Skills Provide an Objective Data Foundation and Common Language

From a people perspective, skills initiatives create value for employees and the business. From the data side, most any business problem can be solved with skills data. Guest author and HR thought leader Ben Eubanks shares his insights.

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This post previously appeared on the SHRM blog.


When it comes to discussions about skills in the workplace, it can feel very much like an all-or-nothing proposition. You either get it right and reap the rewards, or you get it wrong and never have another opportunity to solve the skills puzzle. I’m hoping the following parable helps illustrate how that’s simply not true.

A ceramics teacher stood up in front of her classroom and told the students they would be competing on a pot they would make. The teacher split the students into two groups: 

  • The first group would make a pot a day, and each student could submit the one they liked best.

  • The second group would study best practices, analyze experts, and prepare a plan. Then each individual would make a single pot using all of their knowledge and ability and submit that pot at the 30-day mark.

When it came time to choose the best pots, the first group took every single award.

So what’s the critical lesson here? We all know that in many areas of life, it’s important to begin and improve. Nobody jumps on a bicycle and rides 10 miles on the first day. Nobody sits down and writes a beautiful novel their first time at the keyboard.

We often want to wait and try to take the absolute perfect first shot, but it’s usually better to get started with what we know and iterate over time.

Employers with better revenue and retention rates are 40% more likely to be using internal talent marketplaces.

Developing a skills-focused initiative is a great example. Admittedly, there are numerous potential challenges, such as:

  • Lack of buy-in from executives who don’t understand the use cases for skills data.

  • Disorganized or unclear employee data sources.

  • Biased ratings and skill assessments from managers (as highlighted in the first piece in our series).

However, just as the story above illustrates, taking a consistent, intentional approach will ultimately achieve the best results.

Skills as an Objective, Data-Driven Foundation

I’ll talk more about the human side of skills initiatives and how they create value for people and the business, but first I want to explain the fundamental value of skills data. Almost any business problem can come back to skills data.

  • Customer service issues. What skills do your customer representatives have or need?

  • Quality issues. What skill is the team missing?

  • Low employee engagement. How do you acknowledge and tap into the skills of your workforce?

Not only do skills answer these problems, but they are quantifiable data points. They are measurable. And when something can be measured, it can be improved.

In addition, this creates a common foundation for decisions and conversations within the business. Instead of saying, “our people aren’t qualified,” leaders can pinpoint the specific skill gap and how to solve it. Instead of feeling like it’s impossible to hire the right talent in a tight market, leaders can highlight internal skills that exist and leverage those to tackle immediate needs.

Every stakeholder, from senior executives and HR to managers and even the employees themselves, can benefit from this foundational layer of data. But it doesn’t have to feel cold and clinical—there are real human impacts as well.

Skills as Both Engagement and Business Value Opportunities

Understanding skills can create value from multiple perspectives. Employers and leaders benefit from more clarity and better decisions due to skills insights. The workforce also has opportunities to tap into their abilities and develop their strengths.

Here’s a helpful breakdown:

Each individual worker brings together a different mix and set of skills and abilities. However, it is common for employers to treat people as if they are simply a bundle of skills they are renting for the duration of the person’s employment. But we can’t firewall off the hopes and aspirations of the workforce while we buy their skills. We have to see this for the deeper relationship that it is.

That is the true value of a skills-based strategy. Unlike the age-old practice of succession planning, talent mobility has a critical differentiator. In succession management, leaders pick and move people according to their own whim. In a business where talent mobility is the top priority, the workforce gets a say in their career path options based on goals, aspirations, and desires, and that is layered on top of business goals and needs.

A great example of this occurs in a global consultancy with nearly 500,000 employees. One of the fundamental talent practices in the company is for managers to ask their direct reports what their personal and professional goals are on a regular basis. This simple practice leads to a natural flow of talent within the organization. I admit that it can sound simplistic, but when you consider the fact that the CEO, CTO, and CFO all started in the business as trainees years ago, you quickly understand just how powerful that approach can be.

In a business where talent mobility is the top priority, the workforce gets a say in their career path options based on goals, aspirations, and desires.

Use Case: The Talent Marketplace

A great example of how employers are using skills in a practical manner is through the emerging best practice of talent marketplaces. A talent marketplace allows employers to open up opportunities for internal staff. These could be projects, ad hoc teams, gigs, or other short-term needs. Then the workforce is able to opt in to those opportunities when they fit.

But it goes beyond that. Employers with better revenue and retention rates are 40% more likely to be using internal talent marketplaces than their lower-performing peers, according to our new Learning, Talent Development, and Skilling Study.

This makes sense because a talent marketplace is a living, breathing example of how skills data intersects with the people strategy for the business. Many leaders who have already taken this step actually see additional value. Using skills in this manner helps to engage workers not just in their jobs, but in their career journeys because it allows them to utilize their strengths, grow their career network inside the business, and strengthen their experience.

Workday, among others, recently introduced a Talent Marketplace that uses skills technology to connect its people with relevant work and growth opportunities, and helps foster employee development and allocate talent. I’m encouraged by the growing number of companies developing and using a talent marketplace, which is becoming increasingly important as the need to attract and retain talent has never been greater.


In the final piece in this series, we’ll talk about how artificial intelligence and machine learning are coming together to help us leverage skills data in a variety of ways that were never before possible.

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