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.


Quick Summary: Skills Driving DEIB

Posted on Tuesday, October 19th, 2021 at 3:27 PM    

Our team has recently spent a lot of time trying to understand novel opportunities on which orgs can focus their DEIB efforts. Enter skills.

This infographic (click on the image below to get the full version) highlights key insights from our report, Creating A DEIB Culture: The Skills Every Employee Needs, through which we have tried to answer 3 questions as they relate to skills for DEIB:

  • What skills contribute to DEIB, specifically in fostering diversity, enabling people to feel included, and building a culture of belonging in the workplace?
  • How those skills might vary, depending on factors such as an employee’s level, role, diversity characteristics, etc.?
  • What can orgs do to develop and leverage these skills, including specific approaches and modalities?

As always, we’d love your feedback at [email protected]!

The Skills Obsession: Why L&D Needs to Lose the "Men in Black" Mindset

Posted on Tuesday, May 4th, 2021 at 3:00 AM    


Listen to my podcast


Satnam Sagoo, Director of Learning and Organizational Development at the British Red Cross


For some reason, we don’t listen enough to what our peers in the non-profit world can tell us about skills. But when a practitioner there says something like, “We see anybody joining us as an empty vessel: a bit like in Men in Black, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we up-skill you. That means we forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want, but we don’t have a way of actually capturing that and supporting that as a network,” we think a lot of ears will prick up in corporate L&D! If you agree, check out this deep dive into everything from skills frameworks (their seductions and their perils) to credentialing with Satnam Sagoo. Satnam works at British Red Cross, where she’s accountable for developing and delivering the organization’s learning and organization development strategy—creating an L&D offer that meets the need of all 5,000 permanent staff but also what can be at times of crisis 100,000 temporary and external volunteers. Is this the most heart-felt of all our looks at The Skills Obsession? We’ll leave you to judge—it certainly moved (and inspired) all of us.

Find out more about Satnam’s employer British Red Cross

Connect with her on LinkedIn


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


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

Season Sponsor

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


Key quotes:

Anybody joining us as an organizer, as an empty vessel: you come to us, a bit like the Men in Black pen, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we upskill you. We forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want to look for people, and we don't have a way of actually capturing that and we don't have a way of supporting that as a network.

L&D,we're all building frameworks—I’m sure all of you are— ultimately, we need to address how we are treating our people: are we empowering them, or taking that power away? Anybody who's in the people space of that HR family never says ‘no’ to the leaders, because we're so scared that if we say no, they won't come back to us, and this is the first time that top tables are talking to us. So we want to say, yes, we want to give them what they want to give; but we want to also say, actually now is the time to have that conversation. We're scared to push back—myself included.

Within our metrics, the things that we're using is obviously the kind of who's done it and not done it, that sort of stuff, but also the engagement and the repeated engagement. The mechanisms that we're using are also around the connection to wellbeing as well: are there measures that we haven't looked at to support individuals? We're doing wellbeing checking every quarter, which I think many organizations are doing, but we kind of connect it to the L&D portfolio because obviously I lead on that as well.

Teaching people to learn rather than teaching people the thing, and making sure that they're agile enough to adapt to their environments and find out what they need to know in order to deliver what they need to deliver. I think that’s pretty forward-thinking; I think organizations are getting there, but not as fast as they probably should.

It’s kind of emotional, but I'm really inspired by some other things that we do as an organization.

Full Transcript

Satnam Sagoo:
We often, as organizations, forget that people come to us with a massive skillset. And for us it's really about going, how does it work for you as an individual? How do I respect what you already bring? and we're working on a mechanism where we can support that and capture that. So for us, it's really about you come to us as a full suite as a person, so let's utilize that.

Dani Johnson:
That was Satnam Sagoo, the director of learning and organizational development at the British Red Cross. Satnam is accountable for developing and delivering the British Red Cross’s learning and organization development strategy; her role includes creating a learning and organizational development offer that meets the needs of all of their people, which has 4,000 staff and 100,000 volunteers.

Satnam Sagoo:
The difference between a humanitarian organization is that you find your way to our organization through a connection of the heart. Value to an organization like the Red Cross brings is that connection to the heart; to me, fundamentally that is the difference—that there is such a strong connection to your personal values and your heart. That's what a humanitarian organization offers outside of the normal organizations, and we have the same issues.

Dani Johnson:
We met Satnam in 2018 as a part of our engagement with the International Federation of the Red Cross: we were taking a look at their learning strategy, not just for the internal learning that happened at the Red Cross, but also how they educated their volunteers to do the most good. The most amazing thing that I think we learned is that an organization of that size with mostly volunteers had some of the very same challenges that some of the organizations that we talk to.

I think Satnam brings a really interesting perspective from a skill standpoint, but it was also an incredibly inspiring conversation.

Dani Johnson:
Satnam, welcome to Workplace Stories by RedThread Research; we’re thrilled to have you this morning.

Satnam Sagoo:
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here!

Dani Johnson:
The first section of questions are just rapid fire questions, just to give us a sense for what you do and give our audience a sense for what you do. So the first question is, can you give us a quick overview of the British Red Cross, its mission and purpose?

Satnam Sagoo:
So the British Red Cross is one of the Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies; it’s one of 192 across the globe. We are one of the oldest we've been in formation for 151 years this year. Our overarching statement is that we connect human kindness with human crisis. Our configurement, it really is about 5,000 staff and about 20,000 volunteers who give us up to sort of 35 hours a week, if not more. Then in addition to that, because of the sort of circumstances we live in, we have really grown our light-touch volunteers, which we call ‘community reserve volunteers,’ probably around the 80,000 mark. Our kind of overarching connection with the global movement is very much that we all around the corner and across the globe.

Dani Johnson:
What do you do specifically for the Red Cross—what’s your job title, and how would you describe your work?

Satnam Sagoo:
So I am the director of learning and organization development; I am responsible for the learning and L&D aspect for all of the British Red Cross, that's from everybody who's working with us to our light-touch volunteer. So we do all of the L&D offers. Yeah, so that's kind of us in a nutshell.

Dani Johnson:
Okay! And what problems are you trying to solve?

Satnam Sagoo:
What problems aren't we trying to solve is the question, I think. We do everything from introducing the kind of basic suite for mandated training all the way to that sort of expert level of learning and specifically role-specific learning, everything in between and the developments that we have.

It's been an exceptional time for us globally. So for us at the moment, it's very much about ensuring that we are reaching out to everybody that we can reach to, and that we are supporting them. So programs that we've been involved in have been very much around that voluntary within your national community, to your domestic environment, around supporting food deliveries, vaccination, all of those things—they’ve been passed the new kind of portfolio that we've been supporting people with.

We're doing a lot of work around building that, bringing our motto about connecting human kindness, recognizing that all of us are going through crisis in a different sort of way, so our very much our training framework has been about supporting yourself first and then supporting others. And that's where we've been in the last few months and the space that we've been in the last year, definitely. Parallel to that, we are also supporting every initiative that comes out, because every initiative seems to have a learning angle attached to it—whether that's the kind of very proactive Zoom and virtual learning environment that we're all in down to bite size and down to supporting our CEO, our leadership with how to take that in. And in addition to that, I'm also the wellbeing lead for the organization, which again, brings a lot to that narrative forward.

Dani Johnson:
Right on—so you're not busy at all! Just a quick clarifying question; are you responsible for the 5,000 employees of British Red Cross as well as the 100,000 thousand volunteers there that are learning? Okay, great; what do you find the most challenging aspect of your work is?

Satnam Sagoo:
It varies on a day-to-day basis, and we've got lots of things and constantly the business's appetite to have change and continuous improvement, which often means that you need to be connected at some point. And I would say in the last couple of years, we've got much better off me being in part of that conversation, so I'm actually currently leading a change program in the people space which is looking at culture, it's lifting up skills and capabilities, it looks at retention, so it's good to have been part of that question from the very beginning.

But the other challenge, as people know, is that any development still seems to be seen as ‘training' in some aspects, which won’t be new to any of your listeners. It's not new to anybody else, our culture’s growing to accept that that's not the case. So it's supporting that, and hence very much that conversation of leading my peers and our executive leadership through all of that.

But I would say there has been a challenge within 2020 and the kind of portfolio of work that we want to achieve going forward is one of the things that is probably imperative in many people's lives, but more so within the Red Cross is what we call digital poverty. That's been a substantive part of our organization, and how do we support people who are volunteering with us and who actually don't have access to broadband—all of the areas that come on digital poverty, and in particular, the conversations that we're now having by education, you know, people, children that are able to succeed are because they’ve got those available, but that is also recognized in our work and not just volunteers, our staff.

So if you think of what we do in the refugee space, how do we support people who don't have that? We've got a quote that says, you know, we're asking people to survive on 22 UK pence a day [$0.30], and what does that look like? So that is the humanitarian challenge, and that challenge is also there for our people; our people are also at home, and any humanitarian organizations, we are not renowned for our paycheck. So again, how are we supporting our infrastructure, and we don't want to create layers of those that have technology and those don't. So it's been the one that's been our biggest challenge.

Dani Johnson:
I love that because you're supporting volunteers as well as full-time people. And sometimes we think of communities like yours, NGOs like yours, as completely different from the business world. But I'm actually hearing that challenge from a lot of business leaders as well; like not everybody has the same access to bandwidth, not everybody has the same access to technology. And so how are we solving that problem? So we're really excited to get some of your insights on that.

Let's switch gears just a little bit and talk about skills more broadly. You mentioned skills and knowledge; you know, it's a pretty broad concept, we’re doing some research on it right now—skills are just very broad. What does that word mean to you?

Satnam Sagoo:
I think in the classic sense, if we were to draw back, it's the kind of thing I wrote on my CV is probably still in a, in a version of my CV or my LinkedIn, you know, the skills that I have. And the reason I start with that is because that's probably how the world perceives skills, and when you're in this world of learning and development, it's a complete game changer, and we all know it's a multifaceted layer of how we support.

And that's where having that element of organization development is really keen to me. So I've just submitted a product page that goes to our board on Tuesday on the skills and capabilities that we need
to support our strategy for 2030, but also how do we continue to evolve in this world that is asking so much of us?

So there are portfolios of capabilities in the first instance, and they have great grand was like deductibility, empowering leadership, all of those fantastic titles. But in essence, what's needed is the infrastructure and cultural mindset to support that. And so our work is really about, we recognize that we need to be in the adaptability space and within that, there's a portfolio of skill sets. You know, there's a portfolio of skill sets from agile leadership, growth mindset, design thinking, critical thinking, you know, decision-making—all of that, that suite of things that we as L&D professionals would put under that, but what does that actually mean for everybody? And what does everybody need to know?

And if I was to really take something like adaptability, our biggest thing that we need to do is build that digital literacy in our organization. And that comes from the conversation we just had, which is around how do we support everybody, understand that level? And a great insight that we're doing is, almost to kind of say, this piece of training or learning is supported by—you know, how you're on your phone, it says is only supported by if you've got an app on iOS or Android, we want to do that kind of simple language for people, so that everybody knows. And that also from my kind of higher-up organizational perspective, we get the funding to support that, we can get the funding, that people can go and get what you're not going to have all of this old tech that doesn't support.

So that's the real granular level. And that's what we will call building sound foundations. And then we've segmented it into three phases, so building sound foundations is kind of like, just let us get the face line, right? And then there's maturing the baseline—so where do we need to be? And too often we found that skills are often something that ends up on your appraisal, you’d make tenuous links and connect it through adaptability strain.

But what we want to do is, you know, say, forget about it for year one. We're going to build the infrastructure you need year two, we need to assess you and kind of say, where are we? And it's no bad thing to be a novice or beginner. And where do we need to be as an organization ? Do we need to be at an expert level or are we effectively at that sort of beginner level?

Then that's maturing that baseline, so for us that skills portfolio has been stretched into understanding how do we implement that kind of development at infrastructure level at a cultural mindset level. And that's really when you'll get that buy-in and too often in the past, what we've done is sort of said, you need this course con decision-making. So go and do a course, tick the box. You've done the decision-making… Oh, nothing's changed in the organization. So this is really turning it on its head and kind of going, where are we culturally? Are we ready culturally? What cell culture now, what is it? If this is where we need to be, how do we get to the ‘B’?

Dani Johnson:
I liked that—I like the fact that you're flipping it on its head. It seems like a lot of organizations are able to identify the skills that they need, but they put those skills in a culture that doesn't support it, which causes it to fail.

You talked a little bit about skills and capabilities; we’ve heard a lot of conversations about skills and competencies as well. Is there a difference between those for you, or are they one and the same?

Satnam Sagoo:
I think in classic L&D language, there is a difference. Capabilities, that kind of family skills is more of that kind of, one of the elements of growing that capability. And in fact, we've got so much literature that covers that approach, so capability is very much seen—if you could grow it capability, you would grow it through the 70:10 methodology. If we were to talk about all our CVs and all our portfolios, most of us will put on a personal point, I learnt less through my academic qualification and I've learned more through my on the job experience. And so a capability has grown through that methodology just genuinely around that whole kind of area.

And even each other’s skills are broken down; so for example, if you think of something like decision-making, which we focus on quite a lot in the British Red Cross, is very much about what does that mean? What does that mean to you as a leader? What does that mean to you as an individual? And so for us, anything around equality, diversity and inclusion is part of that decision-making, and so those portfolios, each of those skills, is even broader, but for us it would be the capabilities that is the kind of overarching family that skill belongs to—and that we will endeavor to do it, deliver that through a much more blended approach.

Stacia Garr:
So I went in to connect the dots between what you're talking about, kind of broadly with skills and specifically the mission around human kindness with human crisis. So what role do you see skills playing in the operations and mission of the Red Cross specifically?

Satnam Sagoo:
Ultimately, we're an organization that's supported by donor funding. And what we see is that, as with every organization, we want to be able to deliver more with what we've got. We've been fortunate that during this time that we’ve been supported continuously from our donors and government, but we still want to be able to do that, and ultimately the goal of the organization is that purpose is efficiency in its broadest sense, but the reason behind that is so that we can reach more people. We need to be more aware of how many people we can reach, and as we go into the kind of fallout of what 2020 and 21 has seen to be, we know that our services will continue to be needed more and more. So for us, the whole upskilling and supporting our people is very much around how much more are we able to do with that resource—we want to make the organization efficient, so that doesn't necessarily mean in different ways, but we want to be able to utilize our resource. So really for us, it is being able to be the best we can to support those people in crisis.

Stacia Garr:
And to maybe build on what I think I heard you say, it sounds like there may be a sense that with Red Cross, particularly because you can have so many volunteers who are donating their time, that there may not be kind of a big focus on, for lack of a better term, it's almost skill efficiency, which we certainly do have in the, in the private sector. But it sounds like they're very much so because, you know, just like any other organization you're constrained by resources and you're also constrained by people's sense of impact. And they want to be making an impact with the skills that they're contributing, so it sounds like there's some of the same constraints around skills and aligning to mission that we hear kind of in the traditional corporate sector.

Satnam Sagoo:
Yeah, definitely. And I would say that we're no different from any other large organization of our size. The difference between a humanitarian organization is that you find your way to our organization through your connection of the heart, that value like an organization like the Red Cross brings is that connection to the heart.

And we have so many applications and I could talk about, you know, I was helped by the Red Cross I've met and my team takes pictures of wherever they see a Red Cross sign. So again, I think to me fundamentally, that is the difference—that there is such a strong connection to your personal values and your heart; that’s what a humanitarian organization offers outside of the normal organizations. And we have the same issues.

We also have some areas that, you know, we are supported by volunteers, but one of the things that we do as an organization is often think of them or anybody joining us as an organizer, as an empty vessel: you come to us, a bit like the Men in Black pen, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we upskill you. We forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want to look for people, and we don't have a way of actually capturing that; we don't have a way of supporting that as a network. We have a phenomenal amount of people that come join us.

So a classic example of late, where we began to turn that around in the head is we've had to make all our buildings, which is not, I'm sure it's the same for many people, COVID-safe, and we have a very small health and safety team. So what we did was we actually wrote to people and said, is there anybody in the organization, within our staff and volunteers who has health and safety background, current kind of accreditation, all of that. And we had all 40 volunteers who had, who had run health and safety teams, and we were directors of health and safety, and they just said, of course I'll do this!

So we often as organizations forget that people come to us with a massive skillset. And for us, it's really about going, how does it work for you as an individual? How do I respect what you already bring? And we're working on a mechanism where we can support that and capture that. So for us, it's really about you coming to us as a full suite person—so let's utilize that.

Chris Pirie:
Can I ask a question here? I'm really fascinated about the difference between if there is a difference between engaging and working with volunteers versus employees—and you do both, so you have a sort of unique view into that. There's something from the corporate world that makes me anxious about the lack of command and control, and I use those words very advisedly! Do you get volunteers who just say at the end of the day, look, I'm sorry, I can't do this, I'm walking away: what’s your observations on the different modes of engagement between a volunteer workforce in a paid workforce?

Satnam Sagoo:
I think in the paid workforce, you always have the carrot and stick kind of approach that you can do. Thankfully, we do very little of the stick, I would say in the BRC which is always a positive; we can reach those people and we can get to them, we'd get information out. And then with volunteers, each individual is different. Some join us because they want a spirit of community and they want to be part of a team, some join us because they have a small amount of time available they want to use up, and then we have these layers of infrastructure people who fall in between.

What we have found, particularly because I'm analyzing my space, is we are looking at what we call collectively the people experience or the people's journey into the organization. And that's where we have the things that apply to everybody; it doesn't matter if you're a volunteer or a member of staff, and then the things that are sort of slightly different, which is the volunteer experience and the staff experience.

And what we have found is that through the organization, in what a volunteer wants from us is one point of contact, which we don't do; sometimes they might get 18 emails from different people in an organization where it says, do this, do that. In the learning experience, point to gate, they get lots of handoffs, and if you are already giving one day of your time a month, what you don't want is a deluge of stuff—what you want is one connection.

And that's what we get the most; we get please, make it simple, relevant to me, and then give me some sort of platform or an opportunity where I can go in and learn better. And our volunteers vote with their feet; If I don't like something, I can just go, I will go—I‘ll write to the CEO and then go, that’s a different conversation in its entirety—but I think it is what we all want; we want that great customer service, and we are growing, and that's one of the must-do skill sets that we want to ensure is that everybody gets a good customer service, internal and external, but recognizing that people have come to you as a volunteer because they've got an allegiance above anything else to this wonderful organization. And some will only want to learn a little bit; they’ll only want to know what's specific for their role; others will want to grow, and want to be part of that team. So it's really individual, but it's very much for us it’s supporting that people experience.

Dani Johnson:
I think it's a really interesting sentiment. I know we've talked about this before, we were all in Switzerland a couple of years ago and we talked about some of the similarities between the Red Cross and working for a volunteer organization and working for the private sector, but kind of what you said, just drove that home.

We also work with organizations who are trying to provide a single point of contact, as you said through a lot of them are doing it through technology, but that's what individuals want and their learning experience is, Hey, tell me what I need to know and make it easier for me to find stuff and let me learn on my own. And I'll rise to the level that's appropriate for me and my role, or I'll rise to the level that's appropriate for me in my career. I think it's really interesting that even though the Red Cross may not use all of the technology that a lot of these organizations do to accomplish the same thing, the need is the same, which is striking to me.

Satnam Sagoo:
And I think it's that there are words that we now use too much, and I think it's that having that empowered individual and often what we do is our infrastructure takes away that power, and then people begin to lose that instinct. So we go from a kind of very much a proactive learner, to a much more culture of can't do/won’t do, because we haven't supported people on that journey. Nobody turns up at your doorstep in an organization as an empty vessel, and nobody turns up to work intent to do a bad job. And in essence, that’s the heart of it, and we need to build as organizations, we need to build on that and to empower people and create a culture of that empowerment and where people can sustain, but often all organizations put in these barriers that disempower people, and we get a culture of helplessness.

Dani Johnson:
That's really interesting, and I’m not sure I've ever put it together exactly like that, but some of the ways that we've done learning in the past have disempowered people; they've come to depend on the organization and expect the organization to spoon feed them, whereas most people learn naturally. And so if we could feed that from the beginning, we wouldn't have some of the problems that we currently have.

Satnam Sagoo:
We've probably all been guilty of developing products like that, as well as just click here, do that three times over. It's also very human nature; we had a team of people who was supporting Reception, and someone would say, where are the bathrooms? And you'd get one of my Reception people would pretty much take you there, walk you to it, and then another would sit back and go you go down there, turn left, and you realize the different type of person they were.

And actually I would use that; that was one of my fundamental examples I used because it's so easy besides that one was empowering. One was seen as the most helpful because they took you there, but you wouldn't find your way again, cause you have to go through multiple layers of doors. So it's that style that we naturally fall to as well. We talk about empowering our people. But too often, we have created a culture of learning helpfulness because we've said, let me make it that easy for you that you don't even have to think.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, I like that a lot. I'd love to turn us a little bit back specifically to this skills topic, and maybe kind of raise this up a little bit. I want to kind of begin at one level and then we'll maybe dive down a little bit more deeply; we’re obviously doing this podcast called The Skills Obsession, and I have a question which is your take on why skills as a topic is so hot right now. Why are we talking about this—all of us in the industry, not just us here on the podcast?

Satnam Sagoo:
I think it's because we've hit that wall of helplessness. So we've now got to this notion that actually what they're missing is this still, we haven't addressed the culture, but saying what they're missing is a skill. So of course, L&D that's your game, isn't it, that's what you do. So what you're going to do is you're going to give me a skills framework, you're going to take into that culture and you're going to build this skill for me because in two years time, they'll all come out and it’ll be fantastic. Won’t they?

But nobody’s spoken to L&D, but we're all building frameworks—I’m sure all of you are—and we're going, what? This is how we're going to fit in. Ultimately, we need to address how we are treating our people. Are we empowering them or taking that power away? And these obsession with skills is because five people can't work Zoom, they can't do this, or they can't do that, and now all of a sudden we've had this pandemic, it's requiring us to work in an agile and growth mindset: you’re hearing those words, aren't you, my skills, my looks at the same, you know, decision-making, design thinking or design thinking is another one, critical thinking, strategic thinking,—you know, all of these great titles and why are we doing that? Have I suddenly lost all ability to do any skills? Have we lost the ability to suddenly do online shopping. We've all done it, we’re all adapting, so I think it's really about how do we well skiing because of the recent kind of pandemic, which is only really, if you think about it, it's been a 12 month journey and we're all asking people to change their ecosystem, their behavior, their culture, by upskilling them. Now some will be ahead of the curve and already up-skilled, but actually you're not going to get to the majority, and you're going to have to say, the skilling is there, we will support you, but there is an element of change that we need to bring for everybody. That’s my kind of thinking,

Dani Johnson:
Can I ask you, Satnam, do you think sort of the skills thing is a trend, or is it just relabelling a problem that we’ve always had?

Satnam Sagoo:
So it's the Trojan Horse, you know, that's what it is; it’s been there always, you know, the growth for the people's family, HR learning and development has been massive, but what we didn't grow is the ability to say no. And we've always said yes—anybody who's in the people space of that HR family never says no to the leaders, because we're so scared that if we say no, they won't come back to us, and this is the first time that top tables are talking to us. So we want to say, yes, we want to give them what they want to give.

But we want to also say, actually now is the time to have that conversation. Is it a skill—and we know that skills are changing rapidly, what we were learning two years ago is now not needed. So how are we gonna address them? So, yeah, I think there is a trend and we're scared to push back and myself included. I'm not gonna say I do that, but I think we need to bring that I'm joyful that we have organizational development as part of my role, but we need to bring that bedrock with it.

Stacia Garr:
Where I was going to go is maybe a little bit of a pushback on that. Not that I disagree with anything you've said, but I think there may be something bigger also happening, which is through the example of the Receptionist, right? I think that for many years—decades, really—our thinking has been, particularly as it is with regard to skills, we'll show you what to do. Then you just do it, like the Receptionist who takes you to the bathroom. And fundamentally, we've kind of moved to this economy where we need people to give them some direction and for them to go find the bathroom.

There’s only a small portion of the population that we've focused on, on developing that capability, and so all of this stuff, I think may just be a proxy for enabling a broader portion of the population to find the bathroom on their own. So maybe it isn't just relabelling it—maybe it is kind of more about this enabling of what it is that we're asking people to do. And if we haven't been asking them to do it and to have those structures in place for 20, 30, 50 years, however long, they're going to need some guidance—potentially.

Satnam Sagoo:
I would fundamentally agree with you. And I think I use marketing analogies quite a lot in the work that we do, because I think they know how to target you all. When we all walk into a shop or when we do walk into a shop for the online mechanisms that we used for, we want to be signposted. But the click that we do to buy, to put in our shopping trolley or the patches that we do physically is where we are empowered ourselves to do it, but what we want is that lovely signposting that says all of the books on, I don't know, geography or in this area that's labeled well, you know. A lot of people have talked about that curated learning experience to me, that's, you know, that is the signposting—and what our people experience tells us is firstly, when you overs signpost or tell me that, tell it puts me off because you're not treating me like I've got my own initiative, but then I turn up in a room, there’s no signposting, so you do too much in the beginning and then you leave me stranded.

I didn't know why that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to help all people be that signposting, that curated journey. And the nudge approach is also working with us. And so I can tell you that we had a piece of work, which was just looking at our mandated training and we weren't able to get the compliance high and we couldn't understand why everybody needed it. And then we got to go out to people and said, why isn't this working for you? You know, why aren't you doing it? And I would say that the majority of people, about 70% said, I thought I had done it. So I know I once told me what the suit was. And I think it's almost thought that bit of work that you do use, you read it so many times that you can't see your own gaps. And in a way, we also need to take a sight of what is our role, my role and my team's role.

So again, I think that signposting is really important, which is, you know, the experience we should get from anything that we do in all our lives, really.

Stacia Garr:
One of the themes that we've seen in the skills discussion is kind of her and we've talked about now is around supply and demand—so this idea that we do have some deficiencies in some skill sets and over-abundance and others. How do you think we should be kind of thinking about this holistically?

Satnam Sagoo:
There's something that we did this year, which I'm happy to say more of the data with you, which was that when we went into the UK first Lockdown, there was an appetite to support people with wellbeing, support people with their learning, support leaders, support their managers, you know, you can see the portfolio growing. And what we did as my team was flooding the market—we gave them every option they could possibly want and we allowed choice, but we allowed that choice, we allowed a streaming of trimming it down to what was really needed. And we didn't become precious about our material, because we got someone else to build the initial first round. Often when you're a small team, a learning and development team, you spend months developing something—and when it doesn't work, it's kind of pride and ego in a way that takes over because you don't hours of hard work that you do not want to, what you really want me to remove that slide that I spent 15 hours trying to save so much emotional attachment with all our products.

And in a way, we removed the emotional attachment. We bought in an expert in that area, and he created a portfolio of products that they had, that they could create, and we created a choice. And then those that were the most high-hitting we did in-house, we built those and we built, we kind of continued to evolve them. Each of our sessions is supported by what we call the Living Program. So the living program is very much around evaluation, both immediate off the sheet, got the happy sheets kind of process, and then kind of a couple of weeks and like, have you applied for it? If you haven't, why haven't you applied it? So the Living Program is almost that need not to kind of visit a product in two years time, it's more need to do it here and now, but we took to it, the product development side of it because we needed a menu very quickly so that people could pick and choose, and then when we got that menu a bit more refined that's when we took it in-house.

And so my experience of this is bringing in someone who doesn't have the emotional connection to it, get them to do that early work so if it didn't work, it didn't work. And then you can have a much stronger connection with the relevant products.

Chris Pirie:
That's interesting—it’s sort of easier to experiment if it's somebody else's work, and you can observe dispassionately, measure the data and see what happens. I have a quick question where you said you'd submitted your paper on your skill strategy for 2023, I think you said: how do you think the conversation is going to go with leaders? And have you had any feedback yet? These are questions that we're all struggling with a little bit. Do you think leaders are in a position to engage in really useful dialogue around this topic?

Satnam Sagoo:
What I'm submitting next week is the kind of completion of the change design phase; our overarching change program is called Fit for the Future. And I would say the fact that we're doing this, that we're looking through that microscopic lens, and in particular, the focus that we beat on what is the as is, is that our leaders may not necessarily be comfortable, but they are happy to investigate it. They’ve said, we know there are areas of improvement. So we need to hear this, as is because some areas aren't working some phenomenally good at this.So yes, I would say definitely the British Red Cross, our board and our executive leadership is very keen to have this. They've seen versions up until now So they know where we're coming. We even did a kind of, we applied the Dreyfus capability model to kind of give them a level of maturity as well, recognizing the limitations of that product.

And again, we've been talking about change for a long time, but there is an element of that we really want to get it right this time around. And not really sings true cause I lead a wellbeing, so we've had lots of feedback about how our managers are feeling. And we had 93% of managers tell us that they were having check-ins, that they felt the organization was more honest than it's ever been through it's communications, and that people are sharing more about their life, and that was really useful.

And you know, people were talking about how my child has cut my hair, so excuse what it looks like to the kind of, you know, I've had something really horrendous happen in my life, or I need to take time out. And in a way this world that we've lived in that's allowed us to go into your home, has allowed us maybe to drop that guard—that you know, that kind of, I need to be a certain way. So I would say that through this journey, we've learned a lot of that positive feedback about just being real, tell me as it is, has really helped. And I think our leadership is very much like how do we capitalize on that, because that did really work. So come and tell us where the barriers are and we want to learn and work with you.

Dani Johnson:
One of the conversations that always comes up when we talk about skills and capabilities or competencies or whatever you want to call them, is the data surrounding those, because the data helps us make inferences and it also helps us sort of intersect with some of those other things. And one of the things that we're seeing, interestingly, that skills are intersecting with is diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So I’d love to understand how you're thinking about skills in the access to the data about skills and how that impacts diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Satnam Sagoo:
Oh, you didn't use my favorite sentence that comes with that normally, which is return on investment: don’t you just love that one?

I’m an epidemiologist by background, that’s a different life long time ago, but I love data. So it's not something. And often when we think about metrics and what we're measuring, my question is why are we measuring it? And that's what I always say to my team. My team dreads it. I say, don't tell me that you've got great Excel skills because Oh, you can do power BI. Everybody loves a power BI dashboard up to my minimize anymore. You know, you can do a great dashboard, but what are you telling me?

And within our metrics, the things that we're using is obviously the kind of who's done it and not done it, you know, that sort of stuff, but also the engagement and the repeated engagement. The mechanisms that we're using are around also the connection to wellbeing as well. Are their measures that we haven't looked on to support individuals? We’ve now introduced that airport checking, you know, you go in or you have pizza today, so we're doing wellbeing checking every quarter, which I think many organizations are doing, but we kind of connect it to the L&D portfolio because obviously I lead on that as well. So we're trying to connect where that journey is, our happiness connected to the metrics that we're measuring, so that we've layered that happiness metric, but how are you as an individual feeling how you supported and how does that connect with how much learning and development that you are able to do at this very moment?

I'm sure in many parts of the world, we've got people who are now homeschooling managing three of the people in the office, and if I expect them to suddenly go off and do their whole suite of mandated training because they didn't do it. And of course we've had those emails being sent to them, you know, thou shall do this or thy system will be disconnected, but way we've found that we've got a small percentage that we, we need to find out why, and could they have a huddle, which is someone just calling them. We’ve also tried to connect return on investment; one of the things we've also set up an in-house support nine for all Red Cross people to understand how they're being impacted by the pandemic. So again, we ease different layers of metrics. So we want to give you the complete picture of an individual and the complete picture of the organization.

Dani Johnson:
Well kind of along with that, one of the other big conversations we're hearing is this idea of skills credentialing or skills verification—like, you say you have this skill, but do you really have this skill?

Lots of organizations are struggling with that, and I wonder, two questions, first of all, how is the British Red Cross handling that? And the second thing is, does it vary between your employees and your volunteers?

Satnam Sagoo:
So it's good because we're going to introduce a digital passport this year. There's two facets to that; firstly, we kind of had so many old systems that we're bringing together, so record loss and everything else. And also in the wider UK kind of context is we've got lots of volunteers who volunteer for many different organizations, and there are significant transferable skills. What happens is they'll go and volunteer for say Amnesty, and then they'll come to volunteer for us, and we'll make them do the same thing—we’ll make them do like an information governance, we’ll make them do all of that. So we've got an ask within the organization around looking at what that means. So that's all kinds of first approach to it. And our first approach to that is going to be you itself telling us what you've got, all my stock, not LinkedIn's approach of kind of being what you've got: if you've got a certificate, as you put that in. And then our view is the moment. This is our view that as it is, when we need a bit, like I said, the example of the health and safety question, and that's to staff and volunteers, we may have credentials that point when we ask for it, so that's all first kind of interpretation. We haven't drilled down any farther on the kind of key skills and capabilities that we want to support. We will have different markers, but on that kind of passporting, we want to empower individuals, but that in, and when those opportunities come, we then could they to the level they're at and kind of go, you've turned up really keen, and so we all testing that approach with a group, for people that we are going to call the change influences, and that's thought to take forward the change program.

Dani Johnson:
That's really interesting, so right now you're using some sort of self-verification. Talk to me a little bit about this digital passport you mentioned; is it for the British Red Cross or is it BRC, or more broadly?

Satnam Sagoo:
So for now we're going to be testing it in the British Red Cross. We are working as an organization to test it within ourselves, but in the UK, so outside of the kind of Red Cross family; we're going to test it within the voluntary sector so that volunteers across the UK don't feel like they have to duplicate. So there are layers, which is a kind of national level that we're doing with the volunteer board, but all of the UK. And then there's obviously us testing out in the organization.

Dani Johnson:
I think we're getting close to time. So in the British Red Cross, sort of broadly, what are some of the skills that are quite unquote ‘hot’ right now?

Satnam Sagoo:
I think definitely that sort of agile mindset—it’s really having that. And there is a change in capability build which we're looking at and we’re looking at the narrative of that. And then area of that, we've done a commitment to, so the British Red Cross has committed to being at an anti-racist organization, and that has meant that our portfolio of equality, diversity and inclusion has grown and I can send some stuff through you about that, but that's been really inspiring to see challenging all of the above—it’s been really interesting to see that growth.

Adaptability as our kind of whole thing is massive now about how do we kind of bring that in? And then we are still at the ground, we’re still doing that whole kind of digital data literacy. What does it mean? And one that's coming up that we haven't seen for a while, but it's revisiting and I've heard from other colleagues in different organizations is about succession planning—that kind of whole driver around succession and developing professions as well. So those are kind of our hot topics.

Dani Johnson:
I think it's interesting that you mentioned agility, and the kind of the way that you're handling learning within the organization seems to speak to that. So you talked a lot about, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but teaching people to learn rather than teaching people the thing, and making sure that they're agile enough to adapt to their environments and find out what they need to know in order to deliver what they need to deliver. I think that’s pretty forward-thinking; I think organizations are getting there, but not as fast as they probably should.

So just to wrap up, is there anything else we should have asked you about that we didn't?

Satnam Sagoo:
My portfolio has grown so much that I kind of feel like there's areas that we could talk about different elements on this so much. We all still growing; as I said, the EDI portfolio, the wellbeing experience, the fear that if we send out a survey now that we've gone into our third lockdown we won't get the high results we got in the last one one—you know, all of those things that are the kind of worry of a person who leads on any of the learning stuff. So yeah, I mean, I think we've covered a lot.

Dani Johnson:
Yeah, we definitely have. Two more questions; how can people connect with you and your work?

Satnam Sagoo:
Quite simple. They can either go through my LinkedIn profile, which is readily available, or they can even contact me at British Red Cross: that's fine.

Dani Johnson:
Perfect. And then the last question, and this is a question that Chris taught us to ask that we love, and it's one that I think is particularly pertinent to you: why do you do what you do?

Satnam Sagoo:
Because I'm a lifelong learner. and where else would I want to be? And that's really it. I'm a classic 45-year old person that is in that kind of area of life where I've done my two career changes—I’m textbook! But ultimately I'm a lifelong learner, and where would we want to be but leading this journey?

Dani Johnson:
Thank you, Satnam, so much for your time; it's been a fascinating discussion.

Chris Pirie:
Thanks for everything you do, Satnam—thanks for all your work; I can't imagine how busy you've been over the last 14 months!

Satnam Sagoo:
I was up till three am like Monday and Tuesday just finishing this thing off. It’s kind of emotional, but I'm really inspired by some other things that we do as an organization.

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

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

Skills & Competencies: What’s the Deal?

Posted on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021 at 3:01 AM    

Key Findings

  1. Skills and competencies are two sides of the same coin. Skills and competencies both help answer 2 critical questions:
    • “What can our workforce do now?”
    • “What will our workforce need to be able to do in the future?”

Although there are differences between the 2—both material and perceived—forward-thinking orgs are finding ways to reconcile skills, competencies, and the data they both offer to solve their people challenges.

  1. Leaders don’t need to choose between skills and competencies. HR functions sometimes debate about which framework—skills or competencies—to use. Instead of trying to choose 1 of the 2, however, all of HR should embrace both frameworks to ensure as much information as possible about employees’ abilities and expertise is surfaced. This approach can both afford employees opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have and also enable the org to make better-informed talent decisions.
  2. Skills and competencies can help solve business challenges. Skills and competencies can only be effectively reconciled within the context of the people-related business challenges an org is facing. The 4 people challenges that skills and competencies most often help with are:
    • Employee development
    • Career mobility
    • Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)
    • Performance management
  1. Leaders should consider all the skills and competencies data available. Having more data (both broader and better) usually equates to having a more complete picture of the skills and competencies within an org—and what’s still needed to meet org goals. As companies begin to consider skills and competencies together, accounting for the data provided by both can help to more fully inform the org’s strategies and decisions.
  2. Employees need clear messaging about skills and competencies. Employees and business leaders are often confused by skills and competencies. Many employees don’t care about the differences between the two: They just want to know what’s expected of them. Leaders should create clarity by using consistent terminology and messaging that highlight not only how employees should use skills and competencies systems, but also the benefits of skills and competencies for employees.

Skills & Competencies: Why We Struggle with These Terms

The ongoing skills conversation has ramped up since the beginning of 2020. COVID-19, a social justice movement, and multiple natural disasters have created a business imperative for orgs to pivot quickly and continually. These events have also spotlighted the longstanding need for orgs to support all employees, not just a select few.

Skills, which used to be a conversation about robots taking human jobs, has become one about org agility and inclusivity. Central to this conversation are 2 questions:

  • What can our workforce do now?
  • What will our employees need to be able to do in the future?

Leaders must help their businesses by figuring out fast, user-friendly ways to answer these questions. Orgs can’t effectively pivot in rapidly evolving environments without clearly understanding what’s currently possible and what’ll be needed in the future.

Orgs can’t effectively pivot in rapidly evolving environments without clearly understanding what’s possible now and what’ll be needed in the future.

Two of the most common frameworks used in this situation are skills and competencies. During our research on this topic, leaders reported having spent hours talking in circles about the definitions of and differences between the 2 frameworks. Most leaders agree that it often feels like a futile and unhelpful conversation, yet they still find themselves engaging in seemingly endless debates about the differences.

Why? From our research, we’ve discovered 3 reasons.

  1. Different perceived purposes. Skills and competencies, as defined by HR, are seen to have different purposes, which may affect how they are used to fill business needs. For example, competencies are still important to efforts like performance management and leadership development. And skills have gained in popularity. But orgs haven’t necessarily found a way to reconcile all the perceived differences between skills and competencies.
  2. Inconsistent language. The terms “skills” and “competencies” don’t have consistent definitions in the literature—and even within orgs they’re often not clearly defined. People in various parts of the org, therefore, often try to answer the same questions using an assortment of terms (or the same few terms with different meanings), which only creates miscommunication and confusion. Leaders with cross-functional perspectives should see this as an opportunity to align everyone and speak the same language.
  3. Technology. Tech platforms often account for skills and competencies in different ways. In some orgs, information about skills and competencies may even reside in multiple systems. This causes confusion and sometimes incomplete data when, for example, one system uses competencies and another skills.

Orgs must reconcile how skills and competencies are defined and used across the business in a helpful and clear way.

Bottom line: Orgs must reconcile how skills and competencies are defined and used across the business in a helpful and clear way. Let’s start by first exploring these 2 terms.

How ARE they different & does it matter?

Confusion with these terms clearly exists. From our literature review, we found lots of contradictory information about what skills and competencies really are. Some sources used these 2 terms interchangeably, while others drew clear distinctions. Leaders we spoke with corroborated this confusion, reporting that most people in their orgs don’t know if the 2 terms are synonymous or different—and whether it even mattered.

The differences do matter—but only to those of us trying to make them work together in our orgs.

As it turns out, the differences do matter—but only to those of us trying to make them work together in our orgs. As we discuss later in this report, messaging to the broader org may need to be very different from what’s going on “under the hood” with skills and competencies.

That said, understanding the key characteristics of skills and competencies can help orgs both leverage each more fully and combine them in helpful ways. When we dug into the characteristics, we found that most leaders agree on the characteristics for each as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Key Characteristics of Skills & Competencies | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Characteristics of skills

In general, skills tend to be more granular, descriptive, and applicable across jobs or orgs. They describe what an employee can do, but rarely do they prescribe how a task or job should be done. Skills data is often dynamic and real-time, since it’s gathered through a number of continually updated sources such as employee skills profiles, social media pages, and operational systems like email. In many cases, the employee is responsible for their own skills profile and development.

Skills tend to be more granular, descriptive, and applicable across jobs or orgs—describing what an employee can do, but rarely prescribing how a task or job should be done.

In more traditionally structured orgs, skills are used to understand (by accessing far better information than a resume can provide) which employees can fulfill open roles. More orgs are paying attention to current employees’ skills as they’ve realized the benefits of hiring internally versus acquiring skills from the outside.

Understanding the skills a workforce has allows leaders to identify individuals who can form teams to accomplish pieces of work.

While the conversation on skills has been around for some years now, the skills movement continues to gather steam as “future of work” conversations continue to happen and orgs continue to move toward project- and team-focused ways of managing work. Understanding the skills a workforce has allows leaders to identify individuals who can form teams to accomplish pieces of work.

Characteristics of competencies

Competencies tend to be broader than skills, prescriptive, and specific to (or at least in the context of) a job or org. They tend to describe the behaviors expected from employees by explaining how a job should be done, or how an employee should perform to succeed in that particular org or job.

Competencies tend to describe the behaviors expected from employees by explaining how a job should be done, or how an employee should perform to succeed in that particular org or job.

While competencies can come across as slightly archaic and cumbersome (particularly as the world becomes more skills-focused), they can provide tremendous value to orgs. Competencies are often seen as the “how” in comparison to the “what” of skills. Because of their focus on behaviors, competencies are essential in some orgs to maintain a healthy culture and, quite frankly, public image. They also provide robust and defensible structures for many performance management systems.

Competencies are often seen as the “how” in comparison to the “what” of skills.

Competencies are typically identified from the top down, involving leaders to identify and outline key expectations—aligning competency data closely with broad org needs, goals, and often culture. But it also means the data is typically static and from a point in time. As such, HR often owns competencies, and is responsible for periodically reviewing and updating them as needed.

“And” not “or”: Making the most of skills & competencies

Perhaps due to the differences in these terms, HR functions may disagree about which one—skills or competencies—to use. Instead of trying to choose 1 of the 2, however, all of HR should embrace both frameworks to ensure as much information as possible about employees’ abilities and expertise is surfaced. This impacts business in 2 ways, as this info:

  • May well afford employees opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to or know about
  • Enables the org to make better-informed talent decisions

All of HR should embrace both frameworks to ensure as much information as possible about employees’ abilities and expertise is surfaced.

This is no simple feat. There’s no clear “right” way to implement skills and competencies together in an org. That said, our review of almost 100 articles, discussions with 50 leaders in our roundtables, and in-depth interviews with 6 orgs all led us to 3 key strategies that enable orgs to find what works best for them:

  1. Using skills and competencies to solve business challenges
  2. Identifying and using the data they both provide
  3. Crafting a clear message about skills and competencies

In the following sections, we take a closer look at each of these strategies and how they can impact different business challenges.

Using Skills & Competencies to Solve Business Challenges

One of the resounding themes of this research is the need to take business goals into account when considering skills and competency strategies. Leaders emphasized that skills and competencies can only be effectively reconciled within the context of the business challenges the org is facing. One leader put it quite well:

“What’s the business problem you’re looking to solve? A new way to hire people? Learning objectives? Career paths? You might want skills in one situation and competencies in another.”

Christina Norris-Watts, Head of Selection Assessment & Competencies, Johnson & Johnson

We find this idea enlightening. Like most people decisions, use of skills and competencies should depend on what orgs are trying to do. In our discussions with leaders, it was refreshing to see how they view skills and competencies helping with some of their larger people challenges. From those discussions, leaders identified 4 primary business challenges for which skills and competencies could play a role:

  • Employee development. How and what kinds of resources are used to build the skills and competencies of the workforce
  • Career mobility. How employees move around, up, down, and out of an org, based on both their preferences and the needs of the business
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). How well an org provides transparent opportunities to all of its employees
  • Performance management. How orgs determine an employee’s progress and pay

Interestingly, while for some business challenges either competencies or skills takes the lead, both were identified as being useful to each of these challenges. Let’s dive into them.

Like most people decisions, use of skills and competencies should depend on what orgs are trying to do.

Employee development

We listed employee development as the first business challenge that skills and competencies can help address because it’s likely the most obvious. A 2019 McKinsey study emphasized that the future of L&D depends on the ability to identify and develop the employee skills and competencies which will support the execution of the company’s business strategy.1

L&D can no longer succeed using the “shotgun” approaches of yesterday—strategies that provide all employees with the same training, regardless of whether or not they need it. Instead, orgs should know, in very targeted ways, what their employees can do and what they need to be able to do—then fill in the gaps.

In very targeted ways, orgs should know what their employees can do and what they need to be able to do—then fill in the gaps.

Understanding skills and competencies can help L&D functions fill those gaps by enabling many types of development opportunities, not just providing content. As development becomes more widely defined, for example, orgs are helping employees find assignments that enable them to grow.

“Let’s say a project requires 10 skills. An employee has 8 of them and wants to develop the other 2. That’s a perfect match because we know the employee can do the project without failing, but will also get some development out of the experience.”

Caroline Theaker, Senior Manager for Learning Strategy, Lloyds Banking Group

In Figure 2, we offer examples of how skills and competencies are each being applied to development issues in orgs today.

Figure 2: How Skills & Competencies Can Help with Employee Development | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Using both skills and competencies improves employee development by helping an employee move toward their career goals (illuminated by skills) and helping an employee improve against performance expectations for their current role (associated with competencies).

Career mobility

The goal of career mobility is to move employees around the org in ways that benefit both the employee and the business. To do this effectively, leaders should know what an employee can do, what they want to do, and where the org has a need.

Skills and competencies can contribute to career mobility efforts by identifying what the employee can do, what they want to do, and where there’s a need.

Thinking in terms of the skills and competencies employees have can contribute to career mobility efforts by identifying what the employee can do (the employee’s skills and competencies) and where there’s a need (the org’s skills and competencies gaps).

Most orgs view skills as being more granular and transferable, so knowing what skills employees have can be valuable for making informed decisions about roles anywhere in the org for which employees may be best-suited.

For example, during the early days of the pandemic, one org had to jettison many of its retail stores. At the same time, it realized an increased need in its customer support function. Because the company understood the skills required to succeed and the skills its retail employees already had, the company reskilled its existing retail employees for a stint in customer service—allowing the org to respond quickly to the crisis. One leader views this as a major benefit of having more granular skills data.

“Skills data is usually transferable across jobs or even industries. That allows companies to be more nimble, agile, and quicker to react to the VUCA2 world.”

Learning Lead, global food corporation

Interestingly, while most of the literature and discussion about mobility has focused mainly on skills, competency data can also play a key role in career mobility. Most orgs, thankfully, don’t make decisions regarding how people move about the company based solely on the skills they may have. Particularly in cases of leadership positions, competencies play a big role in mobility decisions, as they define the “how” in how work gets done.

Competencies can also play a role in team formation as well as in the fit and potential performance of employees in new positions.

In our roundtables and interviews, several ideas surfaced about how skills and competencies may be used to address robust career mobility challenges (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: How Skills & Competencies Help with Career Mobility | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

We talked with an enterprise that’s successfully leveraging skills for both employee development and career mobility through a recently launched talent marketplace. Its Talent and Diversity team experimented with the skills data in the system—and specifically, what companywide insights could be extracted from the data.

Real-World Threads: Expanding skills usage beyond the talent marketplace

Challenge: A 25,000-employee global media conglomerate successfully launched a talent marketplace to support employee development and internal mobility. The company wanted to do more with the data it collected.

Solution: The Talent and Diversity team experimented with 3 different approaches to glean insights from the data.

  1. Manual data collection tied to critical needs. The team asked business leaders to write down the critical skills their teams needed, then asked about 100 people to review the critical skills list and identify which skills they had.
  2. Skills survey not tied to critical needs. Without identifying any critical skills, the team surveyed a few thousand people, asking them to list all of their skills and assign a proficiency level to each.
  3. Skills profiles. The team asked all employees to complete their skills profile in the skills tech platform, which is dynamic and continually updated.

Outcome: Experimenting with these 3 approaches helped this business learn a great deal about the best ways to leverage skills data for org insights. All 3 had strengths and challenges.

The first approach yielded the richest and most accurate data, but required the most effort to collect. The second approach created granular, accurate data that can be analyzed for valuable insights, but the skills weren’t mapped to critical needs. The third approach helped a lot with individual skills development and running the talent marketplace, and had the potential to offer deep and broad insights from a huge dataset, but this org’s tech at the time offered no way to aggregate or cluster the data to extract such insights.

Ultimately, this org identified the second option as the best for their situation and needs, although the third could be scaled in the future.

Diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging

The events of 2020 have compelled orgs to pay much more attention to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Leaders continue to look for ways to level the playing field, give employees the widest possible access to opportunities through mobility and development, and ensure that all employees feel they belong and are supported.

Skills and competencies can help leaders level the playing field, give employees the widest possible access to opportunities through mobility and development, and ensure that all employees feel they belong and are supported.

While it may not seem immediately obvious, using skills and competencies can be useful in DEIB efforts. Skills and competencies data can be used, for example, to identify biases that may exist in a company, inequities in salary and performance management structures, and outdated talent processes, among others.

For example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) is a highly decentralized org. Its leaders noticed that employees were being evaluated differently across its varying locations, despite having the same roles and responsibilities. As a result, IVCF is introducing a competency framework to reduce this evaluation bias and ensure all employees are rated fairly.

From our research, we offer specific ways in which skills and competencies can play a role in DEIB (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: How Skills & Competencies Help with DEIB | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Performance management

Performance management (performance) was originally put into place to help orgs differentiate pay.3 While that original purpose hasn’t necessarily changed, it’s been supplemented. Orgs now see the performance process as continuous—as a way to mentor and coach, to facilitate ongoing feedback conversations, and to develop employees.

Skills and competencies support innovations in performance management—helping make it a continuous effort to mentor and coach, facilitate ongoing feedback conversations, and develop employees.

With this new mindset around performance come innovations—many of which involve competencies and skills. For example, some newer approaches (such as paying for skills) can help make the criteria used in performance decisions more transparent and objective. Skills, by describing what an employee can do, help with this objectivity.

Competencies, on the other hand, have long provided robust and defensible criteria for managers in many orgs to reference in their performance, promotion, and compensation decisions.

Figure 5 identifies ways in which skills and competencies can support performance.

Figure 5: How Skills & Competencies Help with Performance Management | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Summing up

These 4 business challenges—employee development, career mobility, DEIB, and performance management—became persistent underlying themes in our conversations with leaders about skills and competencies. Leaders should continually ask how skills and competencies can both be used—in ways that make sense for the org and employees alike—to solve business challenges.

Orgs should use skills and competencies—not skills or competencies—to address business challenges.

From our research and participating leaders, the resounding agreement is that orgs should use skills and competencies—not skills or competencies—to address these challenges.

Getting Started

As orgs use both skills and competencies to meet their needs and goals, alignment with those goals becomes a key consideration. Let’s take a look at some of the more specific questions orgs can ask to better align skills and competencies with business challenges (see Figure 6).


Figure 6: Aligning Skills & Competencies to Business Challenges |  Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Use All of the Data

Within the skills conversation, a core theme is how to use skills data to solve business challenges, including the ones we previously listed, among others. Having more data (both broader and better) usually equates to having a more complete picture of the skills and knowledge an org has—and what’s still needed—to meet org goals.

As companies begin to consider skills and competencies, accounting for the data provided by both can help to inform the org’s strategies and decisions.

While there’s been near-frenzied discussions about skills data, orgs often overlook the information that competencies can provide. As companies begin to consider skills and competencies (basically, as 2 sides of the same coin), accounting for the data provided by both can help to inform the org’s strategies and decisions.

When, in the course of our research, we identified that skills and competencies can and should exist peacefully within the same org, we naturally assumed that the data from both would also peacefully meld together. That turned out not to be true in all cases, as illustrated by 2 stories from our roundtables:

  • One org identified and partnered with a platform that allowed the consolidation of data from many sources. Having many sources of skills and competency data in one place, paired with AI and machine learning, allowed the company to both understand the skills and competencies it had—and infer abilities based on that information.
  • Another org realized it could not, at least in the short term, effectively merge all its skills and competency data into one system due to technical limitations on its existing systems. So the company worked with different data sets to accomplish different things. For example: Skills data was mined by asking individuals to self-identify skills, and was used primarily to support individual employee development and career mobility. Competency data was gleaned from performance management systems and used primarily to support analysis at the functional level. While the data wasn’t combined together, identifying and understanding the data from the 2 sources still allowed the org to accomplish its goals.

Regardless of whether orgs consolidate all information into 1 system or use separate systems to service different aspects of skills / competency building, leaders in our study indicated they’re using several types of data. So, let’s talk about the sources of that data.

Data sources

Most orgs starting their skills journey often make the mistake of thinking of skills data in terms of what can be extracted from a skills platform (or a platform with skills functionality). While such platforms are a good place to start, orgs that focus solely on the data in 1 system tend to have a one-note view of their workforce’s abilities. Why? Most often, 1 system doesn’t account for more qualitative data or data provided in conjunction with competencies.

Orgs that focus solely on the data in one system tend to have a one-note view of their workforce’s abilities because one system doesn’t account for more qualitative data or data provided in conjunction with competencies.

Our research identified several sources that orgs currently plumb for skills and competencies data. Figure 7 shows these sources and their reliance on humans to gather the data. We explore this reliance on humans—from “active data sources” like talent profiles, which employees must complete specifically as part of a skills / competencies effort, to “passive data sources” like email and chat, through which employees generate skills / competencies data in the course of their normal work.

Figure 7: Active & Passive Sources of Skills & Competencies Data | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Aside from providing several sources that offer skills and competency data, Figure 7 also indicates whether the data can be collected and stored using technology, or whether it relies on humans. Several sources exist in the middle of the spectrum that, depending on the org’s tech savviness and willingness to invest, can use either tech or more manual methods.

Passive data

Increasingly, orgs use sources which yield data that doesn’t require a separate initiative: This data is created in the course of the org doing its business and the employees doing their jobs. We call this “passive data.”

While we think of HRIS / HCM systems as providing passive data, increasingly learning systems, productivity systems, and social media profiles and communication tools are being used as such data sources.

While we mostly think of HRIS / HCM systems as providing this type of data, increasingly learning systems (like LXPs), productivity systems (like Asana and Jira), and social media profiles and communication tools are being used as data sources for skills and competencies.

It’s relatively easy to extract and consolidate information from these systems: Vendors are getting much better at enabling them to talk to each other to provide real-time data. Having quantitative and qualitative data in 1 place typically allows orgs to do deeper analysis, including inferring skills or channeling data to other systems to help personalize learning or mobility for employees.

Active data sources

While not nearly as sexy, for decades, orgs have used other, more manual sources of data as well. This includes sources such as 360 evaluations, word-of-mouth referrals, surveys, and skills inventories. These, like their passive counterparts, offer all kinds of interesting data—but rely on humans to do the heavy lifting. This type of data almost always involves an initiative separate from work to gather it.

Active data sources offer all kinds of interesting data—but rely on humans to do the heavy lifting.

More and more, orgs are utilizing tech to minimize the human lift: For example, surveys are now online, which means they’re digitized, and easier to mix with other skills and competency data. Still, the lift is real. We look forward to seeing more solutions for passive data in the future, as some of the tech (e.g., natural language processing, listening, etc.) gets better.

One of the most commonly used methods of gathering skills and competencies data is to have employees fill out a talent profile. But getting lots of employees to fill out their profiles is no trivial matter. Collecting data in this manner works if employees are motivated to actually fill in their information—otherwise the system remains unused and unhelpful.

Some orgs launch a skills or competencies system with a massive push for all employees to complete their profiles. Others launch with little fanfare, like Cornell University in the following real-world story.

Real-World Threads: How Cornell’s “quiet launch” garnered 30,000 manual skills entries

Challenge: Cornell University wanted employees to be able to learn about development opportunities more democratically and fairly, not based just on social networks or word of mouth.

Solution: The university launched a skills platform and talent marketplace as a grassroots effort. Cornell made the platform available with minimal fanfare or marketing, and didn’t push employees to complete their skills profiles.

Outcome: The skills platform and talent marketplace have taken off. Of Cornell’s 10,000 employees, around 5,000 have access to the platform and about 3,000 of those have entered their skills. Now, a total of about 30,000 skills have been recorded for those employees in the system—meaning each employee who used the system added an average of 10 skills to their profile!

”The system shows me people who are like me or can help me, and gigs that can help me develop. It’s making those connections, whereas in the past I would have to know somebody personally.”

Seth Brahler, Senior Director of HR, Technology and Information Systems, Cornell University

In Cornell’s case, employees immediately saw the value of the skills platform for their own development and engaged accordingly. The skills platform presented employees with a list of recommended skills to add to their profiles, from which they could choose the ones they found most applicable. The platform then made recommendations about networking and development opportunities that might help employees close the skills gaps they’d identified in their profile.

Other orgs have found that prepopulating the skills profile, and then asking employees to review and edit their profiles—rather than fill out a blank slate or choose from a list of recommendations—is easier for employees and gives better response rates. In all cases, leaders emphasized that it’s critical for employees to see how they’ll benefit personally from completing their profiles.

The challenges

Skills and competency data don’t necessarily have to be used together—and often technology prevents them from being used together. Some of the challenges leaders mentioned when dealing with skills and competencies data include:

  • Inconsistent formats. Data formats from different technologies (dates in the U.S. vs dates in Europe, for example) make it difficult to align data.
  • Many, many sources. Skills and competency data live in many places, making it difficult to consolidate and analyze all of it.
  • Silos. We’ve talked with some orgs whose structures are so siloed that they can’t (or won’t) easily share information across boundaries, or they utilize incompatible systems that prevent an easy exchange of information.
  • Residing in people’s heads only. Much of the information about activity that happens outside the walls of the org, including skills developed at home, on volunteer or services assignments, or in past roles, isn’t accounted for in any system.
  • Paper. Some information about skills and competencies lives on paper in file cabinets in deep, dark parts of the org—and are hard to both find and use in that form.

Leaders emphasized the importance of thoughtfully setting up data collection systems to prevent issues associated with clunky, irrelevant, or unusable data.

Luckily, tech is increasingly able to help with these challenges. The middle of the data collection spectrum contains sources like job descriptions, performance evaluations, and job histories (see Figure 7). Many orgs rely on spreadsheets and manual entry to track skills and competencies based on these sources—leading to issues with data sharing, version control, and data siloing. But tech exists that can parse these documents to extract skills and competencies: This tech is getting better and more deeply integrated into many skills and competencies platforms.

Getting Started

In this research, leaders emphasized the importance of thoughtfully setting up data collection systems to prevent issues associated with clunky, irrelevant, or unusable data. Figure 8 lists some questions orgs should consider as they plan data collection for their skills and competencies systems.


Figure 8: Questions to Start Planning Data Usage |  Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Craft Clear Messaging

The final area we want to address in using both skills and competencies is crafting a clear message. As we mentioned at the beginning, the differences between skills and competencies may matter to those of us on the HR backend—but they often confuse leaders and employees on the frontend. In fact, one leader told us:

“What does your average consumer want? Whether it’s a people leader, an employee, or a prospective candidate, they just want to know what’s expected. They’re asking, ‘What do you need from me?’ Just give them the answer to that question in really plain language.”

VP Talent & Diversity, multinational media conglomerate

Unfortunately, in many orgs, the answer to the question, “What do you need from me?” is about as clear as mud. This lack of clarity creates fuzziness about expectations and messes with unity of purpose. As both skills and competencies are supposed to create clarity and provide a unified sense of purpose and direction, unclear messaging foils our efforts.

Unfortunately, in many orgs, the answer to the question, “What do you need from me?” is about as clear as mud—creating fuzziness about expectations and messing with unity of purpose.

To create clarity, leaders focused on 2 things:

  • Consistent terminology. As we’ve discussed, the terms “skills” and “competencies” are inconsistently used in the literature and within orgs. Leaders can create clarity for employees by intentionally choosing, defining, and using consistent terminology to discuss questions of “What can employees do, and what do they need to be able to do?”
  • Clear communication of expectations and benefits. Employees want to know how they should interact with skills and competencies systems—and, critically, how they’ll benefit from those interactions.

Regardless of the specific messaging content or terms chosen, leaders emphasized the importance of being clear and consistent: Make a decision and stick to the chosen message.

Leaders emphasized the importance of being clear and consistent—make a decision and stick to the chosen message.

Leaders also noted that clear communication about skills and competencies can create the buzz needed to help others in the org get onboard with a skills and competencies effort.

Choosing terminology to boost clarity

While we in HR know the purposes of skills and competencies, the distinctions between the 2 are of little consequence to most employees and managers. In most orgs, employees just want to know what they need to do. In these orgs, choosing terminology that makes it easy to talk about expectations becomes paramount, regardless of whether the terms “skills” or “competencies” are actually used—see the first and second examples in Figure 9 below.

In other orgs—for example, in an org in which competencies have been used for some time and skills are just being introduced—clearly distinguishing the terms generates more success. The third example inFigure 9 represents such an org.

The messaging strategy your org uses should be chosen with your workforce in mind.

In the examples listed in Figure 9, orgs reported that their chosen strategy reduced employee confusion—and increased employee acceptance of their skills and competencies systems. The strategy your org uses should be chosen with your workforce in mind.

Figure 9: 3 Examples of Messaging Strategies | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Messaging expectations & benefits to employees

As we mentioned earlier, inaccurate or untimely data can sometimes do more harm than good. Given that much of the timely and accurate data is provided by employees themselves, orgs should also think about their messaging with respect to getting employees to input their data. To do this, leaders in our study strongly recommend that orgs get serious about consistently and clearly communicating 2 things:

  • What is expected of employees. Employees want to know what systems are available for helping them track and develop skills and competencies, and how they should engage with those systems. The question they’re asking is: “What do you need me to do?”
  • Benefits to employees. Equally important, employees need to know why and how they’ll benefit from engaging with these systems. The question they’re asking is: “What’s in it for me?”

Leaders emphasized the importance of communicating how employees should interact with systems that help track skills and competencies—and, critically, the benefits to employees of those interactions. Employees need to understand these systems—both how to use them and how those systems can potentially affect their lives.

Leaders emphasized the importance of communicating how employees should interact with systems that help track skills and competencies—and, critically, the benefits to employees.

Inputting data is the part of the process where leaders particularly emphasized clarity of expectations. What information should employees input? Why? Where? How? How often? Answering these questions clearly and consistently can go a long way toward getting the information that’s needed in the systems.

Answering the “Why?” question at both the org and employee levels turned out to be particularly important. Many times, employees fail to update their data in employee profiles, keep track of skills developed, or record recent projects completed—because they don’t understand the benefits of keeping those systems updated.

Employees need to understand that this data is being used by the org to make real decisions that can impact them.

Employees need to understand that this data is being used by the org to make real decisions that can impact them. These systems help the org create a more complete picture of their employees, what experiences they have, and what they can do. On a macro scale, this data is used to understand what skills should be developed and to make opportunities more transparent for everyone. On a micro scale, this data is used to make decisions about future roles and projects, opportunities for development, and even performance.

Often we see orgs invest a lot of money to implement systems that focus on skills and competencies—but fail to adequately or effectively market them. Orgs should make employees aware of these systems, set expectations for their use, and very clearly help them understand the benefits of using them.

How to best communicate the message

We started this research with the assumption that all orgs should stop trying to distinguish between skills and competencies. It’s a confusing and unhelpful effort, we thought, and orgs should create a unified message using language like, “What employees can do.”

The most important factor is clear and consistent terminology and messaging that highlights the benefits of skills and competencies for employees.

We discovered, however, that the picture is more nuanced: The most important factor is clear and consistent terminology and messaging that highlights the benefits of skills and competencies for employees. Specific messaging strategies differ based on org culture and employee familiarity with skills and competencies.

Getting Started

In this research, we discovered that there’s no one “right” messaging strategy for skills and competencies; messaging should be tailored to an org’s history and goals. Figure 10 outlines some questions orgs can discuss to craft a messaging strategy that’s most relevant to their situation.


Figure 10: Questions for Crafting Clear Messaging | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.


When we started this research, we, like many leaders out there, didn’t understand the differences between skills and competencies. We thought they were the same—or could be blended into one and the same thing. After careful research, we see a need for both skills and competencies, and the data they each provide. Each has a unique place in an org’s ecosystem.

We see a need for both skills and competencies, and the data they each provide—each has a unique place in an org’s ecosystem.

That said, we see a great need for orgs to do 3 things:

  • Consider the strengths of skills and competencies, and use those strengths to solve business challenges.
  • Consider the data skills and competencies offer. Use them appropriately, and find ways for technology and systems to use them together more.
  • Craft simple, clear, consistent messaging that tells employees what’s expected of them and how they’ll benefit from skills and competencies.

We hope this discussion illuminates for you some of the ways orgs are defining and using skills and competencies—sometimes together, sometimes in parallel—to address their most pressing people challenges.

As always, we welcome dialogue! Please feel free to reach out to RedThread Research and tell us your experiences. Reach us at [email protected] and visit our website at

Appendix 1: Methodology

As the skills conversation transformed from a one-note debate about robots taking human jobs to a multifaceted exploration of “What can our workforce do now, and what do they need to be able to do in the future,” we noticed HR leaders grappling with skills and competencies, and were compelled to take a deeper look at how the 2 can work together toward org goals.

We launched our study in fall 2020. This report gathers and synthesizes findings from our research efforts, which included a lit review of 93 articles from business, trade, and popular literature sources; 2 roundtables with a total of 53 participants; and 6 in-depth interviews with learning leaders on their experience with skills and competencies.

For those looking for specific information from those efforts, you’re in luck: We have a policy of sharing as much information as possible throughout the research process. Please see these articles on our website:

Skills & Competencies: 2 Sides of the Same Coin

Posted on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021 at 3:00 AM    

COVID-19, a social justice movement, and multiple natural disasters have created a business imperative for orgs to pivot quickly and continually. Central to this conversation are 2 questions:

  • What can our workforce do now?
  • What will our employees need to be able to do in the future?

Two of the most common frameworks used to answer these questions are skills and competencies. There has been much consternation and debate in many HR orgs about whether and how to make skills and competencies work together—or whether to choose one over the other.

Rather than focus on differences, however, forward-thinking orgs are finding ways to leverage both skills and competencies to address some of their most pressing people challenges.

This infographic summarizes our report on this topic, Skills & Competencies: What's the Deal?

Click on the image below to get the full infographic. As always, we would love your feedback, which you can provide in the comments section below the infographic.

Learning Tech Update 2020: More, More & More

Posted on Thursday, December 17th, 2020 at 12:29 PM    

The global pandemic and major social shifts have brought learning to the top of many orgs' agendas. Leaders are seeking to support their employees through these changes and retain great talent. But they're also facing a survival imperative: put the right people with the right skills in the right places—fast—or face possible failure. Learning is key to all three goals.

The learning tech market was already growing quickly; the pandemic is helping it explode. We are seeing more market participants, more functionalities, more choice, and more experimentation.

This infographic summarizes our report on this topic, The Learning Tech Landscape: More, Just More.

Click on the image below to get the full infographic. As always, we would love your feedback, which you can provide in the comments section below the infographic.


Learning Tech Updates Infographic


Skills and Competencies: Finding and Using Skills Data

Posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 2020 at 12:21 PM    

As part of our ongoing research on skills and competencies, we recently gathered leaders for the second roundtable on skills. This session focused on the question of finding and using skills data. Some of the questions we discussed were:

  • Why is skills data “hot” or important right now?
  • How does skills data differ from competency data?
  • What sources of skills data are orgs using?
  • How are orgs using skills data?
  • What do you imagine skills tech will enable orgs to do in the future?

Mindmap of Finding & Using Skills Data roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations we heard as part of this roundtable.

Key takeaways

We had an engaging, energetic conversation that helped us better understand how skills data is being used in orgs, the challenges associated with skills data, and some possibilities for the future. Here are 5 key takeaways.

Skills connect work and talent

Leaders agreed there is an increasingly core connection between work and talent. Particularly since the pandemic began, orgs find themselves needing to pivot quickly to respond to rapidly evolving environments.

Agility has become a survival imperative, which means it’s critical for orgs to be able to put the right people in the right places…fast.

Skills are the way orgs can figure out who the “right people” are. With insight into who has what skills – and where those skills are needed – orgs can quickly move key resources to the places and projects they’re needed most. Some leaders noted that skills apply not only to individuals, but also to teams.

Skills data sources are everywhere

When we asked leaders to name some sources of skills data, the answers flooded in. We counted at least 15 types of skill data sources, including job descriptions, talent profiles, job histories, education history, certifications, social profiles like LinkedIn, collaboration sites like GitHub, productivity software like Asana and Jira, and even communications platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack, or email.

One challenge is that most of these sources are currently not well integrated, making it difficult for orgs to identify all the potentially relevant skills an employee has. Skills data remains siloed or, in some cases, hidden. In one example, a leader pointed out that an employee might develop skills through volunteer experience – but those skills may never be reported in their skills profile at work.

Partly due to this fractioned information, leaders still struggle to understand what skills exist in their org. This makes evaluation and planning difficult. As one leader pointed out, “Without a baseline of where we are now, it’s hard to understand if upskilling efforts are effective.” It’s also hard to know what skills to develop.

Think carefully about use cases

There remains real confusion in orgs about skills vs. competencies. Leaders reported they sometimes struggle to clearly articulate the differences between the two to others in their orgs. This confusion can create resistance to change.

A few participants reported they tackle this challenge by identifying use cases for skills vs. competencies. They ask, "In what situations might skills be appropriate? In what situations might competencies be better?"

In response to these questions, many leaders agreed that competencies may be most appropriate in cases where it’s critical to understand proficiency – for example, in talent acquisition and performance management. By contrast, skills may be more appropriate when the goal is agility, mobility, or employee development.

Skills verification and proficiency rating remain difficult

Many skills platforms currently offer a skills tracking functionality that indicates whether a person has a skill or not. Often this data is self-reported, selected in the platform by the employee.

Some leaders want to complement this self-reported, yes/no data with more meaty, contextual information. They want to know whether the employee really has the reported skill (skill verification) and how well the employee can perform the skill (proficiency rating). They noted that self-reported data introduces the risk that individuals may under- or over-estimate their own skills. They also highlighted the potential diversity, equity, and inclusion implications of self-reporting, as some populations tend to consistently under- or over-report their skills. Skills verification and proficiency ratings could help reduce these reporting biases as well as give leaders better data for resource planning.

A few leaders voiced concern that current methods of skills verification may ask too much of employees. If too many requirements are put on users, they may stop reporting their skills altogether. They wondered: Can we find ways to verify skills, measure proficiency, and provide a simple, fun, and easy user experience for the average employee?

Tech can help make skills fun and easy

Leaders imagined that in the future, skills tech will be so fun and easy to use that it will become part of everyone’s job to be transparent about their skills and development goals.

Generational or tenure-related challenges may hinder widespread adoption of skills, however. Whereas younger or less experienced employees may be motivated to report their skills and to use skills platforms to build social communities, employees closer to retirement may see less incentive to do so. It will be important to make skills fun, easy, and clearly beneficial to all employees if skills tech is to be widely adopted.

Some orgs have successfully demonstrated the benefits of skills by pre-populating employees’ skill profiles, then asking employees to review and approve or update their profiles. With this approach, employees see an immediate and concrete benefit: the recommended learning opportunities the system generates based on the gaps in their profile.

Data integration, analytics, and reporting are other areas leaders highlighted for the future of skills tech. Currently, some platforms pull together data from a variety of disparate sources. Building on this capability, leaders would like to see all available data in one place, with robust reporting and analytics support. They also envision more adaptability to specific use cases, more tailored reporting in response to specific inquiries, and more efficient aggregation and sorting.

A special thanks

This session helped us more clearly understand the ways skills data is being identified and used in orgs, the challenges associated with using this data, and the hopes leaders have for the future of skills data in their orgs. Thank you again to those of you who attended and enriched our discussion. And as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Skills and Competencies: Differences, Utility, and Messaging

Posted on Tuesday, November 24th, 2020 at 6:00 AM    

Continuing our collaborative exploration of the skills landscape, we recently gathered leaders together for the first skills roundtable. This session focused on skills and competencies. It included questions such as: 

  • What’s the difference, in practice, between skills and competencies? 
  • Under what conditions might organizations shift from competencies to skills? 
  • How do competencies drive organizational results? How do skills drive organizational results? 
  • How do you measure skills proficiency? 

Mindmap of Skills and Competencies Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations we heard as a part of this roundtable.

Key Takeaways

We had a rich, energizing, and informative discussion that helped us learn how skills and competencies are defined, perceived, and used in organizations. Here are 5 key takeaways. 

Skills = “what;” competencies = “how”

Leaders agreed that, in general, skills tend to describe what an individual or organization can do, while competencies outline expectations for how a job should be done or an individual should behave. 

There was less agreement about whether skills or competencies are job-agnostic. Some organizations use competencies to describe broad behaviors that any employee should exhibit in order to succeed. In these organizations, competencies apply to any job in the company and include the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to get things done.  

In other organizations, skills are the job-agnostic ones. They are still more granular and specific than competencies, but they are not tied to specific jobs or roles. Rather, they are portable building blocks that an employee can apply to any role they might be in. 

Skills as currency

A number of leaders mentioned skills as currency: skills represent what an employee does for or offers to the organization 

Treating skills as currency makes them portable. With a clear understanding of the skills they can offer, employees can move around an organization more easily. Internal mobility and gig work become easier to implement organization-wide. 

Leaders drew a distinction between the longevity of skills and competencies, citing the shorter shelf-life of skills as one reason they are a strong currency. Because many skills must be developed (and sometimes abandoned) much more quickly than competencies, they are more susceptible to supply-demand imbalances. This makes certain skills highly valuable when they are in high demand.  

This transactional concept applies best, however, only to non-durable skills.  

The struggle with “competencies”

Interestingly, many leaders in the roundtable said the word “competency” is viewed negatively in their organization. Because competencies tend to include proficiency ratings, they are perceived as a way to tell employees how they don’t measure up. By contrast, skills are perceived more positively and are associated with employee development. As one leader put it, “I have an opportunity to get better at a skill, as opposed to not having the competence to do a role.” 

As a result of the way competencies are perceived, some organizations have changed their messaging. One leader reported, “competencies are actually used more, but we call them skills because competency is associated negatively with performance.”  

The group noted this strategy will not work long-term unless skills stay simple, easy to understand and use, and focused on employee development. If skills become as burdensome as competencies are today, they will take on the same negative associations as well.  

Measuring skills proficiency is a challenge

Most leaders reported their organizations are not measuring skills proficiency at all, are just starting to measure proficiency, or are measuring in ways that will not scale. Current tech limitations are partly responsible for the fact that most organizations are not measuring skill proficiencies to the extent they want and need to. Most skills platforms currently treat skills as binary: I have a skill or I don’t. They do not yet offer ways to denote skill proficiency. 

Another challenge lies in the subjectivity of skill assignment. Leaders agreed it is not enough to simply ask employees whether they have a skill; there needs to be some kind of verification process. However, asking a manager to verify all their reports’ skills is burdensome and can introduce bias. Managers also may not be able to accurately assess skills or skill levels if they do not have the skill themselves.  

As burdensome as it can be to input and verify skills and skill levels, leaders noted most employees appreciate the conversation this exercise prompts. Employees find it helpful to understand from their manager how they are perceived and where they can improve. 

Orgs want to simplify

Leaders emphasized that they are trying not to simply replicate competency frameworks in the skills space. Instead, they are employing two main strategies to simplify their approach 

  1. Grassroots. Organizations are building skills databases from the ground up rather than creating unwieldy conceptual models to fit skills into. In this approach, employees input their skills into a database, then data analysis is applied to draw out skill groups, themes, and commonalities. 
  2. Prioritization. They are prioritizing the key skills they would like people to work on. They are looking at the desired end state, identifying the strategically important skills, and focusing on only those skills rather than trying to map the universe of skills 

A special thanks

This discussion helped us refine our understanding of the differences between skills and competencies, the value each brings to organizations, and the challenges associated with finding simple ways to understand “what we can do as an organization. Thank you again to those of you who attended and made our conversation enriching. And as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected]. 

Competencies vs. Skills: What's the Difference?

Posted on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020 at 1:28 PM    


The conversation about skills has exploded in the past year from an almost hypothetical discussion about how to plan for digital transformation to a very real one in which hard decisions have had to be made about what skills were needed to keep businesses intact.

As organizations pivot to different ways of working, it will be even more important that they have a good understanding of the skills and knowledge employees have now, and the skills the organization will need in the future.

As part of our ongoing research on skills, we are focusing our first study on a question we have heard a lot:

What is the difference between skills and competencies, and why does it matter?

What we saw in the literature

To answer that question, we began with a review of the competencies literature. Four themes emerged in response to this question:

  1. Definitional Chaos. There is little agreement about the definitions of “skills” and “competencies.”
  2. Agreement on Goals and Benefits. There is considerable agreement about the goals and benefits of any skills or competencies effort.
  3. Competencies Support Performance Management. In some parts of the literature – mainly written for HR audiences – competencies are clearly linked to how a job is performed.
  4. Skills Leverage Tech. Organizations derive practical value from skills platforms that leverage huge amounts of data.

Definitional chaos

There is very little agreement in the literature about the definitions of “skills” and “competencies.” In some articles, the terms are used interchangeably. In others, skills are listed as one component of competencies – for example, “a competency is a measurable pattern of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and other characteristics.”1

Often a distinction is made in the granularity of skills vs. competencies, with skills being more granular – although one article suggested the opposite.2 Sometimes competencies are contextualized for a specific job or role (more on this below). The definitions and distinctions vary widely from author to author and audience to audience.

To further confuse the matter, when we compared skills databases to competency models many of the same terms showed up in both places. For example, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s MOSAIC Competencies framework and the U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored Career OneStop Skills Matcher tool both list items like, “Accounting,” “Client Engagement/Change Management,” and “Project Management.” OPM calls these items competencies; DOL calls them skills.

The same confusion plays out in the private sector. Some excellent vendors focus on skills; others on competencies – but if you look at their databases and lists of terms, there is considerable overlap.3

Agreement on goals and benefits

Given how inconsistently the terms “skills” and “competencies” are used, there is surprising agreement in the literature on the ultimate goal of a skills or competency effort: Organizations need to be able to identify what they (and their people) can do now and what they must be able to do in the future. They need to be able to use that information to plan and prepare for the future – to align talent with business goals. Job-seekers (internal and external) need to understand what’s expected of them and what they are good at vs. what organizations need them to be good at.4

Both competency models and skills frameworks attempt to facilitate these discovery and planning processes.

There is also agreement on the benefits of skills frameworks and competency models. Organizations can use skills and/or competencies to:

  • Use the same terminology to talk about what employees should be able to do
  • Understand what employees can do vs. what they need to be able to do
  • Fill key positions quickly and effectively
  • Target employee development to close key gaps
  • Help employees understand their gaps and options5

Most of the literature also agrees that there is no standard, universal set of skills or competencies that all organizations need. Organizations need to identify their competitive advantage, then tailor the models they are using to focus on the key skills/competencies that drive that advantage.

Competencies support performance management

In some of the literature, competencies were clearly linked to the performance of specific jobs or roles. In these cases, skills specified what a person can do, whereas competencies specified not only what but how the task or activity should be accomplished.6 They answered questions like, “How does an individual perform this job successfully?” and “How does an individual behave in the workplace to achieve a desired result?”7

This part of the literature is particularly helpful for leaders concerned with performance management, as it provides standards against which to measure behaviors and results. Skills tend to be decoupled from the performance of any specific job, making skills frameworks less relevant to performance management.

Skills leverage tech

Skills databases and competency frameworks are built and managed very differently. Developing a competency framework tends to be a top-down exercise run by a few people in the organization. It often involves intensive human effort to complete observations, job analyses, interviews, surveys, and document reviews.8

By contrast, skills databases tend to be built from the bottom up, using advanced computing power to glean skills information from job postings, resumes, HR repositories, and other data sources.9

Because they leverage technology to pull in and leverage massive amounts of information about employees, skills offerings tend to provide users with tens of thousands of skills options to choose from. This huge menu of options allows users to be far more granular in choosing and describing what they can do. This granularity lends flexibility and transferability, as it is easier to see how a particular skill might apply in different functional areas or organizations.

Thoughts on the topic

Regardless of terminology, we see enormous potential for vendors that help organizations answer the question, “what can we do, and what do we need to be able to do?” using the massive amounts of data now available about employees and their abilities.

Tech solutions have made it possible for many more organizations to start answering this question by automating many of the processes involved. The pace of change in today’s world will only increase the demand for organizations to maintain a very up-to-date understanding of what they can do and what they need to do. Any tech or methods that can shine a light on this question will bring huge value in the near, medium, and long term.

What caught our attention:

Of the literature we reviewed, several sources stood out to us. Each contained information that we found useful and/or intriguing. Although much of the competencies literature was written 5-10 years ago, it is particularly helpful to review in light of the question, “what’s the difference between skills and competencies?” Interestingly, many of the more recent articles on competencies were primarily written by vendors trying to clarify how their competency offerings fit in the skills marketplace.10 We learned from these perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

Policy, Data, Oversight: Assessment & Selection – Competencies

United States Office of Personnel Management  |, 2020

Competencies specify the "how" of performing job tasks, or what the person needs to do the job successfully.”


  • OPM’s Multipurpose Occupational Systems Analysis Inventory (MOSAIC) methodology for collecting occupational information has been used to build one of the most comprehensive competency databases available, covering over 200 U.S. federal government occupations.
  • The MOSAIC information has been used to develop competency models for a range of occupations, including cybersecurity, grants management, IT program management, and executive leadership.
  • All MOSAIC information is available in downloadable Excel spreadsheets or PDFs for public use.

How Ericsson aligned its people with its transformation strategy

Simon London and Bina Chaurasia  |  McKinsey & Company, Jan 2016

“[W]e literally took every single function in the company and all of its roles, mapped out the stages of each job, and laid out the competence needed for each one. That took a couple years.”


  • A major shift in strategy led telecom giant Ericsson to change skills, technology, and processes on a global scale.
  • This shift also required an overhaul of the HR team, strategy, and processes.
  • The company completed a massive, years-long competency modeling exercise but reports that now every position in the company is mapped out.

The essential components of a successful L&D strategy

Jacqueline Brassey, Lisa Christensen, and Nick van Dam  |  McKinsey & Company, February 2019

“At the heart of this process is a comprehensive competency or capability model based on the organization’s strategic direction.”


  • This article puts competency management in the context of L&D’s responsibility to develop employees in line with organizational strategy and goals.
  • Once a strategic direction is set for the organization, it is critical to verify whether employees are equipped to deliver on that strategy.
  • To make this verification, this article recommends taking a deliberate, systematic approach to capability assessment, starting with a comprehensive competency model.

What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

Sarah Beckett  |  HRSG, March 2018

“In some ways, a skill and a competency are similar. On a basic level, they both identify an ability that an individual has acquired through training and experience.”


    • Skills define “what” an individual can do. Competencies define “how” they perform a job successfully.
    • Competencies = Skills + Knowledge + Abilities
    • Competencies improve HR processes by introducing consistency, visibility, structure, progression and coordination.
    • Competency management software solutions can ease much of the burden of using competencies to define job success.

Additional readings

  1. Competency Frameworks: Core Competencies & Soft Skills,” Randstad, 2019.
  2. "Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills," Indeed, 2020.
  3. "Return on Leadership – Competencies that Generate Growth," Egon Zehnder International and McKinsey & Company, 2011.
  4. O*Net Resource Center, O*Net, 2010.
  5. "Competency Management at Its Most Competent," Deloitte and DDI, 2015.

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.

RedThread Research is an active HRCI provider