You’ve Heard of R&D for Product. But What About for People?

Why now is the time to invest in your staff and the technology that helps them unlock their best work.

Written by Aaron Skonnard
Published on Jul. 30, 2020
You’ve Heard of R&D for Product. But What About for People?
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I have always believed that challenging times often create the most opportunity. And although we leaders face perhaps the greatest challenge of our lifetime today, we have an opportunity to take the painful lessons of these last few months and transform the way we educate and do business by investing in people and technology for the innovation to come.

As of early August, more than 18 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, and nearly 160,000 have died in the United States alone: numbers that are rising steadily and will be outdated even by the time you read this. We are all affected by this horrific pandemic in one way or another. And yet my experience has taught me that it’s possible not only to survive but thrive. How can I be such an optimist? Because I’ve led Pluralsight during unforeseen events before, and we’ve come out the other side stronger and better.

During times of uncertainty, companies that choose to invest in technology — and by extension their people — give themselves the chance to emerge even better than they went in. History has proven this truth time after time in the examples of companies such as JP Morgan, Allstate and Apple, with the latter spending 7.9 percent of its total revenue on R&D last year, the highest amount it has spent since 2003. With this investment, Apple is identifying and bolstering core technologies that may power devices that haven’t been built yet. We’ve seen winners appear when they invest in technology during challenging times.

We have yet to make it to the other side of the curve we keep hearing about. That means the time is now to start envisioning what the other side will look like like for businesses, for employees, for students, for communities and for countries all over the world. In a word, the answer will be technology: how companies and governments embrace it, how people are trained to innovate with it and what we all can do to educate students of all ages on how to learn it.

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Transform Your Tech

So far, we’ve seen technology make it possible for us to stay in business, stay in touch, stay nourished, and, ultimately, stay healthy. The pharmaceutical industry may be one of the most dramatic examples of how technology is transforming an entire industry. Virologists started decoding COVID-19 using software soon after receiving the first sample of the virus. Relying on artificial intelligence, machine learning and supercomputers, experts from around the world are sharing data as they race to find a vaccine. These companies are changing dramatically because technology is now doing in days and weeks what used to take months and years. While not visible on the front lines, coders are part of our first line of defense against the virus, helping to save lives.

They’re not the only ones changing, either. Think for a moment how technology has enabled all of us to transform our lives so quickly these past months. Remote learning, work-from-home and grocery delivery used to be quirks, novelties, nice-to-haves. Today, these are the moral imperatives keeping schools, businesses and homes functioning for millions of students, workers and families across the globe. Skype and FaceTime were cool, but Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom have become standards practically overnight.


Upskill Your Employees

In downtimes, it makes sense to focus on building from within. A recent Work Institute report states that it can cost as much as 33 percent of a worker’s annual salary to hire a replacement. It’s more cost-effective to upskill your existing employees rather than to let them leave for other career development options. What business leaders do now will make an impact on the future of their companies. Training workers how to use technology can serve the dual purpose of strengthening a company by transforming efficiency and skills into better margins. That is an important reason why tech investments take precedence over other areas of the business. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a phenomenon I subscribe to and have practiced: I’m personally committed to lifelong learning, and have built that into the ethos of Pluralsight.

Home Depot is a great example, having launched “Orange Method,” a program that provides technology instruction for workers at all levels, which has led to cashiers literally turning into software engineers. This isn’t just about upskilling, its about becoming proficient in entirely new skill sets. It requires a knowing-not-hoping approach to the workforce to make sure the company has enough qualified technical team members. Home Depot, Salesforce, VMware, and most of the Fortune 500 recognize the importance of organic learning so much that their CTOs, CIOs, and CLOs (Chief Learning Officers) work to ensure their organizations have the technology skills to grow the business.


Shift Your Mindset

This all comes down to a new way to think about research and development. R&D shouldn’t just be thought about in terms of products, but also as a means of reskilling and developing employees to prepare the business to innovate. Just like product R&D, employee R&D takes time and money, but it can yield significant, home-grown solutions. Your enterprise will be better for it, your people will be better for it, and the economy and the country will be better for it.

And the numbers bear it out. A recent Gallup study found that businesses with high levels of employee engagement are shown to be over 20 percent more profitable overall than other companies. We now live in uncertain times, but it’s during uncertain times that business leaders can and should try new things because the opportunity cost is so low. This is a time to have more confidence in trying new things because there is less to lose and so much more to gain.

To maximize success, your C-suite ought to take these three immediate first steps:

  1. Build and implement a people-focused R&D plan.
  2. Benchmark and inventory your technology skills and identify the gaps.
  3. Commit to closing the gaps within your existing people (knowing that you will hire externally too).

We are at a crossroads here: COVID-19 has shown us the power of technology and the promise of adaptability. Now is the time for companies to invest in technology and people. We are down, but this is all about how we’ll get up, get prepared and get ourselves to a better place.

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