People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2022

Making the Shift to a Skills-First People Strategy

It’s time to imagine a world where employees are matched less by their reporting lines and more by their skills and interests—working on customized opportunities that fit their unique talents and the needs of the business.

By Chris Ernst, Workday
Making the Shift to a Skills-First People Strategy

The world of work has changed. The tumultuous events that have and continue to unfold—combined with our own personal challenges and experiences—have reshaped what matters most for employers and employees alike. On the business side, agility—the need to adapt and respond quickly to whatever comes next—is what keeps leaders up at night. Simultaneously, employees have indicated that they are most engaged when their company supports their unique needs, opens up opportunities to develop new skills, and creates flexibility for when and how work gets done. We’ve found that what solves for both of these challenges is skills. It’s what the business needs and what today’s workers want.

There is no question that today’s employees are eager to upskill, yet historically it has been challenging to implement a skills-first strategy at the enterprise level. Since the industrial era, we’ve utilized a primary way of getting work done, which is to put individuals in defined, compartmentalized roles in a rigid organizational chart. When conditions change, which they often do, the instinctive response is to reorganize the lines in those boxes, often creating disruptive consequences, such as reorgs that break apart relationships, or making changes to the size of your workforce. What if, instead, we focused on identifying and growing skills across the organization to address dynamic business needs?

It’s time to imagine a world where employees are matched less by their reporting lines and more by their skills and interests—working on customized opportunities that fit their unique talents, and the needs of the business. We need workplaces where leaders can connect people to opportunities that allow businesses to get work done in a much more inclusive, agile and flexible way. It’s time to flip today’s traditional talent strategy from “acquiring talent” to “creating talent,” and to put skills first.

The Origin of Workday’s Skills-First People Strategy 

A people-first strategy has been woven into Workday’s core values and culture from day one. While our talent strategy will always be about putting people at the center of business, the way we do this is evolving—from a primary focus on individuals in specific roles to a primary focus on skills.

Our long-standing talent framework (what we call “The 5 Cs”) is to create an environment where employees can continually empower their careers, grow capabilities, deepen connections, make contributions and feel compensated and recognized for their efforts. Talent Framework.png

As part of this focus, in 2018, Workday launched its flagship learning program, called the Agile Career. Through this workshop, employees take on career sprints—ways for individuals to maximize the value they get out of their career growth experiences by setting specific goals and then completing a series of sprints to help them reach each goal. For example, an employee in content marketing might choose a career sprint to learn more about web analytics, to gain new skills and develop connections on the web analytics team so they can take those lessons and insights back to their role and be a more well-rounded blog writer. The Agile Career workshop continues to run today (the program’s name has been changed to Pathfinder), and while the foundational philosophy remains the same, it has a stronger skills focus. To date, more than 5,400 employees have participated in this program. 

Ultimately, the thinking behind the Agile Career workshop and career sprints is what led to “gigs” and our use of Workday Talent Marketplace internally. Workday Talent Marketplace is a talent mobility solution focused on identifying opportunities for individuals to develop new skills, often in the form of short-term or part-time assignments. 

Driving Talent Mobility Through Gig Placements 

When we first rolled out Workday Talent Marketplace at Workday, we found that our employees were focused on wanting to gain exposure to broader networks, and to experiment with new skills. Employees participated in gigs that took up 15 percent of their time, and lasted for up to three months, on average. The types of gigs employees participated in ranged from an engineer gaining new programming language skills, to a solutions consultant getting hands-on experience building a demo to better explain products to customers. We surveyed employees and the findings were encouraging: 95 percent of gig participants said they were able to build on existing skills or build new skills, while 96 percent of gig hosts felt the gig produced better results and/or efficiency on the team. What’s more, 83 percent of managers reported their team member’s participation in a gig resulted in bringing new skills back into their own teams.

Based on the initial success of the program, we decided to expand gigs at Workday to take up to 50 percent of employees’ time, and up to a six-month duration. We also began using Career Hub internally, which is a solution in Workday Human Capital Management where employees can share their current skills and interests, and receive relevant connections, gigs, curated learning content, and recommended jobs to help them on their career journeys.

It’s simple: When a worker first enters Career Hub, they are prompted to update their existing skills and skill interests, indicating how they are looking to grow, and what their current availability is to take on new projects. For example, a sales associate interested in developing a career in marketing could search for gigs to find hands-on experiences in that field. With tailored recommendations for internal marketing gigs, this person could pursue the growth opportunities that align with their career goals and aspirations.

Not only are gigs beneficial to the employee, but people leaders can utilize them when they need an extra set of hands on a project. For instance, if a people leader’s team is at full capacity or there are skills needed outside the current team, they can create a gig for employees to sign up and work on, such as building a certain product functionality to get a new feature in production and keep the roadmap on schedule. 

One thing we learned is that starting small and rolling out the initiative in phases is beneficial because it allows us to incorporate learnings along the way. For example, we purposely provided little direction and enablement with the pilot groups who began taking on gigs, because we wanted to take an experimental approach. However, we quickly learned that the gig hosts and participants needed more guidance and clearly defined roles and responsibilities in order to leverage gigs most effectively. In the next phase, we created tailored enablement for the three primary roles—gig hosts, gig participants, and the manager of gig participants—recognizing that each role has a unique responsibility to contribute to a successful gig experience. 

Another challenge we faced when we first rolled out gigs and Workday Talent Marketplace was that some people leaders were hesitant to implement these programs because they felt their teams were already carrying a full workload and they didn’t want them to be distracted by taking on new projects. However, as time went on and we started seeing results, people leaders began to see the value that they can gain from hosting a gig – such as getting additional support on a project if bandwidth is tight—and some of those who were initially hesitant came back to us saying they want to learn more about how they can get started.

The long-term benefits of gig placements are twofold: Employers can connect their employees with the targeted development and growth opportunities they seek to further their career goals—ultimately helping to improve engagement and retention—and companies can navigate the changing world of work, more effectively upskilling, reskilling and redeploying employees to support the business as new needs arise.


Career Hub.png

The Creation of Workday’s Common Skills Language

While our employees were actively engaging in gigs, we decided we also needed to take a step back and understand, organize and make actionable the thousands of skills our employees bring with them every day. As a result, we created an internal taskforce where various employees across sales enablement, product and technology, and other departments put their heads together to develop a common and shared language across the business.

The result was a common language based on the three following factors—which incorporate tactical and people skills (often referred to as hard and soft skills). These include:

  • Core skills. These are the abilities and behaviors that demonstrate Workday’s core values. To come up with core skills, we reviewed job descriptions, interview guides and career frameworks to create a list of skills needed for common business scenarios. We quickly noticed that core skills tended to show up across three areas: people excellence, strategic excellence and operational excellence. We then identified the core skills that fall under each area, from empathy to creativity to problem solving. 
  • Job skills. These are the minimum abilities and behaviors required for a particular job. Job skills for a software engineering role, for example, may include knowledge of SQL, cloud-based architecture and programming. Unlike core skills, job skills evolve regularly based on changing business needs. 
  • Unique skills. These are the additional abilities and behaviors that go beyond core and job skills and contribute to a person’s potential to bring value to a given role or project. For example, unique skills can be the passion, interest and energy an employee brings to a subject or task, or the network they can leverage.

These three types of skills give employees and business leaders an overarching picture of skills across the entire organization, which helps provide visibility into where gaps exist. For example, earlier this year, our leaders noticed a cross-company gap in one of our core skills, so we responded with new resources launched each month to help employees develop this specific skill, including live sessions with industry experts and learning opportunities in the form of videos and other content. 

Additionally, a shared language enables employees and their people leaders to easily understand which skills are most important and how they can apply these skills to their roles. This is particularly helpful during Career and Progress Check-Ins—our version of performance reviews—where an employee wants to better understand their growth trajectory and can discuss the needed skills to progress in their career. Encouragingly, in our last round of Career and Progress Check-Ins, 89 percent of employees said they have a clear plan on how to grow one or more skills in the year ahead.

At its core, a skills-first strategy is about shifting the fundamental building block of work from the defined roles of individuals to the dynamic skills across an enterprise that are constantly adapting in an ever-changing world.

Lessons Learned from Pioneering Workday’s Skills Journey 

The shift to a skills-first people strategy is certainly one of the biggest transformations I’ve seen in human resources over the past two decades, and one that will unfold over multiple quarters at Workday. At its core, a skills-first strategy is about shifting the fundamental building block of work from the defined roles of individuals to the dynamic skills across an enterprise that are constantly adapting in an ever-changing world. For those of you looking to implement a skills-first journey, here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Establish a common skills language: There’s a lot of confusion and inconsistent terminology out there around skills. Start by creating a simple and shared framework. For example, as mentioned, at Workday we have created a common language that is based on three types of skills: Core skills, Job skills and Unique skills. So first, think simple and unified over complex and fragmented. 
  2. Consider your company culture: Ask yourself—what aspects or attributes of your company culture support the shift to skills-first? What might get in the way? What is required to operate with a skills-first strategy across the enterprise? A few key cultural behaviors that come to mind are embracing mobility, candid communication and psychological safety.     
  3. Use technology and innovation as the catalyst for industry-wide change: At Workday, we’re committed to maximizing the long-term potential of the entire workforce and democratizing opportunities for all, and we’re using our technology to facilitate this change.
  4. Start with the “why”: The shift toward more agile talent practices is a dramatic step from more traditional methodologies. It takes time, along with thoughtful communication, to gain momentum and buy-in. It’s important to start by having a strategic vision that is well aligned with the company mission, and then come up with the steps to get to where you want to be—while learning and listening along the way.  

Closing Thoughts

There is no doubt in my mind that one day, business will be run on boundaryless marketplaces that match tasks to human and/or automated skills. But first we need to start with identifying specific pain points where skills can help, and then find an executive champion, measure, iterate and keep going. It’s all about starting with small wins and creating early successes. The longer game is a skills ecosystem that transcends business, cultures and context.   

Chris Ernst is Chief Learning Officer at Workday.