Blog post

Freeskilling – a radical rethink to close the talent gap

By Graham Waller | April 03, 2020 | 0 Comments

A joint post by Graham Waller and Mark Raskino, co-authors of the book Digital to the Core

Freeskilling could be an answer to one of the biggest questions in business today: “where do we get the critical digital-era skills?”. Hiring is misfiring as everyone chases the same ‘purple squirrels’ – for example that machine learning expert, accomplished in agile, with high EQ who also fits our culture. They simply don’t exist, or if they do an Amazon or Alibaba has already hired them. Simultaneously, leaders are bracing for the reality that digital, automation, AI and robotics trends will cause the half-life of skills, roles and even jobs to dramatically shrink. They face a double whammy of expensive talent obsolescence and equally expensive talent acquisition.

We believe that ‘Freeskilling’ – a new mindset and management approach to skills development – could offer a breakthrough in solving the problem.


Why the gap arose

From the late 1990s, for about 20 years, the advanced industrial world became enamored with sourcing key skills and talent from outside. Organisations increasingly relied on outsourcing, offshoring, contracting, consulting and hiring as the more convenient and immediate path to talent supply. After 20 years, corporations became habituated to relying on these external talent flows. As a result, managers became unpracticed at the development of internal skills reservoirs. A pivot to internally driven reskilling and a radical rethink of attitudes towards learning, is sorely needed.

Free learning

Traditional training carries the baggage of being perceived too expensive and too time consuming – sucking resources away from ‘real work’. Everyone says “people are our most important asset”, and appears to agree that their development essential. But an irksome inner voice shouts that upskilling the workforce is simply too expensive in both money and time. Good upskilling intentions lose to apparently ‘rational’ economics. But what if reskilling could be free?

The approach is to see the reskilling of your internal talent base via the lens of three freedoms

  • Economic Freedom: Learning resources are tending towards free
    – many online sources are low cost or no cost.
  • Time Freedom: Learning time away from the ‘day job’ is free
    – if you manage productivity holistically.
  • Freedom of Direction: Learners are self-directed but strategy-connected
    – linking learning curves to earning curves drives performance.


Freeskilling relies on the massive drop in the cost of learning resources that has arisen over the last decade. From Coursera to LinkedIn and from YouTube to Udemy, the cost of online micro learning has fallen through the floor. Want to learn Artificial Intelligence from a world authority for free? – enrol with Andrew Ng on Coursera. Only pay if you want the certificate on your LinkedIn profile. Want to learn design thinking? Check-out the “10 best design thinking certification & courses of 2020”. Suddenly need to help your team respond to COVID-19 stress? Try Cornerstone’s free COVID-19 learning platform resources. In many areas, high quality learning is tending towards zero cost, in some it is completely free.

However, Freeskilling also requires new management thinking about the opportunity-cost of employee time. Even if the courseware is free, what about the paid work hours? This is where more radical rethinking is needed. Most productive learning happens experientially, right in the flow of work. If you gave staff the equivalent of half a day a week for learning, we believe that time would be close to free. Recent trials of four day work weeks have suggested that shorter working might actually increase productivity – at least in professional knowledge work. If that turns out to be only half true, then half a day a week freed up for learning is an economically rational choice. Contrast that idea, with current normal behavior and practice. The organization leaves no time for staff to develop the future skills that it desperately needs, because that half day is being used to squeeze diminishing returns from the skills of the past. Employees fast become obsolete, while productivity and strategy execution tanks. How is that logically defensible?

Freeskilling done well could futureproof employees, which in turn will futureproof the enterprise. Freeing employees to be self-directed in ways they can clearly connect to career progression paths, builds motivation. Gartner research has shown that “connected learners” outperform. Linking this into the highest priority business outcomes, at scale, via a Freeskilling culture could futureproof  your enterprise. That will be especially important in the post-COVID economic recovery, when we need to upskill for the upturn.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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