Build the Workforce You Need Post-COVID-19

May 22, 2020

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

As COVID-19 drives unprecedented business transformation, focus on acquiring the critical skills needed to drive competitive advantage, not on filling key roles.

Back in November 2019, Gartner reported that the top priority for HR leaders in 2020 would be building critical skills and competencies for the organization. At the time, we said digital disruption had made widespread and multidimensional uncertainty the new normal. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic — upending every definition of normal.

"The need for critical skills has never been greater," says Scott Engler, VP, Advisory, Gartner. "But labor market and talent data suggests that many companies have unwittingly built the wrong workforce to drive their future — and continue to do so." 

Even before the pandemic, there were shifts in workforces and workforce planning. New tasks and responsibilities emerged suddenly, outdating role titles and definitions. Work trends driven by COVID-19 — such as remote work, rapid digital transformation and gig work— are all exacerbating these shifts

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Role-based planning puts strategy execution at risk

A recent Gartner survey showed that 80% of the workforce, 92% of managers and 77% of senior leaders already felt poorly prepared for the future. A significant 40% of employees said they frequently completed responsibilities outside of their role. As the current disruption resets business models and objectives, the skills needed to deliver business performance are likely to change even more radically and rapidly — and the existing workforce will be even less fit for purpose.

Legacy HR talent-planning approaches have unwittingly exacerbated the problem by focusing on roles — which group unrelated skills — rather than on the skills needed to drive the organization’s competitive advantage and the workflows that fuel that advantage.

When tasks and responsibilities change quickly, as they do during business disruption, roles become less and less useful as a proxy for required skills. 

In another recent Gartner survey, 60% of HR executives reported that their CEOs wanted to ensure employees have the skills needed for the future. The FAANG group (Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google) has long been used as a proxy for leading performers, and these best-in-class companies are already rethinking their hiring strategies, focusing more on underlying skill sets.

How to differentiate skills for competitive advantage

“A closer look at Gartner TalentNeuron™ data on software developer roles offers a telling picture of the rapidly transforming skills landscape,” says Engler. “The top 20 skills specified for open IT roles at FAANGs are, on average, 40% different than for those same roles at the average organization.”

In other words, FAANGs are building different IT workforces than the average company. Even more telling, no two FAANGs are recruiting for exactly the same skills. For example, the top 10 emerging skills for software developers sought by Apple and Amazon are 100% different, says Engler. In short, Amazon and Apple have evolved totally different profiles for the same roles.

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5 imperatives to develop a skills-based plan

To shape a skills-based workforce plan that ensures you build the workforce of the future — not the past — Gartner recommends you do five things:

  1. Analyze skills and job posts from industry leaders, competitors and nontraditional competitors to understand the emerging skills landscape. Determine how these skills are different from those you have traditionally sought or are still seeking. 
  2. Review and disaggregate critical roles into critical skills, and benchmark them against emerging trends. 
  3. Share and contextualize data for business partners to help them understand the implications of skills trends as they build the capabilities needed by the workforce of the future. Ask what short- and long-term business strategy, talent and cost priorities to take into account.
  4. Create an enterprisewide view of talent pipelines for key skills. Create a skill-based workforce-futuring plan to determine what skills you need to develop, borrow and buy to move your organization into the future. Ask which skills give you a competitive advantage now and going forward.
  5. Create a realistic and aspirational talent development and acquisition plan driven by data on the supply-demand profile for, and location of, critical skills. Ask what adjacent skills sets you can develop and hire for competitive advantage.

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