Ongoing Development

What ARE skills, really, and how can they transform talent development?

Posted on: September 8, 2022Updated on: April 18, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Hard skills. Soft skills. Skills marketplaces. Skills ontologies. Reskilling. Upskilling.

These days, it feels like every workplace conversation has been taken over by skills and with good reason. But a fundamental consensus about what makes a skill is still lacking and questions of how to measure them and how they can help future-proof businesses also need definitive answers.

Dani Johnson, Co-Founder and Principal Analyst at RedThread Research, recently joined host JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect at Axonify, for In The Know to set the record straight on skills and explore the potential for skills-based approaches to transform talent development.

Question Mark Yellow Bg

What makes a skill?

Generally speaking, most would define a skill as being a practical unit of proficiency, as opposed to something more theoretical. But the exact “skill” definition could be expanded upon and debated. And it has. But according to Johnson and the 25 leaders she’s worked with to research the topic, arguing over descriptions is besides the point.

“Pretty much every leader we’ve talked to and asked that very question has said ‘I’m not going to argue about this. It’s a stupid discussion to have,’ and I agree. What I want to say about skills is that it’s the way that we define somebody’s ability to do a piece of work. That’s it,” she says.

Employees bring their technical and personal skills to the workplace every day. So what separates how we see “skills” from more broad concepts like job descriptions or competencies?

“When you think about skills, you get down to a granular level that you don’t necessarily get to when you’re thinking about a job,” Johnson offers.

The narrative around workplace skills is changing

Right now, the skills conversation is transforming as leaders reconsider what it means to be a successful contributor in the workplace. Where historically roles were centered around the work that needed to be completed, some are beginning to update the playbook.

“It comes down to this tendency to organize work around the people structures you already have in your organization. At the simplest level, work is understood to flow from one person to the next so when some piece of work comes into the organization—whatever it is—it follows that path through. So, people have had to just be qualified for the tasks that they have,” she says.

Want to keep learning about the ins and outs of skills?

“When you switch to more of a skills mindset, that can be thrown out the window and you can think of all kinds of new, creative ways to get the same kind of work done. When you think of creative agencies, for example, they organize people around the work, not necessarily work around the people.”

“Once you can identify skills, you can break down the work into the types of skills needed to do that type of work, which means you can rearrange how work is done in organizations. This can be more effective, efficient and frankly, better for the individuals that work for you.”

That explains why companies are so enamored with this conversation lately: they’re trying to figure out how to unlock the primary benefits, including efficiency and agility, in new ways. But Johnson says skill-building isn’t just for the employer.

“If I understand the skills that I need to develop to take my career in a certain direction, it’s much more palatable. You can talk about the steps that person is going to take in their career to get exactly where they want,” she says.

Where skills measurement fits in

Closing the loop on measurement means understanding where skill-building training is working and where it isn’t so managers can better focus their coaching efforts. Although training completion rates can tell you who’s finished their learning, they’re not great at uncovering what’s stuck with them after the fact.

“I have seen many organizations measure skills in different ways. We’re seeing things like skills clouds where they’re using an ontology to connect related skills based on the types of work that employees have done,” explains Johnson. “Some organizations are tapping into project management software to relate completed tasks to skills their assignees are likely proficient with.”

When you know where employees are most knowledgeable and confident, you can also enlist the help of top performers who are ready to mentor others.

“Some organizations are more focused on assessment and making observations to ensure that these skills are developed. But the other approaches give me hope that we’re on our way to a more holistic view of how we measure people rather than speaking to the thing that most L&D people think about, which is assessment-only.”

The skills movement is changing the way companies go about business—and it’s here to stay. Whether you’re already on-board with skills or would like to be, it’s worthwhile to find new opportunities to improve your approach and tailor your skills strategy to better fit the needs of your organization and your employees.

Maliyah Bernard's Headshot

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

Read More by Maliyah Bernard