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Slack’s week-long shutdown exposes tech companies’ upskilling uncertainties

Slack’s week-long shutdown exposes tech companies’ upskilling uncertainties

Written by:
GREGOR TOWERS
Date created
November 22, 2023
Last updated:
Nov 22, 2023
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5 min read
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Key takeaways

• Global companies struggle to effectively implement upskilling solutions despite their availability on the market.

• Slack implemented a week-long shutdown for employees to focus on learning, aiming to increase retention rates and prevent talent poaching.

• The decision to suspend work for a week divided opinions, with some seeing it as a marketing stunt and others as a genuine attempt to develop skills.

• The upskilling initiative had consequences on Slack's market and product growth, with some employees showing disengagement with the learning modules.

• The tech industry's controversial upskilling approaches highlight the need for more contextualized and effective learning solutions that prioritize practical skill development.

Once again, Slack proves that despite scalable and effective upskilling solutions being available on the market, global companies don’t know how to effectively implement them. 

Slack took an unexpected approach to talent development. In October 2023, they shut down internal operations for one week so their people could dedicate 40 hours to learning. 

The goal is for employees to reach Ranger Level by January 31st on Trailhead -  an online learning platform - covering topics such as healthy eating, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and team building.  

This isn’t the first time global tech companies have intervened in people’s development. Back in January 2023, Shopify abruptly canceled all meetings for more than a fortnight to strain and improve teams’ resilience - a process known as chaos monkey

With yet another contentious learning initiative in the tech industry, why are these businesses resorting to disruptive measures to develop their people? 

What was Slack’s rationale behind this learning solution? 

The tech industry has been through a challenging time. Salesforce laid off several thousand employees in 2023 and Shopify cut 10% of its workforce in July 2022 due to a dip in the e-commerce market. 

With a large percentage of Slack’s 3.000 talent trailing behind learning targets - measured by total hours spent on the online platform - C-level management believed that week-long upskilling was part of the solution to increase retention rates and stop other companies from poaching their top talent. 

A contentious topic but for different reasons than what the current debate suggests 

Slack’s decision to suspend work for one week is seemingly less radical than Shopify’s Chaos Monkey. In theory, they’re giving teams a full week to focus on personal and career growth without any work distractions. 

Yet it still divides opinions. Some see it as “a marketing stunt” to boost the product reputation of Trailhead’s learning platform - owned by Slack’s parent company Salesforce - whilst others argue it’s a genuine attempt to develop people’s skills. 

However, this is besides the point. Slack’s questionable decision proves that despite scalable and effective upskilling solutions being available, global companies don’t know how to effectively implement them. 

Slack’s upskilling weighs heavy on company growth & talent 

The week-long shutdown had consequences on Slack’s market and product growth. Especially with generative AI’s potential to improve their product, such as SlackGPT, this upskilling approach didn’t come at an ideal time for engineering and customer service teams.

The choice of learning modules is also peculiar. Healthy eating and the Fourth Industrial Revolution on an e-learning platform is interesting content to develop professional skills. Or perhaps this content represents a shift in focus towards talent’s personal development? 

However, the response of Slack’s internal talent is a better indication of its impact. Some engineers created a code to “game” the training and automatically complete it, reflecting their disengagement with the learning initiative as L&D is positioned as a barrier to company innovation - not a source.  

Slack & Shopify compound the need for contextualized upskilling approaches 

While Slack’s learning solution suggests people’s development ranks high in the company agenda, the execution is questionable. 

Company-wide learning shouldn’t be a week-long shutdown that disrupts product development. Plus combining questionable learning content with uncertain consequences for talent who don’t complete the training is creating more internal division than a feeling of investment in their growth. 

It’s not a coincidence these contentious solutions are happening in the tech industry. With Shopify’s chaos monkey and now Slack’s shutdown, there’s a portfolio of experiential learning solutions building up as layoffs and the value of retaining engineering talent continue to rise. 

It's safe to predict there’ll be more controversial upskilling initiatives catching public attention in 2024 as the tech industry can neither find nor implement solutions for continuous learning in the flow of work. Yet these solutions do exist. New technologies such as AI are enabling learning teams to scale personalized content for teams’ growth needs. 

However, this gap in upskilling knowledge and implementation extends beyond the tech industry. When will global companies start adopting learning solutions focused on practicing  and applying meaningful skills to grow their people’s potential?

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