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As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Michelle Thompson, Strategic Partnership Manager at Skillnet Ireland, the national workforce development agency of the Government of Ireland.
Skillnet Ireland was set up in 1999 to advance the competitiveness, productivity, and innovation of businesses through enterprise-led workforce development, and currently supports over 22,500 businesses and 86,000 trainees nationwide. The agency is funded from the National Training Fund through the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and engages with employers through more than 70 regional and sectoral networks to provide upskilling, reskilling, and professional development programmes designed to meet the current and future skills needs of businesses in Ireland.
Skillnet Ireland is adept at responding to rapid changes in the business environment. Its national initiatives, such as Clear Customs, which helped companies adapt to the introduction of new trading arrangements with Britain following Brexit, The Innovation Exchange, which connects large businesses facing innovation challenges with ambitious SMEs that can fast-track solutions, and the Climate Academy Ireland, which looks at the national approach to sustainability needs, have proved great successes. It has also partnered with IDA Ireland, Cisco, and others on the development of a platform dedicated to nurturing core digital and data skills and matching individuals to roles that suit their skills.
Michelle earned her undergraduate degree in Politics and Sociology from University College Dublin in 2002. She went on to join KBC Bank, remaining there for nearly seven years before departing in 2010 for New Zealand where she took up a role with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. Returning to Ireland in 2018, she joined the car rental platform Car Trawler as Business Development Manager but saw her work stymied by a decline in demand for car rentals during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Michelle has been Strategic Partnership Manager at Skillnet Ireland since August 2022, a role in which she engages potential partners in private industry to aid Skillnet Ireland’s overall goal of scaling up workforce development while continually responding to new and innovative technologies.
“It’s great to be working for a purpose-driven Irish company,” says Michelle, adding that she is particularly excited about the digital and data skills platform project in partnership with IDA Ireland and Cisco.
“The project came about from IDA Ireland’s engagement with larger organisations. They were concerned not only with the digital and data skills shortage but also the lack of a national digital skills development strategy. We were invited, along with Learnovate, to help find a solution.
“The fact that we have a project that can take input from industry, create a design and then test that design with the market is really exciting. I expect this will produce lots of insights which ultimately will give us a high-level prototype of the platform that has been tested repeatedly by companies throughout every stage of development.”
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
When you are project managing or trying to get something done, you never know what someone else is bringing with them, not just in terms of their skillset but also their personal style and approach. Awareness and consideration of this can greatly impact a successful outcome. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of different companies of various sizes, sectors, and stages of maturity. In New Zealand I worked across a range of sectors from Digital Health, to AgriTech to Wine. On the face of it, there were some apparent differences but the challenges many companies experience are fundamentally very similar. For me, no matter how you address those issues, it all comes down to how you deal with people. Methodologies, frameworks and emerging technologies are valuable, but no-one should underestimate the personalities when it comes to effective project management.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
I try to be empathic because I think it’s essential to understand the other perspectives in the room. I also try to be fair. When you mention empathy and fairness, people may view it as a soft approach but, for me, fairness is about holding people accountable to their responsibilities and what they said they were going to do. I’ve found that striking a balance between empathy and accountability is the best way to manage people. This approach works for me and I feel it’s important to be authentic in one’s management style.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
I’ve worked with innovative technology organisations in both Ireland and New Zealand, but I wouldn’t describe myself as technology inclined or an early adopter. I can’t claim to know the latest and greatest tools, but I appreciate ones that help me be more organised and effective. I’m new to the work management platform Asana and I’m finding it very useful for collaborative workstreams. I’ve enjoyed being in business development and sales management roles in the past, so I love Salesforce. You can capture and track data to understand the sales cycle and how you can improve your own processes and approach. I love anything that supports organisations to structure, communicate, and collaborate.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
One of the big trends is in-the-flow-of-work learning. A speaker at the last Learnovation conference called this, ‘just right, just for me, and just in time’. I liked that because I constantly hear from companies, whether it’s multinationals or SMEs, that they don’t have either the time or the budget for training. The global environment is rapidly changing. We must respond to that by reassessing the current structure of primary, secondary, tertiary education, then maybe a postgraduate course a year or two after third level. How can we evolve the model to support lifelong learning and be more accessible and reasonable for those in full time employment?
I read an article recently in the Harvard Business Review about artificial intelligence and all the ground-breaking technologies coming down the track. It questioned whether workers with specific technical expertise are on the brink of becoming redundant. Do employers need people with accountancy degrees, or do they need someone who knows accountancy but can manage a team, a process, a client relationship, while the deeply technical stuff is managed by technology? The core message was that in a world where computers are going to be doing more for us, people skills are going to be increasingly important. That really resonated with me because I didn’t choose a specialisation in education. I went into a general Arts degree in UCD because I couldn’t decide between tourism and marketing where I had an interest. After college I went to work for the bank because it felt like a sensible decision. Over the course of my professional career, I upskilled in specific areas of need for my roles but it was mainly in the traditional classroom format. The mostly valuable training I undertook was personal coaching that was directly applicable to a project I was leading.
Skillnet Ireland is focused on learning while in the workforce. Learning, development, upskilling and reskilling to give workers mobility and the ability to advance in their roles and this is very beneficial for companies as well. Say an employer has hired someone for a specific role, when the business environment changes and that role is no longer needed but that staff member has gained immense organisation knowledge, are they going to fire that person and hire someone else? That’s very costly. Or do they look at the skillset of that person and, if there’s a gap, invest in reskilling that person?
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
Strengths Finder by Tom Rath. It’s a personality assessment book and it was recommended to me by an amazing boss I had in New Zealand. It was great for helping me identify my own natural strengths and understand their value. There’s a belief that to lead and be successful you need to be good at everything and put effort into working on your shortcomings. Strengths Finder is a book about discovering your ‘unique talent DNA’, to play to those strengths and leverage what you’re already good at. From that you can recognise areas you’re not as strong in and if you want to bridge the gap then work with colleagues who can bring those skills. That’s the best piece of advice I’ve received and it’s a great book to help you do this.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
When you’re looking to do something different, you need to engage with people who are doing something different. Being part of Learnovate exposes us to new ways of thinking. We’re very focused on workforce development but Learnovate does the whole gamut in terms of learning and technology. Learnovate has been very open about connecting us with other members and although we are new to this community, we are looking forward to engaging more closely with other members and the wider network.
Why do companies need the support of a centre like Learnovate?
Learnovate feels like a community – it has philanthropic goals with a commercial focus. Companies can get bogged down working in the business whereas engaging with organisations like Learnovate can pull you out of the weeds to work on the business. I also like that Learnovate is funded by Enterprise Ireland, it’s a not for profit and it’s hosted by Trinity College Dublin. That brings with it a lot of prestige.
I also love the culture of Learnovate. As someone coming from outside the industry, there’s a lot of humility around the table, a lot of openness and the sense that any idea is worth exploring. It’s a collaborative community and there’s a lot of good discussion around the table.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
The Covid-19 pandemic was the catalyst for transforming our entire reality. That has been really great for the future of work and learning. It created the necessity for hybrid work, which can have pros and cons, but it’s ultimately enabled accessibility, new platforms, and new forms of communication. That’s key for many organisations. Studies have found that productivity has gone up when people are at home. Working remotely obviously has negative impacts in terms of connections, creativity and watercooler talk. Skillnet Ireland has committed to hybrid working and adopted a blended approach for our organisation and our people. We are still considering what work’s best for individuals and teams and how to bring the organisation together as a whole, whether it’s quarterly anchor days for strategy sessions or set days in the office on any given week. For me, they’re just the details because largely it’s been positive. Because of this increased accessibility it has opened up opportunities to make connections with more people in more ways.
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