It’s About Skills, Not Jobs

One of the most discussed talent management topics of late is workforce planning. Its need is trumpeted in journals, at conferences and in management training programs. Still, I don’t see much actually happening.

I believe that nearly all current planning is a redo of the 20th century model of gap analysis. That model focused on filling positions rather than generating human capital capability. This wasn’t very enlightened, but at least it served the purpose in a stable, less competitive marketplace.

The problem with continuing that modus operandi is that the gaps are moving. If you try to plan for filling jobs in the coming year, it is very likely that by midyear many of those jobs will no longer exist.

Your organization’s response to today’s whirlwind market is to change continually to keep up or gain advantage. Instead of following an old model, I suggest you try this instead. Start by talking to those functional heads such as research and development, production, marketing and service. Ask them what skills, not jobs, will be needed during the next two to three years.

Jobs will be eliminated while skills new and old will be updated and fitted into changing organizational forms. If your plan produces the required skills, someone will find a bench or desk to put them behind.

So, how do you make the shift? It is a three-step process that I have seen leaders adopting: scanning, planning and processing.

Start by looking at the marketplace. What’s happening out there that will affect your human capital requirements in the near term; i.e. one to three years? Beyond that, the market is moving so fast that everything is just a guess. This is the most important step. Most plans fail because of lack of front-end analysis.

Next, look inside. What does your skill base look like, especially in mission-critical skills? This includes top and upper management plus essential professional capabilities. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which are our mission-critical skills?
  • How strong is our bench in each of these? (Rank 1 through 5).
  • How capable are the skills of mission-critical incumbents? (Rank 1 through 5).
  • How vulnerable are they to being hired away? (Rank 1 through 5).
  • What would be the effect if these skills are not filled quickly?

This will yield a clear picture of your current status and a sense of the foreseeable future.
Now, share this with upper management. Check their perceptions and beliefs about tomorrow. If there is agreement, you will be ready to plan.

To plan, take the broad data and apply it to specific, projected skill needs. One more time, think skills, not jobs. Rather than focusing on shortfalls, which is an inherently limiting form of analysis, think about capabilities that are needed to generate competitive advantage tomorrow.

Now you can go about building out a workforce skill plan. You’re looking at gaps of course, but they are in skills — I like to call it human capital capability — rather than soon-to-be obsolete jobs.

The last step is process optimization. In my experience, planners don’t involve recruiters on the front end of the planning process. After the fact an order sheet is sent to HR to fill jobs. The effectiveness of the recruiting process is seldom addressed. Everyone knows about recruitment. What is the big deal? Get a requisition, fill it, get another, fill it, ad infinitum.

What about the most effective ways to generate a skill bank? Which sources are best for which jobs? Recruiters say they just know from experience, but tests show they often don’t. Which selection processes are most effective for which skill set? How do you measure recruiting effectiveness?

These three steps are the beginning of a planning system that builds skills. New markets demand new models and methods, and this planning system guarantees the timely delivery of essential human capital.

Jac Fitz-enz is founder of the Human Capital Source. He can be reached at