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Use Your Head When Identifying Skills Gaps

February 29, 2000
Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
Like so many things in life, improving business performance is a journey, not a destination. It's clear that business performance rises and falls with the ebb and flow of human performance, but finding a way to keep human performance flowing instead of ebbing always seems just over the next wave.

HR professionals lead the search for ways to enhance the effectiveness of employees in their jobs today and prepare them for tomorrow. Over the years, training programs have grown into corporate universities with these goals in mind.

To contend with the failing grades that corporate executives are giving training programs ["Learning Revives Training", Workforce, January 2000], HR professionals are looking for new ways to train "intelligently" so that training programs enhance performance and enrich the contributions of the workforce. To this end, a technique called "skills gapping" has emerged as a method to fit training to the specific needs of the individual employee.

But the question arises, does "skills gapping" adequately prepare our workforce or is it rising in popularity because it's simple and neat?

"Skills gapping," a technique often used by recruiters to siphon a manageable number of candidates from a sea of résumés, appeared to training administrators as a way to make training programs more significant, more real, and more "personal." In the current economy, the feverish search for talent coaxed the merger between the training and recruitment departments.

The ultimate goal of both trainers and recruiters is to place the appropriate talent in the workforce in order to keep the business growing. To build a talented workforce, organizations are using a two-pronged approach: As recruiters try to extract talent from the labor market, trainers attempt to develop it internally.

The "Skills Gapping" Process
"Skills gapping" is a matter of comparing supply and demand. Organizations determine what skills are critical to each job (demand) and then assess people to determine the skills they possess (supply). Skills gapping or skills matching essentially compares these two laundry lists of skills.

Recruiters often call this process "skills matching." After filtering the candidates, any applicant with a high degree of match between skills desired and skills acquired is thrown into the "keeper" pile.

Training administrators take this process one step further. Training administrators become involved when an individual's skill inventory is not totally matched with the skill inventory needed to be successful in the current or upcoming job. Training courses must be categorized according to the skill (or skills) addressed in the course.

If there is a deficiency or gap between the skills employees have and the ones they need to have, then the employee, his manager, or training administrators can look at a menu of specific training courses or events that address that skill.

This allows a company to target training that bridges skill gaps. By determining the gap between the skills an employee exhibits and what's required by the work, organizations should be able to intervene with a personalized, precision training program.

Technology facilitates this process. The logic is easily built into software applications. It's simple arithmetic. Recruitment software applications routinely offer a skills matching approach to filtering résumés. Training vendors routinely provide administration software that tracks their courses to specific skill categories. The "gapping" process is convenient, highly measurable, and beautiful in its simplicity and objectivity. But maybe it's too simple.

Beyond Matching into Business Intelligence
Generally, the more technical the work, the easier it is to define the specific skills needed to satisfactorily perform the job. In software development, for example, it's a fairly straightforward process to define requisite skills in terms of preferred programming languages, operating systems, and databases. Skills matching should produce great results in ferreting out qualified applicants, while skills gapping should precisely pinpoint appropriate training regimens for technical workers.

But let's look at a hypothetical IT manager we'll name "Tony," and his experiences hiring software developers. Corporate growth has kept Tony searching for new developers. He knows exactly what skills the new developers must have to complete the projects on the development calendar.

So Tony has all applicants take a skills test. The skill test weeds out unqualified applicants, but it proves unreliable in predicting the performance of the new hires. In fact, some individuals that scored high in a particular technology just couldn't apply that knowledge and were mediocre performers.

This workplace vignette is repeated everyday in organizations around the world. Some might challenge the integrity of the testing instrument, contending that a better test would produce better results.

In response to these problematic placements, new assessment instruments have been developed that claim to measure not just proficiency but also ability to apply the skill to the task at hand. However, the question remains, can we ever develop a skills test that will reliably predict a perfect match or reliably identify how to make a person more effective in his job?

Skills matching was never meant to find the perfect person for the job, it was merely meant to filter out obviously unqualified candidates.

Identifying a person that has a good chance of performing well in a specific job requires much more information. People bring much more to the job than a list of skills. High performance demands more than a collection of technical skills. And that's what is missing when we place too much emphasis on "skills gapping" to create personalized, individual training programs.

Furthermore, "skills gapping" doesn't reflect the dynamics of the workforce. Personal qualities of individuals that contribute either positively or negatively to job performance aren't incorporated in the model. Qualities of the work team are not considered. Intangible job challenges are no where to be found in the "skills gapping" model.

Yet often it's the qualities of the individuals, the team, or the job that lead to success. Often it's the "non-skill" challenges of the job or characteristics of the individuals or team that derail otherwise successful people.

Let's return to our hypothetical organization and look at another common challenge. "Susan" joined Tony's software development team two years ago. Young and bright, Susan is not only contributing in her current role, but also has the potential to grow in the organization. Skills gapping to improve her performance may not incorporate Susan's career aspirations.

For instance, there was no place on the skills assessment instrument for Susan to talk about the MBA she's about to receive. There's nowhere for her to say that, although her manager and co-workers see her as capable of quickly moving to a project manager slot, her interests actually lie in finance.

Enrollment in additional technical training classes to prepare her for her future role in software development wouldn't benefit the organization. In fact, if Susan doesn't get a career move in her organization, she'll probably find one with a competitor. Training recommendations resulting from the skills gapping process would be seen as shortsighted by executives of this firm.

Skills gapping builds boxes around an organization's most important asset, its people, limiting their development and potential contributions.

Where to start?
As any seasoned HR professional knows, improving human performance is a moving target! Skills gapping is useful, but it's only a piece of the process. Combined with other relevant information, executives, managers, and HR professionals can work with employees to generate meaningful, personalized training programs that enhance workforce effectiveness.

How can skill gap data be turned into business intelligence that will usefully inform us about training needs? We must put skills gap information into the context of a person's work life.

Here are some examples of "intelligence" that creates that crucial context:

• Career interests What does the employee plan to do with their career? Will bridging gaps between the required and already acquired skills accelerate the employee's progress on achieving these aspirations? Reluctant participation often diminishes the effectiveness of training.

• Are there other qualities, competencies, or background experiences specific to those that performed well in the job which contributed to their success? If so, what are they and how important are they in achieving high performance? Perhaps training to improve specific skills may be like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

• Career path Where will this person fit in the organization in future years? There is only a limited time that can be spent on training, so the issues must be strategically selected. For example, should priority be given to bridging specific, existing skill gaps or should development focus on enhancement of competencies, exposure to other professionals, to other business processes, or to other markets?

If our goal is to improve business performance, we need to think more broadly about human performance. For example, can we pull skills out of the context of other "non-skill" characteristics of the person and the job? Does this give us the "intelligence" we need to make good business decisions about allocating peoples' time and corporate resources?

Clearly more comprehensive "intelligence" about people and jobs in the workforce leads to better business decisions about training.

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 118-122.

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