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Business lessons from the military: Training, strong leadership and the skills gap

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

In today’s business climate, you either embrace technology and establish it into the DNA of your company or fall behind. Poundland, Toys ‘R’ US and Maplin did not move quickly enough and paid the ultimate price, and the same can be said of former megabrands Kodak, and Blockbuster. In fact, with the closure of a store in Australia (opens in new tab), there will now be only one of the 9,000 Blockbuster stores which existed fifteen years ago left in existence, in Oregan. As new technologies developed, leading to the rise of streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu, the likes of Blockbuster did not evolve, and have consequently declined, virtually out of existence.

What these unfortunate examples show is that your technology strategy is no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have. However, investing alone in technology is not enough. Companies need to have the right talent to make everything sing. But while easy to say, it’s much harder to put into practice. This is in-fact a well-documented worry. Recent research by the Economist Intelligence Unit (opens in new tab) shows that almost all (94 per cent) executives are aware that their workforce is under-prepared for new technology, citing either a ‘moderate’ or even ‘severe’ digital skills gap. Many companies are not acting to close this skills gap, with the report also noting that only 55 per cent, just over half, of companies have embarked on a strategy to provide existing staff with digital skills training. What is more, 59 per cent of IT employees worry that the current skills they do possess will soon become obsolete as technology continues to advance and develop.

One way that companies can rectify this problem and close the digital skills gap is to invest in impactful, sustained technology skill development, ensuring that businesses not only keep up with technological developments, but optimise the resources they already have available to them too. This approach can be scaled company-wide by instilling a culture of learning that empowers all levels to stay curious and keep their skills sharp. If not, companies risk losing their competitive edge—and likely their staff—to those who are better prepared.

Business leaders looking for inspiration on effective training may well be advised to look towards the military for a blueprint. Having spent 14 years serving as a commissioned officer in the British Army, I know firsthand the value of training to support talented and streamlined units that can overcome complex tasks. Importantly, this training is democratised across units, giving everyone the same opportunity to grow, to learn and to succeed. This becomes a virtuous circle, as units ensure that new recruits are also trained to value learning and moving as one. Combining this approach with strong leadership attributes, and you will create a team ethos to be envied.

The importance of effective training

We have all seen those online articles about the seven habits of successful people. Listening and learning feature prominently across them all—and for good reason. Effective training and repetition are both important when it comes to instilling good habits that make us all more productive. Employees that are well-equipped with the right skills and given an objective to complete are better positioned to collaborate as a team. And this in turn fosters the mentality of working towards a common goal.

Much like an army company, the workforce ultimately becomes more effective and efficient as the team members enjoy working as part of a unit. The end result is a positive impact on overall business performance, and most importantly, the bottom line. 

To understand how this works in practice, just take into consideration the recent digital training programme launched by Marks & Spencer. They will offer data skills development to more than 1,000 retail staff through an 18-month training initiative that teaches programming languages and machine-learning skills. As the retailer is planning to close more than 100 stores and look to move business online, their goal is to create a culture fit for the digital age that spans all aspects of the business. Importantly, they are focused on closing the skills gap of their existing team to deliver on those innovations rather than relying on the recruitment of an entirely new team. Much like the military, they know they can’t just replace overnight their entire unit. Rather they are using the talent they have but giving them new tools and deploying them to a new theatre.

The power of effective leadership

In the military, it is effective leaders that are the key differentiator between success and failure, and it’s all about leadership style. That’s what separates the top performing commanders from the rest. Although the individual capabilities within the team can remain constant, and may be at a high level, a less effective leader will prevent the unit from achieving its full potential. Effective training therefore must go hand-in-hand with senior leadership that can set businesses on path, and ensure strategies are implemented well.

This is never more important than in teams or businesses where a skills gap exists, as it often requires measured and accurate management to overcome it. Well-informed leaders must remain engaged with the most current technological developments and ensure that the relevant learning opportunities are provided and applied in the most effective and engaging way. This is a skill honed by military leaders; being decisive and making the right calls ensures you emerge ahead of the competition, and are able to stay there.

In the military, it is not exaggeration to say that effective training can mean the difference between victory and defeat. The same is often true in business. In fact, Deloitte (opens in new tab) has recently proved this, with research finding that organisations with a strong culture of learning, which prioritise skills development, are 56 per cent more likely to be first to market. When so many are racing to address their own skills gaps and future-proof their organisations, being open to new perspectives from other disciplines can give you an edge in today’s marketplace. Look no further than the military. 

Sean Farrington, Senior Vice President of EMEIA, Pluralsight (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Sean Farrington is the Senior Vice President of EMEIA for Pluralsight.