One of the most critical functions that solo HR practitioners can perform for their employer is to determine what skills their workers have and what skills they will need in the future.
Conducting a skills gap analysis can help ensure the organization is ready for whatever changes and challenges lie ahead.
“It’s the process an HR person uses to identify specific skills required to perform a certain task or role within an organization and then compare those skills against the actual skills employees have,” says Jennifer Dole, director and principal analyst for 3Sixty Insights, a consultancy based in Boston.
By comparing existing skills to those the company needs to remain competitive in the future, HR professionals can identify the gaps and work to close them, explains Anna Langford, SHRM-SCP, president of Langford Top Ten Consulting in Louisville, Ky.
“We live in a world of dynamic economic, environmental and geopolitical conditions, and they’re altering traditional business models and practices,” Langford says. “New capabilities are required to adapt to new dynamics and compete in the marketplace.”
The analysis will prompt essential management questions, expose latent staffing problems, and map out a path to increased efficiency and productivity. In today’s ever-changing workplace, it should top your must-do list.
There’s no perfect time to perform a gap analysis because every business is different. But many HR professionals recommend a yearly evaluation, or when new positions are created or new people come on board. For the analysis to be effective, they suggest that new hires be given about six months to acclimate to their roles and that HR take time to fully understand the mission and idiosyncrasies of the organization.
Launching a gap analysis can be a nail-biting affair: HR folks are already busy with day-to-day tasks, managers are worried about productivity, and employees may approach the exercise with suspicion.
Having a thorough understanding of the organization’s goals and providing extensive communication to all stakeholders will help minimize these challenges.
A gap analysis “should not be the first time that expectations and feedback are given to an employee. It should be in addition to regular conversation, regular feedback,” says Rebecca Edwards, SHRM-SCP, CEO and principal consultant of Infinite HR of Charlotte in North Carolina. “You want to be upfront and establish that this is a way to identify their development plan.”
Conducting a skills gap analysis can be broken down into these key steps:
Consult with senior leaders and managers. What are the business goals? What are the trends in the industry? What skills will workers need to keep up with those trends?
Examine current staff functions and skills. Review HR records that contain accident and safety reports, exit interview notes, and performance evaluations. Conduct individual interviews with staff and managers, as this may reveal a need for new training.
Gather feedback from employees through surveys, questionnaires and self-assessments, and study manager reports of their direct observations of employees and employee written work samples, if available.
“You want to make sure you have the right people in the role,” says Ann Wang, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C. Monitoring that “will help you know if your organization and the roles are moving in the right direction, and if any tweaks need to be made.”
Wang values the information gained from individual interviews with employees.
“It gives me a different perspective and adds the human factor,” she says.
Reviewing employee surveys and supervisors’ direct observations of employees doing their work can also shed light on the situation.
“It gives insight into what goes on day-to-day and in the moment,” Wang says.
Decide how to close the gaps. Companies often can address skills gaps by encouraging employees to pursue continuing education and certifications and by promoting cross-training within the enterprise.
However, in some specialized areas, HR professionals may need to recruit talent from outside the organization.
Implement the plan. Keeping your budget in mind, determine what training resources will be employed to close the gaps. Plan to provide time off for employees while they’re learning new skills.
Measure and report the results. Give staff opportunities to use their newly acquired skills.
“That’s what I love to see at the end—a stronger employee,” Edwards says. In addition to fortifying the company, she adds, “you have someone who feels good about their company investing in their professional development. It’s a win-win.”
Repeat. Completing a skills gap analysis, HR consultants say, should become a part of the culture, whatever the timing or methods. Continue to update your organizational skills inventory.
“You cannot be satisfied with ‘one and done,’ ” Langford says. “You need to make sure you have an ongoing strategy to maintain this process.”
A skills gap analysis can take up to a year to complete, depending on how extensive it is, so consider what tools can help make the process easier.
“You need to gather lots of information to make an accurate assessment,” Dole says, “but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do an effective analysis.”
That’s because HR professionals can leverage technology to help design and carry out part or all of the assessment. It can be costly and you need to be wary of inflated claims, but the payoffs are considerable.
“The [HR] platforms are providing employees the opportunity to inventory the skills they have [and to] see the skills gaps and the development opportunities—whether it’s taking a course, finding a mentor or taking on a short-term project,” Dole says. “And these technologies are showing possible career paths. So [technology] is very much empowering the employee who wants to build skills.”
As always, figure out your goals, timeline and budget before you shop for high-tech solutions, which can pair nicely with old-school methods such as record analysis, surveys and interviews.
One of the obstacles that HR professionals often face when beginning a skills gap analysis is their own procrastination. “Some organizations should have started years ago, but they haven’t,” Edwards says.
HR practitioners also can run into trouble if they aren’t willing to look beneath the surface, Wang says.
People who hold the same titles in organizations don’t always perform the same functions, for example. To discern if there are differences, question employees and their supervisors to gather details on what skills are needed to complete their duties. It’s also a good idea to conduct outside research on similar positions.
Finally, don’t ignore employees’ fears that their jobs are on the line. Communicate what you’re doing and why. Let them know how it will help them and the company.
“People are afraid that the skills gap analysis will reveal weaknesses, as opposed to building strengths and fixing weaknesses,” Langford says.
She adds that conducting this type of assessment can be a boon professionally. “I learned next-generation practices, future trends, technologies. It was an amazing learning experience and really helped me understand our future as an organization,” Langford says. “That always makes you that much more valuable.”
Michael A. Tucker is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.
Image by Hatchakorn Srisook/istock.