The Difficulties of Digital Upskilling

Updated: Jul 27


Words by Cheyenne Eugene


The pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already gaining steam: digital transformation. Workplaces are changing and leaders must respond by upskilling their workforces, but what are the risks of digital upskilling, and how can leaders ensure they are building empowered and resilient teams?


A team are hiking through unfamiliar terrain. The map that they were given at the beginning of their journey no longer carries them to their destination. They are having to adjust to a new environment that they had little warning of; the team are feeling anxious and lost. What should they do?


The digital transformation we have witnessed over the past 18 months has conjured up similar feelings for teams in the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part, this transformation has given the industry a push in the right direction, acting as a catalyst for necessary change. Ruchin Kansal, former Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy, Digital Services, Siemens Healthineers, outlines three key areas that have been transformed: “Virtual clinical trials, digital promotion, and digital health;” going onto explain: “The pandemic necessitated investments in digital capabilities, which will now likely remain mainstream.” While this is undoubtedly positive, we must also consider the fall-out of rapid digital uptake; there is more to digital transformation than just a technological makeover.


Arpita Pani, Regional Digital and Multichannel Content Manager, EURISA, Abbott, tells us: “Digital transformation includes people, processes, and technologies working together to seamlessly create higher levels of business impact in the virtual world.” She continues: “Businesses who had not planned for the digital transformation as a critical business imperative suffered.” This is relevant not only to the technology itself, but to teams, particularly in terms of employee progression and wellbeing.


Addressing the drawbacks of digital transformation, Pani says: “Recent changes have stretched resources and affected employee morale.” While many companies have worked hard to upskill teams and keep people engaged and rewarded, there have been concerns around team and individual confidence. Kansal explains: “Digital transformation can make part of the workforce redundant, both from a skills and labour perspective. While we have not seen widespread redundancy, there are certainly a set of employees that are beginning to feel nervous.”


Recent changes have stretched resources and affected employee morale

It is paramount then that the industry ensures teams feel empowered rather than isolated when launching into a digital upskilling campaign. Speaking at the 2021 HBA European Leadership Summit, Lisa Banks, Vice President and Global Head of Digital Innovation, GSK, says: “It can be quite intimidating, we’re not all cured technologists.” Banks acknowledges that technology will touch all of us no matter what sphere we work in, so there is a need to understand the fundamentals and commit to developing ourselves, as well as our teams. She urges: “We need to remain relevant and not be fearful about where we’re perhaps lacking in our knowledge. As leaders, we have to be ready to demonstrate and encourage a ‘life-long learning’ mindset to those that we work with.”


Rather than completely turning its efforts to employing new, often younger, talent, it is important that the industry elevates its current workforce. Pani advises that organisations “appreciate the human capital who have been contributing to the success of the company and help them to manoeuvre through these uncertain times.” In practice, this means that organisations must give employees the opportunity to reskill, upskill, and participate in projects with greater learning opportunities. “The train has left the station,” Kansal says. “And the only way to get on it is to invest in building new skills.” Offering advice to employees who feel alienated by the digital transformation, he adds: “Find the area you feel most passionate about and go deep in building your skills in that area.”


While digital transformation is both overdue and crucial, companies need to ensure digital equity across their teams. Support from the executive level is vital, as is curiosity and a willingness to learn from employees. Industry-wide, the consensus is that we are already embarking on the path to a ‘new normal’. We must now erect signposts to ensure everyone is able to follow. Upskilling teams to navigate this unfamiliar terrain is an opportunity to empower the current workforce and place the map back in their hands.