Get a Grip on Critical Skills

January 23, 2020

Contributor: Lindsey Walsh

Is your organization trying to beef up critical skills? If so, first make sure you know which skills you actually need to drive your business.

The shelf life of every business model is getting shorter, and HR leaders know — in theory at least — what the impact will be on skills: You’ll need skills you currently lack, and many of the skills you currently have won’t be relevant tomorrow. But how do you know which skills will be critical to drive future business goals? 

I’ve seen a handful of different approaches to define those needs, which I’ll share here, but spoiler alert: There’s no silver bullet. 

The thinking is that senior executives know the business priorities, so must know what associated skill needs are needed. But that often isn’t the case

Learn more: Do More With Data to Close Critical Skill Gaps

Ask business leaders

The most common approach is to ask business leaders — for obvious reasons. The thinking is that senior executives know the business priorities, so they must know what associated skills are needed. But that often isn’t the case, as I can illustrate with a recent example. 

Last fall, Gartner TalentNeuron™ was called in by the head of recruiting at a national logistics provider. The company had almost a century of experience leading the trucking industry, but the CEO had mandated that the company “figure out” machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). The company wasn’t at the vanguard of autonomous vehicles and drones, but the CEO knew the business model had to adapt as the industry evolved. The recruiting executive was frank: The management team had no idea how to make that happen, and yet she had to hire ML and AI specialists to drive company ambitions. 

You can’t assume that your business leaders know how business transformation will actually translate into skill needs

This company’s story is playing out in every region and industry, because of the radical nature of business transformation. The future business strategy of many organizations will look nothing like today’s. Even if the strategy stays much the same, the way value is delivered might be very different, leveraging new levers such as technology and the gig economy. 

In this environment, you can’t assume that your business leaders know how business transformation will actually translate into skill needs. In the case of the logistics provider, TalentNeuron data showed that competitors were heavily recruiting skills in a widely adopted ML tool — skills that weren’t even in the top 50 for which the organization was currently recruiting. Only with this type of data-driven insight in hand could the HR exec feel confident recommending those skills as a must-have for the future. 

Ask employees

Another approach I often see, especially with organizations that have fully embraced an agile approach, is to ask employees. The thinking is that the individuals who are closest to the work will be able to identify the skills they need but lack.

When we look at the democratization of learning and information — along with the open-source share mentality — we assume it’s easy for any employee with internet access to analyze their own weaknesses and figure out what skills they need to develop.

We may not want to acknowledge that the skills we’ve spent a career honing aren’t going to matter in the future

But the reality is that the pace of change has overwhelmed employees. Seventy percent say they haven’t yet mastered the skills they need for the job they have today. Just one in five says they have the skills they need for both their current roles and future careers. 

So can we really expect employees to master both the skills they need today and identify the skills they’ll need tomorrow? Probably not — especially given the speed at which skills are evolving, emerging and expiring

And let’s not forget, we’re all human and generally don’t like change. We may not want to acknowledge that the skills we’ve spent a career honing aren’t going to matter in the future. 

Ask workforce planners 

Who else is in a position to identify the skills of the future? Strategic workforce planners come to mind. My colleagues and I have spoken with a range of workforce planners and talent analytics professionals from different organizations and industries and have discovered a couple of important problems with relying on this group. 

  • This approach isn’t an option for all — some organizations don’t have workforce planners. Existing workforce planning teams don’t always have enough resources to do more than focus on a small but strategically important subset of the workforce. 
  • Many workforce planners rely on business leads or the corporate strategy team to tell them what skills to look for, when they really need to question those recommendations instead. 
  • Workforce planners tend to focus on identifying workforce needs for the next 2 to 5 years, when they may need a short-term, more flexible view of skill needs in today’s operating environment.

Read more: How to Use Analytics to Predict Skill Needs

HR analytics professionals may be deeply connected with the business and collaborate closely to identify skill gaps in some instances, but that certainly isn’t the norm. 

In a 2019 Gartner survey, only 40% of HR leaders reported their workforce planning activities were effective at aligning talent needs with business objectives, and only 41% said they’re good at analyzing internal labor markets. The reasons for this depend a bit by industry, but workforce planners may also lack access to high-quality data or not know that the data they are using is incomplete or misleading. 

Take account of it all

So how should organizations plan for future skill needs? Gartner research shows that the best way is to diversify the inputs to your skills identification process.

Move away from focusing solely on meeting requests from business leaders, which actually has a negative effect on employee skills preparedness. Yes, you read that correctly: Continuous learners who try to keep up with all the skills development their managers request are actually worse off than having done nothing. 

Best practice is to capture intelligence on how skill needs are shifting in the marketplace, and use those insights to show employees how they will grow personally by developing in-demand skills. Doing so can lead to great outcomes. Employees who acquire skills in line with market demand in this connected way can learn skills faster, are more engaged, stay longer in their jobs and are more likely to be high performers. 

But ultimately, HR leaders must position their people to deliver on the strategy of tomorrow. With the rate of change increasing, HR leaders must ensure that their people are learning new skills — and that the skills they are learning are the right ones. 

Lindsey Walsh, Vice President, Product, Gartner TalentNeuron, is responsible for the strategic vision and technical execution of TalentNeuron. She has 10+ years experience of building big data/predictive analytics products; post-merger integration of multicultural technology teams; and shifting from Waterfall to Agile/Design Thinking. Walsh has a master’s in applied economics from Johns Hopkins University and is a certified economic forecaster.

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