The Skills Obsession: The Third Age of Human Capital Management

We’re in the midst of a major shift in the world of HR, according to thought leader and Workday executive Greg Pryor. He discusses what this means, its effect on how we think about skills, and the technology fueling the shift.

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“I think we have to help organizations get out of the way and let people unleash and unlock their capabilities in ways that do not require the organization to be at the center.” 

Greg Pryor, executive director at Workday, shared this insight recently when he was a guest on the RedThread Research podcast called the Skills Obsession, an ongoing series on the near-term future of people and work practices. The conversation focused on skills, a topic Pryor knows well based on his own experience as a human capital practitioner, his extensive writing and research, his collaboration with academics (“geeking out with other thought leaders,” as he describes it), and his experience talking with Workday customers.

The conversation included a deep dive into why professional mobility is about mindset, not movement, why a shift in how we talk about skills is happening now, and which technologies are fueling it. Below are more of Pryor’s insights from the interview; listen to the podcast here.

On How He Defines Skills:

“I believe we're seeing a shift to what we would call ‘capabilities,’ which are the new career currency. It's a really significant shift, especially amongst people a bit earlier in their careers, to absolutely understand that their capabilities—collecting, developing, maturing, progressing—are the way they will see both success and satisfaction.

“I'm a big fan of Bob Johansen at the Institute for the Future, and in his book, The New Leadership Literacies, he talks about this idea, especially for this younger group, of a gameful mindset at work. And I think he is onto something powerful here. I was with the CHRO of a U.S.-based retailer who shared with me that during the pandemic, he was playing Fortnite with his daughter. And finally he turned to her and said, ‘Honey, when is this game over? When do I win?’ And she said, ‘Dad, you don't win; you just level up.’

“And I think this is the paradigm. When we look at the next generation of our workforce, they think about collecting capabilities and skills, and that gives them the optionality to do amazing things in the future. Those are the superpowers they put in their backpack—the ones they use to face the next great challenge.”

“I believe we're seeing a shift to what we would call ‘capabilities,’ which are the new career currency. It's a really significant shift.”

Greg Pryor Executive Director Workday

On Why the Shifting View of Skills Is Happening Now:

“I think it's the convergence of three things that were already in place, and are absolutely being amplified and elevated. The first is this idea of the democratization of work—moving from roles or jobs as the point of primacy to work. The second thing that we see is the advancement of machine learning and how that helps us predict the ‘Uberization’ of work. How can I predict what's most relevant to me, that builds on my capabilities and my connections, that's consistent with my career interests?

“And lastly, there's this narrative, particularly for our millennial generation who entered the workforce during the Great Recession, of growing up in a very volatile, uncertain time, and of seeing people with the greatest breadth of capability having the greatest optionality to survive the next uncertainty.

“So now you have the combination of gigs at work and the democratization of work; you have the real availability of prediction machines to identify who are the best people to do that work based on their current skills, connections, and career interests. And you have this expectation of moving from promotion to progress as the fundamental principle. The convergence of these three things, dramatically accelerated by the pandemic, put us where we are today.”

“When we look at the next generation of our workforce, they think about collecting capabilities and skills, and that gives them the optionality to do amazing things in the future.”

Greg Pryor Executive Director Workday

On the Technologies Impacting the Conversation Around Skills:

“I think most people under-appreciate the incredible impact of machine learning. I'll geek out with one example. My two college-aged daughters do much of their clothes shopping through a company called Stitch Fix. And if you know Stitch Fix, you know that you don't go shopping there; you fill out a profile and they use algorithms, augmented by people, to send you clothes. They believe their predictions are good enough that you won't be sending these clothes back all the time.

“Now, in my case, that's true. I don't think we've ever sent any of these clothes back. So I don't know what's teaching the algorithm other than maybe they have a very loving father who would do anything for them, and so more and more boxes continue to show up at our doorstep. But I had an opportunity to use this type of prediction machine with Workday's talent marketplace capability. The way that works is I type in a gig; I describe the work that I need done. Machine learning immediately breaks that description down into a series of skills I can augment and add to. And then I hit a submit button, and a millisecond later a list of 150 people at our organization who could do that work appeared in front of me.

“I was amazed that it happened so instantaneously. And I was perhaps both shocked and dismayed that the first 10 people on the list I had never met; I had no idea who they were. And I thought to myself, wow, I have lived in this bubble, a constrained world, where who you knew created opportunity rather than what you knew. And all of a sudden, the idea was overwhelming to me, this idea of the democratization of opportunity.

“And also the idea that you absolutely need to add human judgment on top of that. You can let the machines find those 10 people who I hadn't thought of, then let me apply my judgment to talk to those people, to engage them, to find out if this is an area of interest. So I very much believe it's a both/and: Let the machines do their work and then let the humans do what are essential human skills, which is the ability to connect, to engage, to motivate, and to understand whether this is a gig that someone wants and is a good fit.”

On What Drives Him:

“For me, what has always been so clear across my career is I really do believe in the power of people. I personally believe that so much of the structure we've historically had in the world has not allowed us to really unleash and unlock the greatest amount of our human capability, and so that's what's always driven me.”

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