Perspectives on the skills obsession: Mirjam Neelen

31 August, 2022| Ger Driesen| 9 min read

Constantly upskilling, reskilling and acquiring new skills to keep up in a world that is changing rapidly. It’s considered normal nowadays. How do experts view this skills obsession? And how can training providers capitalise on the opportunities this brings?

In a series of four interviews, I talk with leading names in the field.

Mirjam Neelen from Novartis thinks upskilling and reskilling should have always been a priority.

We need to move towards spending more time on really practising skills within organisations.

Mirjam Neelen, Head of Global Learning Experience Design & Learning Sciences, Novartis

Who is Mirjam Neelen?

Lives in Dublin (Ireland) with husband Paul, sons Morris and Frits, and their two cats Education: MSc in Learning Sciences, MA in Psycholinguistics and BA in Speech Therapy Company: Novartis (Dublin) Role: Head of Global Learning Experience Design & Learning Sciences Loves to: write for her blog and eat the food that her husband cooks

What do you think are the main reasons that upskilling and reskilling are at the centre of attention these days?

“I am wondering what we’ve been doing all these years if we haven’t been focusing on upskilling and reskilling. From that perspective, I am very surprised by all the attention. From a talent management perspective, I am less surprised. Job architectures and job roles can be quite rigid, and therefore make it hard to manage skills and support fluid and flexible career movement. I think that we need more flexibility in organisations.

Needs might change quickly in an organisation. You have to be able to identify really quickly what the required skills are for that specific need and who you have in-house that could support that need. I think from that perspective, the skills focus makes sense.”

Has something changed looking at the COVID pandemic and related to this topic? Why is it happening now?

“The only thing I can come up with is that there is a need around digital skills for the workforce. There is probably change within certain fields, like changes in, for example, takeaway restaurants. I assume that, suddenly, you need way more people in that space, and you have to find a way to quickly upskill people. So, there are probably changes in certain businesses.

I’m kind of stuck in my own elite knowledge-worker bubble where people were already working from home and online. But I guess there are loads of industries where there has been a lot of impact and need for upskilling and reskilling that nobody could have envisaged before COVID.”

Does that mean that within Novartis, upskilling and reskilling is not a hot topic at the moment?

“Oh no, it definitely is. We have a whole strategy around skilling.”

So that strategy was already there before COVID and didn’t change that much?

“Well, the whole global economy changed. There’s definitely been changes in the pharma industry as well. A very simple example: marketing and sales force people were used to visiting health care professionals in clinics and, suddenly, that stopped. So, they really needed to upskill in how to digitally engage with customers.

But from an L&D perspective, it’s always the same thing: you identify needs and then there is a process to create and implement solutions. From that perspective, there’s not so much new.”

What were the main challenges in your company that made this topic an important one before COVID?

“It has to do with the fact that the needs are changing quickly and that we just have to find a way to better capture data around the talent and skills that we have in-house, so that we can respond better to changing needs. I think from a learning perspective, it’s an opportunity. The focus should have always been on how to help people develop skills.”

In the Dutch language, when we talk about ‘skills’, we also mean knowledge, behaviour and mindset. Are these elements also included when talking about upskilling and reskilling, in your opinion?

“I would say they might be included, yes. Mostly for knowledge workers but also in other areas.

When I talk about skills, I wouldn’t mind if we would equate them with tasks. Because only that way can we get to a point where we really understand concretely what that skill means in the context of the job. And that, to me, automatically means that you’re always dealing with an integration of knowledge and skills, added to mindset or whatever you want to call them.”

What, from your perspective, would be the biggest opportunities and challenges for learning providers or vendors with this hype?

“I am a bit sceptical when it comes to that. I feel that what vendors mostly do is adapt their language but it’s not necessarily what they do. What I see most at the moment is the whole tagging of skills for content. To me, that’s such a marginal part of it all. It’s important from the perspective that people can easily find what they’re interested in and what they focus on, but it doesn’t have much to do with skills development.

I do think that vendors could help with providing way more application opportunities or practices in their learning designs related to skills development, such as not only scenarios, simulations and things like VR and AR but also communities of practice where people actually create things together to improve their practice. That could definitely be a part of skilling. And there’s loads of other opportunities like coaching and training.”

Do you work directly with some vendors to get this right?

“Sometimes yes, we do a bit of adaptive learning, which is also knowledge retention. It can definitely play a part in an integral learning experience. If it’s a part of that, then it’s totally fine. It’s another story if vendors say, ‘Let’s remove the stickers and replace them with upskilling and reskilling and sell it again’, only because skills are a hot topic.

We also do VR stuff when it comes to practising standard operating procedures. So that’s about skills. Things like pipetting or how they need to clean manufacturing sites are examples.”

There is so much stuff out there around how to design for skills effectively. Use it.

Mirjam Neelen, Head of Global Learning Experience Design & Learning Sciences, Novartis

It’s not often the case that somebody from a company asks to spend more time on really practising skills, is it?

“Right, and that’s exactly what I think we need to move towards. How can we really find focus such as where our expertise as learning professionals should be? How can we then find areas in the organisation that are ready for that, willing to invest in it and where you can really go forward and measure the impact of what you’re designing, prototyping and iterating. That’s the opportunity that I see here.”

What bad practices do you see related to handling the skills obsession?

“Again I would say: where we talk the talk but still do not walk the walk. That’s what I see a lot. I see examples where people call everything skills while they actually mean learning. Which is a really important distinction to keep making.

What we should invest in as L&D is the harder part: how do you do task analysis? How do you do needs analysis? How do you do more cognitive task analysis to understand what people need to learn?”

Who are you referring to? The corporate side, the vendor side or both?

“Both. So, what I see is that the business in various organisations I’ve worked in seems to have the idea that there’s no time to do that type of analysis. There’s often this culture that the business is asking, and L&D is delivering. So therefore, within L&D. we don’t always have the capabilities to have these challenging conversations and to demonstrate how it should be done. And the vendors just want to sell their stuff too. They have a commercial model. That’s just the reality.”

That seems to me like a deeper topic and as long as we don’t solve this altogether, we can talk about upskilling, reskilling and a hundred more topics, but it stays difficult.

“Exactly. I think there’s also this topic of skills assessment. How are we even going to measure what skills people have? Are we going to ask them to do it themselves or are we trying to find a way to measure their skills as they show they are competent? I don’t have a simple answer to these questions. There’s just a lot of work to be done.”

What is the worst thing that could happen in the learning community as a result of this skills hype, something that we should prevent?

“I think there’s a false sense of progress. Like the whole thing that we start using the skills language but that we’re still doing the same old things. That’s most scary to me. It’s even better to not do a great job and be aware of it than having all the right language and think that you’re doing a great job and actually aren’t.”

What would be a smart thing learning providers and vendors could do right now to do a better job?

“First of all, please keep it real. Help customers to see whatever you’re offering, what it can and cannot do and how it can and cannot support when it comes to upskilling, reskilling and cross-skilling. Really understand the clients’ need and help them see where your product would fit in the context of solutions.
And the other part is trying to be creative when it comes to time for application while learning. When we think about technology, there are probably loads of practice opportunities that we don’t consider or that vendors don’t consider enough. Think about how to take it to the next level, considering application, practice and feedback.

And then there is the data part, the whole skills assessment side of things. How can you recognise skills in the data that you have in your organisation? How can you extract skills from existing job descriptions? It’s an interesting topic and not easy to figure out as an organisation.”

Something else you’d like to add?

“One thing I’d like to mention is that from an L&D perspective, we should not forget that research around skills, performance et cetera is old stuff. Use it; stand on shoulders of giants! Don’t pretend that this is new, and you need to reinvent the wheel, because you don’t. There is so much stuff out there around how to design for skills effectively. Use it.”

What kind of profession would you be in if you hadn’t ended up here?

“When I was a child, I wanted to become a singer. The problem, however, is that I can’t sing. Somehow, I have also been attracted to becoming a researcher around something ‘mind’ or ‘learning’ related. I studied psycholinguistics, which is about how people process language in their brains and I have also worked as a speech therapist with children with neurological disorders. However, I am not convinced I would be good at researching.”

What skills would you like to learn yourself?

“I would love to get better with data and data analytics. And I would really like to learn to keep my face neutral and always say very wise and thoughtful things.”

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Ger Driesen

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