Stop Training Employees in Skills They’ll Never Use

Old ways of predicting skill needs aren’t working. HR leaders need a dynamic skills strategy that enables employees to learn and apply desirable new skills quickly and effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need for new skills as organizations shift strategy and adapt to new ways of working. HR leaders are trying to react, but many are left playing catch-up and getting further behind. They need a dynamic skills strategy more appropriate for fast-changing conditions. 

HR is often wasting time and effort on irrelevant learning that won’t ever be used to further the business or the career of the employee

The number of skills required for a single job is increasing by 10% year over year, and over 30% of the skills needed three years ago will soon be irrelevant, according to Gartner TalentNeuron™ data analysis on millions of job postings. The lack of digital skills is already apparent and the pace of change is leaving HR — and employees — playing catch-up.

“Skills development must be relevant, fast and effective,” says Sari Wilde, Managing Vice President, Gartner. “That requires HR to ensure employees not only learn the right new skills — for their personal development and the benefit of the organization — but also apply those skills. You can try and respond to or predict what you think are future needs, but HR is often wasting time and effort on irrelevant learning that won’t ever be used to further the business or the career of the employee.”


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React to or predict skill needs? Neither is working.

The 2020 Gartner Shifting Skills Survey for HR Executives reveals that 60% of HR leaders report pressure from the CEO to ensure employees have the skills needed in the future. The same survey found that, compared with three years ago, 69% of HR executives report more pressure from employees to provide development opportunities that will prepare them for future roles.

It’s perhaps not surprising to learn, then, that nearly two-thirds of HR leaders take a reactive approach to addressing skill needs — creating a skills strategy driven primarily by requests and direction from the business. 

This approach leans on established processes to develop skills, and it assumes managers will be able to help drive skills development as needs arise. It’s not working. With this approach, employees apply just 54% of the new skills they learn.

It would seem that a more predictive approach might be more effective. But that assumes you can actually identify a specific skill set need for the future. That also means targeting investments at preemptive development programs. If your predictions are wrong, as they increasingly are when times change rapidly, the waste is even greater. In fact, Gartner research shows that with the predictive approach, employees apply only 37% of the new skills they learn.

When HR uses the dynamic skills strategy, employees apply 75% of new skills learned

Dynamic approach delivers

The most effective HR functions use a dynamic skills approach focused on structuring HR and the organization — people, systems and strategies — to respond dynamically to changing skills needs. When HR uses the dynamic skills strategy, employees apply 75% of new skills learned. The approach also enables HR to do three critical things:

  1. Sense shifting skills in real time. Anticipate skill shifts as they are occurring — rather than trying to predict the future — and adapt to those shifts in an iterative, course-corrective way. Leverage cross-organizational networks of stakeholders who are sensitive to changing trends, and make sure they are empowered to address skills as they shift in real time.
  2. Develop skills at the time of need. Move beyond traditional learning and development (L&D) tactics like classroom training and e-learning libraries. Instead, identify and implement skill accelerators — strategies that leverage existing resources (e.g., content, people, skill adjacencies) to develop new skills solutions at speed.
  3. Enable employees to make skills decisions dynamically. Develop two-way skills transparency between the organization (e.g., what skills it needs, what skills it no longer needs, where needs are unknown) and the employee (e.g., current skills and interests). Create channels for employees and the organization to exchange skills information, which facilitates a better match between employees and their organization to pursue mutually beneficial and flexible skills development.

The dynamic skills approach also boosts other key talent outcomes, resulting in a 24% improvement in employee performance and a 34% improvement in discretionary effort (where employees go above and beyond at work).

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Gartner for HR clients can read Building a Dynamic Skills Organization (and access a presentation deck here). Also available are Tool: Skill Investments Assessment and Tool: Critical Considerations for Building a Skills Inventory.


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