Building the necessary skills for digital transformation

The skills and capabilities needed to undergo digital transformation are in high demand as every company jockeys to gain a competitive advantage. To address the skills gap, some companies are prioritizing upskilling and reskilling. But to be effective, learning and development itself must undergo a transformation.

According to Daniela Proust, global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens, learning and development is at the core of digital transformation. “In light of a major transformation that businesses are facing, either by new business models arising or new innovation and technologies driving a certain business area forward, you see that you need to accompany that structural change, that structural workforce transformation in order to drive business transformation,” she says.

Traditional training methods need to also transform. Given the speed of technological change and need for business agility, multi-day offsite training (some of which may not even apply to the employee’s role) is no longer viable. Fortunately, the same technologies that are driving digital transformation in other areas of the business can also be leveraged to transform learning and development.

“Now people learn more often, for shorter periods of time, but training is much more tailored to what they need in that moment, and that is enabled by technology,” explains Proust.

In addition to delivering just-in-time training, a modern learning and development platform can provide valuable insights. “A platform-based learning ecosystem with a learning experience platform at the core enables you to gain insights that we never had in the past.” says Proust.

This new approach to learning delivers benefits to both the business and its employees as they acquire the skills that help accelerate the company’s digital transformation and fuel their own career growth.

This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with Infosys Cobalt.

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Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace. Our topic today is learning and development. In every industry, businesses are eager to leverage technological advancements to bring innovations to the marketplace. Thanks to cloud computing, a lot of those technologies are within reach. The problem, however, is finding and retaining the people who know how to use them.

Two words for you, upskilling, reskilling.

My guest today is Daniela Proust, who is the global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens.

This podcast is produced in partnership with Infosys Cobalt.

Welcome, Daniela.

Daniela: Hi, Laurel.

Laurel: According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, upskilling and reskilling were the top priorities for 59% of learning and development professionals in 2021. Do you think that this is a trend we can expect moving forward?

Daniela: Absolutely, yes. And to be honest with you, when I read this World Economic Forum’s report, I was surprised that it was only 59% of L&D professionals putting it as a top priority, because I was thinking it should be at least a hundred percent. But it may be because all the topics that were number two, three, and four, also had to do with how we can create an environment where people can learn and grow.

Laurel: And some of that is predicated on the fact that learning is traditionally a back-office role, right? But you need executive buy-in to give their support to build out learning and development programs. Another interesting data point is the Workplace Learning Report in 2020 said only 27% of learning and development professionals felt their CEOs were active champions of learning. But then in 2021, we know what happened, right? Sixty-two percent are now champions of learning. So that’s a massive jump in just one year. What is it that these CEOs are beginning to understand? What are they learning that we just may not know yet?

Daniela: If you ask me, I think it finally gets on stage where it should be. So, it’s spot on. And I’m very happy to see these statistics out there. When I reflect on the journey within Siemens, I also see over the years that learning has evolved from one important topic of HR to become a core topic of HR, to then become a core topic and be part of the overall business strategy. So, it has moved a lot in the sense of how important it is and also how much attention is given to the topic by executive leadership.

Laurel: Being a champion to employees when it comes to learning and development is so important from executives, but what does it take to get to the point where learning drives business transformation?

Daniela: I think it’s a very important question, and that is one that keeps me up at night. I think that learning is absolutely driving business transformation. Why? Because we see that change is everywhere at a pace that we had never imagined. We simply don’t know what the next jobs are to come tomorrow, in five years, 10 years. In order to be successful and drive successful business, you need to continuously adapt the roles that you have to drive your successful business. Right? And I see that in the talent acquisition space. I see that almost every job posting now is a new one. So if that holds true, we have new jobs, new skills, new competencies all the time. And therefore, we all need to continuously learn and grow. And only then can the business be successful. In light of a major transformation that businesses are facing, either by new business models arising or new innovation and technologies driving a certain business area forward, you see that you need to accompany that structural change, that structural workforce transformation in order to drive business transformation. So for me, it’s at the core of it.

Laurel: There’s certainly many challenges when we’re talking about digital learning and business transformation. And the covid-19 pandemic certainly had a significant effect on how and where people work. But it also caused employees, everybody to reevaluate that work life balance and their career goals. In turn, what kind of effect has all of this had on learning and the enterprise? And why is now a critical time for enterprises to look at their learning programs?

Daniela: Yeah, I think the covid pandemic has accelerated a transformation that was already happening. I would say we had major drivers for change with regards to digital transformation on the whole that were already radically and disruptively changing the overall approach of learning or to learning to platform-based ecosystems, thinking in experiences and not just traditional courses that are delivered in a classroom environment.

Technology is really enabling us to provide completely new personalized learning experiences at scale to our people. When the pandemic started, I was so happy that we were ready to then completely transform the way we bring learning to our learners in rapid time. To bring personalized learning experiences to our people that they can pick and choose what they want to learn at the moment of need integrated in the flow of work.

I mean, these are words that sound easy, but it is a massive shift. We did a survey three, four years ago about what people were thinking about learning. Siemens as a technology company has always valued competence and expertise very, very much. But also we had a quite traditional approach to learning. We had a number of classroom trainings. And it was almost like an incentive that at the end of a year, you would discuss with your manager what has worked well in the course of the year, and then get a training course to help you continue on your journey. Now people learn more often, for shorter periods of time, but training is much more tailored to what they need in that moment, and that is enabled by technology.

The pandemic made that happen so that people, I would say were even forced to try it out. These experiences that were created and delivered to them, they could try them out and see, “Oh, actually it doesn’t hurt. Oh, actually it’s helping me. I should really engage in this.” And it was a turbo booster of cultural adjustment. It was a turbo booster of taking more ownership to be curious and find out what is relevant for you and then embarking on that journey yourself, but also in teams or with your manager.

I think on the whole it has indeed significantly shifted in a very short period of time, in two years. And when you ask about how is that also causing an impact on the overall work environment, one thing is the overall topic of learning and development. Certainly, major shift is happening there.

We also hear from our people that they are much more conscious. How do I want to work? What kind of environment do I want? How often do I actually really have to go to the office? Maybe twice per week is enough and everything else I can do in virtual settings and still be connected even at scale across the globe. So, I think this is probably the best outcome out of a difficult time that we completely reevaluate how we want to work and how we want to learn and grow.

Laurel: That’s a great way to kind of frame what traditional learning was. You’d gather in a classroom, perhaps you’d fly to a different city. You’d meet with colleagues, and you’d all take days-long learning classes, perhaps, away from work away from everything else. But now, as you say, with technology and with the ability to work where you are and learn where you are, that learning has kind of moved, not just from in-person, but to online and where you are in the flow of work. I think that particular idea is very unique and new to development and learning. Correct?

Daniela: Absolutely. What I find so interesting is these concepts that we saw come out of industrialization in certain industries, and then all of a sudden you had, according to Porter, different strategies that you could pick. You would either be a mass provider of commodities, or you would differentiate through certain things that you can tailor and customize and therefore get a prime for it. And then, all of a sudden, these things like mass customization were starting. If you think of how jeans were then produced: you could order online, according to your complete body shape, and it would nonetheless be produced in the same factory environment. For me, that is kind of the same thing that is happening here: we have a huge array of learning opportunities, and we can tailor them through algorithms and matching mechanisms to the individual. It is really about personalized learning experience at scale. And for me, that is totally fascinating.

Laurel: I also like that choosing of words very carefully, which is continuous learning, right? Learning isn’t just something you do at a certain time and place. We are always continually learning new skills, new ideas, new ways of working. And to seamlessly integrate that into your work life certainly helps. But how, after two years of working from home battling digital fatigue, how do we make learning online interesting and exciting when it is being delivered via the technology?

Daniela: That is a very good question and super important. At the end of the day, it’s all about relevance so that you get the relevant learning opportunities to the learner at the moment of need. And that also the experience is really great for the individual. Sounds easy, it’s really not so easy to do because everybody learns in a different way. You might enjoy podcasts most, somebody else likes videos or more hybrid interactions or a complete learning path. And you have the whole array at your fingertips so you can pick and choose what makes most sense for you, and I think that is what makes it so powerful.

At the same time, I fully agree that we ramped up the technology and completely new experiences in rapid time. And people indeed are getting tired of being in front of the screen now so long every day with many, many more meetings. I don’t know if you have read this. There’s a study. I think it was a 250% increase in the number of meetings in just one year. This is just craziness. And I must say, I can mirror it for myself. I feel that too. So, when you think about digital fatigue, that it is happening just because everything becomes so digital and virtual, what we are competing for is our people’s time. That becomes the most important factor and denominator. Therefore, for people to prioritize this kind of learning experience, it has to be a really good experience and has to help them and be relevant to them. So that is the success. It sounds easy, as I said, it is not so much. But that is where the technology comes into play.

So yes, technology is revolutionizing learning, and the experience is really at the core of it. You have concepts like gamification that allow you to bring social components into the platform, put challenges out, have some rewards and recognition mechanisms, and all of that bundled together makes a great experience for the people.

Laurel: What are the other benefits of a modern learning program? I’ve seen some companies do things like, as you mentioned, engineering challenges. Even hackathons could be considered a way to learn in a different way. Because everyone does, as you mentioned, learn in different ways. Do you feel that companies are looking at this way of distributed learning and continuous learning as a way to bring that change even to the way that we think of learning?

Daniela: Absolutely. It’s a total driver for innovation and it is also a driver to create something like a company memory of expertise and knowledge. Because you can bring together through one single point of entry, a universe of learning opportunities to the people.

You have so many great people and organizations that can contribute with latest insights, topics that they want to position and bring to the people. We haven’t had that in the past. Imagine a company like Siemens, a huge technology company active in so many industries. It means that we need to bring together learning opportunities from, let’s say, a functional perspective. So, if you are in finance or in supply chain, we need to then also complete it by, we call it cross-functional learning opportunities, which are topics that are relevant for everybody like languages or communication. We also have a whole learning landscape available on technology topics, on product-specific topics, on market-specific topics. It’s a huge landscape of learning opportunities, and everybody needs a subset, and everybody needs a very individual specialized subset. That is a huge benefit to be able to tailor it to that. And by having such an approach, I must also say it’s much more efficient and productive because it saves time and money. People can have access to a whole universe. They don’t have to travel, don’t have to then encounter programs where maybe only a certain percentage of it is relevant to them. It’s really helpful also to drive the overall business success.

Laurel: And part of that business success is digital transformation, right? Adopting and rolling out new technologies like automation and artificial intelligence. This will create a new division of labor between humans and machines, which will disrupt jobs globally. But as these jobs evolve, new roles will be created with people having specific advantages over machines and AI like managing and decision making and communicating and interacting — all of those things that humans are really good at. How can business people prepare and prepare their employees for this shift from automation?

Daniela: Yeah, I think it is something that accompanied us already since quite a few years. But there, again, the speed and also the level of skills needed has increased so significantly. I would say it’s almost like a bouquet of things that you can do and should do. You need to, as a company, create an identity and first of all, say that you really think learning and individual growth is super important. It is a priority for the company, and you need to give it a positive spin. It is there for you, it is there to support you, it starts with you. That is why we have initiated a company-wide campaign that we call MyGrowth.

It’s much more than a campaign, it’s an overall concept and approach. But it is really meant to inspire and engage people to try out the different experiences that we provide and help them to navigate and give orientation what they should and can use. Then we have also initiated a target on learning hours because we really wanted to nudge people and say, “Look, it’s important that you take the time and that you take it as a priority.”

With regard to the specific skills that you were mentioning around automation and digitalization, we then can include specific strategic topics that we push to our people. We drive awareness campaigns through learning opportunities. Those can be targeted for certain audiences because people also need different skill levels. Or we can push it at scale. This is a highly flexible system. If I may give you an example, we have one pocket in our businesses that is called Digital Industries Software. It fits very nicely to what you were mentioning. The CEO of that business last year said we are in a software business, so AI is a major driver for everything that we are doing. Therefore, my whole organization needs to understand what first of all, artificial intelligence is, let’s say on a very generic level. But also, people need to understand how we are using it as a technology internally, but also as a driver for our business and software solutions. And then we created different learning paths for different expertise layers, and could therefore, bring the whole topic in a very comprehensive manner to thousands of people of our Digital Industries business.

Laurel: So, you are doing two things. One, you’re pushing out what you think that everyone needs to know and learn, artificial intelligence being a big topic. But then how do you then also do assessments of people and their skills to identify skill gaps and then align learning programs with the business strategy to basically not just get a return on investment? Of course, everything does come back to profit, but also return on investment on the employee’s time and expertise. Because that is also something you’re growing.

Daniela: Yes. And the skills topic is a very hot one, I can tell you. It’s all over the place and coming from very different lenses and use cases. Technology plays a major role. A platform-based learning ecosystem with a learning experience platform at the core enables you to gain insights that we never had in the past. We can see what interests people. We can see why and for what are they engaging in learning, what are they then actually learning or what are they not learning, and then therefore, leaving. If you then multiply that and you see that over the overall workforce, you see also what are hot topics, what are skills that are coming on the horizon. You can see that in certain communities. We have certain communities that are, for instance, we call them digital talents, like tech talents. And there, you already see what the next topics are that will come on the horizon. And then we can match as a learning function, do we already have the right learning opportunities for the topics that are being searched for? That is one thing. But that is more the bottom-up part of it that is super important.

From a top-down perspective, we also have a very strategic approach to that, which we call NextWork where we see areas of major workforce transformation, and usually the levers are either disruptive new business models or/and technology that is driving change.

And there, we do targeted workforce transformation analysis. We take a look at, okay, what are the jobs in that area today, where do we see those roles evolving? Potentially some of them being completely eliminated or completely new ones arising that we hadn’t even known. Then we match that with our workforce and see how we can accompany our people from A to B. But there, you then need to go from a, let’s say, conceptual level of the analysis that you do in the first step to then apply it to the individual to make it meaningful, and then match the relevant learning interventions and development path for the individual. And for that, assessments play a key role.

In our learning platform that we call My Learning World, we have a functionality that we call My Skills. If, for instance, a manager says we have significant things happening in this area, you are becoming a software developer, then you can assign a role to that person and say, “Look, why don’t you check out whether this role is the next right approach for you.” And then you get a skill assessment where you can see the major needed capabilities, skills, and competencies for that role. Then you can self-rate yourself also in alignment with your manager and get very targeted learning interventions mapped. So it gives the individual a very good orientation where to start and where to focus.

Laurel: What do you see as the future of learning and development? What excites you the most?

Daniela: I’m really passionate about people. I think the whole topic is super exciting. And I think technology is such an opportunity to radically shift the world of learning and development. And it already is. For me, learning is simply never complete. We all have to continuously learn, to unlearn, and also to relearn. I think the more we bring this awareness across that people are aware that they are in the driver’s seat of their own employability, that is really, really important. And it excites me. And I think there, you have to work with concepts like curiosity, work with people and inspire them, ignite a passion for learning. Because usually, people are by nature very curious.

Laurel: At some point we’ll have to talk more about what unlearning means, because that is certainly an interesting idea. We kind of go through life learning very specific things, and it is partly correcting the way we think about ideas and methods that perhaps are not the best way of learning it. But then also, it’s a bit of a way to retrain the brain, isn’t it? There’re better ways of doing math now than there were 20, 30 years ago.

Daniela: It is. I think this topic of unlearning, people sometimes think it sounds a bit paradox, but it comes from the fact that when you have learned something, it is really ingrained in your brain and you start with the hypotheses of how you see the world and how you see things, how they should be. Right? Therefore, you will always start with that frame of reference. But if then the frame of reference would need to be changed just because the outside world is shifting so much, it means you have to almost delete what your first reaction would be and start completely fresh and be open to a new approach. And that is one that we all have to learn and do more probably.

Laurel: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Daniela, for what has been a fantastic episode of the Business Lab.

Daniela: Thank you so much. It’s great to be part of this.

Laurel: That was Daniela Proust, the global vice president and head of global people enablement and growth at Siemens, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review overlooking the Charles River.

That’s it for this episode of Business Lab. I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can also find us imprint on the web and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at

This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you’ll take a moment to rate and review us. Business Lab is a production of MIT technology review. This episode was produced by Collective Next.

Thanks for listening.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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