Closing the capability gap in the time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has reminded business leaders that a more capable workforce creates more resilient companies. Even before the pandemic struck, organizations faced a dizzying pace of change and the ever-present risk that today’s best-performing companies could be tomorrow’s vanquished ones. Against this backdrop, the virus and its shocks have shown how the capabilities and mindsets of an organization’s workforce provide a foundation for resilience and successful adaptation.

Sadly, though, the traditional approach to corporate training was broken long before the pandemic arrived. Despite the enormous sums spent on a wide range of capability-building programs, the results seem uneven at best. One study estimated that US companies spend more than $150 billion annually on employee learning, but that a large majority of this spending does not deliver the intended results. Indeed, this research indicated that only one in four senior managers characterize the investment in capabilities as “critical to business outcomes.”1
This is not to say there are no success stories when it comes to building capabilities to drive behavioral change. A handful of institutions have met with high levels of success historically. These efforts tend to focus on in-person, hands-on learning using real business problems or competitive simulations. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a sudden halt to such gold-standard programs because of remote-working and physical-distancing requirements. Leaders who recognize the imperative to transform their workforces thus face another enormous challenge. This unexpected bend in the road is forcing companies to innovate their capability-building approach rapidly. The implications will linger long after the pandemic ends.

That may explain why we now hear a rising call from business leaders for a new kind of capability building that works in today’s virtual environments and focuses not simply on learning but also on achieving the behavioral change that comes from the day-to-day application of new learning and skills across broad segments of the workforce. That is the holy grail of behavioral change, as well as the ultimate foundation of resilient business operations.

This article, based on a series of case examples from the pandemic, explores some of the promising approaches we have seen companies take to meet the challenge presented by the COVID-19 crisis. Significantly, many of these innovations do more than just address the problems posed by remote working. Today’s cutting-edge approaches to capability building are also contributing new ways of ensuring that employees apply their new skills regularly. While we are still in the early days of this revolution in workforce upskilling, it is clear that there are opportunities to apply the science of learning and behavioral change in real business settings under the constraints imposed by COVID-19. Companies that have harnessed these innovations have delivered sustained behavioral change via high-quality capability building in a remote world.

The lessons these efforts offer point to three areas to focus critical action as companies work toward recovery. First, more workers than ever before need new capabilities, but the ability to build these skills via in-person experiences will be limited. Thus, digital delivery will need to evolve rapidly to fill the gap. Second, given the physical gaps and the psychological distance created by the pandemic, companies need new tools and approaches to engage and motivate learners to change their behaviors. Finally, the record on sustaining behavioral change is poor. In an environment of isolation and physical distancing, it will be critical to employ new reinforcement techniques that are at once simple and robust.


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