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Adjacent skills: Their role in building skills-first organizations

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12 January, 2023

What do you think is the best way to reduce the skills gap?   

Well, no doubt, we can say that hiring new employees whenever there is a skills shortage isn’t the best way out.  

Primarily because it is expensive, and secondly, there is no inexhaustive pool of talent available where recruiters can pick and choose as needed.    

So, the best way to bridge this gap is to rely on skill adjacencies and transform your I-shaped employees into T-shaped ones.    

Confused about what those are?   

I-shaped people are those who have expertise in a single field. On the other hand, T-shaped people are specialists in many areas. They are poly-skilled and can wear different hats at a time.    

As Sriram Narayan explains in his work Agile IT Organization Design, a T-shaped employee, who is a tester, can be an analyst and even a stakeholder manager.

In today’s world, with tectonic shifts happening in the realms of skills and technology, employees have to be versatile, flexible, and poly-skilled, aka have adjacent skills to stay job-fit.    

Similarly, due to a possible fourth industrial revolution, how we approach hiring is changing. Therefore, employers and HR professionals must bring skill adjacencies to the spotlight and recruit based on skills, not just roles.   

By keeping these things in mind, let’s now explore adjacent skills with examples and the role played by these skills in building skills-first organizations. 

What are adjacent skills?  adjacent skills

Adjacent skills refer to skills connected or related to other skills. They can be an amalgam of technical and transferrable skills. In most cases, adjacent skills won’t be focal within a candidate’s or employee’s job role. They would be a secondary field of knowledge that can act as stepping stones in helping them advance in their career.  

“People with the skills necessary to perform a role’s duties may never have held that specific role or a position with that specific title,” said Lindsey Walsh, VP of Gartner. Walsh also added that roles are essentially bags of skills.

To close the skills gaps, HR professionals will have to identify critical skills and adjacent skills instead of searching for people who have performed the same job role. 

Transforming skills and technology: How to overcome skills shortage with adjacent skills 

Since skills are changing rapidly with the takeover of technology such as machine learning, automation, artificial intelligence, and so forth, several job roles are on the verge of extinction.   

For instance, as per the report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, several job positions are declining extensively in the U.S. Let's have a look at some of them:   

  • The number of word processors and typists in 2021 was 8.6 thousand, which is expected to be 5.6 thousand by 2031.   
  • In 2021, the number of executive secretaries was 508 thousand, which could decrease to 405.4 thousand by 2031.   
  • The number of telephone operators in 2021 was four thousand, which might reduce to three thousand by 2031.   
  •  In 2021, the number of telemarketers was 115.7 thousand; in 2031, it is expected to become 405.4 thousand.   

And these are just a handful of examples from a wide, wide pool. The scenario continues to change with the disruptions happening around us.

But does this mean that these employees have to be laid off?

Or will it increase the unemployment rate drastically?   

It won't.

Provided your organization identifies these employees' related skills, conducts effective reskilling/upskilling programs, and offers them opportunities for talent mobility.   

One such example is available in the arena of customer service. With the increased adoption of chatbots, there is a decrease in the demand for customer service executives. Customer service as the primary skill has adjacent skills like communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. These skills are also adjacent skills for sales skills. Therefore, you can equip customer service employees for sales-related tasks within your organization by building sales-related skills on the foundational skills of customer service.   

The emergence of new skills and how adjacent skills can resolve the skills gap within the same domain and other domains is worth considering. 

Along with skills and job roles becoming obsolete, several thousand new skills and job roles are emerging every quarter. Because of this, several organizations are finding it a challenge to hire employees with new-age skills like blockchain, AWS, NLP, etc. Besides, most companies are competing to hire for the same skill sets.    

As per a report from Gartner published in 2018, 90% of S&P organizations were hiring for the same 39 critical roles, including software developers, data scientists, and marketing managers, at the same time. They accounted for 49% of job postings during that time.    

Organizations can overcome these hiring concerns if they leverage skill adjacencies efficiently. Since skills are related to each other as they form part of the skill universe, considering skill-based experience over role-based experience can be highly beneficial. One of the best examples is put forward by Gartner concerning NLP.    

According to Gartner, finding employees/ candidates skilled in NLP can take time and effort. However, you can find employees skilled in Python, Machine Language, TensorFlow, NLTK, and sentiment analysis.

Adjacent Skills of Natural Language Processing (1)

Since these skills are adjacent to NLP, you can always upskill employees/ candidates with these skill sets in NLP. Through this, you can bridge the skills gap easily.    

Apart from mobility within the same domain, an organization can develop NLP skills in people from another domain.

For instance, you can train people from the marketing department and equip them to handle NLP. It is because social listening skill is vital for sentimental analysis (an adjacent skill of NLP) and marketing. Based on this adjacency, organizations can initiate upskilling/cross-skilling initiatives to build NLP skills in employees professed in marketing. 

How adjacent skills help build skills-first organizationsHow do adjacent skills help build skills-first organization_v

To stay relevant and attain sustainable business growth, your organization must move forward considering the market trends. Among them, one crucial factor is having employees equipped with skills suitable for achieving business goals and strategies. Your organization can do so by making the best out of skills adjacencies. 

Now, let's look at how adjacent skills can play a pivotal role in building a skills-first organization.  

Reduce skills gaps  Skills gap

Nowadays, finding employees with the same skill sets, aligning with your company's business goals and plans, can be challenging. Along with this, the rapid changes happening in the skills universe are making things worse.

Therefore, to lower the skills gap in your company, you can explore skill adjacencies within your employees and train them to take up other opportunities.  

Open up opportunities for talent mobility  

While prioritizing skills adjacencies, you can explore the possibilities opened up by talent or internal mobility. For instance, consider that your company has several openings for technical writers. If you have employees highly skilled in coding and keen on writing, they could take up upskilling/ cross-skilling as coding is an adjacent technical writing skill.   

You can bring in internal/talent mobility within your organization. This can happen when the tables turn as well. Thus, you can bring in talent mobility within a single department. It could be interdepartmental too.   

Lower costs in the long run  

Recruitment is one of the many viable solutions available whenever there is a talent shortage. Even with recruitment, finding the right talent is a challenging task. Similarly, the costs per hire are also increasing tremendously, especially with the rise in internal and external recruitment costs.

Internal recruitment costs include compliance, administration, training, development, etc. External recruitment costs include background checks, pre-screening, travel, and marketing expenses.   

Therefore, instead of considering hiring employees whenever there is a skills gap, you can look for skills adjacencies by relying on a skills intelligence platform. A skills intelligence platform with up-to-date skills inventory and taxonomy can help identify skills adjacencies.

Based on this, you can initiate upskilling/cross-skilling initiatives. You can improve talent mobility, employee performance, engagement, and retention and lower costs incurred in the long run.   

Increase learning and development opportunities  L&D

L&D activities are essential in building a future-ready organization. But there is a catch. Conducting upskilling/reskilling programs without any clarity can do more harm than benefit your organization. Through these activities, efforts would get wasted, new skills acquired would be redundant, and without any practical application, they could wither. 

Therefore, before organizing any L&D activities, it is best to ensure that they align with your company's business goals and your employees' career trajectories. Most importantly, keeping your eyes open for adjacent skills can also increase the scope of L&D activities you can conduct in your company.  

Help with workforce planning  

Regardless of the size of your organization, conducting workforce planning can be a highly fruitful exercise in building a skills-first company. As part of this initiative, the first step is to understand your organization's key goals and future objectives. You will also have to ensure that your employees align with them.   

Exploring skill adjacencies and taking the required measures can be helpful for that purpose. You will also have to consider the changes to your current workforce in the coming years. In this case, adjacent skills can also play a strategic role while performing workforce planning. 

Final thoughts 

In short, every organization is searching for purple unicorns, aka candidates with various skills and expertise. But they are rare to find, unattainable, and often mythical. But you can always consider upskilling as an option to create these talents.  

However, this, in no way, means that your organization has to give up on the aspiration to build a future-ready organization with skill-fit employees. You can still achieve it by making the best out of skills adjacencies, conducting effective upskilling/reskilling programs, analyzing and measuring employee performance, and so forth.   

Are you struggling to identify the skills you need to stay ahead of your competition? Try iMocha! 

References 

1. CFI (2022, December 7). T-Shaped Skills. Corporate Finance Institute. https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/management/t-shaped-skills/  

2. Narayan, S. Agile IT Organization Design: For Digital Transformation and Continuous Delivery (1st ed.). https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=Ve3cCQAAQBAJ&pg=PT152&dq=adjacent+skills&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjTtfiM59f7AhW51XMBHV6kDr4Q6AF6BAgNEAI#v=onepage&q=adjacent%20skills&f=false

3. Wiles, J. (2020, January 23). Trouble Finding Critical Skills? Widen Your Views. https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/trouble-finding-critical-skills-widen-your-view  

4. Gartner (n.d.). Do More With Data to Close Critical Skill Gaps. https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources/research/talentneuron/leveraging-skills-adjacencies  

5. Gurchiek, K. (2021, March 5). Address Skills Gap by Identifying 'Skill Adjacencies'. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/organizational-and-employee-development/pages/address-skills-gap-by-identifying-skill-adjacencies-.aspx

6. (2022, July 11). 15 In-Demand Tech-Focused (And Tech-Adjacent) Skills And Specialties. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2022/07/11/15-in-demand-tech-focused-and-tech-adjacent-skills-and-specialties/?sh=61b83cca38d8 

7. Shirani, A. (2018). UPSKILLING AND RETRAINING IN DATA ANALYTICS: A SKILL-ADJACENCY ANALYSIS FOR CAREER PATHS. Issues in Information Systems, 20(4), 65-74. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7f2e/19142a40ac17889a7da9d2b5fd8f4a3c15ac.pdf   

8. Ramamurthy, K. N., Singh, M., Davis, M., Kevern, J. A., Klein, U., & Peran, M. (n.d.). Identifying Employees for Re-skilling Using an Analytics-Based Approach. IEEE Explore. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7395691  

9. Heins, J. (n.d.). Fastest Declining Occupations. https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/fastest-declining-occupations.htm  

Revathi V Gopal
Revathi V Gopal
Revathi is a writer who fell in love with words from a very young age. She primarily writes B2B blogs, articles, listicles, whitepapers, e-books, and also enjoys creating content in niches, including HR-tech, Femtech, travel, digital marketing, e-Commerce, lifestyle, fashion, mental health. Apart from writing, she loves to read, travel, binge watch shows, try new things, go for long walks, window shop, and most importantly, be with her closest people. Find me on:
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Topics: Skills Assessment, L&D

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