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The future of learning at work, part two – skills management

In part one, I outlined four areas in which learning and development (L&D) needs to be active to stay relevant in the future:

  1. Capability building.
  2. Performance support.
  3. Personal learning support.
  4. Skills management.

Over the next four articles, I will look at each of these in turn, working from four to one. We begin our journey with skills management, an area that may seem completely outside the remit of L&D. Appearances, however, can be deceptive. I would argue that only by playing a part in skills management can the modern L&D department be taken seriously.

Skills management is about understanding and addressing the short- and long-term skills needs of an organisation. That means providing the organisational skills required to deliver a long-term executive vision (usually measured in years) and meeting managers’ needs for employee skills over the next three to 12 months.

“What matters to the people running an organisation is that employees are able to do their job.”

If this sounds like a fancy term for training needs analysis, that is a problem of perception. It isn’t. Skills management’s main purpose has little to do with training. Better training – and learning generally – is just one of its products. Rather than being focused on training, skills management is about managing one of the essential resources of a modern organisation, its people.

And here’s the kicker: when L&D is effectively involved in skills management, not only does it get better training, it gets something else, too. It becomes deeply involved with the rest of the organisation.

That’s the sort of involvement L&D needs to succeed in the 21st century.

The how of skills management

Whether for long or short term use, the process of gathering data for skills management is easily described. First, the skills and the level of each skill for a role are defined. Then individuals in these roles assess themselves against the same set of skills, with their assessment confirmed by their manager or other competent individual. Comparing the role skills requirement against an individual’s actual skills levels shows any skills gap and action can be taken to bridge that gap.

Individuals should check their skills level regularly – perhaps quarterly – using software which enables individual skills data to be aggregated and reported on centrally. This process should take minutes rather than hours.

This simple outline does not touch on the detail which is crucial to the success of skills management, a subject well beyond the scope of this article. One point which cannot be skipped over, however, is this: collecting individual skills data like this, regularly, needs active managerial support. Even the most well-disposed manager will only get his or her team involved in this sort of activity if there is something in it for him or her. Fortunately, there is plenty in it for the manager.

The uses of skills management

When done properly, skills management is far more about the management part than the skills part. The analysis of the skills data collected enables managers and executives to find answers to the questions such as:

  • Where are the people I need to build my next project team?
  • Where can I find an expert in X [a subject vital to me right now]?
  • How can we ensure we have the right skills in place for the big project next year?
  • Which managers are developing their people best?
  • Which areas of strategic importance have the greatest skills gaps?
  • In which particular skills areas is the organization most vulnerable?

The analysis of aggregated information on individuals’ skills produces incredibly powerful results – exactly what a modern organisation needs to plan and function effectively. One of those results just happens to be about L&D.

The benefits to L&D

So far I have almost failed to mention ‘training’ at all. There’s a reason for that.

Training plans are only one outcome of skills management, and they are – for management and executives – probably the least important part. What matters to the people running an organisation is that employees are able to do their job. Having people with the right skills in each job is important, but how the right people with the right skills get there is an operational issue. It could be done through recruitment, through re-deploying staff, or indeed through up-skilling existing staff. That up-skilling could take place through planned on-the-job experience, through coaching and mentoring, through stretch assignments … and, of course, through training.

While training plans may be a side-product of skills management as far as executives are concerned, from the L&D viewpoint, they are a core output. Well performed skills management, updated regularly using software, enables organisations to derive a whole host of L&D benefits. Here are just three examples:

  1. Clear career pathways linking skills to progress in the organization.
  2. Well-defined PDPs (personal development plans) fitting both organisational and individual goals.
  3. Training that matches the needs and priorities of the business.

That last point is crucial, and is why skills management is one of the four things that L&D must do to stay relevant in the 21st Century.

Skills management involves managers in dialogue with their team members about skills. By flagging up the skills gaps of their team, managers are automatically reporting which skills they – and by extension the business – requires. This is not a matter of the HR department carrying out an abstruse return on investment calculation for a single training intervention, this is an on-going, business-led process that points out business-critical skills deficiencies.

These efficiencies in delivering training may be the by-product of an enterprise initiative, but that makes them much more likely to occur. Whereas training needs analysis (TNA) foisted on management will always be seen as an imposition, a process that provides valuable information for managers and executives will be made to happen, even in the most recalcitrant departments.

The implications

All this requires a shift in L&D’s mentality – from being experts in the classroom to having serious conversations with managers and executives about how they manage the skills of their staff. We are to be engaged in an enterprise process, not another initiative from the training department, and we need to be in business-like conversation with the organisation about it.

If we do this, I suggest, we will see what learning activities need to be prioritised for the long- and short-term needs of the business. If we do not, someone else will take charge of the skills development part of skills management and we will be relegated to delivering courses that other people think are important.

And that is something I dread.

I dread it because we are the experts who understand skills and learning, and if L&D is not deeply involved in this process, we will be reduced to simply implementing training programmes that someone else thinks is a good idea. We are the experts in learning, and we know that there is a lot more to learning than training, something we will investigate in the remaining articles in this series.