Career Mobility: Mindset Over Movement
February 16th, 2021
- Mobility is a mindset, not just upward or between-role movement. Many orgs said mobility has more to do with fluidity than with a specific form. The simplest definition of mobility is “… Enabling employees to participate in opportunities that benefit both the org and the employee.” Several orgs from our study are implementing career mobility initiatives that don’t focus on roles, but rather on exploring assignments that may be:
- Alongside current responsibilities
- Short-term, full-time gigs
- Mobility’s changed substantially—and will change more in the future. We’re seeing orgs do more of the following:
- Exploring more, in terms of what mobility looks like
- Providing more transparency to make opportunities open to everyone
- Offering more freedom and ownership to employees, with respect to their careers
- Using data and technology to enable mobility initiatives
- As quickly as mobility has been changing, we expect it’ll continue to evolve for the better as orgs are more intentional with their approaches.
- We’ve identified 5 approaches to career mobility. No one approach is preferable to another—each has its strengths and challenges.
- Ladder. Employees move from one role to the next, generally up, and generally within a given silo or function
- Lattice. Employees move up, around, and sometimes down inside the org
- Agency. Employees move around the org, based on their skills, knowledge, and preferences
- Outside In. Workers with specific skills are brought into the org to accomplish certain projects or pieces of work
- Reset. Employees are reskilled and redeployed into new roles, based on the org’s needs and strategy
- Choose the right mobility approach for your org. We’ve isolated 3 key questions to ask in determining what approach (or approaches) can work best for your org:
- Does your org lean toward roles or skills?
- How much does your org enable employee ownership of their own careers?
- What are the ultimate goals for mobility within your org?
- Align certain cultural influences to the type of mobility approach being used. When implementing an approach, orgs should consider these questions:
- How is career planning enabled?
- What messaging is offered about mobility (implicit and explicit)?
- What role does leadership play in enabling mobility?
- How do technology and data support the mobility approach?
Mobility: The Near Future
Not to blame everything on 2020, but recent events have shed light on shortfalls associated with some of HR’s biggest people challenges. As orgs reconfigure strategies, they’re also reevaluating the structures that support those strategies, as well as how employees move through those structures. And with that, leaders have begun to understand the power of mobility.
As orgs reconfigure strategies, they’re also reevaluating the structures that support those strategies, as well as how employees move through those structures.
Indeed, some of our most sought-after roundtables in the past year addressed the topic of mobility. What questions have we heard from leaders? Many. Turns out, it’s a broad topic that mostly boils down to the following 3 key concerns:
- Leaders want to know where to start. Options for thinking about mobility have multiplied as ideas, such as “the new world of work” and skills, are now present in the HR arena. While some approaches have been introduced (think Ladder, Lattice), there’s little written on how to implement them.
- Leaders want to understand how to lead the charge. We asked interviewees: Who owns career mobility? Not surprisingly, few had concrete answers, as it’s often a shared responsibility across many functions with differing ideas and agendas.
- Leaders want to know how to balance employee and org needs. One thing we heard more than once is that “… Everyone deserves the opportunity to grow and own their career.” Many leaders, however, struggle with making sure it can happen while taking care of the org.
Different approaches and stories can help leaders figure out where best to start.
We’ve spent the last 5 months talking with leaders, reading the literature, conducting roundtables about mobility, and just plain thinking about this. We’ve concluded that it’s a complicated topic with several possible answers. The research of others and our conversations with those on the cutting edge have led us to this: Different approaches and stories can help leaders figure out where best to start.
What is mobility nowadays?
Several aspects of career mobility have morphed over the years. Whereas it used to be a well-understood idea with fairly straightforward practices, recent events have acted as catalysts for newer and better ways to implement career mobility strategies. So, how has it changed? It’s:
- Not just “upward” anymore
- Taking on new meaning
- A mindset
Not just “upward” anymore
In the past, mobility was only associated with moving employees from one role to another within an org. Originally, it was almost exclusively tied to moving up through an org’s hierarchical structure, thus the term “upwardly mobile.”
In more recent years, however, career mobility has come to mean, in its simplest definition,
“… Enabling employees to participate in work and opportunities in ways that benefit both the org and the employee.”
Leaders and employees have embraced the idea that this movement isn’t just upward—it’s also across, down, full-time, part-time, or gig work as well.1
Mobility takes on new meaning
This research gave us the opportunity to investigate how different orgs are enabling career mobility for their employees. One thing we uncovered: Some orgs are implementing mobility initiatives that have very little to do with actual movement at all.
Some orgs are implementing mobility initiatives that have very little to do with actual movement at all.
In these instances, mobility doesn’t mean changing roles—or considering long-term “roles” at all. Instead, it can mean exploring new roles or assignments on a part-time basis, alongside a current role, or full-time for short periods of time.
Mobility as a mindset
The term “career mobility” has also taken on a more psychological aspect by enabling employees to feel that their career choices are “fluid.” This way of thinking about mobility encourages exploration and movement, regardless of the form it takes.
Bottom line: The traditional purpose of mobility—to move people upward through a series of roles with increasing responsibility—has given way to more of a mindset (than an activity). These orgs tend to be more transparent about opportunities for employees and where they can take their careers. As such, it’s made clear that not everyone will be CEO and employees may not stay with the org forever—and so the relationship between employer and employee will change.
Career mobility now encompasses the fluidity that employees feel when it comes to career choices—encouraging exploration and movement regardless of what form it takes.
Instead of promising upward movement, orgs are offering freedom and opportunities for learning and growth. This simply means that orgs and employees are becoming more realistic about what can be offered and what should be expected.
Along with these changes in how mobility is perceived, we noted several new trends since we last studied this topic 5 years ago.
5 new mobility trends
We’ve seen tremendous growth in the area of career mobility—both in how it shows up on the agendas of leaders, as well as the tech solutions being offered in the market. Let’s briefly take a look at 5 current trends.
- More experimentation. Orgs have come a long way from defaulting to traditional approaches, regardless of their needs. They’re now embracing other ways of doing things—or are at least “dipping in their toes.”
- Talk of leveling the playing field. Probably because of its roots, orgs have traditionally reserved career mobility for high-potential (HiPo) employees and / or those seen as future leaders. Many leaders spoke of utilizing career mobility as a way to address concerns about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)2 to make opportunities open to more people.
- More opportunities for employees. As orgs step away from rigid career paths that serve only the org, opportunities for employees are opening up—allowing them to create the career they want, even if it looks completely different than anyone else’s.
- More data, better decisions. It’s difficult for us to have discussions about career mobility without also addressing skills.3 Orgs are thinking through how to better understand the capabilities of employees because of their experience and skills—and how to use that information to make better talent and mobility decisions.
- Tech enablement. While, in the past, mobility was largely manual—relying on manager impressions and employee proactivity—tech is making mobility easier. We’ve seen an uptick in the number and sophistication of technologies that:
- Make opportunities more transparent
- Help employees plan their careers
- Combine data and information to help leaders make better decisions
- Offer part-time or gig work to employees internally
Mobility is evolving to offer more and more—exploration, freedom, opportunities, and tech.
We spoke with leaders to understand their goals, their current efforts, and changes in the way mobility is being utilized. Through these discussions, we outlined how those efforts are manifesting within different orgs.
The following section introduces the approaches that we identified, how they’re being implemented, and the reasoning behind each.
Approaches To Career Mobility
Lest leaders look for a silver bullet, there’s no “right way” to do career mobility. In all, we talked with 17 different companies about their mobility strategies and philosophies; more than 70 leaders participated in our roundtables on this hot topic. And while we found similarities between approaches, no 2 orgs are handling career mobility in exactly the same way—or for the same reasons.
There’s no “right way” to do career mobility.
Luckily, patterns exist. In this section, we introduce some broad frameworks and approaches that can help leaders understand their options when it comes to mobility—and what may be most appropriate for their org.
Summary of approaches
Let’s start with the approaches themselves. From the existing literature and our extensive conversations with leaders, we identified 5 approaches, as shown in Figure 1.
Later in this report, we dive into each of these approaches—providing their characteristics, what they’re good for, and what leaders should think about when implementing them.
Approaches & their relationships to each other
While we view these 5 approaches as distinct career mobility strategies with unique goals that work in different environments, we didn’t run across any orgs that are exclusively using only 1 approach.
Most often, orgs identify an approach that’s used more broadly across the company, and then employ other mobility approaches for particular audiences or needs.
Generally, orgs identify an approach that’s used more broadly across the company, and then employ other approaches for particular audiences or needs. For example: If an org’s main strategy is based on deep subject-matter expertise and its industry is stable, then a Ladder approach may be appropriate. However, that same company may have a consulting arm that needs to flex, based on the projects coming in. For that 1 department, an Agency approach may work better.
We looked for similarities between the approaches by plotting the 5 approaches along 2 axes, based on our conversations and research, representing roles vs skills (horizontally) and high vs low employee ownership (vertically), as shown in Figure 2.
Whenever a framework like Figure 2 is introduced, the tendency is to think that “up and to the right” is the way to go. Keep in mind that doesn’t apply here.
The 5 approaches fit nicely within the quadrants created by these 2 axes—and give us a sense of the similarities and differences between them. In short, synergies can be found between approaches that reside on similar places on the axes. For example:
- Ladder works best in environments for which permanent roles are the primary way that companies organize people, and in cultures in which employee ownership of their careers is low—meaning that career paths are well-defined and not too flexible.
- Lattice works best in orgs for which permanent roles are the primary way people are organized, but employees have considerable ownership of their careers—meaning the org has adopted a mindset of movement, allowing people to try out different roles in different functions / business units.
- Agency works best in situations with high employee ownership (in fact, this model requires high employee ownership), and in which the people come together in project teams or other flexible arrangements to get work done (i.e., think of an ad agency completing a contract).
- Outside In relies on understanding the skills employees have and leveraging those skills to get work done, but it doesn’t allow for much employee ownership to define a career in the context of the org—mainly because employees work with more than one org at a time (i.e., gig economy).
- Reset (in the middle of the other 4 quadrants—halfway between roles and skills, and halfway between high and low employee ownership) relies on reskilling employees for new jobs, but in most orgs they must also be identified for new roles, giving employees the freedom to accept or reject an opportunity, while not necessarily choosing a different one.
Whenever a framework like this is introduced, the tendency is to think that “up and to the right” is the way to go. Keep in mind that doesn’t apply here. Figure 2 should be seen as descriptive rather than prescriptive: It describes how these approaches are used, instead of identifying where an org wants to progress to.
Our mobility approach framework should be seen as descriptive rather than prescriptive.
That said, most orgs do tend to move up and / or to the right of this framework. As leaders determine what’s right for their orgs, it’s important to understand the approach(es) currently being used (and how) and what their environment looks like.
(As an aside: It’s challenging, but not impossible, to move from, say, a Ladder to Agency approach because this change requires movement along both axes. It’s easier to tackle them 1 at a time, which is what we’re seeing today. Two more examples: Orgs that offer more employee ownership move from a Ladder to Lattice approach; employees who want to use skills more move from a Lattice to Agency approach.)
Determining The Right Approach
Determining which approaches may work best for your org depends on a few things:
- Does your org lean toward roles or skills?
- How much does your org enable employee ownership of their own careers?
- What are the ultimate goals for mobility within your org?
Does your org lean toward roles or skills?
Many of the leaders we spoke with identified ways to utilize skills differently—not just to define job descriptions for roles, but to truly change the way work is done. While most have a long way to go, it’s the mindset shift that’s interesting to us, particularly in how it changes the way orgs think about mobility.
As orgs embrace skills, the goals of mobility change from moving people along career paths to helping employees identify where they can best use those skills.
Orgs are (slowly) moving away from only thinking about roles (which organize work around rigid structures of people and tasks) to skills (which provide flexibility by allowing teams to form with the exact capabilities needed to get a project or piece of work accomplished). With this shift come changes in mobility strategies. As orgs embrace skills, the goals of career mobility change from moving people along well-developed career paths to helping employees identify where they can best utilize those skills.
Some orgs that move toward a skills mindset also tend to adopt both Agency and Outside In approaches: These orgs embrace the need to break out skills from role definitions. They use tools, like internal talent marketplaces, to help employees identify short-term or project work to which they can apply their unique skills—benefitting the employee as well as the org.
The near-frenzied discussion about skills—and the tech and data that support it—has made it much easier to pinpoint the skills orgs need to bring in, either to fill existing gaps or to help orgs pivot more smoothly.
Likewise, orgs are more likely to look beyond their borders to take advantage of the available skills of independent workers. While this is definitely not a new strategy, the near-frenzied discussion about skills—and the tech and data that support it—has made it much easier to pinpoint the skills orgs need to bring in, either to fill existing gaps or to help orgs pivot more smoothly.
Further, some orgs are going beyond their own walls to take advantage of the available skills of independent workers. These orgs offer gig or contract work to bring in the expertise, skills, and knowledge as needed for specific pieces of work.
How much does your org enable employee ownership?
When determining what approach(es) is / are most appropriate, leaders need to know the level of ownership that employees have over their careers. While almost all orgs we spoke with insist their employees own their careers, this turns out to mean different things in different contexts.
The level of employee ownership of their careers turns out to mean different things in different contexts.
For some orgs, employees can work as hard as they want to move up the corporate ladder. In others, more flexible career paths are embraced: They encourage and enable employees to find roles and projects best-suited to their career goals.
Employee ownership isn’t just about the tagline or sales pitch to people about their opportunities: It encompasses the whole of what orgs do to enable employees to choose the career path they want—not the one identified for them by leadership. (More on this later.)
What are the goals for mobility within your org?
We found that few leaders had given much thought to this question, which led us to wonder: If leaders aren’t clear on their expectations for mobility, why are they investing in it?
Orgs that can’t clearly define what their goals are often struggle to put a cohesive initiative into place, let alone measure its effectiveness.
Any leader will tell you that career mobility initiatives don’t spontaneously appear: They take quite a bit of work and coordination to make happen. Orgs that can’t clearly define what their goals are often struggle to put a cohesive initiative into place, let alone measure its effectiveness.
While answers to our questions about career mobility goals varied in our interviews and roundtables, they almost always fell within 1 of the following 5 categories:
- Retention and engagement. For most, retention and engagement of current employees is top of mind: Not surprising, given the attention this topic has received in the past few years. Mobility can help employees find the right types of experiences to keep them engaged.
- Development and skills-building. Orgs also saw the benefit of offering employees varied experiences that developed needed skills, whether for subject-matter depth or for breadth of knowledge, in preparation for leadership opportunities.
- Moving skills to where they’re needed. As industries continue to be disrupted, moving skills around the org instead of developing those skills in place is an imperative for many.
- Succession. Particularly in more traditional companies, we continue to hear about the importance of succession, especially for org leadership.
- Reinvention / adaptation. Orgs, particularly in the midst of disruptions from COVID-19 and other events, find themselves in need of ramping down complete business units or functions while ramping up others. Mobility allows them to move employees from one area to another.
Interestingly, different approaches lend themselves better to some of these mobility goals than others. We evaluated our 5 approaches against these career mobility goals (see Figure 3).
While this isn’t scientific, it does, however, give leaders an idea of how well-suited certain approaches may be for their career mobility goals.
Of all these goals, retention and engagement was mentioned most often in our interviews. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the most common approach (whether the primary or secondary) orgs implement is a Lattice approach.
Getting Started: Determining Mobility Goals for Your Org
In Figure 4, we include some questions for leaders to consider as they identify goals for career mobility in their orgs.
The answers to these questions can enable more robust discussions about the right approaches for your org. Next step: applying the approaches.
In the next section, we look at each of the 5 approaches and offer guidance to help leaders implement the most appropriate approach for their situation.
Applying Different Approaches
Understanding which approach is most appropriate for an org is only half the battle: The other half is figuring out how to implement that approach in a way to “make it stick.” From our research, we learned that this generally involves 3 things:
- Understanding the approach and how it’s applied. More information about the approaches can help orgs understand how they’ve historically been applied and what benefits they can expect.
- Overcoming challenges associated with the approach. Each approach has a series of challenges that orgs should be aware of as they consider how to implement a mobility initiative. Some challenges have ready-made solutions; others may be things that orgs need to be willing to live with.
- Aligning cultural influencers with the approach. Career mobility strategies don’t automatically succeed and they definitely can’t operate within a bubble. Several aspects of an org’s culture can aid or hinder its adoption and success. Our research identified 4 such aspects (or influencers) that we discuss for each approach.
Career mobility strategies don’t automatically succeed and they definitely can’t operate within a bubble.
In the next sections, we review each of the mobility approaches with these 3 things in mind.
In a Ladder approach, employees move from one role to the next, generally up, and generally within a given silo or function. This approach is most commonly used to ensure succession, and for employee development and skills-building.
Ladder is likely the most familiar approach since it’s also the most common. This approach to career mobility has a long history of serving hierarchical orgs, as it often mirrors the traditional structure and focuses on bringing up employees through the ranks. The main purpose is to ensure that the defined people structure remains staffed and skilled.
The most common of the 5 approaches, Ladder mirrors the traditional structure and focuses on bringing up employees through the ranks.
Given the goal of a staffed and skilled people structure, this is where most orgs often start with career mobility—also making it the default approach. Orgs often use the Ladder approach when they haven’t yet thought through why they want to implement mobility strategies.
Career paths in a Ladder approach are generally very well-developed and, more often than not, follow the structure of the org. As such, it’s easier for employees to understand the skills and knowledge necessary to move through that type of career path. This also allows leadership to more simply identify who’s ready for the next move and helps employees understand the expectations for their career development.
Biggest benefit we heard: Alignment
A Ladder approach is closely aligned with the people structure in orgs. Many of the challenges for other approaches aren’t present here. In fact, a Ladder is the perfect approach—if your environment and strategy are relatively stable, and your employees are okay with your outlined career paths.
Orgs using a Ladder approach don’t struggle to align their mobility approach with other systems (i.e., think about how you determine headcount, financial accounting when moving people around, tech systems, performance, and more) because most have been designed to support a Ladder approach.
Very few orgs use a pure Ladder approach: Changing external environments and employee expectations make it difficult to establish and pristinely maintain it.
All that said, few orgs use a pure Ladder approach, even if it’s their official approach. Changing external environments and employee expectations make it difficult to establish and pristinely maintain this approach.
Biggest challenge we heard: Flexibility
Disruptions have caused most orgs to rethink at least part of their strategies: Ladder approaches are often disrupted as well. What works well in stable, unchanging environments becomes more problematic as change is introduced.
For example: A technology suddenly becomes obsolete—and an org has dedicated business lines focused on that tech, building depth of knowledge in that category and identifying a succession plan to staff that part of the business. Here, a Ladder approach doesn’t make it easy to pivot quickly and without significant hassle.
What works well in stable, unchanging environments becomes more problematic as change is introduced.
Many leaders also pointed out that, while a Ladder approach can support a robust succession plan and build deep expertise, it doesn’t necessarily serve all employees (i.e., those who haven’t been identified as HiPos or future leaders, or who want a different career path than the one outlined). A Ladder approach generally doesn’t include swift contingencies for change.
While a Ladder approach can support a robust succession plan and build deep expertise, it doesn’t necessarily serve all employees.
That said, many orgs overcome Ladder’s lack of flexibility in 3 ways:
- Focus on depth. Dow, a materials science company, uses a combination of approaches, including Ladder. Most Dow employees remain within a particular function throughout their tenure in order to develop deep technical expertise. In fact, it’s not unusual for employees to stay in a role for 4 to 6 years, or longer, before making the decision to move to a new role—a commitment that parallels a return on investment from the company’s training and on-the-job peer coaching. After all,
“… You can’t microwave deep technical knowledge.”
Mitchel MacNair, Global Learning & Career Growth Consultant, Dow Chemical
- Typically, these employees make upward moves within the same domain or function. By contrast, HiPos and those interested in managerial roles are encouraged to gain cross-functional experience using a Lattice model (more on the Lattice model below).
- Using rotations, tours of duty, and special assignments. Many of the orgs that identified Ladder as their main approach also use opportunities, like rotations and special assignments, to provide employees with more flexibility and help them build skills.
- Fusing more than 1 approach. Other approaches can work well alongside Ladder to fit an org’s needs. One global org uses a Lattice approach at lower levels of the org and a Ladder approach at higher levels (thus, the higher an employee climbs, the more specialized roles become). With a goal of a 70% internal-build ratio, a focus on “upskilling” prepares those in the lower levels to find and qualify for good opportunities as they explore and the org prepares employees to lead.
Getting Started: Aligning Culture & a Ladder Approach
As orgs establish their career mobility strategy, they should carefully consider the culture and environment in which that strategy is going to live. Aligning certain things that influence culture can provide support for a Ladder approach—and go a long way to its success.
Figure 5 outlines 4 such cultural influences and provides orgs with some questions to consider as they think through their strategy.
The Lattice approach has gained in popularity over the last 10 years, particularly as orgs have begun to pay much more attention to the employee experience. With the Lattice approach, orgs enable employees to move up, around, and sometimes down—figuring out a career path that works for them.
Lattice allows employees to jump from one role to another, thus building a breadth of experience and experimenting with their skills in other settings.
This approach is interesting because it still takes advantage of more traditional people structures (meaning roles), but allows employees to jump from one role to another, thus building a breadth of experience and experimenting with their skills in other settings.
Lattice also offers quite a bit of employee ownership for individuals, encouraging them to take charge of their careers. More recently, transparency and guidance—offered either by managers or by technology—have become hallmarks of a functional Lattice approach. This helps employees understand their career options.
In asking leaders for their main purpose for implementing a Lattice approach, the top answer turns out to be retention and engagement. In most orgs, mobility is seen as an engagement tool, particularly for those identified as future leaders and HiPo employees.
In most orgs, mobility is seen as an engagement tool, particularly for those identified as future leaders and HiPo employees—and as critical to ensuring flexibility for the org.
However, we also ran across orgs using Lattice to ensure all employees have opportunities for growth and the freedom to define their own careers. They see a Lattice approach as key to ensuring that the company has flexibility—both in terms of skills and mindset—to adjust to whatever external pressures their org may face.
Biggest benefit we heard: Flexibility
Most orgs we spoke with adopted a Lattice approach to provide flexibility and a better employee experience—focusing on the goal of retention and engagement. The Lattice approach takes advantage of traditional people structures that focus on roles, while still encouraging employees to own their careers and choose roles that are most in-line with their career goals.
Many orgs firmly using Lattice are also experimenting with an Agency approach since Lattice establishes a more flexible mindset.
We found that many orgs firmly using Lattice are also experimenting with an Agency approach. They’re able to do this since a Lattice approach helps to establish a more flexible mindset that generally rolls down to thinking through some of the obstacles which Ladder presents (i.e., accounting for headcount, moving people across org barriers, etc.).
Biggest challenge we heard: Ownership
A Lattice approach naturally lends itself to employee ownership: However, while many orgs are quick to say their employees own their careers, it’s often more lip service than actual enablement. Lattice requires orgs to actively enable employees to find opportunities that suit them, which usually takes a combination of systems and processes, messaging, manager support, and, more often than not, technology.
Lattice requires orgs to actively enable employees to find opportunities that suit them—usually combining systems and processes, messaging, manager support, and tech.
While this is a big challenge for the Lattice approach, it’s not insurmountable. Leaders we spoke with offered a few ideas:
- Build it into the culture and support with messaging. Ericsson, a global Swedish-based telecom company, uses a Lattice approach as part of its enterprisewide Open Talent Market. According to the CLO, Vidya Krishnan, the company believes in building business value by helping its people to be “On the Move” (the name for Ericsson’s culture and leadership transformation framework). This means:
- Putting people with the right skills in the right roles
- Upskilling and reskilling people into new roles through project-based learning
- Building the critical skills they need to meet evolving business demands with scale, speed, and accountability
- By working to make skills clearer and more visible when it comes to job descriptions, people profiles, and opportunity / demand management, the company seeks to give employees greater insight to design their future in the direction of Ericsson’s growth. This makes it easier for people to see where critical skills and roles are under- or over-represented, and continually equip themselves to pivot to opportunities through which they can create even more value and fulfillment.
- Redefine expectations. One org we spoke with put significant effort into redefining its relationship with employees. The company began by emphasizing that, with 10,000 employees, not everyone could be CEO. It then touted the benefits of a Lattice approach—including opportunities for employees to:
- Do interesting work
- Build networks
- Develop new knowledge and skills that would be useful regardless of employees’ career paths
This org made it clear to employees: The company is invested in its employees, will help them grow and develop through opportunities, and wants them to stay as long as it’s mutually beneficial, for which, at any time, the company and employees could part ways and remain friends.
Getting Started: Aligning Culture & a Lattice Approach
Career planning, messaging about career, leadership, and tech should all be aligned to support a Lattice approach—same as with a Ladder approach. Figure 6 identifies some questions orgs should ask when using this approach.
An Agency approach is defined as one that enables employees to move around the org based on their skills, knowledge, and preferences. The primary goal of this approach is generally to move skills to where they’re needed.
Agency embraces a move from roles to skills and features employee ownership of their careers—and enables companies to organize people around projects or pieces of work.
A fairly big departure from more traditional approaches, Agency most notably embraces both a move from roles to skills and employee ownership of their careers. While more traditional approaches identify a people structure and move pieces of work through that structure, an Agency approach enables companies to organize people around projects or pieces of work.
This gives orgs much more freedom to configure and reconfigure teams to meet the ever-changing needs of the market. At the same time, it also offers employees a lot of flexibility to develop desired skills and shape their careers.
Orgs that embrace an Agency approach are often set up very differently than those with traditional structures: They’re flatter and have fewer management levels. Such orgs use teams to organize people around the work: Employees are seen more as free agents, each responsible for ensuring both that they’re staffed on a project, and that the org is aware of their skills and knowledge.
Orgs with an Agency approach are often flatter and have fewer management levels—orgs use teams to organize people around the work and employees are seen more as free agents.
With an Agency approach, employees rarely belong to long-term roles, and are often on projects for short periods of time with each project having its own leadership and financial accounting. More traditionally structured orgs have struggled with making a leap to Agency because, without completely thinking through the entire process in advance, there usually are obstacles and repercussions to deal with.
Most orgs primarily using an Agency approach do so because it best fits their business model, one that requires skills to be moved where they’re needed to complete the work. That said, the idea of Agency appeals to lots of orgs (particularly in the wake of COVID-19) and many are testing the waters, so to speak. Right now, this most often comes in the form of internal talent marketplaces and gig economies.
Agency makes it possible for employees to take short assignments between roles or part-time assignments alongside their current roles.
These initiatives, enabled by tech, make it possible for employees to take short assignments between roles or part-time assignments alongside their current roles. This approach allows orgs to take advantage of employee skills and knowledge to complete small bits of work, while employees explore other options, build skills or apply skills in a different context, and develop their networks as they maintain their more traditional career paths.
Biggest benefit we heard: Moving skills & knowledge around
An Agency approach makes it easiest to seamlessly move skills and knowledge around the org, providing a tremendous amount of flexibility to the org to reconfigure as necessary.
This approach works really well in orgs which require that flexibility, and in industries such as tech, business services, and increasingly medicine.
Biggest challenge we heard: Different mindset
To make it work well, Agency requires a different mindset by managers and employees alike. In most companies (and in most org cultures), the goals and rewards set forth are to climb the ladder, get promoted, and gain power.
Employees need clarity about how they may be a team member in one situation, subject-matter expert in another situation, and a team lead in yet another.
For orgs using an Agency approach, this mindset is slightly modified. Orgs should be transparent that success doesn’t necessarily mean moving upward. Employees need clarity around the fact that they may be a team member in one situation, subject-matter expert in another situation, and a team lead in yet another, depending on the need.
Success looks very different in an Agency approach and is generally characterized by the fact that employees get to do interesting work, build networks and reputation, and prepare for more interesting work in the future. How are orgs creating this mindset? We offer 2 real-world examples:
- Dip your toes into talent marketplaces. A multinational energy company used multiple mobility approaches—including Ladder, Lattice, and Outside In. The company was prompted to experiment with adopting an Agency approach on top of its other existing approaches. The HR digital transformation team and talent management team partnered together to introduce a talent marketplace pilot last summer, scaling this internal mobility tool last fall. The Open Talent Marketplace (OTM) allows workers to access project-based work and offers employees greater visibility into full-time roles across the company. This is slowly acclimating the workforce to think differently about work and prepare them for future moves.
A shift in mindset about what a “day job” looks like means that every person has some form of gig project going on—an arrangement that's seen as normative and is encouraged.
- Cultural shift in the meaning of “day job.” A multinational tech company also recently introduced a talent marketplace to its workforce as a way of exposing individuals to other parts of the org. The company described a shift in mindset that's allowed employees to rethink what their “day job” looks like. Every person has some form of gig project going on—an arrangement that's seen as normative and is encouraged. This shift encourages individuals to explore beyond their roles, increasing both employee development and engagement. HR leaders stated the purpose behind this mobility is twofold:
- Ensure employees are energized and engaged in their work
- Promote individual career ownership
Getting Started: Aligning Culture & an Agency Approach
As with the other approaches, career planning, messaging about career, leadership, and tech should all be aligned to support an Agency approach. Figure 7 identifies some questions orgs should ask themselves when using this approach.
An Outside In approach enables workers with specific skills to be brought into the org to accomplish certain projects or pieces of work. The primary goal for this approach is to move skills where they’re needed; it’s also used to help orgs reinvent and adapt.
The main purpose of an Outside In approach is to augment existing workforces with skills and knowledge not yet available internally.
While not strictly about internal or career talent, the main purpose of an Outside In approach is to augment existing workforces with skills and knowledge not yet available internally. Identifying workers with these skills and knowledge, and leveraging them helps orgs move faster by hiring them on a contingent basis for a certain bit of work. Independent workers can include alumni networks, consultants, contractors, gig workers, and others.
To date, we’ve seen exactly 0 large orgs use only an Outside In approach. Instead, Outside In augments other mobility approaches orgs already have in place. That said, more and more orgs are leveraging independent workers as a part of their workforce—and we only expect this to grow. In fact, the “future of work” literature touts independent workers as the wave of the future.
Granted, we still have a long way to go. Current government and healthcare systems aren’t set up to fully leverage independent workers as yet—but we increasingly see more accommodations being made for them.
Some orgs leverage independent workers to do small projects that no one in-house has time for. Others, like RedThread Research, leverage the expertise that independent workers can bring to the org—both to fill gaps, but also to teach existing employees crucial skills the org may not have, particularly in times of disruption and change.
Biggest benefit we heard: Ability to flex capacity
Orgs in the study recognize the Outside In approach as a way to augment teams that have no capacity. We’ve talked with orgs that use independent workers for everything from sound editing and graphic design for a particular project all the way up to specialized strategy work.
Outside In can be applied to one-off tasks, as well as helping orgs staff entirely new business functions when disruptions occur or strategy changes.
Outside In can be applied to one-off tasks that need to be accomplished, but may also help orgs staff entirely new business functions in the case of large disruptions or strategy changes.
Biggest challenge we heard: Navigating laws & regulations
An Outside In approach isn’t without its challenges—the largest of which are laws and regulations. Employment laws protect employees from unfair treatment; they’re often based on traditional, Ladder-type structures and employment approaches. Some of the most notable lawsuits include Uber and Lyft drivers,4 and involve determining whether they’re independent contractors vs employees, and what the difference is.
An Outside In approach isn’t without its challenges—the largest of which are laws and regulations.
For this reason, many orgs are tentative about incorporating independent workers into their employee population, thus creating a divide. Specifically, orgs often hesitate to provide (among others):
- Perks such as L&D opportunities (some going so far as to block independent workers from accessing the LMS and other learning technologies)
- Access to key meetings and other org information
- Inclusion in project marketplaces
Some orgs are successfully implementing Outside In approaches by:
- Outsourcing internationally. Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), a global biopharmaceutical company, outsources its production to specialized firms. The company first started its outsourcing model in 1997 with Biocon, the largest biopharmaceutical company in India. BMS has continued this working relationship in India, where it’s conducting clinical trials for liver disease and diabetes, among other medical conditions. It’s also moved part of its R&D functions to other countries: For instance, in China, BMS has developed an ongoing partnership that has expanded from 30 to 120 employees over the years.5 In 2008, it joined a 10-year long and $550 million agreement with Accenture to handle the finance and accounting operations of the company.6 Through these partnerships, BMS has been able to outsource much of its work globally, allowing external companies to do the work they know best.
- Outsourcing locally. AirBnB, a global vacation rental and travel company, began leveraging local talent by encouraging hosts to take on photographers in the area to capture their rentals in the best light.7 Photographers are prescreened by the company and selected based on location—as this is a function available in some cities across the U.S. By incentivizing their clients with a 40% increase in improved earnings and a 24% increase in bookings, hosts are more likely to seek out these photographers for their own benefit.
Getting Started: Aligning Culture & an Outside In Approach
As with the other approaches, career planning, messaging about career, leadership, and technology should all be aligned to support an Outside In approach. Figure 8 identifies some questions orgs should ask when using this approach.
Reset approaches are used when employees are reskilled and redeployed into new roles based on org need and strategy. The primary goal of this approach is to move skills where they’re needed to help the org adapt and reinvent itself. It has the added benefits of retention, engagement, and skills-building.
Many orgs have recently faced massive changes to their operating approaches and strategies, sometimes forcing them to jettison entire functions or business units. This has prompted many to think through how to use their workforces differently and more effectively.
The purpose of the Reset approach is to move employees with skills they’ve used in one part of the org to another.
The Reset approach helps with that challenge: Those using this approach do so to move employees with skills they’ve used in one part of the org to another part of the org where those (or similar) skills are relevant and needed.
Orgs utilizing the Reset approach find themselves paying attention to both roles and skills. Most still rely on roles for organizing people and work, but are increasingly looking at skills as a way to identify candidates for those roles. Specifically, they’re looking at the constellations of skills employees have—sets of related skills, as well as skills applied on different jobs and in different contexts—to determine which employees might effectively apply their skills (and in some cases develop needed skills) in a different part of the org.
Likewise, orgs utilizing this approach also provide a measured level of ownership to employees regarding their careers. We say “measured” because, to this point, we’ve seen a Reset approach applied to lower-level positions—those that often don’t have much freedom to define a new career path. That said, orgs using this approach rely on employees to show initiative and the desire to own their careers in order to move.
Biggest benefit we heard: Utilizing the current workforce
Even before the pandemic and the havoc it wreaked on operating approaches, orgs had begun to notice significant cost-savings when developing and redeploying employees, rather than hiring from the outside.
In fact, based on the median salary in the United States, reskilling is about half the cost of recruiting someone from outside the business. Additionally, external hires cost 18%-20% more and perform worse for the first 2 years on the job.8
Reskilling is about half the cost of recruiting from outside the business, while external hires cost 18%-20% more and perform worse for the first 2 years on the job.
Reset also creates goodwill and trust with employees, and creates the onus for specific initiatives to upskill / reskill large swaths of an org’s workforce, keeping skills and knowledge fresh and relevant.
Biggest challenge we heard: Identifying & matching employees with tangential9 skills & knowledge to new opportunities
It’s been nearly impossible to conduct a study on mobility without cross-pollinating into a discussion on skills10—they seem to be inevitably linked. Increasingly, skills and skills data are the enabling factor for a lot of initiatives across HR. We think that’s particularly true for career mobility, and even more so for a Reset approach.
For Reset to work, orgs must understand the skills it needs now (and in the near future) and the skills that it has now (and what it’ll need to develop).
In order for a Reset approach to work, an org must have an understanding of the skills it needs now (and in the near future) and the skills that it has access to now (and what it’ll need to develop). As orgs get better at understanding what they have and forecasting what they need, they’re in a better position to use mobility, as well as employee development, to close those gaps.
As orgs look to take advantage of a Reset approach, many of them find they lack this information. This leaves many of them scrambling and making assumptions about the skills that can be found broadly in one area of the org, rather than identifying the skills that individuals actually have.
More detailed skills data will help orgs make much better decisions about skills, tangential skills, and fitness to roles than they can currently make.
While this is a fine start (think retail employees being switched to customer service—as they share many of the same skills), more detailed skills data will help orgs make much better decisions about skills, tangential skills, and fitness to roles than they can currently make. The following examples illustrate this point.
- Reset as a means of survival. One multinational telecom company’s story actually describes a number of activities that the company has used as part of a Reset approach to mobility. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this company had around 10,000 employees at call centers and another 15,000 people working at its retail stores nationwide. Once facing the crisis, the company transitioned call center employees to work from home—requiring them to learn new skills. After 7 days, these workers were able to answer a high volume of calls from customers.
- The company also reskilled some of its in-store employees to sales, as some of the stores were no longer open. A training program that leveraged virtual reality (VR) at the time also had to switch gears since the whole set of VR headsets were grounded. Programmers on the VR development team then moved to building apps instead of VR.
- With these shifts, this company retained some of its talent and equipped them in a changing environment. While the HC leaders of the company describe this as “forced mobility” or mobility out of survival, these changes equipped the workforce to be more agile.
- Learning pathways to identify tangential skills. Bell, Canada’s largest communications company, recently launched Bell U, its virtual university. Bell U is an “academic technical pathways program” that encourages skills-building and developing internal talent—in line with the most recent CEO’s focus on a strong people strategy. To identify individuals for the program, the leadership team selects top candidates through an application process.
Employees working in business intelligence already had the foundational skills required to move into AI-related roles—enabling movement between 2 seemingly different roles within the company.
- With a duration of 8 months, this program consists of part-time virtual online training and an 8-week on-the-job full-time work experience. The program leverages many partners to create visual and trackable “academic pathways.” Bell U has 4 main branches: business intelligence (BI), AI, cybersecurity, and software development. Notably, in the process of identifying skills relevant to roles, the company realized that those working in BI already had the foundational skills required to move into AI-related roles. Finding this overlap in skills made possible the movement between 2 seemingly different roles within the company.
Getting Started: Aligning Culture & a Reset Approach
As with the other approaches, career planning, messaging about career, leadership, and tech should all be aligned to support a Reset approach. Figure 9 identifies some questions orgs should ask when using this approach.
So there it is: Our take on the ins and outs of career mobility. We’ve given you a snapshot of how mobility has changed in the past several years, including how it’s currently being defined and applied, along with some of the major trends we’re seeing in orgs today.
Our biggest takeaway from this study centers on the untapped potential that well-defined career mobility approaches have for orgs.
Our biggest takeaway from this study centers on the untapped potential that well-defined career mobility approaches have for orgs. While most orgs have focused on retention, engagement, and development as the main reasons for their efforts, we’re excited about the opportunities better mobility models can provide for challenges like DEIB; ensuring access to all employees, not just HiPos or those leadership-bound; and being able to meet org needs in a more tailored way.
While we hope you have found this discussion useful, please keep in mind that this research looks at career mobility at a moment of time: early 2021. Based on the changes we’ve seen, even in the last year, we expect that mobility practices will continue to evolve and, hopefully, get even better. We fully expect that this research will need a refresh in the next few years, if not sooner.
Appendix 1: Research Methodology
We launched our study in the fall of 2020. This report gathers and synthesizes findings from our research efforts, which include:
- A literature review of 57 articles from business, trade, and popular literature sources
- 3 roundtables, with a total of 57 participants
- 18 in-depth interviews with leaders on their experiences and thoughts on career mobility
For those looking for specific information that came out of those efforts, you’re in luck: We’ve a policy of sharing as much information as possible throughout the research process. Please see:
- Mobility Literature Review: The Changing Perspective on Mobility
- Mobility Roundtable 1 Readout: Mobility: Talent Sources & Employee Preferences
- Mobility Roundtable 2 Readout: Mobility and Learning & Skills
- Mobility Roundtable 3 Readout: Mobility: Leadership, Messaging, Tech, and Processes
- In this research, we also saw some stellar examples of orgs enabling mobility between orgs within the supply chain or to provide employees with additional skills. One such example: Law firms “lend” lawyers to district attorney offices, so they can get trial experience quickly. While this is interesting and on the rise, we address it as a part of the Ladder approach rather than a stand-alone approach.
- For recent RedThread research on DEIB strategies and tech, see DEIB Tech: A Market Maturing to Meet the Moment, RedThread Research / Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra, January 2021 and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: Creating a Holistic Approach for 2021, RedThread Research / Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra, November 2020.
- See Skills & Competencies: What’s the Deal? RedThread Research / Dani Johnson and Heather Gilmartin Adams, February 2021.
- Uber and Lyft drivers are employees, says US judge, BBC, August 2020.
- Research and Development, Bristol Myers Squibb, 2021.
- Accenture Announces $550 Million, 10-year Agreement with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Accenture Newsroom, Accenture, September 2008.
- Photography that pays for itself, AirBnB, 2021.
- It’s Time for a Reskilling Revolution. Here’s Why. Human Resource Executive / Ben Eubanks, August 2019.
- Tangential skills are skills that are closely related. Often, an employee with one skill can develop a tangential skill with relatively little time and effort.
- Skills & Competencies: What’s the Deal? RedThread Research / Dani Johnson and Heather Gilmartin Adams, February 2021.