceptance of such courses is very high. I select what is good for me—I decide—so in a way, I am already excited about completing this course because I always wanted to take the course. 

Many times when companies push a course on employees, it does not get the same acceptance because it's being pushed upon them by someone, and they might not necessarily be excited about doing that. For example, let's say a company wants an employee to complete a project management course, but that particular employee's aspiration might be data science. So, you can imagine the kind of interest and enthusiasm he will show to do a project management course. But, if he had the reimbursement option, he would have gone for a data science course, and the chances are that since he is excited about building his career in data science would have done that course successfully. 

Q: Well, that's a great idea, but on top of having employees pick their own courses, sometimes you need a complete skill set. With so many interrelated skills needed in different sectors, what's a smart way to ensure that employees obtain a complete curriculum of all the necessary courses they might need?

A: The trend that I see is that most companies are setting up what we call academies, like data academy, analytics academy, digital marketing, machine learning, and so on. The intent is that they run full programs. They identify employees who need to get those skills and enable them to go through the entire curated program and complete the program successfully to be designated as "OK, this guy is trained on data analytics, or this set of employees are trained on machine learning, or this other set of employees are trained on cybersecurity."

Again, this is training that I see is very, very common—that companies have an academy. They identify employees who need to go through those academies and complete those programs successfully so that they can be deployed on projects that require those skills in the future. 

Q: Just to wrap it up, what else do you see as a trend to keep an eye on for L&D? 

A: Another trend that I see, and I will say, this was a phenomenon that used to happen in the past also. Lately, this has become more and more popular, wherein companies are sponsoring full degree programs for their employees. So, let's say someone is in a retail company working as a tailor, and they are sponsoring a degree program for those employees. Three years down the line, they can become maybe a store manager. 

In a way, they also move up in their value chain, too. For companies, the advantage is that they're retaining the talent. That knowledge is working out well for everyone—you won't have to go out and hire from the outside because you are retaining the talent. At the same time, the talent who was earning, let's say $25,000 per year—by giving him a degree course and moving him up to the next level, you are taking his income from $25,000 a year to maybe $40,000, which is a pretty big improvement. This is a trend that I see happening more and more in the future.

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