Just Launched: The Community Reskilling White Paper

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As a new year begins and the pandemic wears on, the country is grappling with the latest incarnation of an increasingly familiar paradox: millions of open positions but not enough talent to fill those roles. The many complex forces driving this new normal include the accelerating integration of technology into all facets of the enterprise; a wave of resignations and retirements; shifting policies and priorities around remote work; and a mass rejection of jobs that do not provide a living wage, health care benefits, and other quality of life supports core to the vision of the “new social contract.” 

Against the backdrop of a changing labor market, this may be a case in which a time of crisis also presents an opportunity for substantive change. Over the past two years, we have participated in a growing number of regional reskilling efforts led by coalitions of employers, elected officials, workforce leaders, traditional higher education institutions, and nonprofits to co-create pathways into skilled jobs for workers displaced by COVID-19. 

The underlying principle behind these initiatives was that no one entity could solve a once-in-a-generation economic crisis alone. By bringing together training providers, business leaders, and public-sector organizations, these community reskilling initiatives are tapping into the unique strengths of each partner to build a regional workforce infrastructure that is more resilient, more equitable, and more future-proof than before the pandemic.

We’ve found over the past two years that these sorts of partnerships have transformative potential for how employers, public workforce organizations, and learners interact at a regional level. The opportunities for job-seekers are, in some ways, the most profound: by providing wraparound support and proactive career guidance, as well as direct connections to local employers in search of digital talent, community reskilling efforts represent a new — and, we hope, more effective — way to connect individuals with job opportunities.

In a new white paper released this week, we dive into case studies in three regions — Sacramento, Louisville, and Buffalo — to share the best of what we’ve learned through these efforts to help local and regional leaders across the country navigate their community reskilling efforts. Here’s some of what we’ve learned through our work with these communities: 

  • Employer leadership matters… The effectiveness of community reskilling programs depends, first and foremost, on the existence of a destination at the end of the journey. In our community reskilling work, employer partners are not supporting reskilling programs as an act of charity. They’re making specific, strategically driven investments in partnerships that help them strengthen their talent pipelines and enable them to compete in an increasingly dynamic economy. In each case study, a linchpin employer partner — Humana, M&T Bank, Microsoft — played a critical role in spearheading and supporting the project.
  • …and so do sourcing partners. Community reskilling cannot take an “if you build it, they will come” approach by standing up a flashy program and hoping for the best. The most effective initiatives engage early and deeply with existing organizations that work with the populations they hope to serve and are trusted locally.

The core tenet of community reskilling is that no organization can, or should, go it alone. It takes a set of partners with a common goal to achieve impact. Successful programs depend on the coordination of many different players and the complex management of relationships and objectives that any such coalition entails. That’s where leadership, both public and private, must come into play. 

In the months to come, the federal government should galvanize these efforts with investment in economic recovery efforts, such as those proposed in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better agenda. Local employers have a leadership role to play as well, as engines of funding and strategic guidance that can help motivate their public-sector partners. While community reskilling programs ultimately depend on the contributions of many organizations, they often rely on the passion and commitment of one group that helps the others align towards a shared mission.

We hope this white paper can serve as the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the role of new partnerships and community-based collaboration in meeting an ever-changing labor market and preparing workers and job-seekers alike for an increasingly uncertain and volatile future of work. To download and read the full paper, click here.

Meet Our Partners in Impact: Microsoft Accelerate

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Over the last 10 years, we’ve built incredible partnerships with enterprise businesses focused on creating real impact inside and outside their communities. We’re excited to introduce you to the Accelerate program — a coalition that brings Microsoft together with local community, business, and civic partners in several cities around the US. Through Accelerate, GA is able to provide scholarships for several of our technology tracks to students from underserved communities and those impacted by COVID-19.

In this blog post, you’ll get to meet Lina Feng and Kalin McKenna, Microsoft leads for the Accelerate program. Lina leads market activation and operations in select Accelerate markets, and Kalin leads learning partner engagements.

Keep reading to learn more. 

GA: What is Microsoft Accelerate, and why are you doing it?

Kalin McKenna: In June 2020, Microsoft released its Global Skills Initiative with the intention of giving thousands of hours of online learning content — for free — to the world. Accelerate is a way for Microsoft to take our Global Skills Initiative into communities in the US where we knew people were trying to return to the workforce. Accelerate was one of the ways Microsoft set out to support those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting (but not unanticipated) acceleration of technology. 

We first released thousands of hours of online, on-demand content, which helped students learn at their own pace. However, we found a certain level of digital fluency is needed for someone to even start looking for online skilling resources. People need access to a computer and the internet, which is not something everyone has. So, what we really aim to do with Accelerate and learning partners like GA is connect with communities and reach folks who don’t have the resources to fully take advantage of our on-demand learning. 

We partnered with General Assembly to provide learners access to instructor-led, hands-on courses. GA joined Accelerate in Atlanta in 2021, and we’ve since expanded to other markets. 

Lina Feng: I want to emphasize that Accelerate is designed to support individuals from underserved communities and nontraditional candidates. The instructor-led experience, whether in person or online, really completes the full journey for a learner by providing technology training as well as coaching for “soft skills” — interviewing, business attire, teamwork, etc. It goes beyond certification to help candidates be hire-ready. 

GA: How do you approach rolling out Accelerate to different communities?

Kalin McKenna: We know each market has unique needs. What LA communities need to access skilling might look different from Chicago or Atlanta. The local organizations we partner with are trusted by the communities and often vary by location. We want to be respectful of that. 

When we are thinking about what the job market looks like in those locations, it’s possible that one city is going to be hiring for a certain set of tech skills, and in another city, it could be totally different. We make sure that the learning content lines up to where the job market is. 

GA: You have a very intentional local, coalition-based approach. Can you talk a bit about why that approach works?

Lina Feng: Accelerate’s coalition approach is a deliberate perspective on what it takes to move the needle on job growth in any given market. As we kick off these digital skilling and job placement efforts, we bring together a broad and diverse set of stakeholders to shape the program. For something as challenging as digital skilling for the future workforce, it takes industry, civic, and community partners to achieve sustainable growth.

GA: Microsoft is a very data-driven company, so we’d love to hear how you’re thinking about what success looks like.

Kalin McKenna: The North Star of the program is that our students are hired. So we’re always talking with our employer network to make sure expectations are aligned and then making changes to the program to ensure we’re providing candidates that meet their needs. A student being offered a job that launches a new career in tech — that’s what success looks like to us.  

We try to do the best for our learners. We want to treat our learners and employer network like our best customers, so it’s really all about doing the best for each of them throughout the process. 

Lina Feng: There is an organizational culture element in terms of the job’s outcome that we’re seeking, specifically moving towards skill-based hiring. One of the successes that we’re looking to come out of Accelerate is encouraging more and more employers to focus on skills and less on hard credentials. That will definitely open up opportunities for nontraditional candidates.

GA: What has surprised you the most, or what challenges have you faced along the way? 

Lina Feng: One thing that we’ve definitely noticed on the learner side is that it’s not a situation where if you build it, they will come, even if it’s free or widely accessible. When it became our mission to better serve underserved communities, we knew we needed to provide answers to the questions: “Where do I fit in? What can I do in this field?” 

We’re trying to dispel the notion that when we talk about digital jobs and getting technically skilled, it’s only focused on a small super-advanced portion of roles or functions. Every job is becoming digital in nature, so getting more tech or digital skills is important for everyone in the workforce.

Kalin McKenna: Participants are learning impostor syndrome can be overcome. That’s something all of us might have faced in our careers, but it’s enhanced if you’ve never seen someone like you in tech. How do our students feel assured? How do we provide supportive services in addition to learning? 

And to what Lina said before about companies and changing the market dynamics of hiring for skills vs. hiring for traditional accreditation: Different companies are in different places in their journey. It’s interesting to observe the reason why companies are embarking on more skill-based hiring. For some, it’s the talent gap; for others, it’s a deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, and sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. 

GA: Can you share some learner success stories with us? 

Kalin McKenna: We talked to one learning partner, Upwardly Global, who works specifically with different immigrant populations. A gentleman joined one of their cohorts who had never actually typed on a computer keyboard before. Upon completing their program, he was able to get a coding job at a professional services firm. I think that really speaks volumes to the misconception that there’s a lack of talent in these communities. It’s a lack of opportunity. If you can provide the opportunity, you’ll reach the talent, and then you can truly see incredible things happen.

Lina Feng: There are so many stories. One that comes to mind is the young mom who participated in our first instance of Accelerate in Atlanta, who went through a skilling cohort and got certified in Azure cloud fundamentals. She landed a job in a large professional services firm and shared extensively how transformative the experience was. 

It proves that there are so many people who are a great fit for a lot of tech jobs; it’s just a matter of how we get them access to skilling, the right skilling environment, and subsequently getting an employer to take a chance on a nontraditional candidate. 

GA: What advice would you give to leaders who want to embark on this work but don’t know where to start? 

Kalin McKenna: The first thing I would say is you’re not the first ones going out on this journey, whether you’re a single parent looking to shift your career or you’re an HR manager looking to change the way you think about hiring. No matter what side you fall on, there are companies that have achieved notable success hiring underserved, nontraditional talent.

I think a lot of times, when we get overwhelmed, it’s because we’re looking at a blank slate, but in this case, it’s not. Talk to the folks committed to hiring talent from nontraditional backgrounds, look at the proven successes of those companies who have pursued diverse hiring, get insight into how you might want to shape your program. When you can partner with someone and build upon the work of others, it’s a lot less daunting. 

Teamwork truly makes the dream work.

Stay tuned for more incredible stories from our team and partners in the coming weeks. If you’re a learner and are interested in participating in the Microsoft Accelerate program, click here. If you’re an enterprise or local government who wants to know how GA can make a difference in your business or community today? Get in touch.

3 Trends That Will Humanize Work in 2022

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There’s a tectonic shift taking place in today’s workforce. Facing burnout, safety concerns, and a general feeling that it’s time to rethink what really matters, workers across industries are taking bold steps toward career change. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2.9% of the workforce left their jobs in August 2021, and just one month later, an additional 4.4 million Americans quit. The Great Resignation needs no introduction. 

The business implications will be felt throughout 2022: New data from Fortune and Deloitte shows that 73% of CEOs agree that “a labor/skills shortage is the most likely external issue to disrupt their business in the next 12 months.” In response, employers need to adjust their strategies to provide the kind of healthy, sustainable, and integrated work-life experience that workers want, while establishing and maintaining the structures, processes, and policies necessary to sustain growth.

For executives, managers, and HR professionals looking to create work environments that attract and retain top talent, it’s all about putting people front and center. Here are three trends to shape your 2022 strategies to do just that. 

Reskilling To Close the Talent Gap

Clearly, the talent gap is widening — and that pattern will continue. McKinsey estimates that up to 107 million workers may need to change jobs by 2030. That’s roughly 12 million more than our pre-pandemic estimate. But as anyone in HR knows, qualified hires are hard to come by — and the resources required to locate and secure top candidates are getting increasingly costly. Organizations need to rethink their hiring strategies to meet changing demands. 

One powerful strategy is reskilling. Reskilling is training current employees on a completely new set of skills to take on an entirely different role. For example, a bank may reskill a customer service representative to become a software engineer. Not only does this approach preserve and invest in in-house talent, it’s cost-effective. One study found that companies could save $136k per person by reskilling existing tech talent versus imparting layoffs and new hires.

Reskilling isn’t only an internal strategy. More and more businesses are using reskilling as a way to build — and broaden — candidate pipelines of junior talent. This strategy not only helps businesses fill roles, but also allows them to tap into a more diverse pool of high-potential talent.

As far as the common fear of investing in employees only to have them leave, reskilling seems to encourage the opposite, actually boosting engagement and loyalty. It actionably shows employees that their employer is invested in them. On average, companies who have reskilled with General Assembly have seen retention rates at 91%.

Making Digital Transformation More Human

Digital transformation can make workers feel uneasy. When they hear about new technology automating tasks that were once theirs, it can come across as a threat to their employability. In fact, employee resistance is one of the reasons over 70% of digital transformations don’t reach their goals. Moving forward, companies need to focus less on what systems, tools, and tech to buy, and more on how to enable the people who will use them. 

This is an attitude that needs to come from leadership. “Investing in training programs puts your employees at the heart of your transformation,” says Nathalie Doré, a transformation leader at BNP Paribas Cardif. Over the past three years, she’s partnered with GA to continuously upskill members of the company’s 8,000-person workforce for the future of work. The program has changed not only what people do but how they think: “We saw an impact on the mindset of employees. The idea that someone studied marketing but can be a UX designer tomorrow… I think knowing they can learn new skills without having to leave their job encourages people to think differently about what they can do in the company and what their career path could be.”

In the end, effective transformation isn’t about simply handing work off to machines to complete in isolation. It’s about integrating technology more seamlessly into daily workflows to elevate the entire work experience — and that message must be made abundantly clear.

Fostering Cultures of Meaning

Before the practical concerns of adjusting to work during a pandemic took center stage, there was lots of talk about finding purpose at work, especially among millennials. The research showed that employees didn’t just want a paycheck; they wanted to make a meaningful contribution. Then the pandemic hit, and we all got knocked down a few pegs on Mazlow’s hierarchy. Suddenly, it was all about hanging on to your job (if you were so lucky) and keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. Regrettably, meaning took a back seat. 

As we’ve settled into the new normal, the hunger for a work experience that aligns more closely with one’s personal values and professional ambitions is re-emerging. In terms of The Great Resignation, research from Gallup suggests that it’s not a desire for more pay or better benefits that are driving people to quit; it’s disengagement. People simply aren’t connecting to their work. Culture offers a remedy. In fact, it’s the remedy, according to renowned organizational psychologist Fredrick Herzberg. His two-factory theory (also known as Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory and dual-factor theory) states that what makes people happy at work is what they do, but what makes people unhappy is the situation in which they do it.

This piece of decades-old wisdom is more relevant than ever today. To boost morale, retain talent, and meet hiring needs in 2022, companies will need to double down on designing and nourishing cultures that not only support career-pathing and professional goals but also accommodate personal priorities, ranging from flexibility around childcare to concerns around diversity and inclusion. Increasingly, workplace cultures need to support workers for who they are — real people with real emotional needs, psychological struggles, family responsibilities, and social concerns. In other words, whole humans — not just employees.  

That sentiment is the driving force behind all of these workforce trends. Companies need to take a more holistic, human-centric view of their workforce. In a recent interview with Yale Insights, former Google HR Chief Lazlo Bock may have summed it up best: “While there’s been a lot of discussion about “essential workers,” many organizations have historically taken an “essential jobs” approach. They see the jobs as essential, but the people in those jobs as expendable. That’s starting to change, in part because, in 2021, employees finally said, ‘I’ve had enough.’”

If you’d like to see how General Assembly can help you upskill your teams for a more people-centric future of work, get in touch.

Getting Real About AI: 3 Lessons For Business Leaders

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If you only paid attention to the hype about AI, you’d think our world was one algorithm away from either a frightening robot takeover or a fantastical machine-enabled utopia. But a closer look at the reality of how AI is evolving on the frontlines of business reveals a story that’s not nearly as far-fetched — but nevertheless driving a sizable impact. 

Consider Moderna and Pfizer, two healthcare companies that employed AI technologies to rapidly test and develop COVID-19 vaccines months after the first reported cases. Intelligent computer models rapidly evaluated the effectiveness of vaccines-in-development, assessing immune responses across tens of thousands of virus subcomponents with a depth, speed, and accuracy that humans could never achieve on their own. AI cut the vaccine development timeline to mere months vs. decades. 

The pharma companies mentioned above are global organizations with extensive resources for testing and development. How can companies that don’t have access to that depth of funding or talent begin to lay the foundation to take advantage of AI benefits?

For many leaders, distinguishing hype from hard facts is a chief hurdle stifling their AI journeys. Here are three key lessons to bring clarity to the AI conversation and illustrate how this very real, very practical technology can drive significant business value in the near-term.  

Forget the moonshots. Start with the mundane.

In 2013, the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas launched an ambitious AI initiative. The idea was to use IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system, aiming to speed the process of diagnosing patients and matching them with clinical trials. But the project never delivered on its promise. Four years and $62 million later, there was no record of the system used on a single patient. 

Rest assured, there’s a silver lining. The cancer center’s IT team was quietly tinkering with the technology during that four-year period and delivering a host of efficiencies and improvements to the organization. Engineers instructed AI to recommend hotels and restaurants to patients, reach out to guests with personalized bill support, and improve the tech team’s workflow. These outcomes may not have been as sexy as the medical breakthroughs hoped for at the start of the project. But the results were undeniable: Guests were happier. Employees were more efficient. And financial gains realized. 

The takeaway: Don’t get too swept up in grandiose planning. Start by looking at the mundane ways that AI can improve your day-to-day business operations. 

AI is only a tool. Humanity is required. 

Part of the mythology around AI stems from the notion that these technologies can “think” for themselves. After all, they can reportedly write articles, design clothes, and compose rock songs. These examples make it easy to understand the common fear that AI will replace humans in the workplace. In addition, recent research from the World Economic Forum estimates that AI will create 60+ million more jobs than it eliminates. That all said, it’s important to understand that these technologies are just tools — they still require a tremendous amount of human input to function. 

More specifically, it comes down to data — and how well a workforce can collect and leverage it. For instance, Netflix’s dynamic optimizer generated lots of excitement about how it uses machine learning to enhance streaming quality on a scene-by-scene basis. But the tech doesn’t operate on its own — the data is gathered from human viewers tasked with manually assessing hundreds of thousands of shots. Similarly, there’s lots of talk about how conversational AI can potentially improve customer service experiences by engaging intelligently with customers via Natural Language Processing. But according to TrueLark, an AI-powered customer support platform, training that technology requires a tremendous amount of human input — hundreds of thousands of conversations

The takeaway: AI is not a standalone solution, nor a silver bullet. Humans need to “partner” with the technology to learn from one another, extract value, and better serve the market.

Know what you want AI to do — and be specific.

It’s easy to imagine AI bots as helpers akin to Rosie from the Jetsons: Intelligent, catch-all assistants standing by to anticipate and fulfill a wide range of work-related tasks and needs. But the reality is that each AI application is actually highly-specific — the technology is not yet capable of general intelligence.

Just take it from MIT Sloan Professor Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. Referencing IBM Watson’s notoriety for beating the world’s brightest Jeopardy champions, he says, “You think, wow, that machine must be really smart. But the truth is that the [version of the] program that beat the best players in Jeopardy couldn’t even play tic-tac-toe, much less chess.”

The reality is, most AIs can do one thing and one thing well. A given AI can:

  • Reach deep into your systems and identify where you’ve been overpaying vendors.
  • Automate marketing campaigns that correspond to how individual customers engage with your website or social media.
  • Generate a more accurate actuarial model for insurers in real-time.
  • Synthesize patient data from a range of platforms to create a single up-to-date health record.

These example tasks are hugely impactful for their respective business functions. But they’re nowhere near the general intelligence required for creativity, strategy, empathy, and so on. That’s still the exclusive domain of humans — and likely will be for the foreseeable future. 

The takeaway: Don’t think too broadly about how AI can benefit your business. Start by drilling down into highly-specific business problems to identify the highest opportunities for ROI.  

AI in Practice: A Transformation By Degrees

Continuous change is essential for remaining competitive in the digital environment. But when it comes to AI, what’s realistic is a transformation by degrees. Little by little, an organization that steadily integrates AI capabilities into its workforce and processes will see compounding rewards over time.

So don’t get too swept up in the hype — but do get started. When it comes to AI and business impact, slow-and-steady wins the race.

Want to build a data-driven academy? Get in touch to learn more.

Kickstart Your Talent Transformation With Our Latest eBook

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Between consumers’ accelerated adoption of digital behaviors and a permanently changed working culture, the inevitable digital transformation of every industry took leaps forward in the last two years. Business leaders across the board are trying to get ahead of the transformation imperative that digitization requires and the economic pressure it adds to their businesses. 

In our highly-connected reality, digital skills are not only pervasive, they are necessary — regardless of discipline. Gone are the days of “technical” and “nontechnical” roles. Instead, skills and capabilities that previously were isolated to technologists, creatives, and managers have made their way into job descriptions across disciplines: 

  • 83% of all retail postings mention at least one digital skill.
  • Data-related skills dominate operations roles, appearing in 46% of all postings.
  • All postings for marketing jobs mention at least one digital skill.

As existing jobs become increasingly hybrid, business leaders struggle to enable teams to mix human and technical skills to keep up with this evolution. This is most intimidating at the start of the transformation journey, with the scale of change looming across all levels and disciplines. The possibilities for where you can go are endless. It doesn’t help that 75% of digital transformations fail to generate returns that exceed the original investment, adding pressure to the challenge of prioritizing a phased rollout and setting challenging but realistic goals.

We have experience working with businesses that are early on in their transformation journey. That’s why we’re excited to launch our latest eBook: “The Early Transformer’s Guide To Building Digital-First Talent.” Keep reading to learn more. 

What the eBook Covers: 

There are four steps that organizations must take to meet the challenge of talent transformation. These steps include: 

  • Create digital mindsets across the company. This includes understanding digital trends, growing digital mastery, and building a product-driven organization.
  • Upgrade data literacy to reflect modern technical skills in working with data.
  • Identify what modern marketing looks like and adapt to the behaviors and expectations of the digital-first customer.
  • Accelerate technical hiring by upskilling and reskilling current employees and new hires.

This guide unpacks each of these four steps, providing actionable and practical recommendations that organizations can put into practice to help set their businesses on the path to sustainable digitization and success.

Download the eBook to: 

  • Dive deep into the four crucial steps your organization must take to meet the challenge of transformation. 
  • Get a talent transformation checklist to give leaders a starting point. 
  • Read transformation success stories from leaders like you.

Click here to download “The Early Transformer’s Guide To Building Digital-First Talent.” 

Want to learn more about how we can help you meet your talent transformation goals today? Get in touch. 

Prepare for the Next Normal With Our E-Magazine, The Index

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Consider the present state of work. Nearly every business and industry has been thrown into the future and forced to innovate and collaborate in an entirely virtual environment — years of inherent routines and “rules” have been cast aside, and everyone has needed to reset and restart. Remarkably, companies haven’t only survived in this climate — some have even thrived. So, while the pandemic truly has been a test of survival on every level, this challenging time has fortified and innovated us in ways that will continue to propel us forward.

This moment is one of unanticipated celebration as it has fueled the ongoing acceleration of digital transformation for companies around the globe. Before the pandemic, leaders everywhere began preparing for reskilling, talent recruitment, and future-proofing their business strategies at a “nice to have, should do” pace. Fast-forward to 2021, and we have new issues to contend with. From the return to offices to The Great Resignation to constantly zagging in response to breaking news, global travel updates, and the race to end the biggest pandemic of our lifetime — forget the “new normal.” Leaders are far better off asking, “What’s next?”

That’s why we’re excited to announce the launch of our standards board digital magazine, The Index. Within this issue, we’re not interested in the topic of returning to business as usual, so we set out to explore “the next normal.”

Keep reading to learn more. 

What’s Inside The Index: 

The Index includes stories that help leaders take on the next normal and navigate the future of work. Within the pages, you’ll discover dynamic stories such as:

  • Beyond Buzzwords: The Journey to Make Your Company Data-Driven 
  • Google Stole the Cookies from the Jar: Why & What’s Next
  • What Remote Teams Can Learn From Design
  • The Future & Importance of Inclusive Company Cultures 
  • & So Much More 

You Should Download the Index If: 

  • You’re a leader looking for advice on how to navigate the future of work.
  • You’re interested in future-focused topics that will help you bring your organization to the next level. 
  • You know how valuable building an inclusive company culture is and want to learn how other businesses are thinking about this.

Get a copy of The Index by clicking and downloading this handy link

Staying Customer-Centric in a New Landscape: Advice From Marketing Leaders

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At the beginning of 2020, most of P&G’s products were sold in brick-and-mortar retailers. When COVID-19 struck, they had to go back to the basics: refocusing on website quality, partnerships with e-retailers, and making information available online to sell brands without in-store promotions. In other words, they had to rechannel their path-to-purchase strategies to serve consumers when consumer behavior changed drastically and quickly.

Over the last 18+ months, large and small CPG companies have grappled with these same challenges: the explosion of eCommerce, the rising demand for sustainability, a shift in consumption from makeup toward skincare, and a massive increase in time spent on social media. As the pandemic accelerated the impact of technology and shifted consumer behaviors seemingly overnight, businesses have had to become even more innovative and agile to keep up. 

In a space where the only constant is change, we talked to leaders in CPG and marketing experts to understand their most effective techniques for adapting to the ever-changing digital landscape and equipping their marketing talent for success. The top answer? Getting even more customer-centric with deeper and more frequent connections to their consumers.

Let’s break down what this means in three steps:

1. Consumers expect peak digital experiences that call on marketing to transform.

The growth of digital shopping last year was shocking, and it may be slowing down — but not by much. 2020 showed a 25.7% surge in eCommerce sales, and eMarketer predicts 2021 will bring another 16.8% gain, taking the global eCommerce sales pie up to nearly $5 trillion. Alongside this behavioral shift, consumers have experienced widespread emotional trauma that shifted all life priorities. This changing landscape sped up the need for digital transformation in marketing — not only in reaching consumers through digital channels but using technology to understand what they need in this new context. 

“It’s easy for brands to sound tone-deaf,” recalls GA instructor Terry Rice, digital marketing expert, business development consultant, and writer for Entrepreneur magazine. Marketers need to “[take] the time to learn about consumer behavior shifts — and take the time to deploy empathy in marketing: we hear you, we understand you, and we’re here to support you.”

The social trends of the last 18 months have challenged marketers to up their game, particularly when it comes to winning over Gen Z. “They stand up for their values, they stand up for diversity and inclusion, and they have a big push in demand on sustainability,” says Philipp Markmann, CMO of L’Oreal and member of our Marketing standards board. In this climate, you have to bring real value beyond the product you make and tell consumers the causes you stand up for.

While this emotional challenge doesn’t fit with the classic business models of maximizing shareholder value (at least in the short run), CPG marketers across the board understand that they can’t fall into the trap of trying to optimize toward a past that no longer exists. Luckily, this is a challenge that cuts right to the heart of marketing principles, and marketers are best-prepared to create the solutions.

“More and more business questions will become behavioral questions and psychological questions because relying on past data to predict future behavior is increasingly unsafe,” emphasizes Rory Sutherland, vice chair at Ogilvy UK. “We vastly need marketers to elevate themselves in status and influence… understanding wants, needs, motivations, and fears have suddenly become 10x more important in 2021 than it was in 2018.”

2. Stay plugged into evolving consumers through innovative digital collaboration.

Shifting alongside consumer behaviors means mobilizing the digital transformation work that brands across the CPG space have been doing. Companies like Shiseido, P&G, and L’Oreal have invested in digital infrastructures to prepare for this future.

While L’Oreal has spent over 10 years building on digital marketing capabilities, COVID-19’s “massive digital stress test” required marketing and commercial teams to be bold and try new things. This required creative thinking and experimentation across teams — what L’Oreal calls a “company collaboration accelerator.”

“In March 2020, every machine learning algorithm you had for optimizing traffic was worthless, Ben Harrell, CMO at Priceline and member of our Marketing standards board, pointed out.  “Data from yesterday and today is what matters.” Yet amidst this rapid consumer change, the marketing industry has seen a steep decrease in the cookies and other data streams they once relied on for personalization, meaning marketers need to rebuild the customer journey practically from scratch.

That’s where data literacy comes into play. Marketers need personalized customer data from other in-house teams, which increases the need for tight internal systems and communication of first-party data. This requires not only a shared digital language across marketing, data, and product but a digital literacy about information systems like MarTech. “Then you can start having meaningful conversations with your engineers to say, hey, I want to do XYZ with this consumer segment…can we potentially integrate a third-party service that is API-led?” Ogilvy’s Sutherland illustrates.  

This type of collaborative innovation requires marketing to have the vocabulary to work with other teams to help solve complex technical problems, as well as the growth mindset that is so fundamental to digital culture.

In the long run, CPG leaders expect this tight-loop connection with customers to get even faster. Beyond simply protecting user privacy, the democratization of data is giving consumers more ownership of their data, which will ultimately challenge marketers to innovate commercial models directly with the customer based on the value of that data.

Salim Holder, founder and CEO at 4th Ave Market, is working toward making that vision a reality in this decade: “In 2030, we’re integrating our business model with the community we’re trying to deliver value to… and we provide financial incentives for the community.” This might mean discounts in exchange for sharing information and building strategy around the way communities engage with products organically. “As a result, the data that we get will allow us to make all the decisions… and [source] the information and the knowledge from the community that is also there to provide value in itself.”

3. Skills for a dynamic world — and the culture that keeps them fresh.

When it comes to enabling marketing teams to innovate, marketing leaders are unanimous: there is a need for constant learning.

“Instead of looking at ROI, we should be looking at the cost of inaction. If consumers have a pain point, it’s on us to solve customer problems,” Matthew Tumbleson, P&G entrepreneur-in-residence, stresses.  “It needs to be an ongoing thing where we are upskilling forever.” When consumers have a good experience elsewhere, it’s on your brand to do it better, or you’ll be creating the conditions for you to lose. This means making sure they have the “hands-on-keyboard skills” — those that they’ve historically outsourced to agencies — in-house. “Even at P&G,” he says, “it requires continual improvement.”

At Shiseido, digital literacy is stressed across teams as the basis of good decision-making. That’s why Roxanne Ong, head of digital transformation at Shiseido, invests time and energy in ensuring that there is a common digital literacy across all employees.

“Marketing has become such a monster, if you will, as a disciplinary approach,” Ong says, so it’s hard to ensure everyone has the baseline skills that often aren’t taught in school or MBA programs. “What GA has done is crystalize the fundamentals a true-blue marketer needs to have on a foundational level before they can move on out to an expert level.” Shiseido used GA’s CM1 assessment to get a baseline check on their teams’ skills to identify gaps. From there, she leads teams to aspire to be a “T-skills employee,” one who possesses skills across the board to go deep in one of their functional fields.  

Not only are marketing skills assessments like CM1 good for identifying development areas for teams, Entrepreneur magazine’s Rice points out, “For someone who’s an expert, it’s going to reveal blind spots and opportunities… If you’re an expert, it’s a good way to make sure that you’re aware of what your team’s doing and to make sure you’re up to date with best practices across platforms.”

Ultimately, though, Ong says, “Equally important to skills is culture.” Beyond the specifics of hard skilling, Ong emphasizes the need to invest in digital culture, i.e., take risks, have curiosity, and collaborate — evergreen soft skills. There will always be so much unknown, so you need to create a culture of constant learning to be responsive to consumer changes and build new solutions to problems. “It’s a day-by-day, week-by-week situation. The idea of being data-driven in the digital age cannot be underscored enough: keep your ears on the ground for the data pulses, large and small.”

Beyond curiosity, this takes courage: “Have the courage to try to actually go to a place that’s unknown to you. Understanding the nuance and how to do it well is a whole different story altogether.”  

Want to learn more about GA can help you future-proof your marketing teams today? Get in touch or download our marketing product catalog

General Assembly’s Social Impact

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Our number one mission? It’s quite simple. We empower people to pursue work they love. 

Core to that mission is a commitment to closing opportunity gaps and ensuring that all people from all walks of life, regardless of their ability to pay, can pursue a career in tech, data, or design. But our social impact efforts and achievements are never solitary — we reach others by reaching out to others. Along the way, we’ve learned that we are most effective and impactful when we team up with partners who share our commitment to access, equity, and inclusion.   Our partnerships are dynamic and in sync with social and global issues — we are always evolving and growing.

Since we launched our first fully funded tuitions seven years ago (sponsored by an alliance of benefactors, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohananian and hip-hop legend Nas), we’ve provided tuition and innovative financing options to tens of thousands of learners in diverse circumstances. The pandemic has only heightened the urgency for creating pathways to meaningful work, particularly for those who are struggling to find footing in a rapidly changing economy and world. Now, GA is participating in numerous collaboratives to help create pathways to economic mobility, and today, we’re excited to share some of the work we’re doing in the U.S.:

Nationally, we are proud to be a part of Microsoft Accelerate and the Adobe Digital Academy. A little about these core initiatives:

  • Through Microsoft’s Accelerate initiative, we’re teaming up with local coalitions in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Miami, L.A., and New York to deliver skills training to members of underserved communities, with an additional ten markets on the roadmap — we’re just getting started. Learn more.
  • Our signature collaboration with Adobe, the Adobe Digital Academy, is going into its sixth year. Interested students can apply now for fully-funded tuition for GA Immersives, coupled with opportunities for paid apprenticeships at Adobe. Apply now

We are also excited about the many region-driven partnerships that continue to come out of our community reskilling initiatives launched in 2020:

  • In Houston, we’ve teamed up with nonprofit BakerRipley, tech incubator The Ion, and Microsoft to provide fully-funded tuition to adults with demonstrated financial need. Learn more about Microsoft’s Accelerate program.  
  • In Buffalo, we’ve teamed up with M&T Bank, TechBuffalo, the Western New York Skills Initiative, and a network of regional employers to launch the Buffalo Tech Academy, which will be taught live, onsite at M&T Bank’s new community training center in downtown Buffalo. Learn more
  • In Connecticut, we’ve built a coalition with Synchrony Bank, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and AdvanceCT to offer free and discounted GA Immersive programs throughout the state of Connecticut in Synchrony’s new community training center, opening in fall 2021. Learn more.

Our incredible network of partners continues to expand — ensuring that our collaboration can continue to impact countless individuals’ futures. 

The Takeaway

While we are grateful for the progress made, there is still much work to be done. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for announcements and insight from our partners, our sister training providers, and our incredible grads. The quest to do more and do better is what fuels us — in every aspect of our business and initiatives. 

In a world of uncertainty, you can be assured that our commitment toward continuous progress is quite certain. As our CEO Lisa Lewin says, ‘More to come.”

How To Overcome the Top 5 Hurdles CPG Companies Face

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We work with CPG companies to successfully transform their traditional marketing teams into high-functioning digital marketers, helping them drive their top-end goals: eCommerce sales growth, omnichannel experience, and reduced dependence on agencies.

When companies come to us, they’ve often been trying to transform their marketing functions on their own — and, despite their best efforts, do not see the results they want. Their teams may demonstrate a grasp of digital concepts or familiarity with new data-driven technologies, but those wins aren’t yet translating to meaningful changes in digital goals.

What holds these CPG companies back? Well, there are telltale trends. In our experience, overcoming these five common hurdles helps clients make their marketers successful.

Hurdle #1: Investing primarily in engineers and data-driven specialists to drive transformation.

Naturally, your corporate transformation strategy requires engineers and data scientists to get your digital enterprise up and running. But a common mistake we see from CPG companies is focusing their investment in high-tech roles without upskilling the teams that connect to and support them. CPG companies need fluency across their organizations in order to create a coordinated go-to-market push, both across and within teams, that successfully implements modern techniques.

L’Oréal took a more comprehensive approach: they focused on driving digital literacy across 85,000 employees worldwide. Beyond focusing just on specialists, L’Oréal defined a company-wide standard for digital skills and measured all current employees and new applicants against it. For anyone who needed to improve, they provided personalized online learning paths and in-person deep-dives to provide more sophisticated training. This broad foundation of digital skills enabled L’Oréal to coordinate digital strategies across teams so that they could leverage data to personalize recommendations and, ultimately, grow their eCommerce business to 25% of total sales.

Hurdle #2: Relying on historical insights about your customer (and how a household brand embraced change).

Let’s say you’re a household name, and you have decades of experience in successfully reaching your target audience. So it makes sense to keep what’s not broken, right? Maybe not. Today’s consumers are demonstrating seriously rapid changes in consumer behavior, with the pandemic accelerating the shift to eCommerce in five years. That’s not to mention evolving gender norms, family life-cycles, increasing prevalence of DINKs, greater demand for sustainability and social responsibility, in addition to rapidly-accelerated digital platform usage. Today’s customer-centric strategy requires an ongoing connection with consumer trends and an openness to go against the “time-tested truths” of a traditional CPG. 

One of our Fortune 100 CPG clients is known for its best-in-class brand management, which challenged GA to help it use digital techniques to improve its marketing function. This client invested in proficiency-focused bootcamps designed to build hands-on skills per digital channels for both practitioners and SMEs, giving marketing teams hands-on training in digital marketing specialties like eCommerce. Investing in modern, customer-centric marketing skills helped them to better deliver on strategic initiatives to compete with new “digital native” brands. 

Hurdle #3: Under-leveraging data… and not generating insights.

A key piece of that customer-centric mindset requires generating ongoing data-driven insights about what your specific customers want and do. However, the best approach to data-driven marketing requires coordination across functions. For example, “Is my purchasing data demonstrating niche markets I can engage with tailored marketing messaging? Or, “What are the customer engagement channels that drive consumers to buy products in-store?”If the systems for tracking these datasets do not talk to each other, you miss out on opportunities to identify channels for improvement. A global children’s entertainment and toy company honed in on data-driven marketing as an area to improve their sophistication. Through GA’s “Data-Driven Marketer” workshop, they honed skills on optimizing digital spend by focusing on the highest ROI channels, reducing reliance on data teams by de-siloing access to data, and choosing the right KPIs for their goals, helping them interpret data and reveal insights for data-driven decisions more independently. 

Hurdle #4: Overreliance on agencies.

A common issue among CPG clients is that they don’t have the in-house skills for key digital functions, like using MarTech, generating data-driven insights, or interpreting marketing analytics, so they outsource a bulk of their digital marketing to agencies. This leaves brands facing a “black box” in terms of what their agency partners are doing, without the skill set to collaborate deeply or specify strategic areas for partnership. This often results in brands not owning the data or strategies needed to close the loop and drive innovation. By building up capabilities and possibly taking some functions in-house, you can better own your customer journey.

For a global CPG master brand looking to reduce agency dependence, GA helped them build internal capabilities to improve collaboration. Through GA’s Getting the Most Out of Your Creative Partnerships workshop, the marketing team worked to increase their skill at using data to generate actionable customer insights, developing personas, charting their customer journey, and pitching creative briefs. By taking the drivers’ seat with these capabilities, CPG companies can have more leverage in making partnerships successful.

Hurdle #5: Underdevelopment of key functions.

Even as you build towards this closed-loop control, any weak link can pull down the opportunities for advancement in your marketing organization. What good are great customer-centric insights if you only get them from your agency at a single point in time, and you don’t have the tech infrastructure to maintain and update them? Or the MarTech knowledge to activate them and drive results?

This is where it is critical to not only have broad digital literacy and strong core marketing skills (like leading with customer insight and applying data-first marketing) but to invest in cutting-edge instruction of marketing specialties. Digital functions like eCommerce, SEO, and Content Marketing evolve at a rapid clip, and staying up-to-date on them is key to applying the future-proof skills that will take your team from skilled traditional marketers to fluent and innovative digital marketers.  

That’s a wrap!

Getting over these five hurdles can be the difference between maintaining the status quo (despite your talent investment efforts) and seeing a noticeable improvement in your KPIs and bottom line. At GA, we specialize in helping CPG marketers make a deep, sustainable transformation in their marketing functions across insights, creative, channel activation, data usage, and marketing technology.

Want to learn more about GA can help you future-proof your marketing teams today? Get in touch or download our marketing product catalog

A Preview of Our Chapter in
“Workforce Realigned: How New Partnerships are Advancing Economic Mobility”

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Our work at the intersection of education and economic mobility gives us a unique perspective on the roles of education and workforce development when addressing challenges brought on by the pandemic. These challenges — accelerated technological change, deepened inequity, and systemic injustices — have renewed urgency as the world strives to move forward.  

In the spirit of collaboration and our commitment to positive change, we were honored to join Social Finance and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Philadelphia to contribute to “Workforce Realigned: How New Partnerships are Advancing Economic Mobility.” This new book, recently released in this summer of 2021, draws on the insights of federal and state policy leaders, researchers, and workforce development experts to highlight not just the aforementioned issues themselves but the ways that organizations are collaborating to create new solutions in this ever-shifting world.

Our chapter, “Access to Opportunity: The General Assembly Career Impact Bond,” offers a deep dive into a first-of-its-kind program we launched with Social Finance. To put it simply and clearly, the GA Career Impact Bond is rooted in our shared belief that individuals with fewer resources can, with the appropriate support, succeed at the same level as those with more. In addition to an income-share agreement (ISA) program in which students pay zero up-front tuition, our initiative also provides access to full-time social service professionals who directly support student needs and an emergency fund that offers ready financial assistance for students to cover unexpected costs.

The chapter also features insights and lessons learned from our work with the Career Impact Bond, including these testimonials from Career Impact Bond participants:

“I spent decades in prison and was able to learn about coding as a member of the Last Mile Program. After my release, I didn’t have a job or credit and was starting over, but wanted to continue what I learned with The Last Mile. This ISA helped me enroll in General Assembly’s immersive software engineering program and continue my journey.” 

“I didn’t have a lot of money or options and was making $20K a year. I have a son and needed to find something that would improve our lives. This ISA has put me on track for a new career, a new salary, with new skills. The emergency fund helped me during the pandemic to pay my bills when I could no longer work.”

We hope our contribution — and the book as a whole — provide leaders across business and government with concrete examples of the ways that collaboration between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors is creating new pathways to economic mobility. Curious to dive in and explore all the details? You can get your own copy of “Workforce Realigned: How New Partnerships are Advancing Economic Mobility” by downloading it here

We look forward to hearing your thoughts once you’ve had a chance to read it and to continuing the conversation about how we can best help and support workers from all underserved backgrounds in navigating the rapidly changing world of work.

Want to chat more about anything you’ve read here? Reach out to us via cheers@ga.co