To own the market for specialized services, you’ll need to ready your employees to meet more difficult challenges.
5 min read
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When my company began, we were decidedly generalists. We didn’t specialize in any one industry or technology, and we saw ourselves as a technology company that was reasonably skilled at building apps for mobile devices. Things were good for a while, but competition in the technology world made us wonder about our prospects as jacks-of-all-trades. The lower and middle sections of the app-development world (generalist developers) are rife with competition, with countless low-quality options masquerading as competitors to legitimately good products. A study by Hyperlink InfoSystem, for instance, found that some developers can build apps for one-10th of the cost of a U.S. company.
The development community quickly became a race to the bottom, and we found it increasingly difficult to persuade clients on the higher pricing for our premium services. At the same time, we saw incredible growth in the Internet of Things market, where worldwide spending is estimated to reach $745 billion this year. That untapped potential became the impetus for a monumental change in our studio.
Instead of trying to be the cheapest option in a sea of generalists, we decided to own the market for highly demanded, specialized services and position ourselves to grow. We abandoned our generalist ways to become a high-class IoT provider. That change empowered our success, but it also meant that we needed to upskill our employees to meet new and more difficult challenges.
Here are some steps to follow to upskill your team and get ready for the future.
1. Design a skills-development plan.
The first step in upskilling is taking attributes your team already possesses and finding ways to nurture them. For example, digital-skill gaps hinder growth at 54 percent of companies, and that chasm is only growing wider. Because of this, it’s helpful to spend hands-on time nurturing team members and teaching them more than they need to know for a given task. While training, be sure to document successes and the best processes, as they can become guides and road maps throughout your upskilling-development plan.
When this is done, identify your strongest skill sets, put them to the test and see whether they can be adapted to new challenges. Our company did this with test projects, structured as internal hackathons, that provided a fun and engaging way to build products from scratch and communicate value to mock user bases. These hackathons let our teams further their knowledge of how to do the best work possible while simultaneously gaining experience and new skills.
2. Put your team’s capabilities to the test.
Consider creating a challenge for your team to tackle, one it might actually encounter in the world. The goal is to show new employees how to think creatively while also enriching the skills of tenured staff members. Seattle Genetics, for example, offers fellowships that last one year and allow employees to do hands-on, project-based training to accelerate their learning.
Create similar challenges and situations at your own workplace by crafting ways for your team to overcome challenges they might find in real life, and then work alongside them to improve their skills and the company overall. Our company holds weekly meetings in which everyone comes together and creatively comes up with ideas to solve real-world problems by using technology, and then develops prototypes. So far, our team has learned how to pair apps, devise program-onboarding, create facial-recognition tools and control a locking mechanism manually should facial detection fail. The first few trials might not be successful, but your team will develop the skill of resiliency, which can become the basis for all outstanding future work.
3. Meet the needs of the future, not the present.
I’m a futurist. My job is to stay in front of trends in innovation and pay attention to new technology and real-world creations. Identify strategic initiatives early, and position your company as a leader in those niches. You can’t teach employees the skills they’ll need in the future if you don’t understand the demands the future will bring. Monitor emerging trends in your field, and encourage your team members to do the same. But don’t stop there. Look at the technologies that are gaining traction today, and consider the logical steps that will follow their adoption. This will help you find value-added opportunities in the coming years (and decades).
4. Select candidates who know how to learn.
Building a new team can be difficult. Find people who complement your current skill sets and bring technical knowledge and talent to the table. Spend the time, energy and effort to vet applicants. Testing candidates will ensure you don’t waste your time or energy pursuing potential hirees who aren’t a good fit. Doing this will reduce turnover and allow you to recruit team members who match your company culture. Procter & Gamble, for example, uses pre-employment tests to measure skills and traits that interviews don’t always reveal.
Preparing for the future is a never-ending endeavor. Our company learned early on that you can’t do everything at once, no matter how much you want to. That will only lead to burnout and poor products and won’t set you apart from the rest. By testing assumptions, constantly improving process and services and using failures to propel you forward and further, you can build a business that follows a clear road map to success over time.