Lots of reasons for finding out people’s skills – but “skills capture” is the wrong language

Recently someone asked me how we could use Sharepoint for skills capture. I can answer that of course, but my instinctive thought was “that’s the wrong question”. So let me rant for a bit, before I talk sense again.

What’s wrong with skills capture? – the language

Skills “capture” has always struck me as an odd phrase. I’m thinking prisoners of war, or highwaymen seizing something that doesn’t belong to them. Is skills capture something management does to us? Grabs from us forcefully?

Another common phrase is “skills claim”. Somehow it reminds me of an insurance claim, or claiming benefits. When it is a “claim” it is a statement that isn’t trusted until it has been thoroughly checked.

Of course I am exaggerating my interpretation, but the point is that language matters. How we frame the task implies a whole mindset, and projects that mindset on to everyone.

What happens if we reword the task? Use some different wording. I chose the phrase “Finding out people’s skills”, and simply doing that opened my mind to some more possibilities which I will talk about later on. If the real business challenge is “Finding out people’s skills” rather than “Skills capture”, then there are other things that can be done – “skills capture” is just one way of “finding out people’s skills”. Likewise “Skills claim” is just one way of sharing relevant and useful information about skills. Changing the wording might free us to think a bit more broadly about how to meet the business challenge. It might be interesting to try substituting some other phrases and see what they reveal – please suggest your favourite phrases in the comments.

What’s wrong with skills capture? – some methods I’ve seen

I’ve had my skills captured several times at BT. Each time it has involved me devoting time on my own to working through a massive spreadsheet of carefully constructed and very lengthy, precise definitions in tiny text, and either picking a number or trying to write an essay about each one to prove how good I am. That was cumbersome and time-consuming. The definitions were actually pretty well-written, but definitions are dry things – this was not like the engagingly-written self-assessment quizzes that pop up on Facebook from time to time.

The skills list did not include lots of skills that I prized in myself. (Technology moves on, so the list will always be slightly out-of-date.) Was the business implying that those skills were not important?

Then what I had written was evaluated by a manager or sometimes a panel of experts who quite often said I needed more evidence. The not-so-subtle emotional message of that pushback was “you’re not quite good enough”. I was mildly outraged to feel myself judged – and so it evoked my threat response, defensiveness. Although it was probably a pure information-gathering exercise, I worried that I would suffer loss of status, or be rated as less than my peers.

And then… nothing happened. As far as I could tell, the result after that huge spreadsheet was “overall you are a level 5 something or other” and I can’t even remember what the something was or what the levels meant. I don’t think the information I provided about my skills and the stories of my experience was ever used – it never got transferred from the spreadsheet – so it can’t have given any long-term value. I suspect someone did some statistics, but what a huge effort to get some numbers! In fact, when people have been interested in my skills, they have either worked it out from my blog, my public profile in BT or by asking for my CV.

So what if…

  • Maybe it doesn’t need to be secret – why not have skills out in the open inside the organisation, searchable, usable
  • Maybe it doesn’t have to be in one particular format – less structured formats like a CV or the About Me statement on My Profile could be just as useful
  • Maybe we don’t need information for every skill at the same depth or rigour – what if some were just the name of the skill, others were formally accredited, some in the form of war stories, some had in-depth technical surveys to complete.
  • Maybe the skills definitions don’t all have to follow the same format.
  • Maybe we don’t need to validate all skill claims for the information to be valuable (and that would save a lot of time and heartache)
  • Maybe individuals don’t have to fill in forms – maybe we could get a clever system to guess our skills from patterns of communication

I know, I know, there are counter-examples and counter-arguments for each of these, but maybe we could put the balance point in a different place.

Why might we need to know people’s skills?

Traditionally a few different parts of our business have taken a lead on skills management because of their particular business need for that information. In fact there are lots of situations where we need to know each other’s skills, and I think the time is ripe to seek solutions that cross the traditional boundaries. The key insight in the examples below is that it is not just a particular management function – there are several management functions and in fact we all (not just managers) have good reasons to know people’s skills.

Teamwork

Using the familiar analogy of the human body: our different skills complement each other like the hand, the eye and the ear work together in a coordinated way. Teams only work well if each person has a good understanding of the skills of the people in the team. So for example, we need to know people’s skills for teamwork when:

  • a manager wants to get a sense of knowing the individuals in their organisation
  • a group of professional services people want to get to know one another across geography divides
  • when I receive an email from an unfamiliar name, I want to get a quick pen picture of who they are and what they do
  • people who work with unfamiliar people want to present a rounded picture of themselves when making electronic contact
  • people about to meet face-to-face want to recognise each other, spot mutual connections and have something to talk about

Getting help

There’s often a moment of need, when any of us might need help from someone with skills and knowledge that we don’t have:

  • A sales person might be asked an unexpected question by a customer.
  • A technical problem may be beyond our experience.
  • We may be given an unfamiliar management task that we know others must have done before

Call and task routing

In BT we deal with a vast number of calls and work tasks. We have systems that try to assign these to the most appropriate people. Often this is relatively simple algorithms, based on a simplified view of people’s skills. Nevertheless it is part of the total skills picture, and we need skills based routing to

  • get incoming customer service enquiries to a person with the right skills
  • assign tasks to people who have the correct training to deal with them

Resource management

  • Resourcing managers want good data to search the pool of people, in order to fulfil resourcing needs of projects and operations.

Reputation and career development

  • Ambitious people want to be known for their skills and experience
  • Specialists want to appear in the Search results page when anyone searches for their specialism
  • To develop their skills and careers, people want to build connections with other people who are active in the areas they aspire to
  • A person who is in transition to a new role wants to present themselves and their capability to potential new managers

Stewarding our corporate capability

  • Subject groups (communities of practice) want to gather people with similar skills, in order to consolidate and grow our corporate knowledge in a skill area, and to make it sustainable as people move on
  • The demographic changes in the company mean that some people with scarce skills are set to retire soon – can we identify people with those skills?
  • Sometimes skilled specialists end up using their general skills and not their specialist skills, which leaves tasks that need that specialism in the hands of less experienced people. We need to connect the inexperienced people with the skilled specialists, and perhaps to adjust who works where in order to get full value from our specialists.
  • Strategic resourcing managers want to recruit people with the right kinds of skills to meet our future needs

Assessing people’s value to set their reward

I wonder why I dislike even mentioning this reason? I think it is because all the other reasons are entirely positive, with the needs of the business aligned with the aspirations of the individual. Connecting skills data with reward (or even an unspoken implication that you might) complicates things no end.

  • The motivation structure for providing skills information is changed into “claim as high as you can to get as much as you can” (which distorts the data),
  • Admitting a need to develop a skill is feared as a disclosure of weakness that could be used against you (which holds people back from learning and development).
  • We sometimes have validation and levelling processes to satisfy our desire for fairness, but they trigger threat responses and generally have a demotivating impact (as I ranted earlier).
  • The end result has often been a bland set of data where everyone has claimed every skill – and that universal claim means the skills data doesn’t help you find the right people, because everyone ends up looking the same.
  • The skills data is then kept secret (because it is linked to pay) and can’t be used for all those other purposes we need it for

On the other hand I find myself wanting to be valued for my competence, skills and experience. And it isn’t wrong to pay people according to the skilled contribution they make to the business. I find this conundrum very hard to reconcile. Linking skills information to reward is not good for business. My best suggestions are:

  • Don’t validate or level people’s claimed skills: instead trust their judgement. (Levelling implies it will be linked to reward and triggers the threat responses.)
  • Make it visible to everyone what skills people have – people are much less likely to exaggerate or lie in public
  • Keep assessments related to rewards qualitative (not numeric), performance-based (what you did with your skills) and relational (in the context of a relationship with a manager, not the impersonal output of a spreadsheet)

Can you think of more reasons for knowing each other’s skills? Or any other ways of sorting out the conundrum over skills and reward?

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