Using skills data and technology for the good of workers

Even the Industrial Revolution will not match the transformative potential of a skills-based future.

In 2005, marketers realized the treasure trove that is big data. Insights on consumer behavior and spending could be pored over to create hyper-relevant marketing campaigns that targeted an individual with the right product, at the right time, in the right format. Now a similar evolution is promised for HR, talent and learning teams. 

Like how marketers need to tread a fine line with consumer data, so too do HR, talent and learning. Mis-step with data and the public backlash will be considerable. But if you make using data a win-win situation for employees and employers, there will be benefits to your workforce agility, innovation, diversity and inclusion, employee retention and revenue growth.

The rise of skills data

We live in a data-rich world, so it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for data to be put to work for the benefit of organizations and their employees. Businesses sit on a mountain of data that can tell an HR team about their workforce skills, skills gaps, readiness for future projects, transformations and strategies. This is known as skills data and it is being created every time an employee logs into a learning platform, reviews a peer, completes a project or gig, gets promoted and much more. 

Skills data exists in your HR, learning and talent systems (like an HRIS or ATS), plus systems of work like Asana or Google Docs. Tapping into this skills data benefits both employees and their employers across every workforce decision and opportunity. In the future, we’ll see people move seamlessly from role to role and project to project based on their skills data. They’ll be offered learning and career growth opportunities based on their data. Not only does this make the matching a lot more precise and relevant for everyone, but it also levels the playing field and moves us away from potentially biased influences like who someone knows. If you’re basing opportunities on skills data, you remove the potential for a manager to overlook someone based on their academic background, lack of connections or other factors like race or gender. 

Technology and people are powering skills data

Shifting towards skills-based approaches to hiring, promoting, remuneration, upskilling and reskilling all rely on accurate skills data. Collecting skills data and keeping it current is a significant obstacle to realizing a skills-based future. Currently, only 10 percent of organizations have a skills database. Uncovering, consolidating, and normalizing data from your disparate HR, learning, talent and work systems can be challenging. That data also must be kept updated for it to remain relevant and valuable. To achieve this, you need to have an HR and learning technology stack that plays nicely with your other solutions. There isn’t one solution that will create, collect and analyze all the possible sources of skills data in your organization. Instead, it will be an open ecosystem of solutions that deeply integrate and share data. 

Simultaneously, you need individual consent for using skills data. Like all data, it can be used for good, bad and ugly purposes. You want to remain on the right side when using skills data to benefit individuals instead of widening divisions and inequality and scaring employees. Indeed, the best approach is to empower every individual with a skills profile that they own and that moves with them from role to role, employer to employer. Just like how you don’t own someone’s resume, no organization should own someone’s personal skills profile. 

A personal skills profile is vital

With that approach, individuals will feel more comfortable sharing information in their skills profile that you (the organization) would otherwise not have access to. This might include passion projects and side gigs that are building skills outside of their job scope with you. The profile will cover all current skills, including those built outside of work, learning that is growing skills, the level of each skill, plus focus skills that actively grow someone’s career in the way they desire. The skills profile is also where an employee shares their aspirations and interests, enabling their managers and HR teams to offer opportunities that engage and excite them. 

This is vital in the skills-based future because we won’t be confined to a decades-long, nine to five career. The market is being disrupted too quickly for jobs to keep up, expectations of meaningful work are changing, and we’re expected to have careers spanning more than 100 years. Throughout an employee’s lifetime, they’re going to move from job to job, transition through functions and industries, and shift between permanent and temporary work. In a career that’s flexible, employers who can provide work opportunities that match someone’s skills and interests will stand out. 

Realizing this early on, Unilever embarked on an ambitious program called ‘U-Work’, which enables employees to choose a work pattern that suits them. Within a talent marketplace, Unilever permanent employees and ‘U-Workers’ can work on projects and tasks that align with their skills. U-Workers can also choose to work on a project basis, in short full-time stints, or part time hours, depending on their needs. It’s one example of the skills-based approach that Unilever is championing, believing that this model can unlock approximately half of trapped capacity compared to a traditional workforce model.

Getting people excited about skills

As an employee begins to benefit from sharing their skills data, they’ll buy into the opportunities more and may even champion skills with their peers. Explaining the benefits of using skills data is quite straightforward. It will help someone uncover new opportunities to advance their careers, it will give them a clear structure for building skills to take the next step in their career and it will ensure they remain employable in an ever-changing future. 

Getting them excited and motivated is vital because the best skills data comes when an employee is updating their skills profile and regularly engaging with opportunities. Data from a learning platform, for example, will be the most up-to-date data on someone’s current mix of skills because, ideally, they’ll be logging learning hours weekly. Individuals can also self-assess their skills, plus ask peers and managers to review them. These skills assessments are crucial as they give an indication of someone’s proficiency to perform a task or role. They are complemented by online assessments and certifications, which give greater certainty about someone’s skill level. 

Protecting people and their data

You cannot mention data without looking at governance and protection. Skills data needs to be used for good, but people also must feel confident that it is secure. Collaborating with data privacy, legal and compliance will keep you on the right track when using skills data. Work with them to develop the right policies, protections and mitigations so that you can focus on collecting and using skills data for the benefit of your workforce. 

We’re on the cusp of a workplace revolution unlike any other we’ve experienced. At the heart of it all is the individual: the person who will benefit from more relevant and equitable opportunities, who can build a meaningful and lasting career, and who knows their skills are being used to their fullest potential.