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With skills back in focus, what’s the latest for HR and tech leaders?

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast.

Just a few years ago, it seemed like at least half of the conversations I was having with HR technology providers, HR leaders and industry experts were primarily focused on skills—specifically, upskilling and reskilling, and the challenges these presented for organizations and employees alike. Facing a tightening labor market in the extended recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-09—and wrestling with the growing development of new technologies in artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and more—HR and learning leaders mainly seemed concerned with how to identify and close the so-called “skills gaps.” At that point, that’s what everyone seemed to believe would be the main challenge for HR at the dawn of the 2020s.

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Then, suddenly, everything changed in March 2020, with the agendas for HR leaders becoming dramatically reset as pandemic-related issues were elevated. Depending on the industry, organization type and geographic location, HR leaders were variously contending with business shutdowns, employee furloughs, rapid hiring (I still recall reading, almost shockingly at the time, about an organization like Papa John’s having to hire something like 20,000 new employees to meet a surge in customer demand), changing health and safety protocols, and caring for the overall wellbeing of their highly stressed employees. So, naturally, the narrower conversations on skills and skills gaps were placed on hold, at least until the basics of business survival and employee health were addressed.

Now, after three years of organizations responding to the pandemic, it feels like HR leaders and organizations are returning to the skills discussion. Meanwhile, HR technology providers (who, mostly, continued to develop these solutions through the pandemic era) are ready with new tools and capabilities to help organizations solve the thorny, persistent challenges of identifying, developing and aligning the skills of their people with the ever-evolving skills requirements of their operations. Some of these new developments have been jump-started by more mature and robust AI technology—capable of generating everything from skills taxonomies and more accurate mapping of employee skills to organizational needs to personalized recommendations for skills development and career pathing.

So, for the “skills” conversation, we are at a powerful and perhaps fortunate convergence: Organizations of all types are once again focused on skills development and closing skills gaps, and a newish set of numerous HR technologies have emerged to support organizations and employees.

But let’s allow some confirmation and recency bias to creep into this argument.

In just the last couple of weeks, my At Work in America podcast co-host, Trish McFarlane, and I have talked with HR leaders from two of the largest and most well-known companies in the U.S., Johnson & Johnson and Enterprise Holdings, on the topics of reskilling, development, internal talent mobility, and the platforms and technologies that make solving these challenges possible. For both of these large and complex organizations, talent management in 2023 is largely focused on understanding the skills of their people, creating opportunities for them to grow and develop, and remaining alert and agile. Both organizations—J&J in healthcare products and services and Enterprise in leisure and hospitality—experienced significant and unexpected impacts from the pandemic. The leaders from these organizations whom we spoke with were clear in how upskilling, reskilling, and identifying and mapping skills will be critical to meeting their talent and business objectives moving forward.

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As companies reignite the focus on skills and development after three challenging years, helping them meet those objectives is back near the top of the priority list for HR technology providers. While the variety of solution providers offering skills identification, development, mapping and management capabilities is somewhat daunting, I do expect the solutions that will ultimately be the most successful to be the ones that prioritize the employee the most.

5 tips for your skills-focused tech strategy

In a complex market for HR technology, here are some thoughts for HR leaders to consider when planning their technology strategy around skills and assessing current and potential future technology partners. These are some of the capabilities that any technology supporting upskilling, reskilling and really anything “skills”-related should possess:

Personalized development plans: Employees should be able to create and customize their development plans based on their current skills, strengths and career aspirations. These plans should be integrated with learning content and resources like training classes, mentors, self-directed learning, short-term and permanent assignments or gigs, and personalized coaching.

Skills assessment and inferred skills: The system should allow employees to assess their current skills and identify areas where they need to improve—both to excel in their current role and to develop for roles they aspire to in the future. This could incorporate self-assessment, peer review and manager feedback or could be inferred from the technology evaluating previous job and educational experience.

See also: Managing the upskilling frenzy: 4 steps to leveling up your workforce

Career pathing: The solution should provide employees with a clear understanding of the different career paths available to them within the organization and allow them to self-direct their own career journeys. This includes descriptions of job roles, skills requirements and current skills gaps, and alternatives for career progression. This allows employees to set goals and plan their career paths, while also helping the organization retain talent by providing clear career development opportunities.

Mentoring and networking: One of the keys to ongoing skills development is connecting to mentors in the organization from which employees can gain insights and perspective. The system should provide employees with opportunities to find and network with others in the organization who have similar skills and career paths. This capability allows employees to learn from others and expand their knowledge and skills.

Integration with learning content: Key to skills development, and enhancing existing skills, is a tight, preferably native, integration with the organization’s learning assets and content. The system should help employees develop and enhance skills both for success in their current role, as well as help them develop skills needed to achieve progress along their career plans. This capability enables the organization to leverage the investments made in creating and compiling learning content by placing it directly where it is needed and presenting it to the individual learners when they need it the most.

HR leaders have rightly refocused on skills identification, development, career planning and the technologies that can support the overall upskilling and reskilling of their people. Before making investments that are so important to the future of their organization, it is important for HR leaders to map their requirements and goals for these “skills” initiatives, and assess the capabilities of their existing HRIS systems, as well as the newer solutions that have emerged throughout the pandemic. Last note: While it is early, it’s not too early to make plans to attend the HR Technology Conference this October in Las Vegas, where all these technologies will be on display and you can dive deep into their capabilities—all in one place.