24 February 2021

The Skills Obsession Podcast: Opening Arguments

Stacia Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This episode sets the tone of our podcast season: The Skills Obsession
  • In this episode podcast hosts Stacia Garr, Dani Johnson, and Chris Pirie tee us up by asking:
    • Why are skills so important now?
    • How should leaders think about using them?
    • What challenges are we facing as we adapt to the future of work?
  • A special thanks to our sponsor, Workday, for its support of this season!

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DETAILS

Welcome to the first episode in the new RedThread Research special podcast, Workplace Stories. Weve called our podcast ‘Workplace Stories’ because while, as you know, we do love our data, we also know that what people really remember is stories. So get ready for some great ones about whats really happening in the world of work and L&D right now.   

The first one we want to try and tell is about Skills. RedThread has been following that space for about four years… and until very recently nothing interesting has been said. We think the reason for that is because the markets always been looking at skills in isolation, so now weve launched this new RedThread podcast to deep dive into what were calling The Skills Obsession. Our helpers for telling you these first Stories are Chris Pirie of the excellent Learning Is The New Working podcast, and Workday, our season sponsor.  

We hope you subscribe on your podcast hub of choice as we start to tell the Workplace Stories we think matter. 

Webinar

Workday will host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season, where you can meet the Workplace Stories team of Dani, Stacia and Chris, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. Find out more information and access content at www.workday.com/skills. 

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Work podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this season of the Workplace Stories by RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; its one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.  

TRANSCRIPT

Stacia Garr:
My name is Stacia Garr, and I'm the co-founder and principal analyst at red thread research, along with Dani Johnson, who is also co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread and Chris Pirie of the Learning Futures Group. We're excited to welcome you to our first podcast season: this episode is part of season one, ‘The Skills Obsession,’ in which we investigate the current preoccupation with all things skills. We talked to thinkers, writers, leaders, and practitioners about the current state of thinking on why and how we are managing skills at the people and organizational level.

Chris Pirie:
We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the RedThread research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.

Stacia Garr:
To launch the season. Dani and I talked to our collaborator and podcast partner, Chris Pirie, to share our objectives and our aspirations for the season and introduce some of the research and people behind it.

Chris Pirie:
Dani, can you tell me why you chose the topic of skills to launch your very first season?

Dani Johnson:
We've been following the skills space for about four years and nothing interesting has been said until recently. And we think the reason that nothing interesting has been said is because we've always been looking at skills in isolation of everything else. So we need to upskill, we need to re-skill—but there's never been an impetus to do so, until this year when we've seen everybody jump on the skills' bandwagon (And with that a little bit, the mobility bandwagon).

The reason that we think that is because we've realized that skills in and of itself is just a thing, but skills in relation to some of the other challenges that we have becomes an enabler: so skills with relation to mobility, skills with relation to DEI skills with relation to performance: skills affects all of those things in a way that hasn't necessarily been defined until now. And we want to further define that and talk to the experts and get down to the nitty-gritty about what those intersections are and how they matter.

Chris Pirie:
I think when you talk about skills, you're talking about a way of articulating at an appropriate level of granularity, what work needs to be done and who is capable of doing that work.

Dani Johnson:
I think that's pretty good. And I'm not even sure I'm still debating the granularity; we’ve seen it have much more granularity. I'm not sure that's a piece of it. I think it's that second part of your definition that really resonates with me. It's a way to describe what needs to be done to get work done.

Chris Pirie:
Hmm. And then connecting the people who can do that work.

Stacia Garr:
Exactly.

Chris Pirie:
Got it. I feel strongly about the granularity piece because I've really been at the coalface on this stuff on a couple of occasions and failed miserably, because I think it's so complex to describe the capabilities that an individual human being has and the capabilities that are needed to do even the simplest of jobs. At what point does the effort to describe the atomic elements of that get diminishing returns sort of granularity? And then it's just like, exhausting. What can you do with that?

Dani Johnson:
Well, it's exhausting, and I think it's a waste of time. This is another reason that we haven't necessarily talked about skills before, because people have been approaching skills as role-based granular pieces of ability, which I don't necessarily think it is. And it's all been wrapped around this idea of taxonomy, like this job family has these skills associated with it and this job family has these skills associated with it.

I think some of the most promising things that we've seen in the last year is this idea of ontology versus versus taxonomy. And the ability to just sort of take the whole discussion about roles out, and just talk about skills and think about the work differently by deciding, you know, what skills are needed to do a piece of work and then put those skills together once we know who has those skills and a team to get that work done.

So I think this is like a gigantic step in the future of work discussion that we've been having for seven or eight years about moving away from roles and moving into utilizing those skills and organizing the people around the work instead of the work around the people,

Chris Pirie:
I think that’s how it works in real life is you sweat over a two page job description, you interview 50 people, none of whom kind of match that perfectly. And then somebody comes in and they make that job their own.

Dani Johnson:
Exactly, yeah. And if you think about like, we're doing this study on, I'm actually writing the final paper right now on mobility. If you think about skills versus roles and how people move around organizations right now, it's mostly they move into different roles, but in some industries, like the consulting industry, or like the advertising industry, more in the tech industry and in the medical industry than we have seen in the past, we are doing exactly that—we're understanding the skills that people have and then we're putting them together to do a project or a bit of work, and then dissolving them back into the workforce to be reconfigured into another team that does work.

But if you think about the challenges associated with that, one of them is understanding the skills that you have, one is understanding the skills that you need. And then there's a whole bunch of challenges around how you account for head count and the messaging that you provide and what success means and succession blends.

Chris Pirie:
It's interesting, isn't it, because a lot of the systems, the people systems revolve around that job description, right? So this kind of blows a hole in, in that… I wonder, is AI a part of this conversation? Is this akin to the conversation we have about say sentiment analysis?

Dani Johnson:
I think so with a couple of caveats. First of all, I would, I would hate all the good work we've done on becoming human in the last couple of years to go away. And so I think to remain, and we know that AI algorithms are often biased, because they absorb data that exists already, and a lot of the data is already biased. So making sure that those algorithms provide equal opportunities and clearly articulate the skills that people have and the opportunities that they have because of it, it's going to be a big challenge.

Chris Pirie:
I think that's true, but it's also a known problem and smart people are working on it and there is a healthy dose of skepticism and some good missteps that we can learn from.

I guess I see a little bit more of a metaphor here is that we used to organize labor and our work days around the third normal form of a job description, and we could be freed up from that. If our systems could look at the work to be done and the skills that we have without us having to kind of fill out a bunch of forms—maybe that's from a conversation, or maybe that's from the work that we've done in the past, like going through our portfolios.

Dani Johnson:
So that's the other thing that I think is interesting is this new way of working relies heavily on reputation, formulas, and portfolios. And those types of things, I think, will become much more important to the individual as they are judged and offered opportunities based on what they say.

Chris Pirie:
Yes, and these, these organizational network analysis systems kind of, you know, they identify nodal points in a system, people who are the magnets for questions, so you know, where expertise lives in a system, because you can see how that system is interacting.
The other example is the film industry, right? Where people come together on projects and then disperse at the end of the movie project, and yet they've built a network of connections and another movie gets funded.

Dani Johnson:
Yeah, and that's a really interesting one, because most of them are free agents: they don't actually belong to an organization–they come together for a project run by an organization, but most of them are free agents. And so I wonder what happens to the community that we build within organizations right now… I just think the walls of the organization are becoming more permeable and more transparent.

Chris Pirie:
In your recent session finding and using skills data, what were the things that you learned?

Dani Johnson:
Well, first we learned that there's a core connection between the talent and the work; the skills are the connectors, so then the more organizations understand about the skills they have in the organization, the better they can apply them to the work that needs to be done.

The second thing we learned is that there are lots and lots of potential sources for skills data. The challenge is going to be integrating them meaningfully, rather than just relying on one source. The third is that to use skills effectively, organizations are thinking really carefully about the use cases associated with skills versus competencies; it’s one of the biggest conversations we're hearing out there right now. We're finding that orgs need a lot of help verifying the skills that their people may have and assessing proficiency levels easily and effectively.

Chris Pirie:
And what's the role of tech?

Dani Johnson:
Tech can play a pretty big role, and it can enable skills usage in organizations by integrating data sources and making it really fun and easy and sociable for employees to manage their skills data.

Chris Pirie:
Were the key questions that came up?

Chris Pirie:
Yeah, we asked leaders five questions about how they're finding and using skills data. The five were first, why is skills, data is such a hot or important topic right now? Second was how does skills data differ from competency data? Third was what sources of skills data are organizations using; fourth was how are organizations using skills data? And the fifth was what do you imagine skills tech will enable organizations to do in the future?

Chris Pirie:
Dani, I really look forward to digging into some of those questions and exploring some of the findings from your research, with the conversations that we have lined up. So, I think that's a great framework for us to start with.

Chris Pirie:
Stacia, what are your aspirations for the podcast?

Stacia Garr:
I see the podcast as an amazing opportunity to bring the conversations that we have with leaders throughout the year to light for a much broader audience.

We are so lucky, because we get to talk to people who tell us these incredible discussions about changes that they've made in their organizations, and how they've been able to really impact both people, as well as organizational results. A lot of times those conversations just stay with us, stay within the RedThread research team, and so a podcast like this allows us to bring those front and center and allow leaders to really tell their stories—stories backed by data, because we love our data, but really tell their stories in a way that we hope will help others be inspired and aspire to some of the amazing impact that we know that we can make as people leaders.

Chris Pirie:
Now you've called the podcast 'Workplace Stories.’ Why Workplace Stories, and how does that fit with the broader work that you do at RedThread?

Stacia Garr:
So it's a research organization, I think sometimes our bias is towards data, always data, always data, but I think we all know that people remember stories. They might remember an occasional data point, but people remember stories.

And so I see this as a way to amplify that part of what we do at RedThread, because we also believe that stories and showing the connection between people is really important: we see this as an augmentation to what we do on kind of the quantitative side.

The other thing that we have an opportunity to do—and this is something that Dani and I have talked about since we launched RedThrea—is we want to provide a platform for people to share amazing things that they're doing: for them to build their own brands and to strengthen their own careers. And with Workplace Stories, we're able to do that, we’re helping people tell their stories in a way that's compelling and will be shared more broadly.

Another thing with this title of ‘Workplace’ is we have been speaking about how we don't want to talk about just HR leaders. HR leaders are incredibly important, but we all know that it's not just HR leaders who do the leading and organizations, it's leaders broadly. So we're talking about the workplace and what happens there, but it's not just HR leaders, it's leaders of all types that we hope will find some insights and inspiration from the stories that are shared.

Chris Pirie:
Got it. It's interesting, of course, that in Dani's and yours research on what differentiates humans from robots and other species, storytelling was one of the four kinds of key elements that a lot of research identifies as being the sort of secret sauce of humanity. So I love that tie back to your research as well.

Stacia Garr:
Thank you. There's I think a high level reason, which is that we were hearing a lot more about skills and we're hearing about skills on the Learning side, as well as on the people analytics side in particular, because of what we're trying to do with RedThread, which is make the connections across organizations in terms of things that are happening, that people should be seeing more holistically, that made sense for this to be our first episode.

But I think if we step back, there is a bigger reason why we're hearing about skills right now. And I think it is the future of work becoming the now of work. What I mean by that is if you're thinking about the gig economy, you're thinking about automation, all those types of aspects of work that are shifting, I don't think you can really actualize that without thinking about skills.

So if you thought about roles in automation, let's say, yes, there's going to be some roles that will be totally automated, but it's much more likely that we might automate 30% of a role. Or it might be likely that with a gig worker we'll have them do 25% of a job, but unless we understand the skills that are needed to accomplish the work, we're not going to actually be able to break these jobs apart, and have the most efficient resource or the best aligned resource do that work. And I think skills are bringing this all to a way for us to actually do this as opposed to talking about it as something that's going to happen in the future.

Chris Pirie:
Interesting: so almost like a language or an API that we could use to restructure the way that we exchange our labor for value and the way that companies access talent and skills

Stacia Garr:
And access, getting the work done.

Chris Pirie:
How does it fit with your other research areas?

Stacia Garr:
So this is learning and within the learning and skills portion of what we do, but we also do research on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and experience and engagement people, analytics performance, and then HR technology broadly. So skills, in so many ways, touches on all of those other aspects of what we do.

In this podcast, we ask folks about how skills can impact diverse populations, how it differentially impacts diverse populations. If you think about experience and engagement and how people will be, as you just said, exchanging their labor for value with the organization, skills is a key component of how that happens and how people experience an organization and how they can even tap into their own purpose and their own value in terms of aligning the skills that they do in the work they do to what they're hoping to be, or become.

On people analytics, this is a key part of what we're talking about on this podcast, by understanding and quantifying skills, aligning people in terms of their skills and capabilities with their job is key to performance. So it touches there, and then HR technology is a big part of how all of this will actually come to life. It's not necessarily the most important part, but it's a very big part of what's going to happen. So this feels topic aligned with all these other areas and is I think, germane to everything that we do at RedThread.

Chris Pirie:
Stacia, who do we have lined up for the season?

Stacia Garr:
We've got some amazing folks! So we're going to kick off with a wonderful friend of ours and academic Lisa K. Solomon. She is at the d.school at Stanford and really shares, I think, some thought-provoking ideas about skills and the role of skills and skills and design that I think sets a really nice tone for our session.

We then speak with Matthew Daniel, who is at Guild Education, and he kind of takes us from this amazing high level perspective that Lisa shares down to the practicalities of skills in the workplace skills, especially the need to focus on building those.

We have some other folks, we have a Michelle Deneau from Adobe, who's bringing a strong people analytics perspective. We have Nuno Goncalves, who is sharing with us the perspective from Mars and how he's changing his learning function. Satnam Sagoo who is with the British Red Cross is also sharing a bit of a learning perspective. And then we have Karen Kocher from Microsoft, Rob Lauber, who was formerly with McDonald’s, and we have some other people that were working.

Chris Pirie:
Who is the audience for these stories?

Stacia Garr:
The primary audience is anyone who's associated with designing and informing people practices within their organizations. So in many instances, that's that we'll be learning leaders: we have a few chief learning officers who are speaking, and that's important.

Also people analytics, practitioners who are thinking about the quantification of skills and how you think about that as it applies to the future of the workforce. More broadly, I would say it is the head of HR who is thinking through all of this aspect of skills and the future of work from that big picture perspective, and then leaders more broadly who may be asking themselves, you know, do I have the skills in my organization to do what I want to do? How would I think about re-skilling my workforce or upskilling my workforce, whatever language you want to use.

Our hope is that by telling these stories of how organizations are thinking through this we can help them feel their way towards the future. I think one of the things about this podcast is we don't purport to have the answer on this one: we’re actively doing research on skills, but this is a journey for us. Everyone’s at the beginning of this journey of skills and what it's going to look like. And our hope is that as we go through this podcast, we will all learn an incredible amount and be more prepared for the future by the end of it.

Chris Pirie:
For people who are not familiar with the work of RedThread, what’s the story about the organization?

Stacia Garr:
RedThread started about three years ago with Dani Johnson and myself founding it. We had both been with Bersin by Deloitte immediately before that, and then before that, Dani was actually with RBL group with Dave Ulrich and I was with the corporate leadership council, now part of CEB Gartner.

We had been in the industry long enough to understand the issues that people are focused on in so many of the people challenges, but what we wanted to do was to really change how research was getting done and to make it faster, to be more innovative and more varied in our approaches, and to really be at the cutting edge of what people cared about.

The challenge with some larger research organizations is that you can have this amazing agenda, but you can get dragged down by it. And as a smaller organization, more nimble, it allowed us to really stay on the cutting edge of what people cared the most, so as soon as COVID happened, we were writing about COVID. As soon as Black Lives Matter had happened this last year, we were writing it. And that is really the thing that I take the most joy in the work that we do now is that we're able to just go to the topic, the thing that people care about and provide both data and stories that help people understand what's happening and to make better decisions in their organization.

Chris Pirie:
How can people get engaged?

Stacia Garr:
They can join us at www.redthreadresearch.com. You can join the membership, if you're joining as an individual or a small team, you can actually just swipe a credit card right there and just get right in. If you're with a larger enterprise and want to have an enterprise membership with more folks, just reach out to us at [email protected] and we will get you signed up.

Chris Pirie:
And if I just want to understand the quality and scope of your work?

Stacia Garr:
We have a number of things that are available for free on the site—so we have shorter research articles, we have infographics, we have some of the presentations we've done in the past, we have webcasts that we've done, a whole range of things. And when new things happen in the industry, particularly on the tech side, we blog about that and that's for free on our site. So everything is marked with a member content, if it's not for free and everything else is for free.

Chris Pirie:
Well, I love your work and I've used it extensively over the last couple of years in my journey, and it's really fun to partner with you guys, so I'm looking forward to the season!

Dani Johnson:
Well, this has been a good conversation; it’s been really fun.

Chris Pirie:
We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season, where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, where you can join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stacia Garr

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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