DEIB & Analytics: What the Literature Says

Posted on Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 at 12:05 PM    


“Black Lives Matter protests moves corporate D&I initiatives center stage”1

“CIOs double down on D&I to build stronger businesses”2

“Amazon will examine its employee review system after claims of racial bias”3

These are just a few of the headlines published in the last 12 months on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts by companies. Given the growing momentum in the space, especially since the social justice movements of 2020 spread globally, we wanted to better understand how orgs are measuring and monitoring their DEIB efforts via people analytics.

We looked at more than 60 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this literature (lit) review. This article summarizes the themes from the lit:

  • Analytics for DEIB is more important than ever
  • DEIB analytics is more than diversity metrics
  • Predictive analytics for DEIB can help plan for the future
  • Don’t forget about qualitative data
  • Address issues of privacy and ethics

Much of the literature that we reviewed for this topic focuses on why analytics should be used to support DEIB efforts. However, some shining pieces did go beyond the “why” to discuss how companies can go about collecting and utilizing DEIB data. We take a closer look at these 5 themes in the following sections.

Analytics for DEIB is more important than ever

It's not surprising that we found a large portion of the lit focused on explaining why analytics is important for DEIB. As pointed out by 1 author:

“Research and data must play a role when it comes to implementing D&I strategy that actually moves the needle on equity. If you don’t collect data, it’s hard to diagnose how your company is performing. If you don’t track data, you won’t know how you’re improving.”4

Several recent articles call out the urgent need for it, especially now, as the COVID-19 pandemic and social movements have spurred companies to reexamine how they drive equity. If we look at the recent commitments to DEIB made by some of the biggest companies—such as:

  • Facebook tying improving employee diversity to executive performance reviews5
  • Target’s aim of increasing representation of Black team members by 20% by 20236
  • Starbucks’ goal of BIPOC representation of at least 30% at all corporate levels, and at least 40% at all retail and manufacturing roles by 20257

—then, we see that not one of these goals can be achieved without access to data and analytics.

DEIB analytics is more than just diversity metrics

While diversity and representation metrics remain foundational to DEIB efforts, we’re pleased to see several articles push orgs to collect and use data beyond representation metrics. One of the ways orgs can go deeper on metrics is by looking at experience data for different groups of the employee population. According to 1 author, orgs need to look at hard data:

“Are they invited to social gatherings? Included in meetings? Receiving proper mentorship? Looking at these interactions—where discrimination, microaggressions and lack of support often creep in—will reveal what’s truly derailing efforts to improve diversity.”8

These data can be helpful in measuring inclusion. Existing engagement surveys or specific pulse surveys can ask employees about concerns around inclusion. Question statements can be used by orgs to build an inclusion index and track it over time, including:

  • Employees are valued for their differences and their unique contributions
  • Employees can voice their opinions without fear of retribution or rejection
  • People are rewarded fairly according to their job performance and accomplishments
  • I have confidence in my company’s grievance procedures

These questions can be supplemented with check-ins, exit interviews, network data and other data to identify existing gaps.

Predictive analytics for DEIB can help plan for the future

Articles that focus on applying predictive analytics for DEIB talk about spotting the right patterns and identifying a potential issue before it turns into a problem. Predictive analytics can be a powerful tool to empower orgs to make smarter decisions about their DEIB efforts.

The lit contains examples of companies that are already using predictive analytics to support DEIB, including:

  • Whirlpool—to help steer the company away from a “…myopic focus on intake, while ignoring potential effects of retention risks and advancement challenges for diverse populations.”9
  • Walmart—to model and forecast techniques to understand the future through such questions as:
    • What could happen?
    • How can we arrive at the destination sooner?

Every quarter, diversity leaders and business leaders meet to review DEIB goals, as well as share insights from the data.10

  • International Paper—to analyze expatriate compatibility: Predictive analytics, based on past behavior, family dynamics, global acumen, and cultural agility, can forecast which employees would fare better with a global move. 11

Don’t forget about qualitative data

While not a recurring theme, we think the reminder about qualitative data is an important point made by some articles that deserves a mention. Very often, when we talk about data and analytics, we instantly think of hard numbers, dashboards, and spreadsheets.

DEIB and analytics leaders might find themselves trying to persuade or convince some stakeholders about the merit of qualitative data—and part of that challenge might require redefining what “data” means for the org.

Individual stories and experiences are an important piece of the puzzle. Interviews with employees can help leaders supplement quantitative data to get a holistic picture. As 1 author stated:

“Statistics don’t capture what it feels like to be the only black team member.”12

Some examples of the types of qualitative data that can be used include:

  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Textual analysis of written performance reviews
  • Analysis of exit interview notes
  • Analysis of hiring memos

However, the lit does offer some limitations to using this data. For example, if companies aren’t consistent or comprehensive in their qualitative analysis, then biases can creep in.

Address issues of privacy and ethics

No discussion about people analytics—especially when it involves sensitive DEIB employee data—can be complete without taking into account issues of privacy and ethics. And we’re glad to see a number of articles point out this issue. As one of the authors said:

“You want to be very careful of how you’re protecting the data and how you’re making sure that your data is being used to make fair and equitable decisions on people.”13

So, how can orgs best deal with this issue?

One way to maintain employee privacy is through data aggregation to ensure no one’s data is singled out. However, this could be challenging for small companies that may only have a few people from a particular demographic group.

Data ethics and privacy becomes even more important when collecting passive data on employees. Companies can be more responsible and ethical about collecting such data by:

  • Being transparent with employees about the data collected and who will have access to it
  • Sharing that data with employees
  • Being clear about the types of analysis being run on the data collected on employees and how those data are used

What caught our attention

Of the lit we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contains information we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

The Next Generation of Diversity Metrics: Predictive and Game-Changing Analytics

Brian Baker and Michael Collins (edited by), Diversity Best Practices, 2013

Explains how predictive analytics, when used correctly, can support areas such as retention, development of a leadership pipeline, analysis of leadership and talent gaps, and creating a general talent pipeline.

"Predictive analytics will soon offer the make-or-break evidence needed to support every business case, every new project proposal. For diversity practitioners, predictive analytics offers more: A powerful tool to be smarter about inclusion efforts—which ones to ditch, which ones to double down on, which ones to invent.”


  • Link the hiring algorithm with recruitment of candidates from diverse backgrounds to revisit high-potential resumes and analyze retention data
  • Shift conversations from reactive debates to proactive consideration
  • Use predictive analytics to gain insight into what is reasonably attainable for companies in the future

Strength in Numbers: Using Data to Track Diversity and Inclusion

Marianne Bertrand, Caroline Grossman, Mekala Krishnan, Promarket, The Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, October 2020

Explains how no simple solution is going to cure all DEIB woes. Change needs to be deliberate and transformational, which takes time.

"People arrived at quotas as a panacea, as the silver bullet. And it’s great that it has led to increased representation on boards, but that’s really not had the kind of spillover effects that people had hoped."


  • Quotas for executive boards, while not showing any negative effects, aren’t the transformative policy that many thought it would be
  • Culture change takes time—anywhere from 5-7 years for change to really start to trickle through the org
  • Change the norms: For example, instead of lengthening the maternity leave policy which separates women from the labor force for longer, create a parental leave policy that encourages both parents to take time off, leveling the playing field

Here’s How to Wield Empathy and Data to Build an Inclusive Team

Interview with Ciara Trinidad, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Blend, First Round Review, 2018

Explains that the key to building the strongest, most diverse team is understanding and believing in why you’re doing it. Knowing the reason behind it gives momentum to the initiatives and gets people onboard.

"Discussion gives muscles to data—especially around D&I. Without it, a dashboard is a depository. A dialogue becomes a monologue, which eventually becomes silence."


  • Partner with the HR operations specialist to learn what data is stored where; use the fields needed to help create a dashboard that provides a meaningful narrative
  • Try different analyses to discover which are the most revealing. Some examples might be:
    • Analyzing hires by month, by team which can show how recruiters are faring against DEIB strategies
    • Analyzing hires by month, by race which can reveal an org’s internal biases
    • Analyzing hires by tenure which can reveal when people leave and why
  • Present the data to every person who has a stake in the company in the clearest, most digestible way
  • Keep the lines of communication open; consider using your existing talent as your DEIB professionals and pay them for that work

Actionable Diversity and Inclusion Analytics with Philips’ Toby Culshaw

Joe Macy, Gartner, 2019

Provides a case study into how companies can leverage partnerships for DEIB analytics, and making sure how data can be made comprehensive and presented in a way that’s easy to digest.

"Because of the partnerships with internally facing HR analytics and reporting teams, the Talent Intelligence team could access information already available at Philips and avoid starting from scratch to find the needed information. The partnerships also ensured the different teams were on the same page and understood how to impact D&I at Philips."


  • Break the project down into 3 smaller phases:
    • Gather internal data to understand the current state by partnering with the HR analytics team
    • Gather external data to understand the feasibility of changing the current state by looking at the markets in which Philips operates
    • Synthesize the internal and external data in a segmented way to drive action
  • Present data by creating easy-to-consume materials designed to drive action
  • Thoroughly understand the competitive landscape worldwide to find the right talent and understand the feasibility of diversity goals

Delivering On Diversity and Inclusion: How Employers Can Achieve Measurable Results

White Paper, Visier

Encourages orgs to move away from the traditional top-down approach to D&I practices and, instead, empower frontline workers to initiate change. This approach must include data that’s readily understood by all and looks to the future instead of criticizing the present.

“When data can be accessed in a way that facilitates exploration (without the need for a data science degree!), it can help organizations understand where to focus their talent efforts to achieve broader goals.”


  • Avoid common data pitfalls, such as measuring diversity as a blanket number and prioritizing reports over insights
  • D&I taskforces are more effective than top-down approaches to change
  • Unify data from multiple sources, so that users can dig deeper into the data
  • Utilize D&I analytics to:
  • Compare the org to the most recent EEOC benchmarks
  • Clearly communicate changes and diversity through dynamic, real-time visual storytelling
  • Demonstrate how D&I initiatives have an impact on business performance metrics
  • Understand engagement among diverse employees, and monitor the impact engagement has on turnover and exit patterns

Additional Reading Recommendations

  1. “Better People Analytics: Measure Who They Know, Not Just Who They Are,” Harvard Business Review / Paul Leonardi & Noshir Contractor, November-December 2018,
  2. “15 Ways People Analytics Can Improve Workforce Diversity,” / Rosie Harman, August 2020,
  3. “Why you should apply analytics to your people strategy,” McKinsey & Co., The McKinsey Podcast / Simon London, Bryan Hancock & Bill Schaninger, April 2019,
  4. “Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with People Analytics,” Human Capital Institute, Nine to Thrive / Phil Willburn,
  5. “4 Things Walmart Learned About Using Data to Drive Diversity,” The APQC Blog / Elissa Tucker, September 2019,
  6. "How CEOs and CHROs Can Connect People to Business Strategy", Harvard Business Review Analytics Services, 2017,
  7. “Data And Diversity: How Numbers Could Ensure There’s A Genuine Change For The Better,” / HV MacArthur, August 2020,

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) and Skills: What the Literature Says

Posted on Tuesday, April 20th, 2021 at 10:00 AM    

DEIB & Skills: We Found What We Expected

Our hope (wish? dream?) that we'd overlooked a treasure trove of articles on DEIB and skills did not come to fruition. Instead, as expected, our literature review turned up numerous articles explaining:

  • How leaders can become more inclusive
  • The role managers can play in promoting DEIB
  • The strategies orgs should put in place

But, missing from our lit review: The specific DEIB skills that individuals should or can develop, as well as what role learning can play in the development.

We looked at more than 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this lit review. This article summarizes the 5 key themes that emerged from the literature. But before we dive into them, we first want to touch upon a few things that surprised us.

A few things surprised us

We did still find a few interesting nuggets from our literature review, such as:

  • While much is written about DEIB-related courses and trainings, very little exists on the skills that foster DEIB and how they can be developed.
  • We found 2 reports with in-depth research on the skills that impact DEIB (we share details on these publications below).
  • Increasingly, storytelling is becoming more essential for knowledge-sharing and building a culture of trust and collaboration (areas that impact DEIB)—but no existing literature makes the direct connection to DEIB nor sees it as an important skill for it.


In this article, we summarize the key insights we learned:

  1. Traditional diversity training doesn’t work
  2. People look at DEIB competencies, not skills
  3. Skills for DEIB transcend individual roles and orgs
  4. DEIB skills should be part of organizational learning
  5. DEIB skills are in demand, but we don’t know how to teach them

Traditional diversity training doesn’t work

A recurring theme on this topic is the ineffectiveness of traditional diversity and unconscious bias training. In fact, research has shown that this kind of training may result in awareness among underrepresented groups of the bias-driven barriers that exist within an org while having no effect on the behaviors of the majority represented population.1

The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two—and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.

However, there’s considerable research that also focuses on ways orgs can make such training relevant and useful, by making some crucial adjustments to it, such as:

  • Being intentional about the outcomes and clearly defining them
  • Diversifying the training content
  • Removing the assumption that individuals at all hierarchical levels experience DEIB similarly
  • Articulating specific and realistic expectations
  • Consistently evaluating people to track changes and nudging them to take action

All of these suggestions point toward helping people learn something that they can apply in their work—skills.

People look at DEIB competencies, not skills

We found quite a bit written about competencies that leaders, managers, and employees need to drive meaningful change for DEIB. A common thread among the literature is the need to focus on developing competencies that are both individual- / person-focused, and those that impact the broader team and org. Cultural competency is one of the most frequently referenced areas.

“Cultural competence is the ability to recognize that people have different experiences than you, to understand the social, economic, or political reasons why those experiences are different”2

We found 2 problems with the lit that focused on competencies:

  1. There’s no consensus or agreement on what this set of competencies needs to be
  2. Competencies by definition are too broad to enable taking action to foster DEIB

We think the focus should instead be on the skills that foster DEIB. As we mention in our article Skills for DEIB: Building The Muscles We Need, skills are applied and, thus, enable action-taking. However, the current lit lacks structured research around the specific skills (or a set of them) that can enable people to take action.

Skills for DEIB transcend individual roles & orgs

Some of the lit we reviewed discussed the difficulty in identifying key skills for DEIB, as compared with the way we identify skills for a specific role or job via a job analysis. Skills that foster DEIB transcend roles and orgs.

Everyone needs DEIB skills if they want to work successfully and effectively with diverse individuals or groups, whether it be within their current org or a future one. It should be noted, however, that some evidence exists in the lit about how certain skills are more crucial at different hierarchical levels.

Some DEIB skills are more crucial at different hierarchical levels.

For example, a staff-level employee might find more value in leveraging their collaboration and communication skills if most of their interactions are with diverse peers or supervisors. On the other hand, an executive trying to implement strategic decisions that might impact diverse groups differently should leverage their active listening and / or storytelling skills.

DEIB skills should be part of organizational learning

As we mention in the beginning of the article, there’s considerable literature on DEIB training, and the role of L&D in delivering, tracking, and measuring its effectiveness. We did come across a few insightful pieces that see the role of learning extend beyond delivering specific trainings. Because DEIB is foundational to everything that happens at work, it, therefore, needs to be an integral part of org-wide learning initiatives.

Because DEIB is foundational to everything that happens at work, it, therefore, needs to be an integral part of org-wide learning initiatives.

L&D has an important role in doing that, and going beyond delivering trainings and courses on DEIB. From ensuring consistent terminology and definitions to assessing and measuring progress in skills development, the learning function can bring their expertise to ensure a lasting and meaningful impact.

By working with the DEIB leaders, the L&D function can effectively identify skills that have a meaningful impact on driving org-wide inclusion efforts—and make development of those DEIB skills a part of an individual’s overall learning and development.

DEIB skills are in demand, but we don’t know how to teach them

Many articles highlight the rise in demand for “soft” skills. The pandemic, widespread protests for social justice, and climate-related disasters have resulted in people becoming aware of certain skills that can help them survive and thrive during times of rapid change.

Some refer to them as “durable skills”—because they’re not perishable like technical skills that can become obsolete if the tech itself is no longer popular or used widely. For example, collaboration and empathy are increasingly seen as critical skills to function effectively in a new environment. Not surprisingly, these soft / durable / humanizing skills (whatever we call them) are also crucial for building inclusive environments and a culture of belonging.

People are becoming aware of certain skills—soft, durable, or humanizing—that can help them survive and thrive during times of rapid change.

The problem, as some authors allude to, lies in the approach to developing these skills for 2 reasons.

The first reason: It’s difficult to teach these skills individually. As one author put it:

“Historically, if employees don’t arrive “naturally endowed” with these skills, they are often left to develop them on the job. How do you teach or develop skills like mental agility, for example?”3

A suggested approach to this problem is grouping interrelated skills into clusters and investing in a family of skills.

“Rather than targeting mental agility in isolation, you might target its cluster by also addressing skills like navigating ambiguity, working with incomplete information, and developing organizational and self-awareness.”4

The second reason: It’s difficult to ensure whether these skills are being implemented and practiced by people. Some ideas are suggested in the existing lit to address this, such as:

  • Incorporating a microlearning approach and integrating it into the workflow
  • Combining learning with coaching
  • Using nudges and reminders to apply their new skills and practice them

What Caught Our Attention

Of all the literature we reviewed, a few pieces stood out to us. Each of these pieces contain information that we find useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives—and encourage you to do the same.

Skills for Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations: A Review and Preliminary Investigation

Rosemary Hays-Thomas, Alyinth Bowen, and Megan Boudreaux | The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 2012

This article offers an academic approach to identifying skills for diversity and how they vary, based on the different hierarchical levels within an org.

"Empathy or the ability to take the role of another may be critical to diversity effectiveness at all levels the organizations. Self-awareness and listening skills are likely to be important at all levels as well."


  • Reviews the existing lit on identifying the skills needed for diversity
  • Applies a critical incident methodology to develop a broad-based set of diversity attributes
  • Lays out a model to help understand what values, knowledge, and skills are most important at different org levels (e.g., staff, middle managers, and executives) for effectiveness in diverse environments
  • Highlights the importance of empathy at all levels of the org

Building the Link Between Learning and Inclusion

KeyAnna Schmiedl, interviewed by Deborah Milstein | MIT Sloan Management Review, March 2021

This article provides an example of how DEIB leaders and L&D functions can work together to create learning opportunities that foster a culture of belonging and inclusion among employees. This is an extremely timely article: It provides great examples of how Wayfair is leveraging such a partnership to update its training around inclusion in light of the social justice movements of 2020.

"We’ve … codeveloped ‘culture of inclusion’ trainings with L&D. They had the subject-matter expertise to pinpoint the highly engaging points in the instructor-led, in-person training and recreate those experiences in a different e-learning format."


  • People are making the connection that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not a set of initiatives that operate in a silo
  • DEI needs to be foundational to everything that happens at work, including learning
  • By partnering, DEI leaders and L&D can bring better solutions to people within the org
  • The connection between learning and DEIB should be seamless

Skills in Demand, Skills in Decline

Matthew J. Daniel, Susan Hackett | Chief Learning Officer Magazine, December 2020

This article offers insights into which skills are growing in demand and why, as orgs look to build those that’ll enable them to thrive in a new environment. It also provides suggestions on how orgs can approach developing these skills.

"The most notable trend, perhaps, is the volume of perishable skills in declining demand… platform- or organization-specific tools or languages that remain important for some but are increasingly volatile. Fluency in these programs takes a back seat to more durable and stable skills."


  • Perishable skills—that focus on specific tools or software, and which are org-specific—are in decline
  • Durable skills and stable skills—that are transferable, and which enable people to work in volatile environments—are on the rise
  • Orgs can approach the development of such skills by grouping them into clusters
  • Orgs need to think about broadening and diversifying the durable skills sets of their people

Risky Business: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter

Celeste Young and Roger Jones | Victoria University and Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 2019

This article provides a list of skills identified as critical to support D&I practice and the implementation of activities, based on a workshop conducted at Victoria University in December 2018. While the workshop was specifically designed for emergency management orgs (EMO), the applicability and relevance of these skills to all orgs is obvious and clear.

"Communication as a skill is already widely recognized as crucial for D&I practice, but the nomination of listening and reflective skills indicates the need for the development of specific social skills to enhance inclusion."


  • D&I shocks can lead to risks serious enough to threaten the ability of EMOs to perform their functions
  • Results from the workshop showed that listening and reflection were rated as the most important skills needed for D&I
  • Other needed skills for D&I included being collaborative and analytic, and applied skills such as engagement, negotiation, and being able to manage unconscious bias

Storytelling in Organizations: The Power and Traps of Using Stories to Share Knowledge in Organizations

Deborah Sole, Daniel Gray Wilson | Harvard Graduate School of Education Journal, January 2002

This article explains how storytelling can be extremely effective in building or renewing trust and building a collective vision. While an explicit connection between storytelling as a skill and DEIB is not made in the article, we think it’s an important skill as it drives many components of DEIB, such as building trust, resolving conflicts, and generating emotional connections.

"Storytelling has been used in domains to communicate embedded knowledge, resolve conflict, and simulate problem solving."


  • Well-designed, well-told stories can convey both information and emotion
  • Storytelling can especially be effective in socializing new members and mending relationships
  • Storytelling is a means to share norms and values, develop trust, and generate emotional connections

Additional Reading Recommendations

  1. Creating a Competency Model for Diversity and Inclusion Practitioners, The Conference Board / Indira Lahiri, 2008.
  2. What Black Employee Resource Groups Need Right Now,” Harvard Business Review / Aiko Bethea,
  3. Inclusive Workplace Competencies,” Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, 2017.
  4. “'Soft’ Skills Are in Demand. Can They Be Taught?Fortune / Anne Fisher, May 2019.
  5. Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training—Make It Better,” Harvard Business Review / Joelle Emerson, April 2017.

Learning Content In The 2020s: What The Literature Says

Posted on Monday, March 22nd, 2021 at 5:17 PM    

Looking at recent thought leadership in the L&D space, one glaring theme pops out—learning tech. Learning leaders, practitioners, and vendors alike are talking about skills tech, AR / VR, microlearning tech—you’d be forgiven for thinking, “It’s all about tech!” Our recent research confirms the ascendancy of learning tech.1


Even as learning tech has its time in the spotlight, learning leaders are realizing that what they’re trying to share via tech—the information that helps employees develop—is equally if not more essential than the tech that delivers it. In short:

The effectiveness of learning tech relies on the strength of the learning content it conveys.

This brings us to our current line of research—content.

In recent years, we’ve seen a massive increase in the amount and types of learning content available to employees—both internally created and owned by the org (proprietary) and externally created (nonproprietary). With this expansion of options, L&D leaders are pressed to ask questions like:

  • Where should we get content? Should we create it in-house or acquire it from a third party?
  • Should the type of content (i.e., nonproprietary vs. proprietary) change how we deliver learning?
  • How can we avoid overwhelming employees with learning content?
  • Within my org, who should own what content?
  • How can we measure and improve the effectiveness of content?

These questions gave rise to the overarching research question we hope to answer through this work:

How can orgs enable employees to access the right learning content, at the right time, in the right format (to give them the right learning experience)?

Themes from the Literature

We reviewed the current literature on content (including content management, strategy, operations, and tech) to understand what orgs and thought leaders are saying about content. We also wanted to see if any key steps exist to deciphering how orgs think—and should think—about content.

The following word cloud is the product of the 50 articles that we reviewed (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Learning Content Lit Review Word Cloud | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

This word cloud illuminates several content-related trends.

  • First, Figure 1 highlights the significance of the word “more.” With an ocean of learning content available to employees now, people are overwhelmed. This reality was eloquently described by one author who said:

eLearning content is being created and shared faster than you can blink. While today's employees want to direct their own learning, digital information overload can make that a difficult task without a roadmap.2

This content overload gives rise to the question:

With so much learning content available, how can employees easily find what they really need?

  • The prominence of the word “need” in Figure 1 emphasizes the importance of enabling learning at the right time and place. For employees to learn in the flow of work, content must be easily accessible at the point of need.
  • Finally, “strategy” in Figure 1 is noticeably smaller than some of the other terms. This reflects a trend we see in the literature: Content strategy is present but isn’t a fully developed concept with L&D quite yet. By contrast, it is a fully developed concept with marketing and enterprise content management—and we drew on some of the literature from these areas for this lit review.

To add to this analysis, the literature reflects 5 key themes:

  • Content management tech doesn’t equate to a content strategy
  • Marketing and enterprise content management offer lessons about content for L&D
  • Democratizing content creation
  • Should delivery modality dictate content decisions?
  • Current literature says little about proprietary vs. nonproprietary content

Let’s dig deeper.

Content management tech doesn’t equate to a content strategy

Although many L&D articles reference content (CMSs) and learning content management systems (LCMSs), few address how to build a content strategy.

So what exactly is a content strategy? Author Chad Udell writes:

In its simplest terms, content strategy for formal learning is a holistic plan for content—the knowledge that you want the learner to receive and retain.3

A content strategy helps orgs be more intentional about the content learning leaders produce or acquire—typically to support the org’s business goals. It also helps keep content consistent and focused (including a consistent tone and voice—a form a branding). This focus stands in stark contrast to many orgs’ tendency to pump out more and more new learning content for the sake of content, ultimately overwhelming and misguiding employees.4

Hoping to make content more manageable and accessible for employees, some L&D orgs look to content management tech as the “silver bullet” answer—thinking their problems will be solved even if they implement the tech without a clear content strategy. This attempt often backfires—or at least dies a slow, quiet death—when nobody uses the tech.

So, instead of a tech-first approach, learning leaders must design a holistic plan for content—a content strategy—and set up any content management tech to support those larger goals.

A learning content strategy is not the same thing as a learning tech strategy: It’s not enough to buy new tech—orgs need to choose content to support their business and learning goals.

Marketing and enterprise content management offer lessons about content for L&D

Marketing offers relevant advice to the L&D world when thinking through questions related to content. If you swap “buyer” for “learner,” marketing-related resources can share key lessons for L&D on cultivating a consistent brand, conducting a needs analysis, and understanding one’s own audience when it comes to content.5 Both marketers and L&D practitioners need to understand:

  • Who their audience is
  • Why that audience needs our services
  • What content we should provide
  • When to trigger the buyer / learner to action
  • Where buying / learning can best happen

Marketing offers relevant advice to the L&D world when thinking through questions related to content.

These ideas are captured well in Figure 2.

The 5Ws for Content Marketing & L&D |, 2018.

Where marketing diverges from L&D is on the point of content ownership. While marketing typically has a central content team and a consolidated source of content operations, many orgs can’t centralize all learning content creation.6 L&D must figure out questions about learning content ownership without leaning on marketers’ experiences.

Where marketing offers insights into understanding our audience and cultivating a brand, enterprise content management focuses on standardization, governance, and modularity to enable orgs to create (or facilitate the creation of), manage, and personalize content at scale. Potential lessons for L&D from this area of the literature include:

  • Personalization of content can only be scaled by standardizing content7
  • Standardizing content requires breaking it into small, reusable component parts8
  • Establishing clear processes for content creation and ownership—governance—is critical to successful content management9

Democratizing content creation

Content has traditionally been handled with a “top-down” methodology, with orgs deciding what employees need to learn, and then creating or providing the relevant content. However, approaches like user-generated content flip this traditional approach on its head. Now employees are encouraged to create learning content.

User-generated content taps into the idea that workers are already sharing information with their peers. One study found that this type of peer-sharing often occurs through answering questions via message or social network (39% of respondents), and through sharing articles, podcasts, and other mediums (37% of respondents).10 The thinking is:

Workers naturally share information with peers, so why not equip them to create content on behalf of the org?11

By actively engaging employees in the process of content creation, user-generated content also promotes learner engagement and satisfaction. The content also tends to be more relevant as it results from real employee needs and experiences.

However, user-generated content isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. While democratized content is proprietary, it’s also less centrally controllable than other proprietary content—bringing in questions about the quality and reliability of the content itself.12 Learning leaders need to ask questions about their role in user-generated content: How should L&D facilitate peer-sharing learning and / or conduct quality reviews of this type of content?

Should delivery dictate content?

Nobody knows—yet.

Different types of delivery options have become increasingly popular of late. Among these are microlearning, mobile learning, and VR: In fact, one recent study documented a 7% increase in mobile learning from 2019 to 2020.13 While the literature reflects this shift, many recent articles discuss how to best create content specific to delivery modalities.

The literature reflects a shift in the learning tech market toward specialized delivery methods—and offers lots of advice about how to create content specific to those methods.

One author, Dr. RK Prasad, offers insight into what a content strategy specific to microlearning could look like. He recommends that learning leaders should rely on gamification more than instructor-led training (ILT): This, he argues, would make learning content more digestible for employees and less expensive for orgs in the long term.14

Another article focused on how to create a content strategy for mobile learning, stressing the importance of the content “lifecycle” and the need to transform content to fit a mobile platform.15 Similarly, another source addressed content development for VR training, and detailed the 6 steps needed to convert content for VR and then test it via this medium.16

The question then becomes:

Should the delivery method change the nature of the content or should orgs make all content reusable, regardless of the original platform?

We couldn’t find any answers in the literature, so we plan to explore this question further in our research.

Current literature says little about proprietary vs nonproprietary content

Heading into this research, we hypothesized that the type of content (i.e., proprietary or nonproprietary) would change how orgs select, prioritize, deliver, and measure learning content.

One reason we believe the content type matters so much is that ownership of the content can change depending on the content type.

In many orgs, a central L&D team fully owns nonproprietary content related to topics like leadership development, while subject-matter experts (SMEs) outside of L&D own proprietary content related to org-specific intellectual property, systems, and processes. L&D may facilitate delivery of that content, but an SME is responsible for creating and maintaining it. User-generated content complicates matters further by distributing creation and ownership even more broadly thoughout the org.

This reality has serious consequences for content strategy, delivery, and measurement. So, for L&D, this means fully answering the question:

Who owns what learning content within the org?

  • Should business SMEs be responsible for generating subject-specific content (e.g., related to processes, systems, intellectual property, etc.)?
  • Should L&D own all content creation? Should L&D own any content creation?
  • How does L&D’s role shift as it relates to both types of content (proprietary and nonproprietary)?

Unfortunately, we found little to no information in the literature weighing in on these questions. We look forward to exploring them in more depth as part of this research.

Top Sources Worth Reading

5 articles in the literature provided great insight into how learning leaders should be thinking of content, including taking advice from some marketing professionals. We found these sources helpful and encourage you to check them out:

10 Steps to Building a Successful Content Strategy

James A. Martin | CMS Wire, January 2018

The article, while initially created for marketing, outlines 10 key steps to creating a content strategy, including choosing the best tech and tailoring the right content for the job.

“To be successful, though, you can’t push out content ‘spray and pray’ style, hoping at least one piece hits its target audience in just the right way.”


  • Choose the right tech that allows you to update content
  • Be intentional about your target audience and build learner personas
  • Conducting a content audit will increase engagement
  • Cluster content into digestible chunks for employees


A Content Strategy Isn’t Just for Marketers

Bianca Baumann | Training Industry, Sept/Oct 2017

This article points out the steps L&D can take when creating and implementing a content strategy, pulling from parallels with marketing.

“Ultimately, having a strategy in place helps create meaningful, engaging and sustainable content, and allows to identify the right content at the right time for the right audience.”


  • Leaders need to think through both the substance and structure of the content
  • Leaders should consider workflow (e.g., resources needed) and governance (e.g., policies, decision-makers)
  • Implementing a content strategy requires the following steps (resembling the ADDIE17 model):
    • First, learning leaders need to identify a training gap (analysis), strategize before designing (strategy), and create a communication program upfront (plan)
    • Next, leaders need to consider reusing content in different forms (create) and think through different learning modalities (deliver)
    • Finally, leaders need to align measures with their org’s needs and objectives (measure) and make sure to keep content updated (maintain)

Reusing Content Is Key in Today's Quickly Changing Marketing Landscape

Anjali Yakkundi | CMS Wire, November 2020

This piece discusses how content can be reused by considering content assets to be more like Lego pieces than fixed creations, in order to adapt content to different delivery platforms. This Lego approach frees content creators from spending time updating, managing, and tailoring content—freeing them to focus on other activities like content strategy.

“By breaking down content to smaller, reusable chunks, marketing teams can more easily reuse, recombine and repurpose content to be used on multiple channels.”


  • To democratize the learning, content owners should reuse the content and involve multiple team members in the process
  • Content owners need to act with agility: They can use a “test-and-iterate" content strategy and be ready to shift priorities when required
  • When repurposing content, it’s important to make any changes needed for the context in which the learning’s being presented to the target audience

Bringing Content Strategy into the Blend

Phylise Banner | TD Magazine, August 2017

This magazine article discusses how blended learning can be best served with a content strategy that addresses 3 domains: objective, content, and human.

“When content strategy is done well, no one notices that it’s there. They are too engaged with the experience—which is exactly what we want from our learners.”


  • Content strategists need to:
    • Create learner personas to describe and understand the attributes of employees
    • Build an org-readiness matrix
    • Conduct a content audit to analyze which types of content are working
    • Understand workflow and governance by having a content lifecycle
    • Identify a team to facilitate the learning culture and carry out the content strategy

User-Generated Content: Socialization of eLearning content

Satyabrata Das | eLearning Industry, December 2020.

This article lays out key advantages and disadvantages of user-generated content and the reasons why this type of content’s becoming increasingly popular.


  • User-generated content’s gaining traction in formal learning (while it’s been popular in informal learning)
  • Advantages of user-generated content include high engagement, greater relevance, and greater acceptability
  • Disadvantages of user-generated content include dependency on a few users to generate content, questionable reliability and accuracy of the content, and incomplete coverage of relevant areas

Additional Reading Recommendations

Building Learning Tech Ecosystems: What the Literature Says 2 Years Later

Posted on Monday, March 15th, 2021 at 12:33 PM    

About 2 years ago, as part of our research on learning tech ecosystems we conducted an in-depth lit review on how to create such an ecosystem. We were looking for thoughtful, credible insights on how orgs, vendors, and thought leaders were approaching the question of how to build truly effective learning tech ecosystems that meet org and employee needs. Given how many vendors we'd seen offering point solutions rather than all-encompassing platforms, we were surprised at the dearth of credible sources on the topic.

In more recent research, we noted that learning tech is booming—with more vendors, more customers, more users, more functionalities, and more choice than ever before.1 Some of this growth is due to COVID-19: Learning tech got a shot in the arm during the pandemic as orgs scrambled to pivot their businesses—and the learning strategies that support them—to keep up with the massive changes occurring in their environments.

And, while some growth in learning tech was already happening (or forecasted) even before the pandemic, the upheavals of the past year have made this question much more urgent—and critical:

How should orgs be thinking about creating their learning tech ecosystems?

In other words, with so many learning tech options and so many ways to fit the pieces together, how can orgs choose tech to build the ecosystem that’s right for them?

So we decided to look at the literature again. We wanted to see if, in the past 2 years, articles on learning tech ecosystems have started pushing the thinking beyond the pedestrian. As it turns out, in some areas the thinking has moved forward—for example around learning budgets—but the advice in the literature is still largely fragmented and tactical.

Themes from the Literature

We reviewed the current literature on the topic of choosing learning tech to identify any models, frameworks, or thought leadership on creating learning tech ecosystems. The text of the 40 articles we reviewed resulted in the following word cloud (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Lit Review Word Cloud | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

The word cloud highlights one of our early observations during this research:

The meaning behind “choosing learning tech” is changing.

Notice in Figure 1 that LMS and LXP are the only types of learning tech mentioned enough times in the literature to show up in the word cloud. This reflects the historic meaning of “choosing learning tech.” This phrase used to mean choosing the best LMS—or, if you were really forward-leaning, LXP—for your org. But there’s so much more to the universe of learning tech—a fact that shows up in some of the other words in Figure 1 like data, digital, experiment, change, and perform. That wasn't the case when we did the last lit review 2 years ago.

This shift towards an awareness of the wider learning tech universe is reflected in the 5 themes we identified from the literature:

  • Learning budgets are shifting toward tech
  • Don’t let the tail wag the dog: learning tech decisions should be made in service of business and learning strategies
  • Advice in the literature is fragmented and tactical
  • Choosing learning tech doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying learning tech
  • L&D teams need technologists

Let’s dive into these 5 themes in more detail.

Learning budgets are shifting toward tech

By Q1’2020, most L&D budgets for the year had been set. As the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on the scene, a few orgs decided to increase their overall learning budgets to invest more than originally planned in employee development. Many more orgs, however, decided to simply shift existing funds from planned in-person training to expand virtual and online development opportunities—all of which is supported or delivered by learning tech.

Overall, orgs significantly increased their usage of online and collaborative modalities, with considerable increases in 3 types of tech tools in particular:2

The shifting trend toward tech is here to stay: As illustrated in Figure 2, in 2021, almost three-fourths (73%) of learning professionals expect to do less instructor-led training (ILT), and almost four-fifths (79%) anticipate doing more online learning.3

Figure 2: Percentage of L&D Professionals Expecting Investment Changes—ILT vs Online |
Source: LinkedIn Learning, 2021.

Tech decisions must serve strategy

Don’t let the tail wag the dog: Tech decisions should be made in service of business and learning strategies.

A prominent theme in the literature is linking tech decisions to strategy. Many articles we reviewed emphasized the importance of understanding what your org is trying to achieve before deciding what tech is needed. Otherwise learning leaders risk investing in tech they don’t need and probably won’t use.

We particularly appreciated the point by two authors, Nan Guo and Bülent Gögdün, that in some orgs:

“… What goes wrong is the wasteful spending to signal innovativeness without solving a real problem.”4

Bottom line: While it may be tempting to experiment with new technologies, it's important to remember that novelty doesn't necessarily solve business problems. Instead, learning leaders must clearly identify what they want to achieve through employee development—what business results they seek to support—and look for the tech solution(s) that can help realize those goals.

Advice in the literature—Fragmented & tactical

The literature contains many, many articles on how to choose specific types of learning tech—an LXP, an LMS, or the latest VR tech, for example.5 As we saw in the word cloud above, LMSs and LXPs are far more represented than any other type of learning tech.

Where the literature falls short: Most articles don’t account for the incredible range of available tech that can be leveraged for learning—or how to fit the various pieces together into a cohesive ecosystem6 which evolves over time. Although some helpful checklists (provided by vendors) exist to help buyers think through various aspects of a learning tech purchase, most of these checklists focus on each vendor’s area of expertise.7

We see an opportunity to write about more holistic approaches to choosing learning tech.

These specific, tactical articles are very helpful—if you already know what tech you need. But there's not much in the literature for those leaders who need to step back, identify needs, and take a more holistic approaches to choosing learning tech.

Choosing learning tech doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying learning tech

Some articles in our lit review noted the importance of understanding the full capabilities of the tech already in-house. According to one source, 89% of orgs already use at least 3 learning tech platforms.8

89% of orgs already use at least 3 learning tech platforms—and most platforms aren’t being fully leveraged.

There’s a good chance that in-house platforms offer features and functionalities that could support learning needs—and which aren’t currently being used. This situation often arises because a platform is purchased to meet one need (or set of needs) and only certain functionalities are turned on to meet those needs, even though the platform has more to offer. In other cases, vendors add functionalities during platform updates.

Some orgs also have the in-house capability to build systems, processes, and / or platforms to meet learning objectives.

So, before making any additional purchases, it’s critical to understand what features already exist—or could be built in-house—and how they might be leveraged. Considering all the different ways to acquire tech—not just buying—can help learning leaders make the most effective, cost-efficient learning tech decisions.

L&D teams need dedicated learning technologists

The fact that most orgs already have multiple learning tech solutions makes any learning tech decision more complex. L&D leaders must not only ask what already exists—as discussed in the previous section—but also how any new tech would integrate with existing systems.

Enter the learning technologist!

Learning technologists have unique skills—amounting increasingly to full-time jobs and, in some orgs, entire teams—that allow them to:

  • Truly understand the learning tech that’s available in the market
  • Envision how learning tech might help solve an org’s specific business challenges
  • Figure out how all the different pieces of tech can be leveraged and assembled / integrated together

Traci Cantu, then-director of learning technology at Whole Foods, emphasized in a podcast that learning tech bridges the worlds of HR, IT, operations, and learning.9 It’s helpful to have team members dedicated to understanding and navigating this nexus.

Or, as another article put it, in the L&D orgs of the future:

“Learning technologists will design and implement the right technology stack with the right mix of tools—from traditional learning management systems (LMSs) to modern learning experience platforms (LXPs)—and fit-for-purpose learning apps.”10

Next, we take a closer look at some of the key articles we discovered in our lit review.

Sources That Caught Our Attention

Several articles—and one podcast—in the literature illuminated key considerations about choosing learning tech. The sources below contain insights we found both intriguing and helpful. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

Three Steps to Turn Your Company into a Learning Powerhouse

Andrew Dyer, Susanne Dyrchs, J. Puckett, Hans-Paul Buerkner, Allison Bailey, and Zhdan Shakirov | BCG, November 2020

This article outlines how to put learning at the forefront of the org. It includes tech as 1 factor to consider, situating tech decisions within the overall learning and business strategies.

“Does your company have the necessary infrastructure—the tools and technology—to measure, support, and continuously improve the learning ecosystem?”


  • The 5 domains that make learning ecosystems successful are:
    • A refined strategy
    • A mature learning org
    • High-quality offerings (library of content)
    • Enablers / infrastructure to support delivery
    • “Learnscape integration”—a community of providers inside and outside the org
  • The authors developed a set of questions to evaluate these 5 domains, including learning tech in the “enablers” domain
  • CEOs must measure learning capabilities against KPIs
  • Orgs must assuage leaders’ fear of investing in employee development only to lose those people to other teams or even other orgs entirely

Workplace Learning Report: Skill Building in the New World of Work

LinkedIn Learning, 2021

This comprehensive article on the state of learning in the workplace highlights a number of key trends that resulted from or were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The section on L&D budgets is particularly relevant for this research on choosing learning tech.

64% of L&D pros globally agree was the moment learning shifted from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.”


  • L&D has gained a lasting seat at the C-suite table as CEOs continue to prioritize learning; as a result, L&D budgets are likely to continue increasing
  • The pivot from instructor-led training to virtual / online learning is here to stay—as reflected in learning budgets, which are allocating far more to tech than previously: 79% of L&D pros expect to spend more on online training in 2021
  • Upskilling, reskilling, and internal mobility are top priorities for orgs and L&D in 2021
  • Resilience and digital fluency are the most important skills cited by L&D leaders

Navigating the Corporate Training Market During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ken Taylor | Training Industry, April 2020

This article offers a great snapshot of the state of learning tech at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reflects much of the uncertainty in the market and offers advice to vendors about how to best serve L&D teams struggling to pivot quickly. has seen an 8.6% increase in web traffic over the past few weeks , with an 8,135% increase in topics related to remote learning, virtual instructor-led training (vILT), and leading through adversity and change.


  • Although some learning tech spending was put on hold in the early days of the pandemic, as of April 2020, orgs appeared ready to increase spending on learning tech
  • Prepandemic:
    • 89% of companies surveyed already had more than 3 learning tech solutions in place, and almost a quarter (23%) had 9 solutions
    • More than 20% of companies planned to increase their investments in learning management systems (LMSs), eLearning, digital content solutions, social / collaboration tools, and delivery platforms
    • Two-thirds of companies felt they were ready to introduce new training tech
  • While the pandemic enabled greater spending on tech, “old problems still exist”; orgs still need to cultivate a strong L&D strategy

A review of L&D budget allocations in 2020

Rocco Brudno | Coassemble & Brandon Hall Group, November 2020

This article describes the changes in L&D budgets in 2020, including helpful statistics on overall budget shifts as well as data on how learning tech priorities change based on on org size.

The majority of businesses didn’t shrink their L&D budgets in 2020 but rather shifted, and in some cases, expanded them.


  • The majority of L&D budgets did not decrease and, in fact, some increased in 2020
  • 83% of small businesses and 97% of large businesses that responded to this article’s survey reported the use of an LMS, and almost one-half of businesses said they keep their LMS for more than 4 years
  • Almost one-half of businesses surveyed didn't know how much their LMS costs per learner annually
  • In addition to LMSs, video platforms and authoring tools were the most valued learning tech solutions among survey respondents, while microlearning and coaching / mentoring solutions were also seen as valuable

Navigating the Purchasing Minefield

Christopher Lind and Jordan Fladell | Learning Tech Talks, February 2020

This frank and fun podcast illuminates many of the landmines in the learning tech purchasing process, and provides helpful, practical insights to learning leaders about how to avoid or mitigate those challenges.

You need to know in detail what L&D must support, what your learning tech systems already can do, and what they can't. And where they can't—that's where you say, “We need X new tech.” Then you have your case built and your internal stakeholders onboard.


  • The RFP process is currently broken—it’s a check-the-box exercise that just encourages L&D leaders to chase features
  • L&D leaders need to clearly understand the business challenges most important to their org—and select learning tech that can help solve those issues
  • Learning leaders must set a scope for their due diligence searches to avoid being overwhelmed by the choices out there
  • Selecting the right learning tech includes understanding whether a new tech can integrate with existing systems exactly as your org needs them to

Additional Reading Recommendations

The Changing Perspective on Mobility

Posted on Monday, October 12th, 2020 at 1:05 PM    

The conversation around employee mobility has changed in recent years – so much so that the words we use to describe these movements differ starkly. While we used to refer to these movements as a “career ladder”, we now use terms like job jungle-gym1, agile careers2, and orbit-ization charts3These modern terms conjure images of employees as trapeze artists, swinging across opportunities within the organization.

This seems a natural consequence of the fact that work is undoubtedly changing. Many organizations have begun to think about how they get work done – and moving from a more structured, assembly line approach (organizing the work around the people) to much more project- and team-based work (organizing the people around the work).

And while we have been talking about career mobility for years now, given COVID-19, an increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the need for pretty much every company to respond more quickly to their market, this conversation has moved to the forefront.

Themes from the literature

In reviewing the current and recent past literature on the topic of career mobility, our goal was to understand the nature of that conversation. We also wanted to understand any models and thought leadership that existed, as well as trends for how mobility was being discussed within organizations.

The text of 45 articles we reviewed resulted in the following word cloud – which doesn’t yield much in terms of insights. However, several themes from the literature emerged as well, which are discussed below.

The Changing Perspective on Mobility

Source: RedThread Research, 2020

We’re at the beginning, not the middle

No one has really figured out mobility. In general, most organizations are still thinking about mobility in terms of moving employees from one role to another role, which suggests that most organizations are still thinking in terms of roles and organizing work around their people.

While this isn’t surprising (the momentum of doing things this way is monumental, making it hard to change direction), pockets of certain industries are making strides. A few that stand out: Healthcare – medical professionals coming together in a team to solve problems; Tech and product development – teams assembling employees with specific skills and talents to build a product; Consulting firms – bringing specialists and subject matter experts together to complete a project. These examples show a more fluid, less structured way of moving employees around the organization.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t still challenges, including: Incorporating workers from all talent pools into talent strategies, not just full-time, W2 employees; figuring out what performance and compensation looks like in this type of model; changing the messaging about what “success” means – that it’s not necessarily a promotion; and figuring out how to support employee development in a different kind of structure.

In short, while the research shows glimpses of light, there is still a long way to go.

Employee expectations are changing

We learned from the literature that currently, at least, internal mobility is generally initiated by employees. Organizations rely on employees to apply for positions discovered through internal job boards or by word of mouth.4

At the same time, turnover data from the Work Institute5 revealed that career development has been the #1 reason employees leave their organizations for ten consecutive years. When asked, workers say they want to be challenged in their role6 and 73% of employees say they would stay at their company if there were more skill-building opportunities.7

As employees gain increasing access to data about the marketplace, they often perceive more opportunity outside of an organization than identify opportunities for growth internally, which increases turnover and upskilling costs.

Increasingly, internal mobility is being seen as an opportunity to improve the overall employee experience. Organizations without solid talent mobility strategies in place are likely absorbing risk in terms of low engagement and turnover.

Data and technology are being leveraged for mobility

In much of the literature, the ongoing and ubiquitous skills discussion is linked with internal mobility. Until fairly recently, the only information organizations had about their employees’ skills was either locked in the minds of those employees or spelled out on a resume or internal profile.

That is changing. As organizations think more about mobility, they also think more about the data and technology that can be used to understand what skills employees have, and where else those skills may be employed.

Data gathering appears to be happening in both analog and digital methods. On one hand, fairly traditional employee surveys, regular virtual check ins between managers and employees, and interest via job portals provide explicit data about both skills and career aspirations. On the other, HRISes, professional networking sites, sharing sites (think Github), learning management systems, LXPs, internal platforms, and external databases are being used to provide a broader picture of the skills profile for both individuals and organizations. As that profile is better understood, insights about skills and career aspirations can help businesses make better decisions8 and remove barriers to more fluid mobility.

Two quick examples from the literature: Both AT&T9 and UBS10 have utilized skills assessment data to create online platforms that cater to the personalized experience employees crave. Employees can assess their skills, openly access information about jobs within the company, match themselves to jobs, identify skill gaps, and link to resources to fill those gaps.

More than ever, mobility is being used as a means of development

The next trend we’re seeing for mobility is the not-so-novel idea of using it as a development tool. While job rotations and stretch assignment have long been used at higher levels of the organization and for those deemed HIPOs, the idea of mobility for development is beginning to trickle down to include a broader swath of the organization.

Organizations are also beginning to realize that mobility for development can be a virtuous cycle. Instead of simply doing a stretch assignment or rotation to prepare employees for future roles, better data and a better idea about an employee’s aspirations allows organizations to take advantage of unique skills and knowledge they have now, while still building their skillset for the future.

The next role is often prepared for by formal development and skill building, but more and more, the roles (and increasingly gigs and projects) are being seen as valuable learning and development experiences.

Internal Talent Marketplaces are hitting their stride

An internal talent marketplace, often called a project portal or an internal gig economy, generally utilizes technology to match employees with short-term projects or “gigs.” Internal talent marketplaces encourage companies to share talents and skills across boundaries in an organization by dynamically matching and deploying skills to work.11

While internal talent marketplaces have been around for a while, the most recent literature touts it as a necessity for organizations – not just to change mindset, but also as a way to offer an innovative and flexible approach to talent acquisition, mobility, and management.12

Internal talent marketplaces can also act as a bit of a workaround – allowing organizations to keep their traditional talent systems in place (which also means fewer effects on hiring, accounting, and performance systems) while allowing employees to “move” around the organization more freely.

Our own observations align with the literature here – not only are we hearing about internal talent marketplaces more from our talent leader friends, we’re also being introduced to more solutions that enable them from our vendor friends.

Articles that caught our attention

While reviewing the literature, several articles highlighted key considerations in the conversation around internal mobility. The articles below contained information we found both intriguing and useful. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

The Best Way to Hire from Inside Your Company

JR Keller

“Frustrated with finding and integrating good external candidates, organizations were beginning to invest increasing amounts of time, energy, and money into developing their internal hiring capabilities.”


  • There are two ways internal hires are primarily made – sponsorship and posting. Sponsorship relies on a personal connection between the hiring manager and the candidate (the “I know a guy” approach), while posting involves listing an open position on an internal job board.
  • The posting method results in better quality internal hires any way you cut it – contributions, competency ratings, likeliness to be rated a top performer, etc.
  • The posting method decreases bias by casting a wider net and forcing hiring managers to create a job description and think about the qualities they want in a candidate.

While an oldie, this article is certainly a goodie. It suggests that adding structure to a company’s internal mobility strategy results in better quality candidates for full time internal mobility.

Why Do Millennials Stay in Their Jobs? The Roles of Protean Career Orientation, Goal Progress and Organizational Career Management

Claudia Holtschlag, Aline Masuda, Sebastian Reiche, & Carlos Morales

The findings suggest that millennials are not necessarily more inclined to switch employers. An important factor to tie them to the organization might be to allow them to advance towards their individually valued goals.”


  • If individuals are not making progress towards their personally meaningful goals, they are more likely to leave. If they are making progress, they are more likely to stay.
  • To retain millennials, organizations should allow them to advance towards their individually valued goals.
  • Individuals who are less proactive in identifying their own career goals benefit from having a structured career management environment in their organizations.

This article highlighted the importance of putting employees in the driver’s seat when it comes to their careers. When employees are able to make progress on goals that are personally meaningful, they are less likely to turnover.

Activating the Internal Talent Marketplace

Ina Gantcheva, Robin Jones, Diana Kearns-Manolatos, Jeff Schwartz, Linnet Lee, & Manu Rawat

“ is expected to extend to providing employees with access to gig work, mentorship, rotation programs, stretch and volunteering assignments, and innovation and skill-building experiences that align with business needs to create a true opportunity marketplace.”


  • The concepts of talent marketplaces are fairly new and are continuously evolving, and if done right, can improve talent organizational responsiveness and agility.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all approach to talent marketplaces. Organizations describe it as “a process of continuous customization and learning with an eye on small wins.”
  • Often, organizations adopt one of three purposes for their talent marketplace strategy: a focus on retention and productivity, a focus on career mobility, or a focus on skills-based growth.

For organizations just beginning to think through the ins and outs of talent marketplaces, this short article provides a wealth of information and several examples about how it can be done. We also think it properly sets expectations for what a talent marketplace can be.

How Matching Creates Value: Cogs and Wheels for Human Capital Resources Research

Ingo Weller, Christina B. Hymer, Anthony J. Nyberg, & Julia Ebert

“Matching is viewed as a complex and delicate challenge. If done well, it creates “economic value of a magnitude that few other economic processes can”; if done poorly, it destroys economic value.”


  • Matching, or aligning individuals with well-suited roles, jobs, situations, and tasks within organizations, benefits both the employee and employer.
  • For the best matches, skill sets must be well aligned with firm needs.
  • Ensuring a high-quality match between organizations and individuals quickly becomes complex as employees bring unique knowledge, skills, and abilities to an organization, while the organization offers a unique employee experience.
  • The researchers created the “dynamic matching lifecycle model”, which suggests that matching occurs during hiring, skill development, internal movement, and firing. The model suggests that organizations should invest in each of these areas to see the most value.

This article highlights the importance of aligning the skills of employees with the needs of the organization. The model suggests that one method of re-alignment is through internal movements.

Now Is an Unprecedented Opportunity to Hire Great Talent

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

“But when we emerge from this unfolding tragedy, it will be the long-term thinkers who not only survive but thrive.”


  • While it is instinctual to freeze or cut back on hiring and talent practices during times of economic crisis, it can be very strategic to take this as an opportunity to invest in talent.
  • Times of crisis create a window of opportunity to recruit exceptional talent.
  • Organizations can seize the opportunity by checking in with individuals they wish they would have hired over the years, sourcing candidates who are jobless or open to change, and retain and develop in-house talent.

This article emphasized the importance of focusing on mobility and employee development now. Career pathing and employee growth can feel like a back-burner topic when the world is burning around you, but from a strategic standpoint this is an opportunity to ensure that you have the best talent to bring you into the future.

Our review of the literature revealed that we are at the early stages of a mindset shift around how talent is moved in and around organizations. Early adopters of change no longer think only of the roles within the organization and how employees can fill them – instead they see work as sets of tasks, see employees for their skills, and have identified methods to marry the two in more flexible, agile ways. But there isn’t a “best” approach to mobility – and as we continue to research this topic, we hope to learn about the unique characteristics that make one approach more appropriate for some organizations than others.

Additional Reading


Q&A with John Bunch: Holacracy Helps Zappos Swing From Job Ladder to Job Jungle Gym, Bethany Tomasian, Workforce, 2019.

2 Career Moves and Laws of Motion”Marti Konstant, LinkedIn, 2018.

3 Career Mobility? Up Is Not The Only Way, Rodger Dean Duncan, Forbes, 2018.

4 2020 Global Talent Trends, LinkedIn, 2020.

5 “2020 Retention Report: Trends, Reasons & Wake Up Call”, Thomas F. Mahan, Danny Nelms, Jeeun Yi, Alexander T. Jackson, Michael Hein, & Richard Moffett, Work Institute, 2020.

6 Closing the Skills Gap: What Workers Want, ManpowerGroup, 2020.

7 2020 Global Talent Trends, LinkedIn, 2020.

8 Increase Business Agility with an Internal Talent Marketplace, Edie Goldberg and Kelley Steven-Waiss, SHRM, 2020.

9 “AT&T’s Talent Overhaul”, John Donovan, & Cathy Benko, Harvard Business Review, 2016.

10 How UBS Became a Company of Internal Career Mobility, Larry Emond, Gallup, 2019.

11 Increase Business Agility with an Internal Talent Marketplace”, Edie Goldberg and Kelley Steven-Waiss, SHRM, 2020.

12 Activating the Internal Talent Marketplace”, Ina Gantcheva, Robin Jones, and Dianna Kearns-Manolatos, Jeff Schwartz, Linnet Lee, & Manu Rawat, Deloitte, 2020.

Skilling: 5 Themes in the Conversation

Posted on Thursday, September 3rd, 2020 at 12:17 AM    


The conversation about skills has expanded dramatically in recent years. What used to be a one-note conversation about converting factory workers into knowledge workers has become an intense and complicated discussion. It is particularly complex now that COVID-19 and some of the other unrest in the world have forced companies to take a hard look at their business models, strategies, and budgets. Organizations are grappling with questions like, “Given the state of the market and our company, is investing in skills development worthwhile?” and, “Where do we even start to understand the skills we have versus the ones we need?”

In an effort to better understand and contribute to this topic, we recently completed a review of over 75 articles. This review of existing literature highlights the key themes, questions, and challenges we saw, and points to 5 articles we think you should read.

What we saw in the literature

In general, skilling is becoming an increasingly important issue. Organizations and public-sector entities alike are concerned about the growing gap between the supply and demand of certain key skills. In one McKinsey study, 43% of companies reported current skill gaps, and 44% said they will have skill gaps in the next 5 years.1 A PwC survey reported that 74% of CEOs were concerned about the availability of skills.2 Whereas hiring has historically been the #1 strategy for closing these gaps, upskilling and reskilling are now gaining prominence. While most companies still rely on both hiring and skilling, developing talent internally is being recognized as a much bigger piece of the puzzle than before.

From the reviewed articles, 5 major themes emerged. These themes are areas in which we can begin a more focused and action-oriented discussion. Each is discussed in more detail further below.

  1. Skilling is a shared responsibility
  2. Skilling is now about a lot more than just digital transformation
  3. Skilling efforts present risks and opportunities for D&I
  4. Skilling is about protecting people, not jobs
  5. Organizations face 2 significant challenges to developing new skills, but COVID has prompted new thinking

1. Skilling is a shared responsibility

Four players potentially have a role in skilling the workforce:

  • Organizations. Some research by McKinsey suggests that executives believe corporations should take the lead in reskilling because they are best suited to understand the skills needed.3
  • Individuals. PwC found that a majority of individuals feel it is their own responsibility to keep their skills updated, and 77% of 22,000 survey respondents said they would be willing to upskill in order to become more employable.4
  • Government. Some argue that government needs to provide opportunities for individuals to learn in accessible and affordable ways to ensure economic viability as a nation.
  • Academia. There is some concern that the skills colleges and universities teach are quickly outdated or not relevant.

There is general agreement in the literature that organizations and employees should have some responsibility for development; there is less agreement about the roles government and academia should play. When Deloitte asked organizational leaders who in society is primarily responsible for workforce development, 73% responded “organizations” and 54% responded “individuals” (respondents could select up to two answers). But only 19% said “educational institutions,” and 10% said “governments.”5

This agreement may be due to the fact that organizations and their workers stand to benefit most directly and obviously from new skills. McKinsey and PwC separately conducted surveys that indicated respondents’ efforts to develop skills in their organizations had improved performance on a variety of key performance indicators (KPIs) like employee satisfaction, employee engagement, customer experience, and D&I strategies.6

Other authors argue governments and academia should play larger roles in workforce development, as skills development presents global and social opportunities and risks that should be shared by all stakeholders. Particularly with the disruptions caused by COVID-19, skills development is increasingly recognized as a global socioeconomic problem (but also an opportunity), not something contained to particular industries, jobs, or companies.

The debate about responsibility for workforce development is most contested when “responsibility” means “costs.” According to one study, companies can only (profitably) afford to pay for 14% of the total estimated costs of workforce reskilling.7 While this estimate likely assumes organizations will use traditional methods for developing skills, who should pick up the rest of the tab remains an open question.

2. Skilling is now about a lot more than just digital transformation

As recently as 2 years ago, most of the literature suggested the conversation about new skill development revolved around data literacy or IT capabilities. Today, however, the conversation is much broader.

McKinsey, PwC, BCG, Deloitte, LinkedIn Learning, Mercer, and the World Economic Forum all released reports in the last year on talent trends, and skilling was discussed in each report. All the authors agreed that as technology replaces humans for routine, repeatable, and some physical tasks, demand will increase for uniquely human skills such as socioemotional perception, creativity, and higher cognition.

PwC even coined a term, “no-regrets skills,” to describe a skillset that will be applicable no matter what happens in the future. This skillset includes digital skills like data analysis and computer literacy, but also “soft skills” like leadership, communication, negotiation, creativity, and problem-solving.8

Many authors attempted to identify the skills that will be needed in 3, 5, or even 10 years. These analyses were done on global or national scales, however, and are mostly unhelpful for organizational leaders trying to develop talent strategies. Because of their scale, they do not approach the level of specificity that organizations need. Skills analysis and needs identification will remain the purview of individual organizations and L&D leaders; the literature only gives broad directional indications.

3. Skilling Efforts Present Risks and Opportunities for D&I

The literature also suggests that if we do not focus on developing new skills in targeted ways, already disadvantaged populations are likely to be disproportionately impacted by automation and job displacement.

McKinsey, for example, estimates that African Americans will likely lose more jobs to automation than other racial groups (except Latin Americans) because they are over-represented in both the jobs and the geographies most likely to be affected by automation. “By 2030, the employment outlook for African Americans—particularly men, young workers (ages 18-35) and those without a college degree—may worsen dramatically.”9 The odds of finding a good job in manufacturing with a high school diploma or less have been cut in half since 1991,10 for example, and African Americans are over-represented in the population of people with no more than a high school degree by 4.1%.11

Far from simply pointing out this risk, however, the literature shines a spotlight on the opportunity that skills development presents. If organizations, government, and academia implement targeted skills development programs that focus on the populations most likely to be displaced, then we as a society could make strides toward evening the playing field for many currently disadvantaged and underrepresented populations.

For example, a recent BCG article highlighted how reskilling programs, if done well, have the potential to increase female representation in STEM and leadership roles, where they are currently underrepresented.12 The World Economic Forum went so far as to claim, “Diversity is the bridge on which we can cross the skills gap.”13

4. Skilling is about protecting people, not jobs

As recently as 2 years ago, the literature emphasized the number of jobs that would be lost to automation. Now, it points out that although some jobs will be lost, there is likely to be net job creation due to automation. It also highlight the role of machines in augmenting—rather than completely replacing—humans. Many jobs in the future will be hybrid roles where individuals bring skills and knowledge in science, human behavior, business, and data and analytics.

Underpinning this perspective shift is the belief that skilling should fundamentally be about protecting people, not jobs—meaning  helping people gain the skills they need to stay employed, even if their role shifts. As Deloitte analysts wrote, “Through a resilience lens, reinvention shifts from something that could threaten worker security to the very thing that defines it: Workers who are able to constantly renew their skills and learn new ones are those who will be most able to find employment in today’s rapidly shifting job market.”14

This belief holds true even through COVID. Much of the literature argues that developing skills should be an even higher strategic priority and investment now, during COVID, than before. Skills development not only helps companies prepare for and respond well to uncertain futures, it also builds trust between employees and the organization.

5. Organizations face 2 significant challenges to developing new skills, but COVID has prompted new thinking.

While skill-building is seen as an urgent strategic priority in many organizations, few organizations are making real progress on skilling initiatives. PwC showed that although 46% of CEOs said in 2019 that retraining and upskilling were their primary strategy for closing skill gaps in their organization, by 2020 only 18% of them reported “significant progress” on reskilling initiatives.15

The literature suggests that this disparity in knowing versus doing is related to two major challenges: 1) identifying skills to develop and 2) keeping up with the pace of change. Identifying workforce development needs and priorities is one of the largest barriers to workforce development. And by the time an organization can understand the skills gap and deploy a development program, the skills are likely to be irrelevant.

Interestingly, however, COVID-19 and other developments in 2020 have forced companies to start focusing on developing new skills despite these challenges, as disruptions to supply chains and business models prompted organizations to reallocate workers to new and unfamiliar roles.

These workers have been developing skills on the job, learning as they go. And it seems to be working to some extent. As one analyst put it, “Whereas traditional reskilling or upskilling within companies might arm employees with knowledge or training that could hypothetically be put to use at a later date, these ‘thrown into the fire’ moments are providing real value in real time for both the employee and the employer.”16

Another author pointed to the benefits of the talent sharing arrangements some companies have put in place during COVID. Sysco and Kroger, for example, have an arrangement for Sysco associates to work at Kroger distribution centers.17 These agreements are an innovative way for companies to take care of their employees, fill critical gaps, and develop their workforce all at the same time.

Whether these approaches will stay popular after COVID remains to be seen, but at a minimum COVID has given companies a taste of what “attacking the skills gap” could really look like for them. And a more agile, test-and-iterate approach to new skills development may be here to stay. We are seeing more literature addressing creating “connected learners,”18 “cyclical models of reinvention,”19 and “resilience”20 among employees. They argue that, rather than building specific skills, organizations should focus on enabling workers to continually identify their own gaps, experiment, fail, learn, and develop.

What caught our attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contained information that we found useful and/or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

What would it take to reskill entire industries?

Anand Chopra-McGowan and Srinivas B. Reddy  |  Harvard Business Review, July 2020

“This is a unique scenario — millions unemployed on the one hand, and rapidly evolving and growing skills needs on the other. There is an opportunity for the former to solve the latter’s problem. With it, comes an urgency for companies, governments, and workers’ organizations to join forces and offer the global workforce clear reskilling pathways.”


  • COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated three major forces: deglobalization, digitization, and corporate consolidation. As a result, businesses have had to implement digital transformation plans in months instead of years.
  • Organizations knew they needed to reskill before COVID; the pandemic has only made the need more urgent.
  • The costs and responsibility of reskilling should be borne jointly by employees, employers, and governments, since all three benefit from the effort.

This article has a global perspective and provides a sound argument for shared responsibility of the skilling burden.  It also has an interesting definition of reskilling: “learning in service of an outcome, which is usually the successful transition to a new job or the ability to successfully take on new tasks.”

The COVID-19 crisis has rewritten the playbook on upskilling

Dr. Parves Khan and Els Howard  |  Training Journal, June 2020

“Rather than press the pause button on closing skill gaps, this crisis has created an unprecedented urgency to ramp up upskilling interventions. But not in ways we thought so previously.”


COVID-19 has created four major shifts in the way organizations are (or should be) upskilling.

  • Collaboration, not competition: all companies should work together to develop new skills, even if they are competitors in an industry.
  • Sprints, not marathons: There need to be shorter, faster, and cheaper upskilling interventions.
  • Mastery, not pedigree: The system should include quick accreditation to demonstrate mastery, not full degrees.
  • Smart learning, not just learning: Developing new skills should be highly relevant to work.

This is a fast, succinct article with practical recommendations and lots of examples.

To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now

Sapana Agrawal, Aaron De Smet, Sébastien Lacroix, and Angelika Reich  |  McKinsey & Co., May 2020

“Imagine a crisis that forces your company’s employees to change the way they work almost overnight. Despite initial fears that the pressure would be too great, you discover that this new way of working could be a blueprint for the long term.”


Organizations knew, before the current crisis, that a focus on new skills development would be necessary. In one survey, 87% of executives said they had skill gaps in their workforce, but less than half knew how to address this problem. COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem—and doubling down on skilling efforts is the answer. There are six steps organizations can take.

  • Rapidly identify the critical skills your business recovery model depends on
  • Build those critical skills
  • Launch tailored learning journeys to close critical skill gaps
  • Start now, test rapidly, and iterate
  • Act like a small, agile company (even if you’re not)
  • Protect learning budgets

This article gives practical and highly relevant advice based on solid analysis of the ways COVID-19 has affected skilling trends, distance work, talent supply and demand, and global supply chains. It prepares organizations, and particularly L&D leaders, to act quickly and decisively to pivot workforce development efforts and align them with new realities.

Upskilling: Building confidence in an uncertain world

Carol Stubbings, Bhushan Sethi, and Justine Brown  |  PwC, April 2020

“A people-centric approach builds the trust that leadership needs when faced with disruption: companies that invest in their people develop stronger cultures and are more confident of their future success.”


  • In-demand skills remain hard to get: 74% of CEOs were concerned about the availability of skills (vs. 79% the prior year)
  • Progress on upskilling can breed confidence: 38% of CEOs who are the most advanced in delivering their upskilling programs were very confident about growth over the next 12 months. Only 20% of those who are just starting their upskilling journey agreed.
  • Upskilling delivers more than skills. 41% of CEOs said their upskilling program has been “very effective” in creating a stronger corporate culture and engaging employees.
  • More talk than action. 18% of CEOs said they have made “significant progress” in “establishing an upskilling program that develops a mix of soft, technical, and digital skills.”

This article was published in April 2020 but is based on research conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The authors clearly draw out the implications of COVID on the data that was collected, concluding that it is perhaps even more relevant now than before. Visual depiction of the data is well-done and easy to digest.

Beyond Hiring: How companies are reskilling to address talent gaps

Sapana Agrawal, Aaron De Smet, Pawel Poplawski, and Angelika Reich  |  McKinsey & Company, February 2020

“A potential hurdle to effective decision making is a lack of visibility into the skills of the existing workforce and the effects that the disruptions will have on workers’ roles.


Almost 90% of leaders say their organizations either currently face skill gaps or will likely develop skill gaps in the next five years.

  • Skill gaps are appearing for data analytics as well as a variety of other business and soft skills.
  • Hiring has been the most common tactic to address gaps globally, followed by skill building.
  • Early efforts to build skills internally appear to be improving performance in employee satisfaction, customer experience, brand perception, and other key metrics.

This article has great data about recent efforts to build skills within organizations. It gives some specific recommendations about how to launch a skill-building program and provides links to an interactive graphic about skills gaps and skill-building efforts.

Additional readings

  1. “Jobs of Tomorrow: Mapping Opportunity in the New Economy,” World Economic Forum, Ratcheva, V., Leopold, T., Zahiki, S., 2020.
  2. “Win with Empathy: Global Talent Trends 2020,” Mercer, Bravery, K., et al, 2020.
  3. “How Reskilling Can Transform the Future of Work for Women,” BCG, Tsusaka, M., 2020.
  4. “Diversity is the bridge on which we can cross the skills gap,” World Economic Forum, Elias, H., 2020.
  5. “The future of work in black America,” McKinsey & Co., Cook, K., Pinder, D., Steward, S., Uchegbu, A., & Wright, J., 2019.

The Purpose-Driven Org: What the Literature Says

Posted on Thursday, April 16th, 2020 at 2:17 PM    


We’ve been living in a COVID-19 world for quite some time now, and many people are feeling the effects. Companies cut more than 700,000 jobs in March and the total of unemployed workers now exceeds 16 million.1,2 Suppliers are scaling back on production,3 and the consumer confidence index declined in March to 120.0 as compared with 132.6 in February.4 In many ways, there's a sense that we just need to survive this time before we can get “back to normal.”

But in so many other ways, this crisis is providing an opportunity for individuals and organizations to contribute more to others than they ever have before. Many leaders right now assume that companies have an obligation to their workers and communities – even to humankind – to figure out what they can uniquely contribute to help others get through this crisis. And what’s more – to get it to them for free or at cost. (Click here for an epic list of companies contributing to humankind.)

This crisis has brought purpose-driven organizations – those organizations with a responsibility to deliver value to its stakeholders, not just shareholders – into the spotlight.

Given this dynamic, it's even more important to understand how organizations inspire people and make purpose-driven decisions. Our hope is that we can capitalize on this unique moment to better understand how leaders and HR professionals can leverage purpose to navigate the current crisis and continue to add value well beyond it.

To that end, we have begun a study on this topic for which we're asking:

What is the role of purpose-driven organizations today, and how can they help stakeholders navigate and survive this new reality?

It’s important to start by understanding what others have said – and there’s a lot of that! To better understand purpose in organizations, we looked at more than 50 published scholarly articles, periodicals, research reports, and blogs from the past 5 years. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, we also extensively scoured what's been written more recently to identify trends or shifts in purpose-driven organizations.

5 themes from our lit review

Five themes emerged from our review. In this article, we summarize the most interesting insights we learned:

  1. Good purpose statements inspire action
  2. Relationships anchored in purpose can increase resilience
  3. Purpose enriches the employee experience
  4. Leaders face barriers to purpose-driven decisions
  5. Purpose-driven metrics are a big problem

Good purpose statements inspire action

Many organizations spend a significant amount of time, effort, and even money developing a purpose statement. Some even outsource it to PR or advertising firms to come up with a catchy slogan. But our review found a different story for organizations that are able to develop a good purpose statement and activate it throughout the organization.

Good purpose statements are clearly defined and distinct from other different, though related, terms like mission, vision, values, and principles:5,6

  • Mission. Establishes the organization’s specific business – what it is and what it isn’t
  • Vision. Defines what the organization aspires to become in the future
  • Values. Defines what the organization prioritizes and values most
  • Principles. Outlines a set of behavioral guidelines or rules

Purpose, on the other hand, has its unique flavor:7

Purpose: Expresses the organization’s impact on multiple stakeholders (employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, communities) and connects to people’s intrinsic motivation. At times, it’s even called an organization’s philosophical beat because it serves to inspire employees.

Good purpose statements motivate people to take action through a shared sense of direction. It's shared because there's a collective sense among colleagues of working toward an unquestionable common goal.8

Relationships anchored in purpose can increase resilience

For purpose-driven leaders, challenging situations represent an opportunity for the organization to live up to its purpose of serving a greater cause. This couldn’t be more true in today’s coronavirus situation. Many organizations are shifting priorities to address market needs, such as distilleries and perfume makers that are now manufacturing hand sanitizers9 or automakers now producing ventilators.10 These actions can go a long way. Research shows that 88% of people feel it’s particularly crucial that organizations not only have a clear purpose statement, but they also demonstrate behaviors which are congruent with it.11

In our readings, we found that the benefits of purpose go both ways because people are more willing to help and defend a purpose-driven organization, if necessary. In a recent U.S. study, for example12

  • 73% of people said they would be more likely to defend a purpose-driven company if someone spoke badly of it
  • 67% of people said they would be more forgiving of companies that lead with purpose compare to those that do not

In companies that had an average annual growth rate of 30% or more in the previous 5 years, purpose enabled them to overcome the challenges of slowing growth and declining profitability.13 In general, purpose isn’t only beneficial to stakeholders, but it's also favorable to purpose-driven organizations. It allows them to build trust and loyalty both internally and externally, which in the end, can make them more resilient to challenging situations.

Purpose enriches the employee experience

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, it may be easy for employee experience – employees’ collective perceptions of their ongoing interactions with the organization14 – to take a back seat as organizations grapple with business disruptions. But, while it may be tempting to neglect employee experience, truly purpose-driven organizations tend to be better equipped to protect it.

For example, in purpose-driven organizations, HR plays a crucial role in helping people understand their purpose, how it connects to the organization’s purpose, and how their daily work contributes to it. This extra attention and effort in helping individuals connect their individual work to the organization’s purpose, especially during a crisis, go a long way in enhancing people’s connection to their work and the organization. Employees who perceive their work as meaningful and purposeful are 3 times more likely to stay with their organization.15

Organizational culture is a particularly important element in purpose-driven organizations. For example, we noticed a parallel between our study on employee experience and the purpose-driven organizations in our readings. Organizations with a positive employee experience display 5 behaviors that are woven into their cultural fabric (see Figure 1).16

Figure1 The Purpose-Driven Organization Literature Review Summary

Figure 1: 5 Essential Behaviors in Supportive Cultures | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Similarly, purpose-driven organizations, and especially leaders, tend to demonstrate behaviors that support a positive employee experience:

  • Collaboration. In purpose-driven cultures, shared purpose – a collective sense of working with colleagues toward a common goal – is the most important source of meaning for employees.
    • And meaning matters because employees who rate their work as very meaningful report 14% more job satisfaction than average employees, and 51% more satisfaction than employees with the least meaningful jobs.17
    • The power of shared purpose is more important now than ever. Consider healthcare workers on the frontlines who continue to put themselves at risk to treat infected patients driven by their shared purpose of saving lives.
    • Examples of HR activities that foster collaboration and shared purpose:
      • Career pathing to help existing employees discover their individual purpose and align it to career paths, projects, and new experiences that fuel their sense of meaning and purpose.
      • Learning and development opportunities – training, mentoring, coaching, education, resources – to help employees build skills that further their sense of meaning along with the organization’s purpose.
  • Alignment. Purpose-driven leaders use storytelling to help employees personally identify with the impact of their daily work on the organization’s stakeholders,18 which creates alignment and a stronger sense of shared purpose.
    • The current pandemic is inspiring a sense of shared purpose and alignment among many leaders. Messages like Together We Will Persevere from SAP’s co-CEOs and Coming Together to Combat COVID-19 from Microsoft’s CEO are more common now than in recent years.
    • Example of HR practices that create alignment:
      • Recruitment (hiring for purpose) by having a compelling employer brand that attracts the right individual to apply for jobs at the organization.
  • Transparency. Purpose-driven organizations have leaders who translate (reduce the complexity of purpose) and truthfully communicate the social impact of every decision.19
    • Consider for example, Patagonia’s decision to close all stores amid the COVID-19 outbreak to protect both employees and customers, and their commitment to continuing to pay employees throughout their closure.
    • Example of HR practices that cultivate transparency:
      • Communication to clearly and constantly convey purpose-driven beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and decisions.
  • Psychological safety. Purpose-driven leaders dedicate time to talk personally with employees and intentionally integrate rituals or events that manifest their shared sense of purpose and enhance their mutual trust and psychological safety.
    • Crises like the current pandemic are testing many leaders’ ability to calm down fears and instill a sense of safety throughout the organization. The Coronavirus Generosity Challenge is an example of leaders who are finding ways to make a positive contribution internally and externally amid the current situation.
    • Example of HR practices that build greater psychological safety:
      • Manager support to learn to lead a remote team with empathy (e.g., encourage them to check-in more frequently with their direct reports via video conferencing or phone calls and have meaningful conversations).
  • Feedback-sharing. Purpose-driven organizations actively solicit employees’ ideas to activate their individual sense of meaning and their collective sense of purpose.20
    • Purpose-driven organizations tend to measure purpose through real-time feedback mechanisms (e.g., pulse surveys) that influence the employee experience.
    • Example of HR practices that support feedback-sharing:
      • Pulse surveys to collect real-time and frequent employee feedback, especially during these challenging times.

Leaders face barriers to purpose

Historically, many leaders have believed that a purpose-driven focus conflicts with a profit-driven approach. This may be of no surprise as most of the world has focused on only maximizing profit for shareholders. But even though purpose is often cast as the opposite of business profit, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Organizations can define their impact on stakeholders as a spectrum of possibilities based on what aligns with the firm’s objectives and values. This spectrum can range from deliberate social impact to maximizing both impact and profit objectives, and to meeting the traditional market expectations of pure business profit (see Figure 2).21

Figure 2 The Purpose-Driven Organization Literature Review Summary

Figure 2: The Force for Good Spectrum | Source: INSEAD Responsibility – BLOG, 2020.

Beyond the purpose-vs-profit debate, leaders face other barriers that prevent them from adopting purpose-driven strategies:22,23

  • Market volatility tied to shareholder expectations, which hinders leaders’ ability to focus on long-term value creation
  • C-level executives sometimes lack the ability to envision synergies between sustainable development goals and their business
  • Organizational systems and infrastructure that are not aligned with long-term purpose and value
  • Hiring people whose individual purpose does not align with the organization’s purpose
  • The lack of development opportunities for leaders who do not behave in purpose-driven ways
  • Employee performance targets and incentives that are not aligned with the organization’s purpose

This is further worsened by limited purpose-driven targets or incentives tied to leaders’ scorecards; 68% of leaders see the need to make better progress in this area.24

Yet, it seems like the current COVID-19 pandemic is affording leaders a bit of flexibility to make more purpose-driven decisions than in years’ past. We’re seeing this play out in leaders’ responses to policies and practices that protect employees or in their rapid pooling of resources to address community needs for more ventilators or masks. We see 2020 as providing an opportunity to cement a purpose-driven approach as a strategic and imperative way of doing business.

Purpose-driven metrics are a big problem

Nowadays, purpose is touted as a cost-of-entry for any business. This has been partly driven by pressure from well-known investors,25 by increased scrutiny over the impact of organizations on stakeholders,26 and, to a certain extent, by the promise of greater consumer trust and loyalty along with increased talent retention.27

This focus on purpose-driven organizations is bringing the need to measure impact to the forefront – which is easier said than done. In theory, purpose-driven organizations can substantiate their triple bottom line (TBL) impact on 3 areas: people, planet, and profit.28 There are numerous measurement approaches that follow TBL principles. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria29
  • Includes measures of environmental impact (e.g., green building, pollution prevention, energy efficiency), social metrics (e.g., human capital engagement, labor standards), and governance (e.g., business ethics).
  • Social return on investment (SROI)30
  • Tracks relevant social, environmental, and economic outcomes to forecast or evaluate impact. It calculates a ratio after assigning a monetary value to inputs and outcomes.
  • B Corporation Certification31
  • Assesses all aspects of a company (environmental and social impact, corporate governance, community involvement) based on accountability and transparency standards.
  • SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment32
  • Serves a wide range of stakeholders and includes several indices:
    • The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI)
    • S&P ESG Index
  • ISO 26000 Social Responsibility33
  • Provides guidelines to effectively assess and address social responsibilities to multiple stakeholders: customers, employees, environment, suppliers, and shareholders.

But in reality, organizations find it challenging to actually measure their TBL; only 35% of companies align their business practices to a multistakeholder model today.34 This is partly driven by unclear and unsystematic reporting mechanisms.

Entities such as The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) aim to fill this gap by outlining specific reporting guidelines that facilitate organization- and industrywide comparisons.35 Organizations can use the recommended guidelines to report their impact across clearly defined economic, environmental, and social categories.

Must-read articles

These articles caught our attention because they're interesting or insightful in helping us understand purpose-driven organizations.

Gartner HR survey reveals 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to coronavirus

Brian Kropp

“As the COVID-19 crisis disrupts organizations across the globe, HR leaders must respond quickly and comprehensively, considering both immediate and long-term talent consequences.”

This article summarizes findings from a recent HR survey on how organizations are addressing coronavirus challenges and needs.

  • States that 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home.
  • Shows how organizations are responding to coronavirus-related absences.
  • Lists recommendations for HR leaders on managing remote talent.

COVID-19 and corporate purpose—Four ways businesses can respond now

Greg Hills

“When faced with this unremitting uncertainty, how can a company maintain clarity on its societal purpose? What is the role and responsibility of your business in a time of chaos and crisis?”

This article suggests four levers to guide purpose-driven organizations during the current COVID-19 crisis.

  • Recommends that organizations leverage their core business assets to meet the current needs of stakeholders.
  • Emphasizes the importance of focusing on generosity and compassion (vs. profit) during this time of need by adding value to stakeholders, especially employees and local communities.
  • Advises leaders to keep a long-term view of their company’s role in navigating the pandemic and helping stakeholders return to normalcy once the current crisis passes.

We are nowhere near stakeholder capitalism

Vijay Govindarajan & Anup Srivastava

“While we admit that considerable progress has been made in developing theory, models, and disclosure norms for ESG objectives, we believe that we are nowhere close to achieving ‘integrated reporting,’ as some people might claim.”

This article states that many organizations aren’t creating value for all stakeholders.

  • Suggests that real change will come once organizations transform their financial and non-financial measures.
  • Mentions that maximizing shareholder returns remains the main objective – while keeping ESG goals as a secondary objective – for many organizations.
  • Asserts that organizations aren’t close to developing an “integrated reporting” framework that includes both tangible and intangible capital resources.

Put purpose at the core of your strategy

Thomas W. Malnight, Ivy Buche, Charles Dhanaraj

“When customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders see that a company has a strong higher purpose, they are more likely to trust it and more motivated to interact with it.”

This article highlights results from a global study of companies that use purpose to generate sustainable growth, stay relevant, and deepen ties with stakeholders.

  • Describes a purpose-driven strategy to help companies overcome challenges.
  • Provides specific suggestions to help organizations define their purpose and implement it as a core business strategy.
  • Highlights the tangible and intangible benefits of purpose to organizations.

Putting purpose to work: A study of purpose in the workplace

Shannon Schuyler & Abigail Brennan

“Purpose is about empathy – it defines the human needs and desires that a company’s products and services fulfill.”

This report discusses results from a study of over 1,500 U.S. employees across 39 industries on purpose in the workplace.

  • Considers leaders’ role in purpose-driven organizations, especially in their communication and decision-making.
  • Identifies team leaders and coaches as holding the greatest potential to help employees identify and translate their individual meaning and purpose into the organization’s purpose.
  • Discusses the role of younger generations in shaping the purpose conversation.

9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more-meaningful work

Shawn Achor, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, Alexi Robichaux

“The old labor contract between employer and employee – the simple exchange of money for labor – has expired.”

This article discusses results from the Meaning and Purpose at Work Report, and asserts that people highly value meaningful work.

  • Identifies that more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of the earnings for greater meaning at work.
  • States that many companies fail to leverage the power of meaning at work despite its many benefits to both employees and organizations.
  • Recommends a series of actions companies and leaders can take to support and foster a sense of meaning and purpose throughout the organization.

Additional articles for your reading pleasure

  1. A Time to Lead with Purpose and Humanity,” Joly, H., Harvard Business Review, 2020.
  2. From Being Purpose-Led to Foster A Toxic Culture: Why Companies Like Away Fail to Live Up to Their Promises,” Bulgarella, C., Forbes, 2019.
  3. Balancing Profit and Social Welfare: Ten Ways to Do It,” Craig Smith, N. & Lankoski, L., INSEAD, 2018.
  4. Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” Quinn, R.E. & Thakor, A.V., Harvard Business Review, 2018.
  5. The Purposeful Company,” Chapman, C., Edmans, A., Gosling, T., Hutton, W., & Mayer, C., Big Innovation Centre, 2017.
  6. Purpose-Led Organization: ’Saint Antony’ Reflects on the Idea of Organizational Purpose, in Principle and Practice,” White, A., Yakis-Douglas, B., Helanummi-Cole, H., & Ventresca, M., Journal of Management Inquiry, 2016.
  7. “The Business Case for Purpose,” Keller, V., EY Beacon Institute & Harvard Business Review, 2015.

Responsive Orgs: What the Literature Says

Posted on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 at 7:00 PM    

It feels like every time we turn around another post, article, video, or report is discussing the changing nature of, well … everything. We’re constantly inundated with information showing the dynamic and ever-evolving world in which we live and work.

Rethinking How We Do Business: Responsivity

In previous times – when organizations could reasonably predict their environment for the foreseeable future – it was easier to set a course of action and revisit the plan every 3 or 5 years. That no longer works today. Businesses must now find a way to adapt and to change in ways that don’t become obsolete in the same amount of time it took to strategize about those changes.

So, what kind of organization will survive in the future?

Our prediction – the responsive organization.

But what exactly is a responsive organization and what steps can organizations take now to be more responsive?

Our current (working) definition of a responsive organization is:

An organization that identifies change, determines trends, and responds in ways that turns change and disruption into a distinct organizational advantage.

To begin understanding these organizations in more detail, we looked at more than 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this literature review.

What we saw

It may not come as a surprise that academic literature isn't flooded with research on the concept of “responsive organizations.” However, the concept has loosely been described throughout popular press and the foundational ideas have been rigorously studied. We looked at any concept we thought would help us uncover what makes an organization responsive (i.e., agility, decision-making, engagement, motivation, rewards, learning, empowerment, technology, performance management).

In reviewing the literature, we uncovered 5 themes of responsive organizations:

  • Structure is still needed, but rigidity won’t work
  • Authority and power can’t be held by the few
  • Empowerment leads to chaos if learning is lacking
  • The human element is a distinct advantage, now more than ever
  • Technology has an increasing role as a supporting actor

Structure is still needed, but rigidity won’t work

There's a general agreement that traditional hierarchical structures are barriers for organizations wanting to be more responsive. These organizational structures were set up to address efficiency – as though humans would always just make widgets on an assembly line. However, work is no longer done in a linear manner and efficiency limits responsivity – to customers, changing market conditions, new technology, etc. The modern world of work requires a network of individuals and teams that balances stability and flexibility.

More specifically, responsive organizations remove layers – opting for flat, more networked, team-based structures. Working in a network enables businesses to organize around what matters most (i.e., specific challenges, products, knowledge, customers, markets) and to remove traditional notions of control and authority. Yes, there are some decisions that should be made by leaders and within a centralized structure but, by in large, there's a lot more opportunity for the employees who are doing the work on the frontlines to identify problems and take action on solutions.

Regardless of the actual structure, the key point is that old models which primarily emphasize command-and-control operations will become increasingly less effective in the future. Instead, organizations have to provide enough structure to direct work but be flexible enough to evolve in real-time. This idea of flexible, network-based organizational structure is central to the idea of the responsive organization.

Authority & power can’t be held by the few

One of the key benefits of more network-based, flexible structures is the ability to facilitate decentralized decision-making and shared leadership. In traditional models, authority is held by the few and decisions trickle down to workers lower in the hierarchy in a (slow) process. Responsive organizations recognize that power can no longer be held just by the few and embrace the idea of shared leadership. Power – the authority to make decisions and to act on behalf of the organization – has to be pushed down to the people closest to the challenges being solved.

A cautionary note: This doesn't mean that managerial roles or leadership roles should become obsolete. In fact, they’re more important in responsive organizations. However, their roles will continually evolve into coaching and developing people rather than managing tasks and timelines.1

Responsive organizations trust their employees and provide the psychological safety necessary for employees to know they won’t be punished if they act – in good faith – on behalf of the organization. This is critical. Evidence suggests that, when employees feel trusted, it positively impacts performance and these employees are more likely to make extra effort outside of their role.2

Decentralized decision-making and sharing authority are more than simply telling employees they can make their own decisions. Responsive organizations create cultures that value entrepreneurialism and encourage – even reward – employees for coming up with solutions.

“The need for organizational sharing of information, decision making and responsibility among project team members requires a new paradigm of how data and personal relationships will flow.”3

All that said, responsive organizations also understand that strong organizational norms, articulated accountability, and organizational controls are still needed. These set boundaries for employees and help them interpret shared authority through the same lens – ensuring that employees know when leadership needs to be involved.

Empowerment leads to chaos if learning is lacking

Traditional command-and-control models can impede how quickly individuals identify and address skill gaps. When individuals have little insight on strategy and no authority to make decisions, in real-time, they're simply doing a job. They’re not as often confronted with the reality of what’s needed next for them to be able to succeed.

On the other hand, responsive organizations are pushing individuals to operate in roles not easily defined. They're giving employees insights on the vision, strategy, and goals of the organization so employees can better respond to customers. But to respond effectively to customers, employees need to have the skills, capabilities, and knowledge necessary to meet customers’ existing and future needs. This requires employees to be continuously learning both the skills they need to perform today and those necessary to prepare for the future.

Unfortunately, our recent research suggests that a majority of organizations are falling short in helping employees learn and prepare for the future. Less than 50% of organizations are providing an environment to facilitate information-sharing, encouraging continuous learning, or helping employees identify what's needed for future success (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Developing and Preparing Employees for the Future | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Employees in responsive organizations are constantly faced with the reality of their own limitations and must work quickly to address these. This requires responsive organizations to place learning and development (L&D) at a premium for 2 reasons:

  1. Giving employees the power and authority to act on behalf of the organization and to take charge of problem-solving is great, unless they don’t have the necessary skills and abilities to actually do this.
  2. Expecting individuals to operate in roles, not jobs, means they need to also identify where the skill or knowledge gaps are among the team and find a way to fill those.

Responsive organizations are also learning organizations that push individuals to continuously build upon their capabilities and teach employees how to learn.

The human element is a distinct advantage – now more than ever

It would be great if we could read the “Responsive Organization Playbook” and see a few chapters on structure, authority and decision-making rights, and L&D, and call it a day. But the truth is, there’s a human element in responsive organizations that is often overlooked when reading up on organizational agility (a term similar to and highly related to responsive organizations).

Responsive organizations balance profit with purpose.4 Sure, organizations have to make profit to survive, but “rather than viewing profit as the primary goal of an organization, progressive leaders see profit as a byproduct of success.5” That means, responsive organizations are clearly attuned to the human side of their organization – creating 2-way channels of communication to understand their talent beyond the profit they provide.

This enables responsive organizations to create cultures that are intrinsically motivating6 – creating an employee experience that minimizes control and micromanagement, and increases individual agency and competence. These cultures recognize and reward progress, not just goal attainment.

Technology’s role as a supporting actor

The sheer volume and speed of information coming into and out of organizations necessitates the use of technology. In fact, many of the articles we read highlight a need for organizations to leverage technology to capture and interpret data both within the organization and external to the organization. This is especially true for responsive organizations. Next-generation technology has to be embraced by the organizations of the future.7

This doesn't mean that technology should be seen as something which will come in and disrupt the human element of the workforce. In fact, responsive organizations will need to identify the unique attributes that humans bring to the workforce and leverage technology in a way which enables people to do deeper, more creative work.

Just as responsive organizations need to create flexible, networked, and agile structures – they also need to invest in technologies, systems, and tools that will evolve with them. More importantly, disparate technologies have to be able to seamlessly integrate with each other. Employees are tired of leaving one system to manually enter data into another system about what they just completed in the first system. Unfortunately, this is the reality in many organizations – technologies aren’t integrated with each other and many don’t fit into the flow of work.

The truth is, there are a lot of great technologies out there, and many solutions are trying to provide seamless integration in the flow of work. But we aren’t sure we’re quite there – yet. This suggests to us that responsive organizations may need to think differently about their technological architecture and use a buy-and-build approach to ensure they're arming their people with access to the right information, at the right time, and in the right way.

What caught our attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contained information that we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

The Operating Model That’s Eating the World

Aaron Dignan

“These companies are lean, mean, learning machines. They have an intense bias to action and a tolerance for risk … They are obsessed with company culture and top tier talent, with an emphasis on employees that can imagine, build, and test their own ideas. They are driven by a purpose greater than profit….”


  • Discusses the responsive organization from 5 key components, including purpose, process, people, products, and platforms
  • Highlights the shift in each component of the responsive organization
  • Gives an example of an organization that has made the appropriate shift in each area

This article gets us excited about the responsive organization of the future. It gives a simple overview of the components of the organization that need to be reimagined and calls out the organizations that have made shifts in these areas.

The Future of Organizations is Responsive

Mike Arauz

“This difference – between optimizing for certainty vs. optimizing for uncertainty – is at the core of what separates successful organizations from everyone else.”


  • Illustrates that organizations are thriving – and will continue to – because they are responding to disruption by creating new ways of working
  • Argues that traditional structures impede resource availability
  • Suggests that responsive organizations optimize for uncertainty, rather than certainty

This video presentation (slides and transcription provided) illustrates why work isn’t working anymore and provides a compelling argument for organizations that embrace uncertainty. In addition, the presentation highlights where technology is best-suited to support organizations and where the qualities unique to human (creativity, collaboration, etc.) should be leveraged.

Elements of a Responsive Organization

Dean Kimpton

“The idea of placing purpose before profit, is not about blind altruism, but attracting the interest of people.”


  • Gives a short review of the ideas central to responsive organizations
  • Discusses the potential upside in risk and failure
  • Outlines the link between engagement and responsiveness

This quick read offers a fast skim of what makes an organization responsive and outlines a few reasons why. It also highlights what organizations should consider when trying to measure responsiveness.

The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement

Kenneth Thomas

“ requires workers to make a judgment – about the meaningfulness of their purpose, the degree of choice they have for doing things the right way, the competence of their performance, and the actual progress being made toward fulfilling the purpose.”


  • Argues that intrinsic motivation is essential when workers are asked to self-manage
  • Highlights the factors involved in whether a worker is likely to experience intrinsic motivation
  • Discusses each fact in the context of how organizations can create a high-engagement culture

This article provides an overview of current thinking about intrinsic motivation. It highlights the 4 components that help individuals determine whether they are intrinsically motivated, including meaningful purpose, choice, competent performance, and progress toward purpose. It also provides 7 recommendations for how to build a more intrinsically rewarding environment to boost engagement.

The Darkside of Transparency

Julian Birkinshaw and Dan Cable / McKinsey & Company

“We’re getting used to transparency in our lives … But transparency can also cause pain without much gain.”


  • Summarizes the potential benefits of transparency within organizations, but cautions where this can go awry
  • Suggests there are certain times and internal practices that shouldn't be open to radical transparency
  • Discusses the role of transparency in daily activities, employee rewards, and creative work

There's an increased discussion around sharing information and pushing it down to the right levels. With that discussion comes the debate around transparency. This article highlights that debate, suggesting there might be times when privacy wins out over radical transparency.

Overall impressions

When we started this research, we weren’t sure what we’d find. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of information outside of the popular press to help organizations understand what the idea means. It’s still a bit of a muddy concept, and we had to get creative about the avenues we took to research topics that supported this concept. However, in taking a step back, we see that yes, it is a thing – a real thing that’s more than just organizational agility.

Responsivity requires organizations to:

  • Rethink how they're structured
  • Invest substantially in learning
  • Give up control, and push leadership and decision-making down
  • Embrace technology
  • Rethink the importance of the qualities unique to the human-side of their enterprise

Additional readings

  1. "Responsive Organization Practices: Lessons from Pepisco, AirBNB, and Charity: Water," Responsive Organization Practices – Responsive Org – Medium, Seidman, D., 2018.
  2. "Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage," Harvard Business Review, Reeve, M. and Deimler, M., 2011.
  3. "Linking Empowering Leadership and Employee Creativity: The Influence of Psychological Empowerment, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creative Process Engagement,” Academy of Management Journal, Zhang, X. and Bartol, K.M., 2010.
  4. "Knowledge Sharing in Teams: Social Capital, Extrinsic Incentives, and Team Innovation," Group & Organization Management, Hu, L. and Randel, A.E., 2014.
  5. "The 5 Trademarks of Agile Organizations," McKinsey & Co., the McKinsey Agile Tribe, 2017.

Frontline Workers: Differences in Performance Management Practices?

Posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2019 at 8:18 PM    

This article is a continuation of our recent study, The Makings of Modern Performance Management. Specifically, it explores the practices of performance management (PM) as they relate to frontline workers: Are they currently treated differently? Should they be?

Frontline workers are those in customer-facing or product-making positions. While they're often overlooked, frontline workers play a fairly significant role in providing a great customer experience. And, as markets get more competitive and customers become more informed, organizations are relying more heavily on customer experience to compete.

The Criticality of Frontline Workers

Forward-thinking organizations have looked at frontline workers differently in the last few years. Whereas they were once seen as cogs in a machine (who, it was believed, just work for a paycheck, are inherently disengaged12), they're now seen as a source of future leaders, innovation, and a strong customer experience.3

We think that, as the focus on these workers increases, organizations will take a closer look at their PM practices – perhaps reevaluating how these workers are measured, engaged, and developed.

We recently looked at more than 20 academic and business articles, reports, and book chapters to better understand these changes. Not surprisingly, some of the things we learned align nicely with what we found in our modern performance management model.

What we learned

From our review of the literature, it appears that organizations are waking up to the notion that many workers on the frontlines have significant impact on customer experience,4 and as such, need more attention. As an example, a 2018 study by The Institute of Customer Service shows that increasing employee engagement also increases customer satisfaction.5

In general, we uncovered a collective urgency to move frontline performance management away from traditional operational-driven approaches to more modern development-driven ones.

Three overall themes emerged from our review of the literature:

  • Frontline workers need empowerment
  • Frontline managers play an important role and should be held accountable for performance development – their own as well as their workers
  • Frontline engagement likely requires moving away from industrial-era performance management approaches

We take a look at each of these in the following sections.

Frontline workers: Empowerment

With the current focus on customer experience and its perceived role in driving market competitiveness, there is a general sense that frontline workers need to be better empowered.

To do this, forward-thinking organizations are using development to equip frontline workers – especially those directly serving customers – with soft skills (anywhere from emotional intelligence and communication skills to problem-solving and conflict resolution) so they can better address customers’ needs.6

Additionally, real-time and individualized feedback are also seen as ways to empower frontline workers7,8 – including those in manufacturing roles – to think critically, solve problems, and make effective on-the-spot decisions.9

Frontline managers: Accountability for performance development (theirs and their workers)

The bulk of the literature on frontline performance management focuses on managers. The idea that frontline managers play a crucial role in the development of frontline workers is widely accepted (and aligns with what we found more broadly in our recent research as well). Most of the pieces we read mentioned the lack of accountability for the development of their people as a pervasive problem among frontline managers.

Some advocate for offering more formal training to frontline managers in traditional performance management aspects such as: giving and receiving feedback, engaging in frequent 1:1 conversations, setting goals, and addressing performance concerns. This suggests that organizations are beginning to rethink the role of frontline manager from enforcer and doer to manager as coach. While it may seem generally appropriate, it will require changes to their responsibilities and mindset, not to mention to the systems and processes that support them.

Frontline engagement: Leave behind industrial-era PM approaches

The literature suggests that performance management practices for frontline workers are somewhat stuck in the industrial era. And if we ever want to build a fully engaged frontline workforce, then organizations need to re-think how they currently evaluate and address frontline performance.

For example, there is a tendency to measure frontline workers against operational efficiency metrics such as: hours clocked, calls handled, and products assembled. While tracking these metrics may be necessary at times, organizations are itching to improve frontline performance in a more developmental manner,10 and as such, bring more value to customers. Some recognize the importance of connecting frontline workers’ performance to the organization’s mission and making sure that frontline workers see the big picture.11

There also seems to be a desire to make performance management for managers and employees more meaningful – moving it away from only a transactional process focused on hard skills to a developmental process also focused on soft skills.12 This is in large part driven by the current focus on providing a positive and compelling experience for both employees and customers.

What we read

Several pieces stood out from the literature we reviewed. Each of the following pieces explored ideas that we found useful in expanding the way we think about frontline performance management.

Frontline Workers and the Skills for Tomorrow’s Economy

College for America

“Even jobs considered ‘entry level,’ or frontline, such as call center customer service reps, require workers to do more than merely handle a transaction; technology now handles those straightforward processes.”

This article defines U.S. frontline workers. It also describes industries with the greatest number of frontline workers and the specific skills they need to be able to fill market needs.


  • Defines frontline workers, their demographics, current skills, and the skills they need to develop to compete in the marketplace.
  • Offers a framework for evaluating frontline workers' skills.
  • Recommends developing frontline workers in higher-level cognitive and soft skills such as: problem-solving, critical-thinking, and relationship-building.

Developing America’s Frontline Workers

Kevin Oakes and Kevin Martin / i4cp

“Companies need to be clear on the positive business impact of frontline worker development, provide the support mechanisms to reinforce this, and measure it through the performance review process and reward (or hold accountable) managers accordingly.”

This report presents findings from a study on development practices for frontline workers among 365 US-based businesses. It describes the increasing demand for skilled workers to fill US-based jobs. It discusses the need for greater frontline manager involvement and accountability for frontline worker development.


  • Shows a high correlation between bottom-line business impact and when frontline workers take advantage of development opportunities.
  • Examines the current skill level of frontline workers and emphasizes the need to upskill this segment of the workforce for future growth.
  • Supports the idea that managers serve as coaches and mentors to those on the frontlines.

Ten Steps to Supercharge Performance Management

Tony DiRomualdo / American Management Association

“HPOs replace annual or semiannual formal performance reviews with regular (monthly or quarterly) informal discussions between frontline managers and their direct reports. This establishes better communication and helps to both maintain consistent focus on what needs to be done and gauge progress.”

This article outlines ten ways in which organizations can improve their performance management practices. It also provides ideas on how organizations can improve the effectiveness of performance management practices for frontline workers and their managers.


  • Discusses the importance of creating an environment of ongoing frequent conversations between frontline workers and managers.
  • Proposes maintaining a consistent performance management culture throughout the organization to gain buy-in and enable high performance.
  • Emphasizes the need to train frontline managers on effective performance management practices.

Frontline Managers: Are They Given the Leadership Tools to Succeed?

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services

“…feedback managers receive is largely punitive: ‘Only negative feedback when failures happen. Punishment in the form of bad performance reviews, notices of corrective action, and terminations are the rewards for failure’…”

This article highlights findings from an online survey to HBR’s readers aimed at understanding the importance of frontline managers to organizational success. It discusses frontline managers’ influence on key organizational outcomes. Yet, it contrasts frontline managers’ importance to organizational success with the lack of managerial effectiveness.


  • Describes how frontline managers are crucial in helping organizations reach business goals.
  • States that few organizations invest sufficient time and resources in the professional development of frontline managers.
  • Argues that frontline managers lack basic leadership competencies and need further development.

Unlocking the Potential of Frontline Managers in Global Health

Arnab GhatakSrishti Gupta, and Ying Sun / McKinsey

“…the typical frontline manager is time strapped, multitasking, and lacking critical elements needed for success: an understanding of priorities, management skills, motivation, autonomy, and information.”

This article examines frontline managers in a healthcare setting. It outlines specific challenges that frontline managers face in their role and suggests six ideas for improvement. It also provides examples of successful frontline management development programs in health-related facilities globally.


  • Mentions the adoption of a service industry framework to better understand and relate to customer-facing employees.
  • Suggests a 6-pronged approach to support frontline managers in healthcare settings throughout developing countries.
  • Advocates for disciplined performance management practices to motivate and develop frontline managers.

Other good reads (if you have some time)

1 “Developing Skilled Workers: A Toolkit for Manufacturers on Recruiting and Training a Quality Workforce,” The Manufacturing Institute, 2019.

2 “How to Motivate Frontline Employees,” McGregor, L. & Doshi, N., Harvard Business Review, 2018.

3 “Front Line Staff, the Patient Experience and Your Bottom Line – Avoiding the Cultural Hourglass,” Warren, B. & Kinney, T., Select International, 2015.

4 “Maximizing Frontline Sales in Retail Banking,” Maxwell, M, Derraik, R., & Ross, E., McKinsey, 2014.

Employee Experience: What the Experts Say

Posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2019 at 6:41 PM    

Why is employee experience so sizzling?

Employee experience (EX) is hot. Don’t believe us? Just check out how it has trended on Google over the last decade.

While the term “EX” just sounds smart and snappy, there are more substantive reasons for the increased focus on employee experience, such as changing demographics,1 a hypercompetitive talent market,2 and business’ ravenous need for innovation.3 The heightened emphasis on EX is such that, in a global 2018 study of five hundred CHROs, 83% of organizational leaders emphasized a positive employee experience as crucial to organizational success.4

All this EX talk led us to some “burning” questions like, what exactly is this secret “employee experience” hot sauce? And if your organization chooses to focus on it, how do you approach it? And will it live up to all the hype?

To get our answers, we read the most relevant published works on employee experience, ranging from as early as 2011 to as recently as a few months ago (though the bulk of the articles were from the past three years). We also looked at related topics, such as employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and technology. In all, we examined over 60 scholarly and business articles, reports, blogs, and books.

This article gives you the highlights of what we learned and suggests publications for further reading. Here’s what you’ll find below:

  • What we saw
  • What caught our attention
  • Additional literature we recommend

What we saw:

We identified six primary themes within the literature we reviewed:

  1. Employee experience: A combination of employees’ perceptions and interactions
  2. Employee experience and engagement: Related but different
  3. Symbiosis: At the heart of employee experience
  4. Multi-method listening: Key to understanding employee experience
  5. HR: Not the only one responsible for employee experience
  6. Technology: Clarifying and enhancing employee experience

1. Employee experience: A combination of employees’ perceptions and interactions

It turns out, lots of folks have different employee experience “recipes” – meaning there’s no universal definition for employee experience. Instead, we found a range of definitions, such as:

  • How difficult it is to get work done and how people are expected to behave5
  • How the work environment and work habits enable employees to perform their jobs6
  • How employees interact with the physical environment, social connections, and work tasks7

We found the most convincing definitions, though, to be those that took a macro-level perspective and argued that employee experience originates in employees’ perceptions and interactions.8, 9 These perceptions are subjective interpretations of what employees encounter, observe, or feel in their interactions with the organization.10 Interactions are further described as the intersection of cultural, technological, and physical elements of the work environment with employees’ expectations, needs, and wants.11

2. Employee experience and engagement: Related but different

Employee experience and engagement are often used as synonyms, but our review of research-based articles underscores that these are different (though related) concepts.

For example, engagement and employee experience differ in their top-down vs. bottom-up approach.12, 13 Employee engagement is seen as a top-down concept because organizational leaders choose strategies that impact engagement scores. On the other hand, employee experience is seen as a bottom-up concept because it focuses on those perceptions and interactions employees have – not just on the measured engagement score.

Another difference between employee experience and employee engagement is that experience is described as the cause, whereas engagement is described as the effect.14 The combination of what organizations do, say, and give (experience) influences what employees see, feel, and hear (engagement).

These perspectives bring the employee front and center. They highlight the influential role that organizations play in how employees behave and approach their work.

3. Symbiosis: At the heart of employee experience

Just like honeybees and flowers, a positive employee experience results in a mutually beneficial relationship for both employees and organizations. This relationship is based on the impact that a positive employee experience has on engagement:

  • Organizations with transformational leaders and a supportive work environment – both aspects of employee experience – have better employee engagement, based on a comprehensive review of 214 studies.15
  • Employees with a high level of engagement are healthier and feel an overall sense of wellbeing. In contrast, employees with a low level of engagement experience more illnesses, stress, and burnout.

While this is great news for employees, they are not the only ones that benefit. While there is plenty of research that indicates a positive relationship between employee engagement and business outcomes, there is also research that indicates organizations receive business value directly from a positive employee experience. Specifically, companies with a strong employee experience have twice the innovation and customer satisfaction and have higher profits than organizations with a weaker employee experience.16

4. Multi-method listening: Key to understanding employee experience

More organizations are starting to recognize the dynamic nature of employee experience and the need to account for spontaneous and deliberate interactions.17 A dynamic employee experience evolves when employees interact with the organization in organic ways or through specific touchpoints.

To view the entire employee experience picture, organizational leaders increasingly want effective ways to measure both constant and sporadic interactions. Thus, a multi-method listening approach is gaining popularity.18 In addition to pulse or touch-point triggered surveys, organizations are also exploring the use of wearable technology devices and social networking applications to collect frequent data from various sources.19, 20

5. HR: Not the only one responsible for employee experience

Employee experience is often viewed as the primary responsibility of human resources or talent management functions. However, that viewpoint is changing.

HR does not own most aspects of employee experience, whether you measure it via “touchpoints” (42%) or “moments of truth” (78%).21 Instead, business managers or other non-HR support functions own them.

Thus, some authors recommend building a cross-functional coalition where members can approach employee experience from different, yet complementary angles based on their expertise.22 This cross-functional coalition includes shared accountability across HR, marketing, IT, finance, and facilities to design a positive employee experience.

6. Technology: Clarifying and enhancing employee experience

Technology provides an opportunity to better understand employee experience. It clarifies what employees want, value, and need. In fact, most CHROs (57%) believe that technology enables them to prioritize budget and time investments on employee experience.23

Organizational leaders also recognize that technology enables them to analyze, automate, and collaborate when designing a positive employee experience. For example, more technology vendors are offering artificial intelligence capabilities that provide a deeper view of employee experience than ever before.24

There is also an increased focus on providing a personalized digital experience that resembles what employees encounter as consumers. Employees want technology that enables them to communicate and connect with others in the organization.25 They also want technology that anticipates their needs and streamlines administrative processes. A large global survey highlights that most workers prefer digital as opposed to personal interactions to handle HR tasks.26

But there is a large gap between the technology that employees encounter at work and the one they encounter as consumers. To address it, organizations want to offer digital solutions that enable collaboration, anticipate employees’ needs, and appeal to individual preferences.

What caught our attention:

Of the literature we reviewed, we found the articles below particularly intriguing and useful. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

Maximizing the Employee Experience: How Changing Workforce Dynamics are Impacting Today’s Workplace

Dr. Brad Harrington

"Taking a systems-oriented approach as the foundation of an organization’s people strategy will require more cross-functional collaboration with HR’s various functions and much greater alignment and integration with organizational leaders."


  • Summarizes the significant workplace trends that influence organizations trying to positively impact employees' experience.
  • Describes the importance of developing and establishing an integrated people strategy that considers the organization’s mission, values, and workforce expectations.
  • Suggests that using a seven-step change management model may help in maximizing a positive employee experience.

Building Business Value with Employee Experience

Kristine Dery and Ina Sebastian

“In our research, companies with great employee experience  (i.e., low work complexity, and strong behavioral norms for collaboration, creativity, and empowerment) were more innovative and profitable and had higher levels of customer satisfaction.”


  • Discusses findings from MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research’s recent global survey on employee experience.
  • Defines employee experience according to work complexity and behavioral norms.
  • Connects a positive employee experience to innovation, customer satisfaction, and profitability.
  • Provides recommendations on how to build a positive employee experience through digital capabilities and leadership.

Employee Experience vs. Engagement, and 3 Things You Should Start Thinking About Now

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

“As leaders, employee experience is something we all should start looking at seriously… because, like it nor not, there’s a silent revolution taking place with employees all over the world. And, if we do our best, we will see those engagement scores move in the right direction.”


  • Discusses differences between employee experience and employee engagement.
  • Provides examples of ways in which organizations have tried to foster a positive employee experience.
  • Offers suggestions to build a positive employee experience by focusing on organizational culture, flexibility, and storytelling.

With CX, Engaged Employees Mean Everything

Bruce Temkin

“In companies that lead in CX, 75% of employees are highly or moderately engaged.”


  • Connects customer experience to organizational culture and internal processes.
  • Substantiates the notion that a positive customer experience is linked to highly or moderately engaged employees.
  • Recommends specific actions to increase engagement via the “Five I’s of Employee Engagement.”

Designing Employee Experience: How a Unifying Approach Can Enhance Engagement and Productivity

Eric Lesser, Janet Mertens, Maria-Paz Barrientos, and Meredith Singer

"Applying a holistic, iterative design approach to change can help ensure that employees see improvements relevant to their work and can set their expectations for continuous intervention."


  • Identifies factors that shape employee experience such as work-based relationships, the design of employees’ physical work environment, and the tools employees use in their work-related activities.
  • Emphasizes the importance of personalization, transparency, simplification, authenticity, and organizational responsiveness as ways for organizations to enhance employee experience.
  • Offers suggestions to design a positive employee experience through using analytics, understanding and investing in crucial touchpoints, and building a coalition.

How AI Can Help Redesign The Employee Experience

Forbes Insights

“The hope isn’t simply for AI to ensure smarter, faster hiring, but to improve the entire lifecycle of the employee experience, from job application to exit interview. In other words, can AI make workers happier?”


  • Identifies ways in which AI can create a positive employee experience.
  • Mentions specific tech vendors that gather data and provide insights into an organization’s employee engagement, manager effectiveness, communication, talent development, and organizational culture.
  • Describes how AI technologies can provide a “consumerized” employee experience to address HR needs.

Additional Recommended Reads:

  1. The Employee Experience in 2019,” Charong Chow, SocialChorus, 2019.
  2. The Heart of the Matter: Emotions in the Employee Experience,” Christina Zurek, ITA Group, 2019.
  3. Employee Experience: Enabling Your Future Workforce Strategy,” Kristine Dery, Nick van der Meulen, Ina Sebastian, MIT Center for Information Systems Research, 2018.
  4. The New CHRO Agenda: Employee Experiences Drive Business Value,” Pat Wadors, ServiceNow, 2019.
  5. Employee Experience Reimagined,” Michael Liley, Patricia Feliciano, and Alex Laurs, Accenture, 2017.
  6. 2018 Employee Experience Report,” Toluna Group & Udemy, 2018.

While we have identified the articles above as being the most crucial for readers to review, we read many others. If you’d like a full list of the articles we covered, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at [email protected].



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