How to improve KE in the UK | Part 1: Why we don’t always get the skills we need

In the first of a series of blogs about how to improve Knowledge Exchange in the UK, David Russell sets out the common issues to consider when developing skills to meet strategic needs.

There are many factors that contribute to the flourishing of Knowledge Exchange in the UK in all its guises, and that can also hold us back if they are poorly aligned. Factors of prime importance include the national policy environment and how it incentivises or inhibits KE; funding quanta and flexibility; inter-connectedness of academia and industry; and institutional policies and priorities as played out through their activities and reflected in their structures and hierarchies.

But central to all of these factors is one above all others: namely, the skills, competencies, capacity and experience of the people who lead and facilitate Knowledge Exchange. KE is a people business, and the effectiveness of what goes on in the KE ecosystem cannot exceed the effectiveness of its practitioners.

So how can we get the right people with the right skills, in the right places and focusing on the right things? Again this is a multifaceted question, but in this blog I want to zoom in on one of the top issues: skills development, and why it often doesn’t happen in the way that it should.

Ten Barriers to Skills Development

There are common barriers across all professions and occupations that dampen the process of skills development. Their relative importance may vary from sector to sector, but the set of factors is fairly consistent.

1. Lack of time

It is common for professionals to report that they feel they do not have the time to spend on developing themselves. As Stephen Covey pointed out long ago (in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”) the idea that you have to hurry to cut down the tree by sunset so you don’t have time to sharpen your saw really is quite bafflingly misguided! This issue can be exacerbated in nascent professions such as Knowledge Exchange when there are no established norms or expectations of how much time should be spent on professional development. This issue is often bound up with the next, which is…

2. Equation of “development” with “training”

As Helen Featherstone (Head of Public Engagement at University of Bath) has pointed out, many activities are developmental of skills that do not look at all like formal training, and these are often overlooked. Training is in fact a specific subset of development, which is a much broader set of activities including professional exchange, coaching, mentoring, reflective practice and much more.  All of these activities can be engaged in explicitly and deliberately to aid skills development; or conversely can risk being overlooked as the opportunities they are.

3. Lack of ring-fenced resource

It is remarkable how untransparent mechanisms can be for securing budget for training. It can often be hidden away behind layers of process, or sometimes can be an early victim of cost-cutting.  But training is in fact one of the cheapest, highest-return activities available to budget-holders; assuming that is that they don’t fall foul of the next issue, which is…

4. The fact that a lot of training isn’t very good

Yes, it must be admitted. Training is one of those activities that attracts a lot of mediocre operators, as it has very low barriers to entry and customers cannot easily judge quality until they have parted with cash and are in the room (literally or virtually). But training – which is after all a specific branch of teaching – is a skilled, evidence-informed profession which can be done well or badly, and where skilled, qualified professionals make a huge difference.

5. Reluctance by managers to release staff or ‘back-fill’

As well as practitioners themselves feeling they lack the time for training, this sentiment is often mirrored by middle or senior managers; especially in occupations which involve real-time interaction with customers and so need back-fill when colleagues are absent to train. Often there is a ‘double whammy’ effect where organisations that most need skills development also have staff shortages, so back-fill becomes extremely difficult and/or expensive. This may be less of an issue in KE which is by nature more flexible than many professions, but it can still be encountered.

6. Identification of “CPD” with low-value compliance training

On the other hand, one issue which does seem to loom large in KE, both in universities and beyond, is the identification of “CPD” or “training” with low-value-added compliance training on issues such as health & safety or the latest IT system. I heard recently someone say “people don’t want CPD, they want things that will actually make them better at their jobs” (!) Training and Development are nothing if they do not do this, but sadly this link has become corrupted to an extent, it seems.

7. Perception of “skills gaps” as being a recruitment issue

It is very common for employers to talk about their ‘skills gaps’ or ‘skills needs’; but on closer inspection they are often actually talking about recruitment and how they find it difficult to fill vacancies with suitably qualified candidates. It is a category error to confuse skills gaps with recruitment challenges – if you have a normal turnover rate of 10% per annum, then well over half of your workforce of 2028 are already on your payroll today. Are the skills gaps that will impede the effectiveness of the organisation over the next 5 years really all in the positions that happen to fall vacant? Very unlikely.

8. Training being seen as an HR matter not a core strategic success factor

Organisations that succeed in their core business focus on optimising their ability to perform it. Their strategic plans include at their heart a serious approach to the questions “what do we want to achieve, who do we need to achieve it, and how do we equip our people to succeed?” In contrast, if training and development are marginalised to a subset of HR’s concerns – as if training were a perk for staff to be included alongside health insurance and a subsidised canteen – then it is no surprise that the organisation finds itself ill-equipped to succeed by its own measures.

9. Protectionism (“I learned the hard way…”)

Particularly prevalent in nascent professions that lack an established body of professional knowledge and an agreed skills/competencies framework, this ‘pioneer’ attitude can be a serious dampener on skills development. In this phenomenon, senior and successful practitioners hold a mindset that says nobody taught them how to do their jobs (often true in a nascent profession such as KE) and so they undervalue training and development of anything other than the “swapping war stories” or “passing down folk wisdom” varieties. This can be a brake on movement towards professionalisation, and if encountered does need to be challenged as not beneficial to the sector as a whole.

10. Fear of skills flight

Finally, many employers have a fear that if they train and develop their staff too well they will equip them for new and better jobs, and so will lose them to the competition! This is an understandable concern, but the evidence does not back it up. In fact there is fair evidence to show that clear commitment to training and development can be an aid to both recruitment and retention. Recruitment because talented individuals at the beginning of their careers want to work somewhere that will invest in them; and retention because training breeds loyalty, and staff want to develop in the place that has given them opportunities, though of course this is not always feasible. A certain degree of skills leaching is inevitable, but if you have created the right culture and ethos and invested in colleagues’ early careers, they are likely to remember this and perhaps return later in a more senior role. As ye sow, so shall ye reap!

In my next blog I will move on to considering some practical solutions to building skills effectively.