Prediction: Nurturing capabilities will be as important as building skills

Posted by Matt Deruntz, Julie Hiipakka and Chelsey Taylor on December 5, 2019.

Work, the workforce, and the very notion of a “job” are all changing fast, thanks to accelerating technological innovation, digital disruption, and a groundswell of alternative workforce models. In response, organizations are searching for new ways to define the work required to execute strategies and generate value—and, subsequently, to develop workers and evaluate their contributions.

In many organizations, the short-term response to these challenges is to focus on reskilling workers; however, the pace of change in the market and the speed at which skills lose viability already make it difficult for organizations to keep up, much less anticipate what’s next. Additionally, the traditional concept of skills applies to a defined process or set of tasks, yet workers are increasingly asked to fill multiple roles or take on new responsibilities, with little or no development. For many, work feels like a “night at the Improv.” Is there another, more effective way to help workers thrive when their jobs and how they are doing them changes continuously?

In 2020, we expect that organizations will start to manage and execute work by defining the outcomes of work and the human capabilities that workers must possess to realize those outcomes. Organizations will create workforce experiences around those capabilities to reinforce ongoing development efforts and attain a more meaningful approach to skilling and reskilling their workforce.

Recognizing the Need for Human Capabilities
Performing work requires the possession of multiple skills, the use or application of those skills in a particular context, and the human capabilities we all possess. Let’s break that down:

Skills are the tactical collections of knowledge, expertise, and patterns of activity needed to accomplish tasks and achieve work outcomes within a specific context.In other words, skills help us get work done in a specific situation—say, writing code in Python to build a mobile app, designing a menu for a dinner party, or drawing blood from a patient. Skills can be learned through training, experience, and exposure.

Skills must develop and change constantly, because context—the environment in which skills are applied—does too, and the pace of that change is accelerating. For example, cashiers have adapted to new ways of completing transactions as payment methods have evolved from cash to debit cards to mobile applications. And some cashiers have evolved to execute customer care and assistance roles as point-of-sale kiosks become self-service.

Human capabilities are already part of what many organizations identify as valuable attributes—creativity, resilience, empathy, and so on. Skills might evolve and change, but capabilities are something we are born with. Like muscles, they need exercise to grow stronger. When leveraged, they multiply our ability to perform activities and create outcomes that deliver value. We all possess these human capabilities, so there is tremendous promise for organizations to assess their current workforce’s capabilities and leverage them to meet the needs of a disruptive future. Some human capabilities traditionally have been left untapped in the workplace and present opportunities for companies to open the aperture and help employees be more “human” at work. And while these untapped capabilities can be nurtured, it is a different process than teaching a skill.

Putting Human Capabilities to Work
Organizations that focus on identifying and developing these human capabilities retain a belief that all talent can be nurtured. These organizations thrive on a growth mindset, which is why they can see the malleability and potential of their workforce’s most basic qualities. The related business benefit is not just talent retention—organizations with a strong growth-oriented culture are approximately twice as likely to report being able to effectively anticipate change and respond efficiently.1

Organizations need to help workers recognize, employ, and further develop their capabilities, and putting learning into the flow of work helps them do so.2 While decidedly not human, technology can play a role in generating these experiences. For example, virtual reality is providing ways for workers to practice honing their empathy, communication, and collaboration as they navigate mock scenarios that require these capabilities. Practice can also happen through stretch assignments, collaborative work, and peer experiences, depending on the capabilities to be nurtured and the actions of leaders to support these experiences.

The Role of Capabilities for Leaders
Recent research tells us that in order to develop a holistic view of workforce experience, high-performing organizations seek to create day-to-day moments that foster inclusivity and transparency.3 Responsibility for bringing these approaches to fruition rests with leaders, but not all leaders are necessarily prepared to do this effectively. This challenge calls for a different set of capabilities than, say, implementing a new sales technique or developing an action plan.

To connect with individuals and truly drive a meaningful work experience, leaders require a set of human capabilities that foster trust, open communication, and convey empathy. These capabilities are not simply taught—they’re lived out by leaders to improve workforce experience. Just recognizing the relevance of these capabilities challenges long-standing assumptions that high-performing individual contributors will also be high-performing leaders. As key influencers of culture and learning, leaders will be among the first in the organization challenged to actively cultivate and hone human capabilities to meet these needs (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Shifting Roles of Leaders

Source: Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2019.

By making this shift toward capabilities, organizationswill be able to rely on their talent ecosystem to navigate a slew of changes—even those that are unpredictable. Considering work through the frame of capabilities, not just skills, will help transform paths to desired outcomes and new ways of working, ultimately connecting business needs with talent’s potential.

Reinventing how they think about work with a focus on capabilities (combined with an emphasis on outcomes) has the potential to make leaders and individuals more acutely aware of the difference they’re making in their work, bolstering greater meaning and a sense of purpose. This fosters connection and engagement for employees and improved business outcomes.

To meet this challenge of building capabilities, organizations need the structures and operational ability to recognize and address them in their workforce. Success in the new world of work will rely on multiple vehicles, including the integration of capabilities into organizations’ structure and culture. A growth mindset is essential. Upcoming Bersin research will focus on operating models for learning organizations to better drive this dynamic, as well as further explore the integration and promotion of workforce experience across various elements of the business. By placing focus and acting on nurturing capabilities, organizations will help to reinforce the role of leaders as stakeholders of workforce experience, operationalize learning in the flow of work, and better prepare their workforce to handle the changing nature of work.

Matt Deruntz is a senior research analyst at BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Julie Hiipakka is a vice president and the learning research leader at Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Chelsey Taylor is lead advisor, Learning & Career, at BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP

1Creating a Culture of Leadership and Learning: Leveraging Talent Management, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Stacia Garr, Andrea Derler, Candace Atamanik, and Dani Johnson, 2017.
2Four Practices to Embed Learning in the Flow of Work, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Julie Hiipakka and Chelsey Taylor, 2019.
3Fueling Workforce Experience: Four Ways for Leaders to Enable Change, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Bill Latshaw and Matthew Deruntz, 2019.

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