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Align roles and skills to your goals

Don Jones

One of the worst ways to manage technology skill development in an organization is to simply let employees find their own way. That doesn’t mean learning should be top-down or a strict mandate by a leader. But it’s important that, as a leader, you guide your team to the right skills for their career and for your business.

In some cases, your employees may happen upon exactly the right topics to benefit the business; in other cases, they may wander off in entirely the wrong direction. In many cases, they might simply do nothing at all. Getting employees headed in the right direction can seem difficult, but you can make it easier by bringing the conversation back to a simple question: What business outcomes do we expect technology skill development to deliver for us and our people?

Starting at the business outcome means looking at what you need the organization to achieve, and what job roles will bring that to reality. Once you’ve done that, you’ve unlocked the secret to effectively leading your employees: job roles.

In any organization, every single job role consists of multiple different skills. A web developer might need skills in things like HTML, CSS and JavaScript; a systems engineer might need skills like Linux administration, Microsoft Windows security and so on. Browse any hiring website and you’ll see those skills expressed as job requirements, desired experience and the like. Those skills, and the way they combine to enable job roles, is at the heart of an effective, outcome-driven program of technology skill development.

How to define roles

Most organizations recognize that their individual contributors’ skill levels, for any given skill, will vary. A “Level One” software engineer is usually expected to be less skilled than a “Level Two” software engineer. Indeed, it’s often the gradual accumulation of skills that leads an organization to promote someone to a higher “level.” So we’ve recognized two things: A job role consists of multiple different skills, and someone’s proficiency across that set of skills can help determine their “level”within their role.

Those two facts are absolutely key to creating a functional, practical, directed program of skill development within any organization. These are the roles we need to achieve the business outcomes we’ve set for ourselves; these are the skills that those roles comprise. In other words, our organization knows what it needs to know in order to be successful. We know where to “point” our employees. If the business environment changes, we need to realign the team:

  • Define new business outcomes
  • Survey job roles needed to accomplish them
  • Index the existing skills (and identify the gaps)
  • Give employees a clear path for gaining the needed skills

This simple approach gives organizations their first step in a practical, directed, managed program of technology skill development.

Implementing such a program can, of course, be more complicated. How do you ensure that you’ve fully understood the skills needed by a given job role? How do you figure out where your existing teams’ proficiencies lie and where they still need to grow? Given a defined need for skill improvement, where exactly do you point your teams, and how do you monitor and manage their skill growth over time?

This simple approach gives organizations their first step in a practical, directed, managed program of technology skill development.

Conducting a skill inventory

To be clear, inventorying the skills a job role demands can be hard. A lot of skills get subsumed by other higher-level ones, making them hard to pinpoint. But a proper skill inventory is also a step toward a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to skills management. Start by working with technology leaders in your organization to document the skills they think their job roles require. Offer people in those job roles a chance to weigh in. And fully expect that the results, and your framework for achieving them, will evolve over time as you learn more about the skill base of your organization and as you start to evolve and expand that skill base.

And this is precisely where a technology skills platform can fit into your organization. For example, a platform can get you started with archetypal job roles that represent a common view of the tech industry’s major roles in software engineering, data science, IT operations, information security and more. Your organization can adopt roles that provide a close fit to your own needs, and then add or remove the technology skills specific to your organization and its needs.

Role-based assessments can then permit you to assess each individual contributor’s proficiencies across all of the skills in their job roles and even in adjacent job roles. Many organizations are often surprised to find they have more skills on the team than they’d realized, and have used this kind of assessment activity to build new teams that leverage the skills and talent they’ve already got.

Once you understand the skill proficiency of your team, these platforms can start directing your teams to specific learning experiences that increase their proficiency in the exact skills the organization needs. Employees would then periodically reassess their proficiency, helping company leadership monitor progress and confidently predict timelines for reaching needed skill levels.

Learning experiences for a successful skill development program

Of course, making progress on your tech skill development strategy requires solid content and learning experiences, and that’s where partners can really shine. There are two broad approaches that have emerged in the industry: one favors assembling as much content as possible for your team to choose from, and the other leans toward a curated approach that puts the most appropriate content at their fingertips.

The first approach tends to assume your team knows what they want and are willing to dig around and assemble their own plans. An upside to that approach is that you get a lot to choose from; the downside is that it can be too much. You or your staff will need the expertise to filter through the available selections, assemble appropriate learning plans (ideally on an individual basis) and actually vet the quality and accuracy of each piece. Unfortunately, organizations often end up deploying this kind of learning in a one-size-fits-all motion, which frustrates advanced employees and leaves entry-level employees overwhelmed and undermotivated.

Role-based assessments can then permit you to assess each individual contributor’s proficiencies.

The second approach typically provides a more guided experience, beginning with broad entry-level coverage and progressing to deeper, expert-led learning experiences, with human curation and AI-driven recommendations at the core of the process. It looks at where your employees are and where you need them to be, and helps curate the best-fit path for each person on your team. This approach can require a bit more up-front commitment from leadership to fully align skill development to organizational outcomes, but it affords each employee a more individualized learning plan, and provides the flexibility to continually and more effortlessly shift skills targets as the organization’s needs change.

When selecting a skill development partner, look for one that:

  • Curates and controls what goes into their platform, achieving a consistent level of quality and instructional expertise
  • Works with you to create role-based skill development plans that align to organizational outcomes
  • Provides an individualized experience for each employee on your team, boosting motivation and letting each person experience a feeling of progress and success

The key to success? Engaging your teams in the program. Leaders at every level in the organization must treat skill inventories, development and ongoing maintenance as a production activity. It must be part of the organization’s standard outcomes, just like quarterly earnings reports. And with the right platform, tech skill development can be managed that way: You can monitor progress toward goals, develop trendlines to predict arrival at goal and detect potential risks, and regularly report on skill attainment throughout the organization.

If the business environment changes and the organization needs new job roles and skills, you simply reconfigure your job roles accordingly, adding and removing skills as appropriate. Teams assess their proficiency across the new skills, are directed to learning experiences and are able to support the business.

It all comes down to using job roles as a unit of learning and skill measurement, and also as a primary mover and monitor of skills management. Tech skills become linked to, and provide a conduit to, business outcomes. Job roles, and the skills that comprise them, become an organizational asset and motivator, and the organization starts to adopt a truly strategic approach to developing their people.

Don Jones has been a technology professional and leader since the 1990s. He’s worked in everything from midrange operations to e-commerce web development, although the majority of his career has focused on technology learning. Don is a 16-time recipient of Microsoft’s prestigious MVP Award, the author of more than 60 technology books and has been an in-demand speaker at technology conferences and symposiums for over two decades.

Don’s current role involves focusing on how modern enterprises create and maintain agility and competitive differentiation by unlocking and closely managing technology skills in their teams. As VP for Content Partnerships at Pluralsight, Don is also responsible for working with technology learning experts across the industry to better address skills gaps wherever they’re found.