Enigma of Reimagining the Future: Work or Skills




This article delves into the transition from focusing on the ‘future of work’ to emphasizing a ‘skills future.’ It examines the increasing reliance on AI and skill taxonomies within organizations, highlighting the need for a strategic pivot towards skill-based structures to enhance talent mobility and ensure long-term sustainability. Through exploring current trends and practical examples, it offers insights into reimagining work and the critical role of leadership in navigating the evolving employment landscape.

There has been increased interest and talk around the topic of skills-based organization/future of skills, from discussions at WEF Davos to an increase in the flow of articles and enhanced initiatives by large organizations (as compared to 2 years ago) on building skills-based organization;  focusing on trending skills, skill gaps, proficiencies, and skill taxonomies, and how different AI-based tools will help with the skills database and contribute to talent marketplace and the talent mobility. The focus has suddenly shifted from the ‘future of work’ to the ‘skills future’.

The biggest question that comes to our mind is whether it’s all about the ‘skills future’ or the ‘future of work.’ The answer to this conundrum is buried in the depths of understanding the real problem that needs to be solved before we run in the race to find the quickest solution.

In the last few months, I came across many examples of how organizations built successful systems of skills taxonomy and skill proficiencies. Unfortunately, I observed very few examples of how organizations are focusing on ‘how work would evolve with process and cognitive automation’ and further advancement of generative AI. While I agree that building successful skills taxonomy and proficiency systems are all good and may be required, as the required skills are changing fast (e.g., data mining was seen as an essential skill but with the advent of generative AI it’s no longer a desired skill).

Almost all skills taxonomy & talent marketplace systems are built on the basic assumption that we will have an unbiased, sharp precision to assess/predict skills required for the future and the skills proficiencies of individuals in an impartial manner. There are many AI-powered solutions available in the market today, but most of them are optimized for different purposes (from the system of records to making a match within the organization to the learning paths/development opportunities). It will take some time to have one solution that does everything by predicting the right skills and recommending the right match (inferring billions of data points in employee profiles, doing complex analysis, and building models for predicting and matching skills). Even if we build such a system, the final decision-making will be in the hands of human minds  (people leaders), and they need to have completely different mindset and behaviors (human-centric leadership), in addition to having a  stable hard driver (talent marketplace systems), to create the real impact by creating an intelligent way to move the right people into the right role in an agile and adaptable manner.

Most organizations are focusing on short-term and easy solutions, but only some of them focus on understanding and defining the real problem that we want to solve and are focusing on reimagining and discovering a long-term sustainable solution. One of the reasons for such an approach could be the constantly changing nature of the problem that the organizations want to solve, ambiguity and complexity of the business landscape (especially in a post-pandemic world), a clear strategy on what needs to be done.

In my opinion, to understand the key challenges and possible solutions, it’s essential to pay attention to the real reason why we need to build skills-based organizations. Organizations face immense challenges in creating more value and protecting value for their stakeholders through revenue growth, market share, profitability, and sustainability. To meet these demanding needs of creating more value for their stakeholders, most organizations are on a digital transformation journey, creating new value streams and exploring how ‘Gen AI’ will help them automate and enhance productivity (especially for the white-collar responsibilities).

These initiatives (to create more value and protect the value for stakeholders) are forcing organizations to reimagine their strategies/ business models, which in turn is moving them to implement a significant shift in their operating models: from ‘operating the way we organized through fixed jobs’ to ‘flexibly organizing the way we need to operate’. This shift is forcing organizations to move away ‘from organizing work around fixed jobs’, ‘to reimagining the future of work’ (to create more value through automation and productivity enhancement). As the future of work will be centered around automation & enhancing productivity, and creating new/ flexible value & revenue streams, the ‘hire for growth’ strategy may not be able to support the changing demands in an agile and adaptable way. The only possible systemic solution will be a holistic redesign of work, flexible deployment and re-deployment of skills, and agile talent mobility – the careers that used to be functional and focused on one industry will be transforming into “skills & experience-based careers” (moving away from planned and facilitated career pathways).

To crack the code and succeed in the future, organizations need to work on three critical levers to unlock the full potential of work and build skills-based organizations. These levers are:

Focus on reimagining /redesigning work: With the advent of automation and productivity enhancement, organizations must focus on reimagining work to unblock new value streams rather than only work for skills taxonomies for existing jobs, as the existing jobs may become redundant or be reshaped in a few years. Ideally, organizations should first focus on work analysis and redesign of work before working on skills taxonomy and the related systems, as most of the skills taxonomies are centered around how job descriptions for the current roles/jobs are defined. If we draw a few parallels to business – it’s like increasing the features of existing products without focusing on the changing needs and wants of the customers. I agree that in the world of reimagining/redesigning work, work analysis is an arduous task, which will take a lot of time and effort but will have a long-term and sustainable impact. The possible solution could be to have a balanced approach – start working on reimagining/redesigning work & work analysis, especially where we anticipate maximum disruption (automation and potential to enhance white collar productivity) and new value streams, but at the same time start building a skills taxonomy for the stable jobs and roles which have more commonality across various industries with the help of generative AI to predict the right skills and recommending the right match. This will undoubtedly provide a balance between immediate impact and long-term sustainable impact.

Shifting from defined career paths to agile talent mobility: Reimagining/Re-design of work and Talent Mobility requires us to move away from fixed thinking around planned and facilitated career path models, which are focused on vertical & horizontal movements, overly structured and dependent on people leaders, take a long time, could be political and are based on the philosophy of ‘hire for growth.’ These traditional models assume that we should wait until somebody is ready. I have seen many examples, in my career, where leaders label an employee as ready in 1-2 years and continue to use the same label for the said employee for more than five years. The times have changed, and we need a more agile and adaptable talent mobility approach, which is on-demand and provides multiple short-term opportunities to build new skills and experiences, helping employees be ready to make complex and difficult decisions in an ambiguous environment. We need to move away from career path models to help our employees prioritize building new skills and new experiences, as some of the coveted roles that we consider important in our career path models may not exist in the future and vice-versa. The possible solution could be a talent marketplace where employees are guided to work on gaining new skills and experiences based on the combination of organizational needs and their preferences/aspirations. It’s interesting that organizations never use the same strategy for different products and markets but use a combination of parameters (e.g., product market matrix) as every product and market combination is unique, but when it comes to the most essential resource for an organization – it’s ‘employees,’ we try to force fixed career path models /career management strategies through planned or facilitated career management approaches.

In 2016, I came up with a framework to help me on my career journey and later shared the same with many colleagues, employees, and friends. The framework is based on the assumption that employees are motivated when they feel that they have control and feel that their efforts will contribute to the desired outcome (which is meaningful for them). The framework can be used for agile talent mobility as it balances the aspirations and needs of the intergenerational workforce and the changing nature of work and associated skills and experiences.

*Kalia’s Career Matrix : The New Leadership Playbook:

The framework was also published in the bestseller by Andrew Bryant, CSP (a well-known expert on self-leadership, Executive Coach, and a global key-note speaker),”The New Leadership Playbook: Being Human Whilst Successfully Delivering Accelerated (#thenewleadershipplaybook).For lack of a better word, For lack of better word we called it Kalia’s Career Matrix.

We urgently need to invest in the mindset shift of the people leaders: Apart from investing in a system/process to influence the internal environment, working on the mindset shift is essential, as it plays a vital role in what people say/do, which in turn helps achieve the desired results/outcomes. To get to the desired outcome of talent mobility (to support the demanding and changing business needs), we need to simultaneously work on building a system/process that helps in predicting the right skills and recommending the right match for the right work (in an agile and adaptable manner) along with the mindset shift of people leaders, to make them believe in the power & potential of reimagining the work and flexible re-deployment of skills (skills-based organizations). The mindset shift plays the most crucial role in achieving the desired change in people leaders’ behaviors and will influence what they say and do to get the desired outcome/impact.

Drivers +Mindsets + Behaviours result in desired outcomes

As an analogy, let’s assume that we have the most sophisticated digital maps application, and it uses the best data-based algorithms to recommend the best route for traveling from point A to point B. Still, because we haven’t experienced the recommended route, we keep on using the route that we have experienced. So, we will never be able to get the desired result despite having the best of the system because we are not ready to make a mindset shift to trust the system/process and adopt the new way of working.

We have several examples of large organizations successfully identifying the need to reinvent the organization by building new value/business streams. However, they were not successful in re-skilling and re-deploying employees from one division/function/existing value streams to other divisions/function/new value streams. One of the reasons they failed to re-skill/re-deploy the talents was that the people leaders in these organizations were ‘fat and happy’ with the inertia of hiring as per the old practices (hire for growth with functional experience). This could have severe repercussions in the current situation, where we face extreme challenges to circumvent the skills shortages.

The most crucial aspect of the mindset shift is to provide comfort the people leaders around reimagining work/skills-based organization / re-deployment of skills. From my experience, one of the biggest challenges/barriers for the mindset shift of people leaders is not around skills but the apprehension in their mind that experience of applying the skills in a particular industry/function/environment may be missing if we re-deploy skills. To provide this comfort to people leaders, organizations can start focusing on initiatives like:

o Talent Alliances: Talent exchange across divisions/functions in the organization, where cross-divisional/cross-functional talents work jointly with divisional/functional employees on projects/new business ideas/new business models (funded possibly through a catalyst fund). This will undoubtedly help people leaders have more confidence in re-deployment of skills/talent marketplaces

o Purpose to Action Projects: Inviting all employees to galvanize innovative ideas from across the divisions, functions, and countries that would positively impact the organization’s stakeholders (mainly focusing on the defined and shared organizational challenges). The idea is to empower employees from cross-division/cross-function to experiment, test and learn, and translate ideas into reality through an idea-pitching approach, followed by coaching and funding for the short-listed ideas. It will help break the perception that employees from other functions/divisions cannot be re-deployed and will also give the employees the experience of working in a new but psychologically safe environment.

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Written by: Mihaly Nagy

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