Mobility and Learning & Skills

October 27th, 2020

This year has been unpredictable (to say the least), and because it has, organizations, internal mobility of employees have changed. had to adapt and reflect on their mobility approaches – and how there are developing their employees’ skills relevant to their jobs and future career aspirations.

Our latest roundtable on mobility explored answers to key questions about mobility models and how they affect skill-building and development. To guide our discussion, we centered questions around 4 models of mobility, as shown below.

4 Models of Mobility

Source: RedThread Research © 2020

Some of the questions posed to leaders participating in our roundtable included:

  • How can organizations help employees understand their career options?
  • How can organizations understand the knowledge and skills they need for current and future roles?
  • What impact does the mobility model organizations use have on how they develop employees?
  • How can organizations encourage employees to build connections and networks within the company?
  • How do organizations keep track of knowledge and skills employees have that may qualify them for other interesting career opportunities?

We broke leaders into 4 breakout rooms to dive deeper into each of the four mobility models. The mind map below captures an overview of our conversation.

Mobility Roundtable #2 Mindmap

Key Takeaways

Below are our key take-aways from our 80-minute conversation with leaders. While much of the conversation focused on skill-building and development, other really good ideas also crept in that helped us to understand differences across the 4 models mentioned above.

Industry, size, and maturity may determine which mobility model is most suitable

Many leaders hit upon the idea that some of the models identified above were more suitable for certain industries. For example, military, law, medicine, and engineering organizations may be more apt to use a ladder model, as deep expertise are more important than breadth. Their associated hierarchical structure may itself to a clearer understanding of which positions hold the highest level of expertise – something that can be vital in high risk situations.

Likewise, technology, creative agency, and service entities may, by their nature, be more suited for a Swarm model, as they generally have discrete pieces of work or projects that can be done, and it makes sense to organize people with certain skills around that work for a time, and then move them to a different project.

One of the most interesting (to us) points raised was the idea that smaller organizations and larger organizations are more apt to adopt a Swarm model. This may be true for smaller organizations because agility and ability to be nimble are required for start-ups, meaning they naturally have less structure and fewer boundaries. It may be true for larger organizations because they have made a conscious and intentional decision to organize in this way, aligning their people processes and systems (performance management, reporting structures, compensation, etc) to accommodate it.

There appears to be aspirations to move away from the traditional Ladder model

Most organizations seem to be at least considering a move from a Ladder-type model to something more flexible. Particularly in light of recent events, agility and ability to understand and move employees with knowledge and skills around the organization has become paramount to many participating leaders. This means both understanding those knowledge and skills, but also having a system or model flexible enough that allows organizations to take advantage of them.

In addition, many leaders expressed doubt that careers could be “controlled” through a ladder-type model. As organizations reach for better employee experiences, employees are naturally more empowered to move as well – either within their current company, or, if flexibility or opportunity don’t exist, outside of it.

Language (and mindset) are changing: competencies to skills

 As a part of the mobility discussion, participating leaders also indicated a shift in thinking – from competencies to skills. Participating leaders mentioned that competency models are time-intensive to validate and “overly rigorous” in addition to being difficult to measure.

Many leaders are finding a skills-type model more sustainable and suggested companies should dedicate their time breaking down tasks into needed skills. Their argument was that this would help employees understand what skills are needed to develop for both current and future roles, and that this approach is more “nimble” and “critical to companies”.

General consensus was that a focus on skills would allow organizations to more agily move employees around the company based on skills, rather than based on competencies, which some saw as contextual to a job role and/or function.

Networking is a necessary skill for new types of models

Networking and reputation was brought up as an important skill, particularly as it relates to Lattice, Swarm, and Outside-In models. Employees with the ability to network and build reputation are more likely to have more control over their movement within organizations. Those organizations are also more likely to understand the skills and knowledge of those types of proactive employees and give them opportunities for development.

This is an important point, as participating leaders pointed out that development and movement are particularly appealing to younger generations (Millennials and Generation Z) in their organizations who tend to see jobs, gigs, and roles as opportunities instead of long-term career decisions.

Culture is important for mitigating resistance to employee mobility

Leaders also mentioned the potential resistance of senior leadership as a real threat to the acceptance of more mobility friendly models. In fact, “management hoarding” appears to be a common problem, with leaders wanting to hold onto top talent. As one participating leader noted, this could “prevent employees from taking non-traditional mobility routes.” The role of culture, particularly one that promotes a growth mindset, appears to be significant in increasing acceptance of more mobility.

A few ideas were mentioned as ways to mitigate mindset and talent hoarding. The first was to monetarily reward managers whose direct reports took a lateral move within the organization. This not only incentivized managers, but created a very strong signal that it was not only acceptable, but required.

Another idea was to (finally) decouple performance reviews from development and career conversations, making one have nothing to do with the other. This would allow manager and employee to have frank discussions about careers and eliminate the subterfuge that often accompanies moves within (or out of) organizations.

Technology plays a varying role mobility models and companies

When asked what types of technology were being used to help make their workforces more mobile, there were few responses. Participating leaders saw the Ladder model as the one that is likely best supported by data and technology, as it is the longest existing model and common to larger, hierarchical companies.

Lattice, Swarm, and Outside-In models tended to have much less structure in most organizations – as again, they rely heavily on employees willing to skills and knowledge data and career goals. While we (RedThread) have seen several news mobility platforms emerge even in the past few months, they have not been widely adopted yet.

And, as organizations continue to flirt with (or marry) the Outside-In model, the problem becomes worse. HRIS systems, learning management systems and LXPs, and other technologies common to W2 employees can collect some data on their goals, skills, and aspirations, they most often do not include contractors, consultants, and gig workers, giving talent functions an incomplete view of the skills available to them.

Thank you again to those of you who attended and made our conversation enriching. And as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Dani Johnson Redthread Research
Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst