Premise: Enabling the Frontline Workforce

Posted on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023 at 1:58 PM    


Why we care

In short:

The frontline workforce is vital to most organizations’ success, but they’re not being supported in the ways they need or want. Organizations need to do better. We're launching research into how organizations can enable frontline workers to thrive in their current and future roles.

In detail:

The frontline—AKA deskless—workforce is huge. A 2018 survey by VC company Emergence estimated that 80% of the global workforce is frontline, while McKinsey put the number at 70% of the US workforce. In early 2022, a Microsoft representative said the frontline workforce represents nearly 2 billion people worldwide.

And frontline workers are critical to many organizations’ success: They’re often the “tip of the spear” executing the organization’s strategies. In many industries—like retail, hospitality, healthcare, education, and transportation—frontline workers are the face of the organization to customers. They’re also an (often untapped) resource for innovation and improvement—with ideas to solve real problems they see on the ground.

Frontline workers are critical to organizations' success. But they're often underserved, under-supported, and unempowered.

But in our experience, many HR systems and processes aren’t designed with frontline workers in mind. For example, employee development opportunities are often created assuming that a worker has easy access to a computer and company email, some schedule flexibility, or the financial wherewithal to pay for learning and wait for reimbursement. That's simply not the case for many frontline workers.

In addition, there are indications that the ways organizations support frontline workers don’t align with what those workers need or want. Research by Axonify and Nudge found a mismatch between frontline workers' and corporate leaders' perceptions of what drives frontline happiness and success.  BCG reported that frontline workers want more flexibility and work-life balance, better career advancement opportunities, and better pay and benefits than they’re currently provided.

Something’s wrong with this picture. Organizations need to better understand their frontline workforce's needs and adjust systems, processes, and approaches to better enable their success.

Organizations need to better understand their frontline workforce's needs and enable their success.

But that’s more easily said than done.

What challenges are organizations facing when it comes to the frontline workforce?

  • Finding and keeping workers. In contrast to the late-2022 layoffs in the tech industry, the talent market in many frontline-heavy industries remains tight. For example, we’re still seeing articles (like this one from a Chicago-based PBS news outlet) about restaurants struggling to find staff. And unemployment rates across most industries are still below 2021 levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many employers are having trouble finding and keeping workers with the skills they need to compete in their industries.
  • Providing a strong employee experience—while preparing for a downturn. In many industries, employers are competing against one another to attract workers. They're vying to provide a better organizational culture and employee experience than other prospective employers—in addition to paying higher wages. For employers facing an uncertain economic environment in 2023, it may be challenging to pay employees more, invest in culture and employee experience, and prepare for a downturn…but it looks like that’s what many companies will have to do.
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). DEIB efforts remain a priority—at least nominally—for many organizations. As BIPOC workers are overrepresented in the US frontline workforce (source: McKinsey), DEIB efforts can have an outsized impact on this group of people. If DEIB budgets are cut, organizations will need to find creative ways to continue to enhance equity and inclusion for frontline workers.
  • Connecting frontline employees. Many frontline jobs are becoming more digitized and siloed. Retail teams, for example, may see many customers but interact little with one another. One leader told us about manufacturing workers who work whole shifts in their warehouse section without talking to anyone else. In addition, communication from leaders or central parts of the organization may be fragmented and feel unreliable. Connecting frontline workers to the organization’s purpose and one another will be a challenge for many organizations in the future.

What will we research?

Heading into this research, our primary question is:

How can organizations better enable frontline workers to thrive in their current and future roles?

More specifically, what does frontline enablement look like in the following areas? And how should enablement differ for frontline and not-frontline workers?

  • Performance
  • Employee development (including learning methods)
  • DEIB
  • Management

In terms of our going-in hypothesis, we believe:

  • Organizations will need to use different approaches to enable frontline vs. not-frontline workers
  • Organizations will need to adjust their systems, processes, and practices to more effectively enable frontline workers

As always, we will do this research “out loud” by opening our research process to practitioners across the community. It makes us smarter and helps everyone gather ideas from a wider pool of people.

You can participate by joining a roundtable, volunteering to be interviewed, or simply commenting on this article. Thanks in advance for your participation!

A premise: Can skills run the world (of work)?

Posted on Monday, July 25th, 2022 at 4:42 PM    

The skills situation

There is no question that the pandemic accelerated new ways of working. Organizations needed more flexibility and fluidity as employees went remote and shuffled companies. This caused many to throw out the proverbial rule book and begin thinking differently about how work gets done. One of the largest changes we’ve seen during this time is the acceleration of skills. Organizations have begun to realize the benefits of quantifying work at a much more granular level.

Thinking in terms of skills rather than roles has allowed organizations to:

  • Better determine the skills needed for specific roles and better gauge the qualifications of an individual to fill those roles
  • Identify transferable skills across roles and organizations – making mobility more than a pipe dream and a solution to the many talent shortages organizations face.
  • Rethink roles by determining which skills could be combined to create new or eliminate old roles.
  • Create more flexibility and mobility – both in traditional roles (moving from one role to another) and things like talent or opportunity marketplaces and gig work.

Exploration into all these things is increasing the number of conversations we’re hearing about the promise of utilizing skills.

Organizations aren’t ready to capitalize on skills…yet

Unfortunately, while the promise is there, most organizations face several roadblocks when starting their skills journey. For example:

  • Roles vs. skills. In most organizations, work is not structured around skills but around roles and job titles. Organizations often structure work around those roles, so they see the value of skills only to define roles better even though they can do so much more. This roles-based lens may prevent organizations from accurately understanding their workforce’s strengths and potential.
  • Data structure and completeness. Thinking in terms of skills requires a greater level of data evaluated at a greater frequency to be truly valuable. Many organizations lack data norms, processes, and technology to make skills truly work for them.
  • Existing systems and processes – Many people’s processes weren’t initially designed for and therefore don’t easily accommodate skills. Leaders of people functions are finding the need for very close collaboration to ensure that skills can be leveraged for the good of the organization. This often means redesigning systems and processes.

Because of these challenges, many organizations wanting to move to skills struggle to identify who to engage, how to get buy-in, what tech to invest in, and what data to track. The good news is many are beginning to actively think through these challenges and look for ways to learn from others who have already done some pioneering work.

What's needed is guidance on getting started

This brings us to this study. In the past year and a half, we’ve had over 20 conversations with leaders who have begun down the path toward skills. Combined with this study, those conversations will result in a playbook– a getting-started guide to help organizations start thinking through the hard things.

This study will answer 3 fundamental questions:

  • How can organizations build a foundation or people infrastructure to prepare for a change to skills?
  • What roadblocks should organizations look out for, and how can they sidestep them?
  • How can organizations get started?

If you follow RedThread, you know that we believe in doing research out loud. We publish as we go and involve leaders in the process continually. Please join the community to follow the project updates, collaborate with other leaders, and help to solve the skills challenge together.


Rethinking Connection at Work: A Premise

Posted on Tuesday, July 19th, 2022 at 2:58 PM    

Why talk about connection at work?

You've probably heard that connection is important to humans—that we are social creatures. That for our ancestors, social isolation could be deadly.

So you may not be surprised that connection at work is important, too. It may not be a matter of life or death as it was for our ancestors, but feeling connected—to others and to the organization—has a huge effect on employees. Connection typically improves an employee’s experience at work and allows them to do better work.

More specifically, connection at work is critical to things like employee engagement, sense of belonging and well-being, individual performance, collaboration, and innovation:

  • Gallup’s research has established a link between employee engagement and having a best friend at work.
  • Research in organizational network analysis (ONA)—for example, by Rob Cross and Michael Arena—shows how employee connections affect their teams’ ability to openly share ideas, communicate, and innovate.
  • RedThread’s research found that connection has become a critical component of performance management since the pandemic started.

In other words: connection is good for employees and for the organization.

But connection at work isn’t what it used to be.

We’re in a connection crisis

The last few years have upended how people connect at work. First there was a forced, mass move to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A settling-in to new routines. Then some stop-and-go progress toward hybrid work. All this in an environment of economic uncertainty as well as social and political tension in many places and on many topics.

During the pandemic, professional networks shrunk dramatically—by 16%, according to researchers King and Kovacs. As a result, many people feel less connected to their colleagues and organizations.

This connection crisis is an increasingly hot topic, particularly as research reveals the extent of the problem. We’re seeing an uptick in published articles and discussions about how employees and leaders can (re)build and strengthen connections in their organizations.

As organizations move from pandemic to post-pandemic, we think it’s worth considering how they can not only rebuild relationships that were lost during the pandemic, but establish ways of connecting that will set them up for the future. That’s why we’re launching new research focused on rethinking connection in organizations.

What we’ll research

As we launch this research, our overarching question is:

How can organizations most effectively foster the connections that matter to them?

In particular, we'll be looking at 2 areas:

  • The types of connections that matter in organizations
  • The ways organizations can enable connection

We think there are more types of connections and more ways to enable connection than are featured in the current conversation. A broader understanding of connection may help organizations more effectively address the connection crisis.

At RedThread, we believe in “doing research out loud” by opening our research process to practitioners across the community. It makes us smarter and helps everyone gather ideas from a wider pool of people. To participate in the roundtable and / or interviews for this and other RedThread research projects, please reach out!





Next Gen Learning: Choosing the right development opportunities for your employees

Posted on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 at 2:58 PM    

The times, they are a-changin’

In recent months, we’ve been working with a few organizations on their internal L&D existential crisis. We have looked at where they focus, how they allocate resources, what tech they invest in, how they talk about learning, what buy-in they have from leaders, and what types of activities they engage in.

And it’s been eye opening. It no longer surprises us that, when it comes to L&D functions, change has been so slow. The systems and processes, mindsets, technology, leadership expectations, and business expectations in most orgs keep L&D functions stuck doing the same old things in the same old ways.

But what we’ve seen has also given us hope. Now is an ideal time to change the rules. Now is the perfect time to stop doing things the way they’ve always been done and find something better.


In the many conversations with both leaders and learning tech vendors over the last 3 years, we have noticed that more forward-thinking L&D functions look at employee development differently. Instead of paying attention to output—courses, curricula, and the like—they pay attention to the conditions—the right environment, the right prompts, the right motivations, the right culture—to enable workforces to continually gain new knowledge and skills.

This focus on conditions has led us to create RedThread’s Learning Framework, shown below. We use this framework to describe how L&D functions should be thinking about employee development.

Figure 1: RedThread Learning Framework | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Specifically, L&D functions should pay attention to 8 areas when making decisions about what they offer and how they offer it:

Front-end (experiences):

  • Plan: How are we enabling our people to understand their career options and what it’ll take from a development standpoint in order to get there?
  • Discover: How are we enabling our people to find the types of opportunities and content that will take them in the direction they’d like their career to go?
  • Consume: How are we enabling our people to access and consume content?
  • Experiment: How are we enabling our people to practice new skills?
  • Connect: How are we enabling our people to connect with each other and learn from each other?
  • Perform: How are we enabling our people to perform better on the job and learn while doing it?

Back-end (admin):

  • Manage & Create: How are we tracking and managing our resources, our content, and our employees and their development goals?
  • Analyze: How do we gather and use data to improve our own systems and processes, help the overall business make better decisions, and provide employees with data that will help them develop?

To date, it has helped us gather and share some great insights on learning technology and how to use it to enable the right conditions, as well as how to think through possible learning metrics.

We are planning several studies that will help orgs apply this idea of conditions. In all, we imagine the following studies:

What’s next: Choosing the right development methods

As for pretty much every function, the pandemic has been hard on L&D. The orderly, carefully crafted learning of the past 15 years has been replaced by ad hoc, fly by the seat of your pants, low-production-cost, in-the-flow-of-work learning opportunities that, in our opinion, have changed the way L&D functions will work forever.

And in our humble opinion, it was exactly the shakabuku that L&D needed. Frankly, L&D functions can no longer afford their waterfall development methods, their focus on the course, or their ROI measurements; they don’t keep up, let alone help orgs get ahead, and, as the pandemic taught us, they definitely don’t adapt well. We need to move on.

It isn’t as if we haven’t been talking about various learning methods for a while now. Jane Hart regularly conducts a simple survey asking practitioners the tools they feel are most important for learning. The top 10 are rarely specifically learning tech. Instead, they hint at the fact that employees learn everywhere, not just where the L&D function thinks they should.

But the pandemic has sparked new ways of working, leading, and learning, and orgs that want to move away from the course as their main building block for learning have a unique opportunity to do so.

This study will address learning methods—those that are up and coming as well as those that are tried and true. Our goal is to put a picture together of how orgs are learning and what is most effective. We also want to broaden the definition of “learning” and help orgs use all of the arrows in their quiver to create conditions conducive to continual learning and growth.

Specifically, this study will explore:

  • What do L&D functions consider “learning,” and how is this “learning” enabled?
  • What are L&D functions, orgs, and employees responsible for when it comes to development?
  • How are L&D functions deciding what developmental opportunities to provide?
  • How do learning methods align to RedThread’s current Learning Framework, and how does the framework need to be modified?

Our hope is that this study will work hand in hand with the learning tech ecosystem work we have done. Not all learning happens in the classroom, but it doesn’t all happen in tech either. We’d like to help L&D functions understand how to build a comprehensive view of what employee development means in their orgs.

As with most of our studies, you can expect:

  1. An in-depth literature review
  2. L&D learning methods roundtable
  3. Interviews
  4. Infographic of high-level findings
  5. Final report

We would love your participation. If your org is doing some unique things, or even if you have some interesting ideas, please reach out! We would love to include you in the roundtable and interview you.

Performance Management for a Hybrid World

Posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2021 at 11:54 AM    

Why We Care

Performance management (PM) is critical, even in the most ordinary of times. It’s one of the few talent practices that touches every single employee in the organization. It helps employees set goals, receive feedback, and adjust their daily work practices. Performance assessments impact compensation, promotion, and a host of other job-related opportunities. Whether it’s formal, informal, carefully designed, or ad-hoc, some form of PM is happening in every organization every day.

Given the foundational nature of PM, it’s unsurprising that it significantly impacts key organizational outcomes. For example, in our Fall 2019 study of Modern Performance Management, we identified “3 Cs” that drive performance—culture, capability of managers, and clarity. In that study, orgs that scored high on:

  • Culture—were 32% more likely to experience high employee engagement and 97% more likely to experience high organizational performance
  • Capability of managers—were 12% more likely to experience high individual performance
  • Clarity—were 28% more likely to experience high employee engagement

But we live in a different world now from 2019. Lots of articles have been written about how PM needs to change to better fit a hybrid world. We even recently wrote one—leveraging our 3Cs model from the 2019 study1 and applying insights from how best to manage hybrid workers (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Performance Management Practices for a Hybrid World | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

But you all know—we love our data. So, while we firmly stand behind the model in Figure 1, we want current data to help us understand what’s happening with PM today—and to contrast that with what we knew about PM right before the pandemic hit.

Our Hypotheses

We have a number of hypotheses for this research—some of the primary ones include:

  • The 3 Cs model will remain intact. Culture, clarity, and capability of managers will remain critical to how we should be managing performance in a hybrid world of work.
  • Capability of managers will be more important. Given that employees—working in hybrid environments—are likely to be less directly exposed to some of the visible aspects of culture (offices, broader team dynamics, etc.), we think capability of managers will be more important than ever in enabling effective performance. In particular, skills such as coaching and managing difficult conversations are likely to become far more critical skills for managers.
  • The importance of clarityand specifically datawill also increase. While it seems relatively obvious that employees and managers will need to talk more about goals, progress, and adjustment, we believe there’s more to it than that. Specifically, we think that providing data-based insights to employees and managers will be key to both groups asynchronously understanding their performance and making adjustments more quickly.
  • Trust in PM is at risk. Given the ad-hoc nature of many orgs’ approaches during the pandemic, we may see an increase in people not believing that their org’s PM is objective. Fairness in an org’s PM process is crucial for orgs to gain and retain their employees’ trust—otherwise, lack of employee trust can trigger turnover.
  • Underrepresented minorities will have a less favorable view of PM. In our previous study, we found that women had a significantly worse perception of PM. In this current study, we’re collecting more demographic data so we’ll be able to compare different groups’ experiences more effectively.

What We’ll Research

Through this research, we’re looking to answer the following questions:

  • How has PM changed prior to the start of the pandemic, in terms of philosophies, practices, and systems?
  • What should managers be doing differently to supervise workers in a hybrid world? How can orgs support them?
  • What broader practices and systems should orgs adjust or implement to enable PM to work more effectively in a hybrid world?
  • How should orgs adjust their practices to ensure equity for underrepresented minorities?
  • What are some examples of how orgs have adjusted their PM approaches?

How to Participate

We’ll be conducting this research over the next 4 months and invite you to participate in the study in the following 3 ways:

    1. Join the conversation. We’re conducting a roundtable on this subject on September 22, 1 pm ET. You can click here to register and join the waitlist.
  1. Take the survey. We rely on responses from our community to help us provide insights to you.
  2. Let us interview you. If you're working on PM at your company and are willing to talk to us about this topic for 30-45 minutes, reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll schedule a discussion at your convenience.
  3. Share your thoughts. Read our research and tell us what you think! Shoot us a note at [email protected]. Your comments make us smarter and the research better.

More Resources

You might be thinking, “Love that you’re doing this study, but I need help NOW.” No problem, we’ve got you covered with a host of RedThread resources that can help you get started:

Leadership Skills (and Systems?): A Premise

Posted on Wednesday, July 14th, 2021 at 11:28 AM    

Why we care

Many organizations are focusing more than usual on leadership: leadership skills, characteristics, traits, competencies, capabilities, and development. It’s always a good idea to focus on leadership, but it’s likely getting more attention right now for a few reasons:

Hybrid work

The pandemic changed things. Despite the stance that this CEO  or that CEO is taking, many organizations are facing uncharted territory – one where many of their employees will decide to work somewhere besides their office.

Aside from a very complicated logistics problem, it creates other challenges as well. Whereas leaders used to be able to manage by walking around, they will continue to need to manage, inspire, develop, and care for employees that aren’t in the same geographical location.

We think this requires additional skills – or at least more focus on some of the that are sometimes pushed aside.

DEIB initiatives

The civil movements of the past couple of years have helped orgs finally identify some  inequities that have been buried and systematized for years. As orgs make concerted efforts to challenge some existing assumptions and modify systems to even the playing field, leaders need to be more sensitive and discerning and courageous.

Employee experience

It’s an incredibly tight labor market. Average weekly wages in leisure and hospitality, for example, were up 10.4% in May 2021 from February 2020.1 Employees have more power than they ever have before, and they’re looking for more money and more respect.

Interestingly, this affects managers from both sides: managers have a good deal of responsibility for the experience of their employees (ever heard the saying, “people leave managers, not companies”?), and therefore, they need the skills and support to provide a good experience.

But we’re also reading about millennials, just turning 40, who themselves see management as a challenging experience that they necessarily want to have themselves.2

Generation Z employees are also choosing purpose over paycheck and looking for workplace cultures that align with their values.3

Need for agility

In the space of 3 months last year, the world as we knew it was upended. Organizations needed to quickly adapt to new conditions – whether that meant moving all employees to remote, closing down retail, or spinning up new products and services for the new environment.

As we all crawl out from behind our masks, we’re about to embark on additional changes – many mentioned above. Managers need to be agile themselves, and they need to be able to form teams and respond quickly to whatever comes their way.


To this point, most organizations have thought individually about their leaders. Organizations have invested in rock star CEOs (which is partly to blame for wage discrepancy between top executives and average workers). Leadership development and programs and measurement focus on identifying specific traits leaders should have and then forcing information down leaders’ and managers’ throats.

We think this is probably part of the answer: absolutely leaders need to understand what the expectations for leadership are. But more and more, we’re hearing from leaders who say that, while they understand what is expected of them, they don’t have the support that they need. We have also noticed that many organizations don’t measure or compensate based on leadership profiles or capability models.

Our hypothesis:

Organizations with strong leadership set clear expectations for what leadership means in their particular organization, provide necessary systems and support for leaders, and hold them accountable.

Strong leadership shouldn’t rely all leaders collectively deciding to take leadership training to heart and change their ways. The organization plays a very important role in ensuring that all of leadership is systemic: all systems and process support the type of leadership behaviors desired by the organization.

This study

For this study, we’ll be doing the following:

  • In-depth literature review on leadership to identify leadership trends – including post-pandemic.
  • Review of current leadership models – and models of models – to understand similarities and differences
  • Canvass of leadership training offerings – what skills are being taught, which skills are being taught together, and what may be missing.
  • Roundtable of leaders talking about leadership – how we develop, support, measure leadership.
  • Interviews with leaders from organizations with strong leadership

As always, we’d love your input. Let us know how you’re about leadership differently than you did before.

Future skills for L&D: the times they are a-changin'

Posted on Thursday, June 24th, 2021 at 11:52 AM    

The challenge

The pandemic and the global skills crisis have thrust L&D into the limelight and increased its influence with the C-Suite.1 Suddenly, L&D functions that used to struggle to get senior leadership attention and budget, find themselves with plenty of both. Unfortunately, many L&D functions aren’t sure how to take the lead in ensuring skilled workforces – particularly when many are now hybrid, operating in unsure conditions, and lack the ability to pivot quickly.

L&D functions often lack the skills themselves – those they need to influence, align, invest, create, and analyze in these new conditions. In fact, research shows that only 1 in 4 respondents agree that training measurably improved performance2 and L&D functions receive dismal NPS ratings.3

The good news is that times of chaos are the perfect opportunity for change. Whether orgs remain fully remote, take a hybrid approach, or require employees to be back at work, the traditional ways that we have used to train employees are broken forever. And L&D functions need different mindsets and skillsets to define what employee development looks like moving forward.

Why we care

We spend a lot of time listening and reading about employee development, and over the past few months, we have recognized the need to study the L&D skills necessary to upgrade employee development, for a few reasons:

Old tricks won’t solve new problems

An L&D function’s main goals should be to enable and empower a future-fit workforce. Instead, many L&D functions have been focused on doing what they have always done: designing courses, executing on traditional learning delivery, and measuring success by how many people took their course and liked it.

There is a growing need for L&D functions to step out of the old rinse-and-repeat execution mode and place a sharper lens on what results they are trying to achieve. Rapidly changing working conditions mandate that L&D functions revamp their own skills to better support org goals and strategy.

Conditions matter more

With the tremendous task most L&D functions have ahead of them, they don’t have time to be a bottleneck to development. Their new role will be much more focused on building conditions within the org that encourage learning, rather than building the learning itself. And building conditions will require a bigger, more strategic set of skills.

Employees care more about experience

Employee development continues to evolve and employees have much more of a say in how and what they want to learn. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Waterfall development, peanut-butter courses, even personas, are being replaced with more personalized, less coursey types of development.

Businesses want to know what they’re getting for their money

At the same time fewer L&D functions are struggling procuring budget, they’re being asked to show actual impact of what they’re doing on org goals. L&D is notoriously bad at showing impact, often defaulting to metrics like butts in seats or smile sheets instead of thinking more broadly about what information businesses actually need.

Leaders are interested in the long game. Nearly three quarters of leaders expressed concern about L&D’s short-term focus.4 We haven’t done the research yet, but we’re betting that one set of skills L&D will need to develop in the future has to do with analytics and measurement.

Tech changes everything

While many L&D functions have, to this point, focused on making their work more efficient and less expensive by using tech, the more strategic ones have leveraged tech to do completely different things. L&D functions have to learn to think strategically about tech, leverage it, and remain focused on the strategy instead of being distracted by all of the shiny new things.

Our hypothesis

Given the context above, we’ve identified exactly 1 hypothesis we want to test with this study:

L&D functions that create conditions for learning have more impact and a different set of skills and roles.

What we'll research

To test the hypothesis, we plan on following our tried and true research methodology – conduct a lit review, look at existing development models, hold interviews with thought leaders and forward-thinking orgs, and surveying (if it makes sense). Some of the terms we’ll be exploring include:

As always, we welcome feedback! Did we miss any major areas for exploration?

Coaching: the newest old way to develop people

Posted on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021 at 12:40 PM    

Why we care

Coaching: it’s been an important part of improving performance since the ancient Greeks.1 Given its longevity and the fact that it’s currently a $15 Billion2 industry, you would naturally expect fairly consistent innovation.

Unfortunately, for 2000 years, there really wasn’t any. Coaching generally consisted of pairing an expert from outside the org with an individual inside the org who could use special help—typically focusing on their performance and / or leadership. Success relied heavily on the relationship between coach and individual, coaching wasn’t very scalable, and there was very little data to tell an org what made some coaching effective while some fell flat.

But in the past 5 years, we’ve seen some very promising changes. For one, coaching appears to have gone mainstream. No longer is coaching seen only as a luxury item reserved for executives or a legal imperative for very, very bad managers. Instead, orgs are finding ways to offer coaching in many forms, on many different topics, tor many more employees at many different levels of the organization.

With these advances, though, comes a different set of problems. Scaling coaching requires organizations to think about measurement and success differently. It also requires orgs to think more carefully about what they’re trying to accomplish broadly (instead of just performance improvement for an individual) and how that jives with the rest of their employee development strategy.

Interestingly, we haven’t found a lot of information that helps orgs address these challenges. Specifically, we want to answer these questions:

  1. What characteristics make coaching initiatives successful?
  2. What challenges are orgs using coaching to solve?
  3. When should you leverage different types of coaching? (e.g., external vs. internal coaches, nudges, performance insights, development, etc.)
  4. What tech exists to help orgs scale coaching, and what options do they offer?

We think that as coaching continues to gain popularity and more organizations make it key to employee development, answering some of these questions will be increasingly critical for overall org agility, performance, and long-term competitiveness.

Hypotheses we’ll test

For this project, we’re starting with three major hypotheses:

  • Coaching initiatives that use an integrated talent development approach (L&D, performance, leadership, engagement, etc.) are more successful than those that do not.
  • Effective coaching initiatives focus on ongoing and personalized experiences that appeal to the needs and circumstances of individuals – instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Data plays a large role in helping organizations effectively leverage coaching initiatives to address some of their largest business challenges.

This study

We’ll test these hypotheses through a comprehensive lit review, coaching software vendor briefings, roundtables, interviews, and possibly a survey. Specific topics this study will dive into include:

This Premise is the first of several pieces that we’ll use to explore coaching. Others include:

  • Literature review
  • Roundtable
  • Key findings infographic
  • Coaching tech insights report
  • Final report

We welcome your comments, ideas, and suggestions for people we should interview! If you're interested in participating in our roundtable, please shoot us a note and we'll send you an invite! Please also share this research premise with others interested in coaching initiatives.

People Analytics: The C-Suite Superpower?

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2021 at 12:44 PM    

Why we care

The Boards' and CEOs' agendas have never been so crowded with talent-related topics: workforce strategies and wellbeing; diversity, equity, and inclusion; culture; and, corporate purpose.1 Forty-two percent of corporate board directors think talent management will be a top priority for them in 2021.2 Additionally, 50% of CEOs globally cite recruitment and retention of top talent as a critical area of focus for them in 2021.3

We all know that what gets measured is what gets done.

Yet, there’s a significant under-investment by orgs in people analytics. Consider this:

  • In 2020, just 56% of companies thought they’d made moderate or significant progress in people analytics in the past 10 years
  • Only 27% of CHROs say they're investing in workplace analytics tools to analyze employees’ digital activities in 2021
  • Only 38% of orgs were focused on understanding "employee voice" in 2020

There’s a yawning gap between what people analytics CAN do for orgs and what it IS doing for companies today. Why?

The existing gap

We believe this gap exists for a few reasons:

  1. Lack of clarity around the role people analytics can play. C-suite execs haven’t necessarily understood the role of people data, analytics, and technology in helping them address some of the critical issues on their agendas.
  2. No clear set of expectations. Because C-suite leaders often don’t understand the role people analytics functions can play, they haven’t known what to expect from their teams—and, thus, fail to define their expectations clearly.
  3. Lack of confidence. Research has found that C-suites are worried about the impact of flawed data on their company’s business.4 This is driven by the fact that analytics functions in many orgs are relatively new and lack credibility. Additionally, being asked to make major decisions based on the output of an algorithm that they didn't create and don't always fully understand also adds to the lack of confidence among senior leaders.

People analytics leaders: Now is the time to show your value

HR played a crucial role in helping leaders navigate the pandemic, yet there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to do so post-pandemic. In a recent survey, 87% of C-suite execs credit HR leaders with accelerating change throughout their orgs during COVID-19. However, just 52% believe this will continue to occur after the pandemic.5

People analytics functions are well-positioned to highlight the work they’ve done to date, and to show the insights and impact they can drive for the C-suite over the long term.

This is especially true when we consider that very few orgs have a plan for post-pandemic working. Sixty-eight percent of executives recently reported having no detailed plan in place when it comes to return-to-office planning.6 People analytics is the function best-suited to help leaders with:

  • Understanding what people need
  • Putting in place methods to measure those practices
  • Providing insights that can lead to appropriate course-corrections

The question, of course, is how?

Our hypotheses

We have the following hypotheses for this research:

  • C-suite leaders today don’t know what they should expect from people analytics—and so neither use them effectively nor have clear expectations of HR or people analytics leaders about them
  • C-suite leaders who use people analytics are able to more effectively address their org’s challenges and priorities
  • There are at least 3-5 common C-suite-level challenges that people analytics can help solve — and many more for each individual organization, depending on specific needs and situations
  • There’s a standard set of insights and metrics that are necessary but not sufficient for the C-suite in helping them meet their needs
  • Data quality and having a “single source of truth” are critical factors in determining the extent to which C-suite leaders feel comfortable using people analytics
  • C-suite execs who are most effective at leveraging people analytics are operating in data-heavy organizational cultures; however, C-suite leaders in less data-focused cultures can still drive meaningful change via people analytics

What we’ll research

Through this research, we seek to answer the following questions:

  • What types of challenges can people analytics help C-suite leaders solve?
  • How can people analytics leaders best partner with C-suite leaders to solve those challenges?
  • What’s the role of tech in enabling that partnership and delivering those insights?
  • What’s the role of organizational culture in enabling or limiting the use of people analytics by C-suite leaders?
  • What impact do C-suite execs experience by using people analytics to address their challenges?

Who will be involved

We plan to include the following groups of people in the research:

  • CEOs, C-suite leaders, and other non-HR business leaders
  • CHROs and other HR leaders
  • People analytics leaders

How to participate

We’ll be conducting this research over the next 4 months and invite you to participate in the study. There are 3 ways to participate:

    1. Let us interview you. If you're a people analytics leader or a C-suite exec willing to talk to us about this topic for 30-45 minutes, reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll schedule a discussion at your convenience.
    2. Join the conversation. We’re conducting a roundtable on this subject on June 16th, 12pm ET. You can click here to register and join the waitlist.
    3. Share your thoughts. Read our research and tell us what you think! Shoot us a note at [email protected]. Your comments make us smarter and the research better.

Skills for DEIB: Building the Muscles We Need

Posted on Monday, March 29th, 2021 at 6:52 PM    

Why We Care

Tell us if this sounds familiar to you:

Company ABC: “We’re committed to ensuring diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) at our organization and, to show that we mean it, we’ve recently implemented a new DEIB program. We also aim to increase our diversity numbers from X% to Y% in the next N years.”

News headlines a few months later: “A new report on Company ABC details new employee complaints about the conduct of executives and leaders. The report contains details of a “toxic and exclusionary culture” as described by many employees at the company and includes inappropriate remarks made by people at the company.”

We bet you’re able to name a company (if not 2 or 3) that would fit this scenario, especially given the social justice events of the last year.

Unfortunately, scenarios such as this are all too common. Even though a company might think it’s taking the right steps by implementing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) policies and processes, it could still foster an environment in which people feel left out, discriminated against, and marginalized. A study conducted in 2019 revealed that 40% of people feel physically and emotionally isolated or excluded in the workplace.1,2

At a minimum, a culture that alienates certain sections or groups of employees can make employees uncomfortable with and disengaged from their work, resulting in orgs losing untold hours of productivity. A recent 2020 study into inclusive workplaces found that 45% of the survey respondents didn’t feel included in their workplaces and three-quarters of those felt disengaged from their organization.3

And, at its worst, a toxic and hostile work environment can result in people leaving their jobs or taking legal action, and / or in orgs missing out on critical talent. The same 2020 study found that 39% of the survey respondents reported having turned down or deciding not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at an org.4

Skills: The Muscle We Need?

As we’ve previously written on this topic,5 a holistic DEIB system is one in which every organizational process, action, policy, or decision is reviewed through a DEIB lens. We believe a systemic approach to DEIB is extremely critical to driving equitable change in orgs today. Yet, such a system is comprised of individuals and it’s often the interactions between people that can cause DEIB challenges.

Unfortunately, though, the effectiveness of many orgs in encouraging change in the behaviors of individuals is poor: It’s been well-documented that most diversity training doesn’t work.6 Further, unconscious bias training—which has been the rage for the last 5 years or so—also has relatively little evidence7 to show that it can drive changes in behavior.8

We’ve, therefore, been scratching our heads, trying to identify what org leaders should be doing instead. After a lot of thinking, we’re wondering if by focusing so much on changing behaviors, orgs have been missing something else that matters.

What if, instead of focusing on DEIB-related behaviors, we should be focusing on DEIB-related skills?

Stepping back: What’s the difference between behaviors & skills?

You may wonder what the difference is between a skill and a behavior. Many perspectives exist on the distinctions and, to keep it simple, lets focus on 2 key differences:9

  1. Skills transcend context (or circumstances) while behaviors are context specific. If people have mastered a skill, then they can apply that skill in different contexts, whereas a behavior can only be exhibited in a specific context.
  2. Skills are applied, meaning they’re “how” you do something. Behaviors, by contrast, are exhibited, meaning they’re “what” you do.

For example, someone might behave erratically (the what—behavior) in a situation, by applying illogical reasoning or lack of thoughtfulness (the how—skills).

So, how does that apply to DEIB?

The distinction between skills and behaviors matters because it highlights the problem with a lot of DEIB training: It focuses more on the “what”—the kind of behaviors people should exhibit—instead of on the “how”—the skills they need to develop that then result in desired behaviors.

Another problem with a lot of DEIB training is the focus on helping people understand what their behaviors should be in certain DEIB situations (e.g., a situation that involves sexual harassment or blatant discrimination), instead of focusing on the skills needed to effectively respond to such situations. This issue arises because the same behavior might not be applicable in a different DEIB situation—but, if an employee has the necessary skills, then they’ll be prepared to respond more effectively in any DEIB situation.

DEIB-related skills

Because skills transcend context, they can be applied to different DEIB situations. For example, in an interview we conducted years ago, an enlightened D&I leader told us:

“Managing conflict is critical for D&I. You have to be open to different perspectives, know how to manage the discussion around those, and be able to help the team get to a better resolution. If you can do that, you can be both diverse and inclusive.”

Conflict management is one such critical skill that can be applied in various DEIB situations.

Recently, a number of articles have shown how skills, such as empathy, are increasingly seen as being crucial to fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging. For example, research shows that a combination of awareness around bias and high levels of empathy / perspective-taking can increase feelings of inclusion by up to 33%.10

Listening is another skill that can have a critical impact on feelings of inclusion. Growing evidence shows that leaders who listen to their employees are able to foster productivity, emotional connections, and reduce conflict or misunderstandings.11

“When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser, more inclusive, and better as an organization.”12

—Pat Wadors, ex-CHRO, LinkedIn

In fact, listening became one of the most needed skills by orgs as a result of the changes in work environments brought about by the disruptive events of 2020. According to learning provider Udemy, listening was the most sought-after communication course topic offered by the platform in 2020, with a course consumption percentage growth of 1,650% from 2019 to 2020.

“In a year where we’re all searching for ways to relate to each other and feel connected during uncertainty, it’s completely understandable why listening would be one of the most sought-after skills.”13

—Shelley Osborne, Vice President of Learning, Udemy

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of skills for DEIB, let’s look at the status quo.

Skills & DEIB: Ready to be Understood

Focusing on developing DEIB-friendly skills as a way to increase DEIB in orgs seems like a very obvious solution. However, we haven’t seen much research on this topic.

Most of the articles we’ve seen so far seem to focus on a single skill—such as vulnerability14 or empathy15 or openness16—and how each can impact DEIB. Relatively little has been written on groups of skills that can impact DEIB. Of the articles we’ve seen, there seems to be a lot of anecdotes and opinions, and too little structured research, either quantitative or qualitative. (But if you’ve seen good articles, send them our way!)

Further, we haven’t seen research on how to holistically approach the identification and development of these skills, nor have we seen any focus on the role technology can play in supporting the development of these skills.

We believe this lack of data and insights results in orgs not focusing on improving DEIB-friendly skills. In some instances, orgs are providing one-off efforts—such as offering single-skill training sponsored by an employee resource group (ERG) or the learning team—but those are hardly comprehensive approaches to improving the DEIB skills of the entire org.

Our hunch is this: If organizations approached DEIB skills holistically, then we might see some meaningful movement on critical DEIB outcomes—plus a lot of others that we care about.

Our Hypotheses

We have the following hypotheses for this research:

  • A subset of skills are critical to fostering an environment of DEIB
  • Orgs in which such skills sets are present, along with a clear DEIB strategy,17 will have stronger DEIB, talent, and business outcomes than those that don’t
  • Employees / managers and HR / DEIB leaders will have different opinions on what those skills sets are
  • Orgs can build into their talent practices a focus on these skills, effectively weaving DEIB and talent efforts together
  • Tech plays a role in scaling the development of these skills

What We’ll Research

Through this research, we seek to answer the following questions:

  • What are the skills that contribute to DEIB, specifically fostering diversity, enabling people to feel included, and building a culture of belonging in the workplace?
  • What can orgs do to develop these skills, including specific approaches, modalities, etc.?
  • How can orgs leverage those skills to drive DEIB?
  • What is the role of tech in enabling this to happen?

We plan to include the following groups of people in the research:

  • DEIB leaders
  • HR / learning leaders
  • Operational business leaders
  • Managers
  • Employees (especially ERG leaders)
  • HR tech vendors (focused on this topic)

How to Participate

We’ll be conducting this research over the next 3-5 months and invite you to participate in the study. Currently, we offer you 4 ways to participate:

  1. Answer this short questionnaire. Help us understand which skills you think are most critical to fostering DEIB and what specific questions you think we should address in our study.
  2. Let us interview you. We’re looking to interview 4 groups—if you're in one of them and are up for a 30-45 minute interview, reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll schedule you at your convenience:
    • DEIB leaders
    • HR / learning leaders
    • ERG / BRG leaders / other business leaders involved in DEIB efforts
    • HR tech vendors (focused on this topic)
  3. Join the conversation. We’ll be conducting roundtables on this subject starting in April. Keep your eyes open for information on the specific dates—or reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll send you an invitation.
  4. Share your thoughts. Read our research and tell us what you think! Shoot us a note at [email protected]. Your comments make us smarter and the research better.

RedThread Research is an active HRCI provider