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Address Skills Gap by Identifying 'Skill Adjacencies'

​It can be difficult finding job candidates with the precise skills employers need. Rapid advancements in technology mean that machines can more efficiently handle tasks that were once performed manually, making once-valued skills outdated and creating positions that require new and different skills. 

A recent report from Gartner suggests HR professionals should look for employees or job candidates with "adjacent skills" to the ones they need, instead of precise but hard-to-find traits.

"Companies can look at current employees who have skills closely matched to those in demand and utilize training to close any gaps," said Alison Smith, director in the Gartner HR practice, in a news release about Gartner's findings.

Employees may have competencies that are related, in a way that may not seem obvious, to roles employers are seeking to fill. For example, an employer unable to find someone who knows natural language processing—a machine learning technique—may want to consider a person proficient in Python or TensorFlow because he or she is more likely to learn natural language processing more quickly than someone without that same knowledge, according to Gartner.

The workforce is automating faster than anticipated. It is expected that 85 million jobs will be displaced in the next five years in medium and large businesses across 15 industries and 97 million new jobs will be created, according to an October 2020 report from the World Economic Forum.

And a new report from LinkedIn, Skill Building in the New World of Work, found that 31 percent of the 1,260 learning and development professionals it surveyed in 27 countries are responsible for helping identify skill sets related to new skills that the organization wants to build.

"The most competitive businesses will be those that choose to reskill and upskill current employees," according to the LinkedIn report. "Machines will be primarily focused on information and data processing, administrative tasks and routine manual jobs for white- and blue-collar positions."

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Capitalizing on Skill Adjacencies

Visier, an analytics provider with 450 employees in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, embraced the notion of skill adjacencies after undergoing a digital transformation. It implemented its own automated system to more quickly and efficiently transform raw data into analytically useful information.

The new system took over the coding that junior data engineers had been performing manually. Those employees with the necessary adjacent skills then had the opportunity to take on roles vacated by the senior data engineers, who now performed more-advanced work under the new system.

Transitioning into new roles took about 18 months, according to Ian Cook, vice president of people analytics at Visier, and included mentoring employees, setting up learning sessions and work trials to reskill them, and soliciting employees for their feedback. Managers held one-on-one meetings with employees who were hesitant to move into a new role. The handful of junior engineers who wanted to continue coding and position themselves as business consultants moved to other jobs at Visier, Cook said.

In its report Trouble Finding Critical Skills? Widen Your View, Gartner notes that organizations should include people in other, seemingly unrelated departments and functions to fill skills gaps. Target the critical skills you are looking for instead of looking for people with experience in specific roles, the report recommends.

"HR leaders don't necessarily have to look in the IT function to fill a critical role in IT," Gartner points out, "but instead, they can look at skills throughout the organization to identify opportunities to fill those skills gaps."

Sean Chou was chief technology officer and executive vice president of services at Fieldglass, a computer software company in Chicago, when he noticed a pattern of inefficient operations stemming from a lack of developers. Various departments were using separate software technologies—the legal department used SharePoint, customer support used Salesforce Service Cloud, IT used Service Now. It was costly to hire consultants or engineers who specialized in the specific software.

Chou said he had the skill adjacencies approach in mind after Fieldglass was sold and he co-founded Catalytic, a Chicago-based no-code workflow automation platform.

"I kept thinking about the growing trend of the consumerization of technology, the lack of developers and the growing need to tech-enable operations to maximize efficiency," he said.

Catalytic employees were experts in the domains they used on a daily basis but relied on developers to implement any changes they needed. Often, employees created their own work-around solutions. It's a common problem for companies big and small, he said, and getting worse as the demand for developers outstrips the supply. Hiring consultants or developers was expensive, and Chou did not want to divert in-house developers from their work on core products.

The solution: convert customer-success employees into "citizen developers." As smart, customer-focused problem-solvers, Chou said, these were workers with adjacent technical and process skills such as a proficiency in creating spreadsheets of moderate complexity and the ability to describe and document at a high level a process that involves multiple steps and many people.

Tips for Identifying Skill Adjacencies

Gartner's report on skill adjacencies advises organizations to:

  • Make current employee skill sets visible, and encourage managers and employees to maintain a portfolio of skills to share with HR. At Visier, HR worked alongside the managers who were overseeing the new technology process, Cook said.

  • Identify and mobilize skill adjacencies that are not obvious, and determine which secondary or tertiary skills to start building on. An employee in marketing with social listening skills, for example, is likely to be familiar with sentiment analysis, which is "a more direct progression to becoming skilled in natural language processing. Essentially, that employee can be [a bridge] from the marketing function to the IT function through upskilling," Gartner said in its report.

An analysis that LinkedIn's data science team performed for the World Economic Forum "shows that many employees who have moved into 'emerging roles' over the past five years came from entirely different occupations." Half of the employees who moved into data science and artificial intelligence came from unrelated industries, LinkedIn said in its report.

  • Adjust career path strategies to encourage flexible career progression. Chou advised employers to consider the value proposition for themselves and employees. "What am I, as an employer, going to get out of skills adjacencies? What is the employee going to get?" he asked. "Certification is a good way to address this. Giving them the ability to put something on their resume by thinking of their career progression either within [your] company or beyond [your] company." Be thoughtful, he added, of the kinds of programs you are putting people in and their commercial value to the employee.

Employers should not force employees to make the job change, Cook said, but they should point out how employees' strengths are adjacent to those in jobs the employer is looking to fill. If their old job will no longer exist, make that absolutely clear as they weigh their options.


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