Published on Digital Development

Three ways to shift learning to maximize “skilling” for sustainable development

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Skill. Olivier Le Moal/Adobe Stock Photos.
Olivier Le Moal/Adobe Stock Photos.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are complex, inter-related goals require changing the way business is conducted.Skilling up is essential for development practitioners to achieve the ambitious SDGs. For example, climate mitigation and adaptation policies require changes in the way energy, transportation, water, urban development plans are formulated and implemented.  The use of digital technology to enhance value creation in rural communities is similarly a skill set that needs to be encouraged. Achieving these development outcomes requires substantial reskilling and upskilling and capacity building support for all stakeholders - ranging from top policy makers to ordinary citizens, from elected representatives to service delivery providers, from civil society organizations to the general public and youth.

Traditional learning and capacity building approaches have largely relied on live classroom and online courses aimed at transferring and retaining knowledge.  But what about applying that knowledge on SDG challenges that require focusing on real, measurable outcomes?


54% of the workforce will require significant upskilling and reskilling within the next five years.

World Economic Forum, 2018


Having the skills to apply our knowledge to address complex problems is the solution.  However, we face a severe skill shortage in many areas of our work, and this stunts innovation, hurts quality, and limits the ability to achieve development outcomes. 

Degreed and Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning surveyed 772 executives, managers, and employees around the world on this topic for their “How the Workforce Learns 2019” report. They found that learning in its current state is simply not working for the workforce. The least satisfied are employees in non-management positions, indicating that survey respondents are either unaware of their companies’ learning opportunities or the right opportunities are not being offered.

The report describes three strategic shifts in learning necessary to maximize skilling opportunities.


1. Lean into how learning actually happens.

Today’s employee learning habits take place independently and incrementally, through micro-learning, professional networks, workplace tools and on-the-job learning.  These habits need to get reinforced through an integrated skilling program that goes beyond formal learning (via classes, courses, and structured programs), and connects people with the right resources at the right time to get things done.


2. Commit to the new fundamentals of learning.

Learning should be empowering and inclusive. Survey data indicates that the check-the-box attitude isn’t working—rather, giving staff the autonomy to pursue the skills they need on their own time is paramount. This can be done by embedding learning into the flow of work to make it a part of everyday routines; using the diverse array of channels and formats now available; and providing better guidance and tools to support continuous learning habits.


3. Make the shift from learning to skilling.

A short self-assessment helps individuals identify the skills they need to fill important roles and reach their personal and professional goals. After individual assessments and benchmarking, staff skill-building can be aligned to larger organizational goals.


Workforces thrive when managers give learning recommendations, open up development opportunities, and agree on relevant goals for upskilling.

“How the Workforce Learns 2019” report


The WBG’s  Open Learning Campus (OLC), is a useful resource for development practitioners eager to skill up. Here are five courses that could help you stay relevant: Digital Dividends: Strengthening the Analog Foundation of the Digital Revolution; Climate Change Online LearningRoad Safety Training Program; e-Learning on Digital Agriculture; Solid Waste Management.


Sheila Jagannathan

Head of the Open Learning Campus at the World Bank

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