The Changing Perspective on Mobility

October 12th, 2020

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

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

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

Themes from the literature

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

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

The Changing Perspective on Mobility

Source: RedThread Research, 2020

We’re at the beginning, not the middle

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

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

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

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

Employee expectations are changing

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

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

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

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

Data and technology are being leveraged for mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Talent Marketplaces are hitting their stride

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

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

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

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

Articles that caught our attention

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

The Best Way to Hire from Inside Your Company

JR Keller

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Activating the Internal Talent Marketplace

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Now Is an Unprecedented Opportunity to Hire Great Talent

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

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


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

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

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

Additional Reading


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

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

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

4 2020 Global Talent Trends, LinkedIn, 2020.

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

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

7 2020 Global Talent Trends, LinkedIn, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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