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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Five steps to successful partnerships for skills

As digitalisation, artificial intelligence and automation spread across the world, digital skills are increasingly in demand. However, in many countries, these digital skills are in short supply. The World Economic Forum reports that 54 per cent of all employees will require extensive upskilling or reskilling by 2022. European countries are facing significant digital skills gaps which limit their economic growth and reduce the wellbeing of their citizens.

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, digital skills have become even more critical to economic survival and social inclusion. Social distancing policies have increased the need for information and communications technology (ICT) skills to deliver services, work and communicate remotely, and connect with people who are socially isolated.

More than ever, stakeholders from industry, trade unions, the education sector, civil society and national and regional governments need to work together to ensure that people can get the digital skills they need for life and work.

However, building strong partnerships for skills is challenging. To understand how to build a collaborative skills system, we’ve drawn on research and experience from our two programmes in the Nordic and Benelux region - Digital Frontrunners and FutureFit.

Over the past two years, we've engaged over 300 senior policymakers, researchers, unions and industry experts. There is plenty of inspiration to be found in the way they use cross-sector partnerships to meet the needs of a fast-moving labour market.

To organise and capture what we’ve learned, we’ve adapted Tuckman’s stages of group development. Tuckman’s stages illustrate how teams form, what happens when they begin to work together, what it takes for them to be effective, and when it’s time to call it a day. We chose to apply it to the issues that emerge from cross-sector partnerships for skills.

Tuckman’s stages are traditionally presented as a linear journey. However, our research showed that when it comes to skills the partnership journey is never that straightforward.

Tuckman's stages of group development

Often partnerships will cycle through the stages multiple times, spending more time at certain stages than others. So we chose to present the framework as an infinity symbol, borrowing from Nesta’s Innovation Skills team operating model. Taking this framework, we’ve mapped the journey that partnerships for skills development go on and the key considerations for stakeholders each step of the way.

Our full report presents our findings in depth, alongside case studies of successful partnerships and a detailed framework. Here we’ve pulled out five key recommendations for cross-sector partnerships for skills.

1. At the forming stage, respond to the most urgent needs.

People will only come together and collaborate when they are motivated by an urgent issue that directly affects their work. At the forming stage, partners need to identify the problems that they all agree need to be addressed right now. When it comes to partnerships for skills this means listening to people working on the ground in schools, training organisations and industry to understand their burning issues.

'[Collaboration] is driven by necessity, you need to promote partnerships that respond to actual needs because if it doesn’t connect to the need of the school, to make sure students get skills, that are actually needed within the community, it will not work, if it’s not connected to reality on the ground. From the EU, we need to provide the tools to help communities to identify the skills they need to help them achieve their growth strategy.'

Dana-Carmen Bachmann, Vocational training, apprenticeship and adult learning, European Commission

2. At the storming stage, stay with the problem, don’t jump to the solution too quickly.

A common mistake multi-stakeholder partnerships make is rushing to develop solutions before a shared understanding of the problem has been reached. It’s common for stakeholders to disagree about the issue they are addressing and avoid dwelling on areas of disagreement. However, working through these conflicts is critical to the long term health of the partnership.

The Danish Government established the Disruption Council for the period of 2017-2019. Representatives from trade unions, industry, education and government came together to develop a shared understanding of Denmark’s challenges in the face of digitalisation. Our research found that dedicating this time to understanding the challenges allowed participants to resolve ongoing conflicts and develop innovative solutions. For example, the discussions led to Denmark’s first agreement on how the platform economy could integrate into the existing model of negotiation between trade unions, government and industry bodies.

3. At the norming stage, use data to identify the best approach.

There is a growing amount of skills data available to stakeholders looking to understand the skills gap better and to design effective solutions but not all partnerships draw on this resource.

The Danish Government formed The Technology Pactin 2018, bringing together government ministries, the business community and the education sector to tackle the STEM skills gap. The Technology Pact recognises that one of the challenges stakeholders face at this stage is a lack of time and resource to analyse the data. As a result, The Technology Pact supports stakeholders by sharing knowledge about the skills gaps, mapping out what projects are addressing skills gaps, and finding out what they need to provide targeted support.

'We take a data-driven approach, we get data on what projects are out there, which ones work. That way it is easier in the long run to advise...We have good data sets on who, how, where, but we don’t have the effects of the different programmes or different projects. We need to ensure effective evaluation takes place.'

Christian Vintergaard, The Technology Pact, Denmark

4. At the performing stage, ensure stakeholders share responsibility.

Our research found that one of the main reasons partnerships fail is because the responsibility rests with one party. Skills gaps can only be addressed effectively if the government, industry, unions and the education sector work together. So it’s critical that all these stakeholders share ownership of the partnership.

'Personally I notice that when things fail, most of the time it’s when the ownership only rests with one party...So shared ownership is important. With all of the actions, we create a working team with people from different organisations to share ownership across partners.'

Wytse Wouda, Ministry of Economic Affairs, The Technology Pact, the Netherlands

5. At the adjourning stage, be prepared to iterate.

Several of the initiatives we heard from told us that they are in the adjourning stage more often than they would like. Funding cycles are often short, political support fluctuates, the economic situation changes, and, as a result, the most successful partnerships are often re-evaluating their approach. Tackling skills gaps requires a consistent, long term approach, so being able to iterate and adapt to a changing environment is essential.

‘Programme budgets are limited. How can we ensure continuity in this climate? [The STEM skills gap] is not an issue you change overnight with a nice project. It requires continuous cooperation between all the organisations in the Triple Helix.’

Beatrice Boots, Dutch National STEM Platform (Platform Talent voor Technologie), the Netherlands

This is just a glimpse of the insights in our full report. Our research has highlighted that whilst building partnerships for skills is complex, it can be done to improve the outcomes for millions of people and businesses.

To learn more about our efforts, visit our project page FutureFit - a major training intervention focused on upskilling and reskilling workers and doing innovative,robust research about what works.

Follow us on @D_Frontrunners or sign up to our Newsletter to stay up-to-date with our work and learn from inspiring initiatives around the world.

For more information about this guide or our work, please contact: [email protected]


Georgie Whiteley

Georgie Whiteley

Georgie Whiteley

Senior Researcher, Future of Work and Skills

Georgie worked on the research needs for the Digital Frontrunners and Futurefit programmes.

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Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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