The latest evolution of work shifts focus away from jobs and titles to people and skills
| 7 min read |
People are what work is about — and talent-centricity drives organizational performance.
This is the thread that runs through everything we do in the connected world of talent through attraction, acquisition, mobilization and transition management. In a Deloitte survey, 79% of business executives agreed that the purpose of the organization should be to “create value for workers as human beings, as well as for shareholders and society at large.”
However, as we navigate the fourth industrial revolution, it’s critical to remember that automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are not just tools of organizational efficiency but should be used to support and benefit humans — driving people-centered progress, purpose and well-being.
After all, we are no longer simply automating the repeatable, transactional processes built on logical decision-making; generative AI is now transforming knowledge work — previously thought to be untouchable by computers.
decoupling work from jobs
This doesn’t mean that knowledge jobs (ranging from writing and research to engineering, law and even medicine) face obsolescence. But it does mean that transferable skills and learnability (LQ) — rather than job titles — will become the currency, helping us to thrive through continuous change.
Our skills fall into two camps: learned and innate. These cover both technical/hard skills and human/soft skills. A person’s learned technical skills are usually the ones that are overplayed when considering talent as they are easier to quantify. But they are not the best predictors of performance and they have an expiration date in terms of relevance.
The irony, as HR analyst Josh Bersin points out, is that in an age of technological change, “hard skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and soft skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).”
In other words, at a time when technical skills are continually evolving or disappearing in line with technological and societal change, it is our innate human skills that hold the most value.
becoming skills-based organizations
If we begin to look at individuals as a composition of their innate and learned skills, organizations must also become skills-based, placing skills, not jobs, at the center of their workforce strategy. Leaders should understand their workforce as the sum of its parts.
“We’re beginning to think about each role at Unilever as a collection of skills rather than simply a job title,” explained Anish Singh, head of HR for Unilever in Australia and New Zealand. Work is being atomized into projects or tasks — or broadened into problems to be solved, outcomes to be achieved or value to be created.
This frees people from narrow job functions and instead views them as rounded individuals with knowledge and capabilities that can be fluidly deployed to match business priorities. It creates a realized internal marketplace. However, to identify the true currency of your people (and to get the best out of them), it is also necessary to overlay each person’s skills with their unique ability to learn and adapt — plus their motivations and aspirations — which Randstad calls “human potential.”
The latter are the reasons why people want to use their skills and talents at work, revolving strongly around values, beliefs and longer-term goals. When a core or learned skill is aligned to motivation and aspiration, it becomes a strength.
To harness the full potential of your workforce, it's essential to go beyond their skills. Understanding their capacity to learn and adapt, and their motivations and aspirations is crucial. It's about aligning skills with individual desires and values, transforming skills into strengths when coupled with motivation and aspirations.
moving beyond the job description
Aligning an individual’s overall currency with your required outcomes is, therefore, as good for talent as it is for business, bringing out and drawing on people’s strengths. But to do this successfully requires looking at work and talent through the same lens.
The formal job description — rigid, homogenous and static — is simply not up to this task. Traditional job descriptions rarely break down work into definable skills or provide sufficient context around team dynamics or other essential elements. They box people in as job holders rather than showing the full spectrum of opportunities. If the notion of the job is hindering organizations, the job description is the tool that underpins this.
Unbundling work from jobs means approaching the talent life cycle in a different way via different tools: understanding organizational strategy and desired outcomes; breaking this down into component pieces; distilling elements into required skills and knowledge, and matching people to projects and tasks.
The “magic formula” for optimal performance is not ascertaining the minimum requirements or skill sets for a job — but the optimal mix of skills and aspirations for unlocking human potential for the task or project at hand.
For example, in practical terms, we would move from:
“I want a person with X qualifications, who has five years’ experience in my industry and has been doing a similar role.”
To: “I want a person who aspires deeply to these outcomes, who has the potential to learn as they go, and has the innate and learned skills that complement the team composition.”
This approach opens up many more possibilities — creating talent abundance rather than talent scarcity — while creating greater equity for your whole workforce. As McKinsey points out, “A more objective assessment of the relevant skills for any given job could help mitigate systemic disadvantages.”
This may feel uncomfortable and risky but has more predictability of performance than experience and qualifications. After all, hiring for skills is five times more predictive of job performance than hiring for education and more than two times more predictive than hiring for work experience.
Of course, moving from a jobs-based to a skills-based workforce means overhauling the way you hire, manage and mobilize your talent, scrutinizing your processes, and adapting your tools. It requires a mindset change and the upskilling or reskilling of everyone involved in the talent life cycle and broader business.
Since social capital is a cornerstone of performance, talent professionals must become the engineers and champions of this approach, understanding and sharing their organization’s intent. A clear intent ensures that most of your focus, activity and resources are directed toward the most important outcomes — and that everyone sees the big picture and recognizes how their contributions tie into it.
What gets measured gets managed. For example, if your talent review process is driven by the need to put succession plans in place, that is exactly what will happen. But if you explain that your review process is designed to examine the work that’s most important to your organization, and then to put together pods of people to do that work, this is where the emphasis will go.
You can test understanding of intent by regularly asking your people, “What is most important for our organization to succeed, and how are your work and skills aligned to this?”
from talent scarcity to abundance
Why should you go to the effort of undertaking this structural and attitudinal change? Research shows that skills-based pioneers are already achieving better business results than those with jobs-based practices.
Deloitte’s 2022 skills-based organization survey showed that organizations that embed a skills-based approach are 63% more likely to achieve 11 business and working outcomes than those that do not. These include:
1. meeting or exceeding financial targets
2. anticipating change and responding effectively and efficiently
4. achieving high levels of customer satisfaction
5. positively impacting society and communities served
6. improving processes to maximize efficiency
7. being a great place to grow and develop
8. placing talent effectively
9. providing workers with a positive workforce experience
10. providing an inclusive environment
11. retaining high performers
They are, in fact, 107% more likely to place talent effectively, 98% more likely to retain high performers, 57% more likely to anticipate change and respond effectively and efficiently, and 47% more likely to provide an inclusive environment.
Only when the organization succeeds in shifting its focus from jobs, qualifications and experience to people, skills and behaviors will it begin to recognize the abundance of resources within and the broad pool of external talent just waiting to join — and stay with — you.
When we embrace this change, the role of the talent professional will move from searching for scarce talent to value-adding efforts to deploy engaged talent effectively. A digital core will give inputs around which to make informed, talent-centric decisions and experiment, increasing joy at work while improving organizational performance. What wonderful work to do, regardless of job title.
7 practical tips to help shift the focus from jobs to skills
- Create a culture of ongoing learning and internal mobility, fostering a growth mindset.
- Build agile teams across talent acquisition and management, learning and development (L&D), and HR for consistency and cross-development.
- Support employees to create personal portfolios of technical and behavioral skills.
- Create a common language around skills across the organization.
- Base L&D around skills rather than job roles.
- Put skills development and application at the heart of performance reviews.
- Develop skills-based compensation packages.
Learn more about building a talent-centric, skills-based organization.
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