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Thought Leadership in Action

How to Map Future-Oriented Skills Across Your Workforce

The world of work is on track to see substantial changes in the next three to five years. Before COVID-19, the World Economic Forum predicted that machines would perform more than half of all jobs by 2025. And since COVID-19, changes that were expected -- such as the change from an in-office work model to one that’s more fluid and flexible -- have been accelerated. Work will only continue to evolve and automate, and your organization needs to begin preparing for change now.

But how? The most significant preparations fall to your human capital. “How do we as humans at all levels, from the C-suite all the way down, stay relevant and gainfully employed and not replaced by some machine?” asks Daniel Burrus, technology futurist and disruptive innovation expert at Burrus Research Inc. “The skills that are going to be essential are the ones machines don’t do well.” As artificial intelligence and automation become increasingly common across industries, employees need to hone skills that machines can’t replace.

Those all-important soft skills will be the differentiators against your competition. Here’s how to identify and build future-oriented skills across your organization.

Identify Skills to Future-Proof Your Organization

There are some trends in work that we can be completely sure of, Burrus says. He calls them hard trends. One example of a hard trend is that technology will become more functional and widespread as a result of the pandemic, so HR leaders can anticipate and prepare for that now. Looking at inevitable trends will help you determine the skills your workforce needs to build to adapt to those changes.

Here are some of the skills Burrus suggests developing in your workforce to create a sustainable organization moving forward.

  • Relationship building strengthens trust laterally among colleagues and vertically between leaders and employees.

  • Employees skilled in technology savvy are willing to learn and leverage new technology for future success. “Technology savvy is being comfortable learning about new technology — not how it works but, more importantly, seeing how to apply it,” Burrus says.

  • Strategic listenin is listening for core ideas and terms. Mastering strategic listening helps employees ask better, more targeted questions to have more effective conversations.

  • Emotional intelligence and empathy help us understand what drives our behavior and that of our colleagues, allowing us to guide them better. “It's about how to perceive and manage emotions,” Burrus says.

  • What we usually consider collaboration is often just cooperation. True collaboration is the result of trust, and it demonstrates a shared sense of working toward something better for everyone.

  • Adaptability, which goes hand in hand with agility , encompasses the ability to change in response to disruption. “Being agile is being able to react as quickly as you can to a problem after it occurs,” Burrus says.

These skills, among other competencies for future success, set your workforce up to thrive in an increasingly automated world of work.

Assess Where Future-Oriented Skills Exist Now

To get a sense of the skills you have to foster in your workforce, you need to identify what skills your workforce already has and where they exist within your organization. But before you can measure skills, you need to define them, often in terms of behaviors and outcomes. Consider how you might define strategic listening in terms of behaviors and outcomes, for example. Does someone display the skill if they pick up on a key term in conversation and use it thoughtfully in their next question? If strategic listening is used effectively, what is the ideal outcome of that conversation?

Administering skills assessments and aptitude tests can help you pinpoint which skills are strongest among your employees. If you conduct pre-hire assessments on job candidates, have your talent acquisition team transfer the results to the new hire’s manager to track growth over time. Measuring soft skills is difficult, so you may need to work with an assessment company or an industrial and organizational psychologist to get the best results.

“It's hard to actually measure skills reliably and accurately,” says Charles Handler, Ph.D., founder and president of Rocket-Hire and host of the Science 4-Hire podcast. “Assessments are a great way to get a really accurate read on that kind of a thing.” Quality assessments provide an objective diagnostic of the skills that exist in your organization, but they’re only one piece of the ongoing puzzle, Handler says. An effective skill-development program uses assessments in tandem with coaching, talent management and learning systems. “It's the humans, the measurement tools, the software, the process: All that comes together to make it work,” Handler says.

Decide Where to Foster Future-Oriented Skills

Once you know where future-oriented skills sit now, you can decide where they need to be enhanced. On a macro level, decide which skills will drive engagement in your workforce culture. “Determining the skills that are going to be most beneficial depends on culture,” says Carolyn Brand, fractional chief human resources officer and business coach at brand!EQ. “What are you trying to drive?” This could be enabling employees to hone communication and strategic skills to have better conversations in a remote environment, or it could be demonstrating clear career paths linked to each skill you want to drive and use to motivate performance.

To enhance specific skills in individuals, set a baseline for each skill you want to hone. Everyone at your organization needs to meet that baseline, or produce the minimum outcomes and behaviors you want to see from that skill. The baseline gives you a benchmark from which to measure growth. Train managers to read assessment results and to identify gaps in their reports’ current soft skills. After administering training for a skill, managers need to be able to measure and evaluate their reports’ progress on the other side. “It’s a continual process,” Handler says.

Rather than setting up assessments without a direction, go through each role at your organization to decide which future-oriented skills serve the outcomes that the role is supposed to produce. Some roles require higher competency in specific skills than in others. Customer-facing roles, for example, need to be good at building relationships and strengthening trust with clients and customers. Department heads need to be collaborative and share resources (including human capital) to drive better business outcomes.

Soft skills training is especially important for direct managers, who need to use emotional intelligence to understand what their reports are experiencing and how to optimize their performance. “The biggest focus should be on integrating managers into their roles,” Brand says. “They're the people that are going to take the employees where they need to go.”

Create Job Pathways to Promote Skill Mapping

Once you’ve identified and defined the future-oriented skills your workforce needs to develop, find projects that allow employees to exercise each of those skills. Find learning and development courses and training programs that incorporate soft skills training into the curriculum, Burrus suggests, so that soft skills are always emphasized.

You can use hypothetical tasks and projects to see employees using their skills in a controlled environment. This can help employees reach their baseline skill level. You can also encourage skill mastery by assigning employees to real-life tasks and projects that exercise those desired skills. This comes with more risk because it affects production, but doing so can help employees exercise and build confidence in their future-oriented skills.

While skills can always be taught, employees will have aptitudes and inclinations toward some skills over others. This could inform what they enjoy doing and where they can have the most significant impact at work. Encourage employees to take some control over their own careers and where they want to go in your organization.

“We're seeing more and more opportunities being built into software platforms to allow people to self-develop and self-skill and then to be able to track their progress,” Handler says. If you use periodic assessments and aptitude tests to measure skills, follow up by feeding that data into employee-facing dashboards so they can see their skills gaps and strengths. That, in turn, helps you develop pathways for job mobility. When employees feel like they’re doing their best work, they’ll be happier and achieve more.

Repeat to Create a Resilient Workforce

In a work environment known for rapid change, you can’t map skills once and be done with it. You need to remain vigilant and adapt your skill-mapping plan accordingly. As circumstances change and technology evolves, so will the skills and even the job roles where those skills are required. Build skill-mapping processes into HR’s daily routine. Identify trends and circumstances that could affect your existing plan, and decide how you need to adapt.

“Skills are the currency of the workforce,” Handler says. “You need to understand how important it is to be able to manage that currency effectively.” Once you build this reflexive muscle, you’ll be able to create a workforce with sustainable skills to thrive during disruption and change. And your employees will appreciate your investment in them and the opportunities to grow and develop. They’ll come to expect reskilling and even seek it out, improving your workforce’s resilience in the face of change.


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