The Rise of the Skill Pool
According to Psychology Today, a job is traditionally conceptualized as fulfilling a clear function consisting of particular tasks that require a defined set of competencies. Such jobs are sometimes referred to as “static jobs.” The traditional view of a job also places it on a distinct career ladder, where the step below and the step above are usually pretty easy to predict.
However, all that may be changing.
Some organizations are experimenting with a new way of making the best use of their employees’ talents: the skill pool, also known as the competency pool. Rather than having fixed job titles, roles change depending on the organization’s needs. Teams are created based on which employees have the skills to carry out particular assignments.
What It Looks Like in Practice
Rather than handling functions, employees in organizations that rely on skill pools handle projects. “They handle processes across functions rather than responsibilities within functions,” explain Ron Ashkenas, Dave Ulrich, Todd Jick, and Steve Kerr in The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure.
These organizations have fluid teams with diminishing cross-functional boundaries, according to industry analyst Josh Bersin. Teams form and disband as needed, collaborating with people across the organization or outside of it. Employees don’t expect to get into a set routine for months or years; they know they’re expected to remain flexible.
Ad-hoc teams of staff drawn from a skill pool can form to serve a particular customer, Ashkenas et al. assert. “Each team is dynamic: as additional customer needs are identified, additional resources and competencies are added, and the team is reformed again,” they explain. Such teams might exist for a brief time, but for a large customer or complex project, they might be semi-permanent.
With the emergence of the “borderless workplace,” such teams often work with people from both inside and outside an organization, say Ashkenas et al. Firms might contract talent to help with a specific project when a new skill is needed. Furthermore, team members might work virtually, in-office, or a combination of both.
Because over half of U.S. workers are expected to be freelancers by 2025, it’s likely that consultants and other contract staff will make up an increasingly large portion of the skill pool in the near future. It’s possible that traditional jobs will increasingly give way to consulting and project-based contract roles, dramatically changing the traditional career path.
The skill pool isn’t just used by startups run by young Millennials. Here are a few examples of large, longstanding organizations that have experienced great success with using skill pools:
- The World Bank uses this approach for its country development projects, according to Ashkenas et al. In the rapidly changing global environment, this strategy ensures the organization’s country-specific staff have the necessary skills for a particular endeavor.
- IBM forms “global action teams” that draw staff from various functional groups to work on projects for major customers.
- Pfizer creates “science teams” to work on specific products, says Bersin. The teams collaborate and share knowledge with one another.
The holacracy model is one type of organizational structure that relies on the skill pool. It takes horizontal structure to an extreme, doing away with job descriptions and allowing employees to self-manage. Rather than holding job titles, employees continuously reform into different teams to tackle the projects of the hour.
Effects on Advancement
Relying on skill pools tends to promote horizontal mobility as people aren’t pigeon-holed into particular roles. Employees are more likely to be seen for their skills rather than as holding particular jobs.
According to Baker, this novel concept of jobs generates a new psychological contract between an employer and the organization. It does so by diminishing the “us and them” mentality, not only increasing opportunity for advancement but changing what advancement means. The old hierarchy may not exist anymore, or it may take on a drastically modified form.
Why the Shift Is Happening
Increasing Capacity and Agility
The need for agility is a major factor influencing the shift to the skill pool. In “Functional Staff or Staffing Functions,” Gary Fitsimmons describes how traditional job descriptions have rigid limitations that can make organizations less efficient. Fixed job roles can sabotage an organization’s success in a climate where agility and flexibility are becoming increasingly key. In contrast, the skill pool allows a company to address its dynamically changing needs.
According to Fitsimmons, fixed job roles don’t maximize staff’s time and skills, whereas fluid job roles help organizations manage their workloads. Having fluid job responsibilities allows organizations to fully utilize their talent as staff are easily mobilized to provide for current needs.
Additionally, identifying people too closely with certain job roles prevents a leader from seeing them as whole human beings. This approach disempowers employees, whereas seeing them as whole people encourages creativity and innovation.
In turn, job satisfaction rises, Fitsimmons asserts. People feel more deeply valued, and their jobs remain dynamic, providing them with continued opportunities to try new things and grow.
The skill pool approach also prevents knowledge from being siloed within individuals. If any team member leaves the organization, others already know how to perform many of the tasks that person handled. Thus, a staff member’s resignation doesn’t have the same impact it might have otherwise.
As Ian Gouge says in Shaping the IT Organization, when expertise is held only by a few key individuals, “pools of scarce resources” that aren’t easily shared tend to form. Worse, he adds, those experts are more likely to be lured away from the company because they’re so in demand, leaving the organization with a lack of knowledge until it finds a new expert. Skill pools create a more flexible organization in which knowledge is freely dispersed.
According to Bersin, Intel moves its best engineering talent around the company regularly to share expertise and gain a broader knowledge of its operations.
Another factor influencing the shift to the skill pool is that technology is replacing or changing many job functions, so traditional roles are being redefined. As Gouge says, emerging technologies often blur delineations between roles. In the IT world, someone who writes programs might find himself thrust into the analytical realm as programming tools become more sophisticated. The analyst in his department would then no longer be the only expert in that domain and is likely to begin helping other teams in the organization as well. In fact, the analyst might be placed into a skill pool so his expertise can be easily shared across teams.
Furthermore, with communications technology that makes it possible to collaborate across the globe, organizations are no longer limited to the geographically closest pool of talent. This technology allows work to be broken down into components, some of which may be done remotely.
Decreasing Focus on Job Descriptions
In The End of the Job Description, Tim Baker explains that the concept of job descriptions is being phased out because organizations are increasingly focusing on skills that are not job-specific. “Soft skills” that don’t relate to a particular function, such as the ability to work on a team, adaptability, and communication, are becoming increasingly critical in agile organizations.
Similarly, companies are increasingly focusing on hiring employees with a particular range of skills instead of experience in a specific role. As static jobs are phased out, businesses look for employees who are nimble enough to use these skills within an ever-changing range of projects.
Companies are also increasingly thinking outside of fixed job roles as they strive to find qualified applicants for open positions. Hiring only people with experience in a particular role limits their search and can prevent them from finding the best available talent. Ashkenas et al. agree that the competency-based approach to creating project teams is driving organizations to focus less on formal experience and more on directly assessing employees’ skills.
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Implementing the Skill Pool Approach
Conducting an assessment of employees’ skills is the first step to implementing the skill pool approach. Your employees may have talents you’ve completely overlooked, so don’t make assumptions based on their current or past roles.
Instead, take a survey to get them thinking outside the box they might have been placed into.
After that, have one-on-one conversations to gain a more in-depth perspective on each individual. In doing so, you’ll be considering them as a whole person rather than identifying them – perhaps unfairly – with one functionality.
Creating a Selection System
To quickly assemble project-based teams, members of an organization need a clear understanding of the skills their co-workers possess. A traditional job description helped codify those skills, and the skill pool approach requires a new way of doing that. Creating a transparent evaluation system is key.
One such system is the awarding of “digital badges” – certifications stating that employees have particular competencies, which can be viewed online by anyone in the organization.
Regardless of whether you have a startup or a large corporation, you should be considering the skill pool approach. This structural shift has the potential to dramatically improve organizational culture as well as productivity, leading to more satisfied employees, executives, and customers.