BCG: Is Your Upskilling Program Paying Off?

By J. PuckettVinciane BeauchenePatrick Erker, and Zhdan Shakirov

As generative AI (GenAI) and other disruptive technologies rapidly transform the business landscape, companies are recognizing the strategic imperative of workforce reskilling. Indeed, according to a 2023 BCG survey, 75% plan to make significant investments in talent retention and development. Yet historically, even significant investments in upskilling programs often yielded disappointing results. One key reason is that companies haven’t found a reliable way to measure their programs’ impact, despite many attempts to create such mechanisms over the past 50 years.

Through our work with clients, we have developed a three-step approach to help companies better measure “return on learning investment” for some dimensions of organizational upskilling programs. ROLI enables companies to: 1) identify upfront the business outcomes or impact they are looking to achieve; 2) define the metrics they will use to hold the program accountable to that impact and measure progress; and 3) determine whether that impact has been achieved.

With these ROLI principles in mind, companies can design upskilling programs with demonstrable impact on revenues, costs, customer satisfaction, and innovation speed, ultimately improving margins and delivering on other business objectives.

The Challenges with Traditional Approaches

It’s not hard to see why companies traditionally have had limited success measuring the impact of their upskilling programs. First, the measurement mechanism itself is very difficult. It’s one thing to track the time an employee spends in an upskilling program. But tracking them through their workflow to determine how they’ve applied their new skill sets is another thing altogether.

Even if it were possible to determine that a person’s performance had improved since the upskilling program, it’s not easy to distinguish correlation from causation. Since controlled studies aren’t realistic, it’s hard to know whether an upskilling program was responsible for the change or if other factors, such as motivation, manager input, or market dynamics played a role.

Another issue is that the impact of any single upskilling program isn’t typically immediately apparent. That’s because the upskilling cycle takes time—both acquiring the skills and then putting them to work in a way that has a business impact. And because leaders have different motivations for investing in upskilling, there isn’t a universally recognized measure of success or even an approach for tracking impact. Some leaders look for productivity improvements, others look for better retention, and still others look to boost their brand.

Despite these challenges, organizations that make a clear connection between the skills being learned and specific KPIs can measure the impact of upskilling programs on their own employees; the maturity of the ecosystem (how fast the organization can upskill and adapt compared with its competitors); and business performance.

Even if it were possible to determine that a person’s performance had improved since the upskilling program, it’s not easy to distinguish correlation from causation.

While all three are undeniably important, the business impact is paramount, given the substantial investment needed to build scaling capabilities. For example, an upskilling program to facilitate a digital transformation in a global company can require an investment of millions of dollars. Only programs that will arguably unlock meaningful value for employees and the enterprise will get the green light.

More: BCG