How to Look For the Right Digital Skills

Demand is rampant for digital skills like artificial intelligence (AI), but you need added insight from labor market data to understand what that really means for your talent strategy.

Digital transformation is accelerating as COVID-19 shifts business models, adding to the already widespread demand for digital skills. The imperative for HR is to acquire the right digital skills, but how do you know what to prioritize?

The challenge is made harder right now because the skills landscape is changing so rapidly. HR leaders have typically relied heavily on fulfilling the skill needs outlined by business leaders, but in fast-changing conditions, business leaders themselves are unsure what digital capabilities they need now and will need in the future. HR therefore needs a more dynamic skills strategy — and that requires a diverse set of inputs for skill needs analysis. 

“In today’s highly disrupted environment, you can’t just check in with business leaders to see what they think they need,” says Scott Engler, VP, Advisory, Gartner. “You need a data-driven approach to understand evolving industry and competitive skill sets, skill profiles and shifting workforce dynamics — especially given limited budgets for recruiting and training.”

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Analyze data on competitors for critical skills 

The challenge for recruiters is that everyone is chasing the same talent, which drives up salaries and leads to vacancies in critical roles. Data on employer and competitor segments can help to unravel where the real competition for skills lies and can help you hone your search.

Gartner TalentNeuron™ job-posting data shows that AI skills are sought more often than any other digital skillset across “leading” organizations — a group that in this dataset comprises:

  • S&P 100 companies
  • Technology giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (FAANG)
  • Tech startups with more than $1 billion valuation (“unicorns”)

But while AI skills as a whole are widely sought after across all leading organizations, more granular data shows the nuanced picture. Of all the fast-growing in-demand digital skills, few are in demand by all three groups. Demand growth has been highest among S&P 100 companies for skills in Asana, software-as-a-service designed to improve collaboration and workflows. Among FAANG postings, demand for blockchain skills is growing fastest. 

Real-time labor market data shows the demand growth1 for Asana skills has topped 680% each year since 2017 among the S&P 100. The annualized growth1 rate for in-demand blockchain skills among the FAANG group has also topped 600%.

Knowing this level of detail can help you hone your requests and prioritize skill sets for which there is less competition. For example, if you look for “AI skills” in general, you encounter a huge demand: 77,000 job postings globally in July 2020 alone. By contrast, just over 1,000 postings asked for “automation anywhere” and just over 3,000 for robotic process automation (RPA). Both of those AI subsets are key to business process digitalization. 

This type of labor market intelligence can offer HR leaders a valuable independent input to validate and influence the needs analysis conducted by business leaders — and to prioritize learning and development and recruiting investments. 

Broaden tactics to develop and acquire critical skills

A dynamic skills strategy uses these types of labor market insights to determine demand, supply and availability of talent. For example, you can direct your recruitment and development efforts more effectively if you know who you’re competing against for specific skills, and where the talent you need already resides.

More generally, data insights can help you diversify the tactics you deploy to develop and acquire skills. Among your options:

  1. Focus on skills potential, not credentials. Traditionally, credentials such as certifications or even job history, have guaranteed a reasonable fit when filling open roles. But role titles and definitions haven’t kept up with the fast evolution in tasks and responsibilities — a trend exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, which has resulted in increased remote work and accelerated digital transformation. Instead, focus on acquiring the critical skills needed to drive competitive advantage and be open to looking beyond traditional sources of credentialed talent.
  2. Target the total skills market by tapping into talent with “adjacent” skills. People with the skills necessary to perform a role’s duties may never have held that specific role or a position with that specific title. Instead, look to tap talent with related skills — especially so-called “stepping stone” skills, which bridge the gap between domains. Identifying these complementary skill sets can help you identify nontraditional internal and external candidates. 
  3. Locate global pools of talent, and source by talent location, not business location. Look for talent beyond the location of the business — a shift that seems less radical amid the workforce and workplace changes prompted by COVID-19. For example, hybrid workforce models offer new opportunities to leverage remote and gig work and other workforce models to install skills when and where they are needed to drive positive business outcomes.

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1 Annualized growth rate = (average of annual demand from 2017 to 2020/annual demand in 2017).

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