Skill Gap Assessments Aiding in Individual and Business Success

By Nicole Hazard, Head of Talent Management and Innovation, AXA US

Nicole Hazard, Head of Talent Management and Innovation, AXA US

The sine qua non of every modern organization is the ability to adapt to change. In an era of unprecedented shifts from globalization and technical advancement, talent management leaders today devote countless hours and resources to questions related to impact these changes have on people today. For example, do our people have the agility to navigate the dizzying pace of growth? Do we have the people with the right capabilities for future success? How can our leaders influence and connect to diverse people, perspectives, and ideas?

"The HR tech space has seen a surge in innovative solutions devoted to solving some of these questions: assessing skills, mapping mobility, and quantifying skill gaps"

On the heels of many years devoted to HR information systems and recruiting software—the technology used to infuse human capital processes with greater efficiency—increasingly organizations like AXA are focused on the “wetware” —the humans whose intellectual and personal plasticity allows them to adapt to changes in skills and jobs. Making this challenge all the more vexing is that skill changes resulting from the digital revolution are not known. With yesterday’s computer programmer becoming today’s cloud architect and tomorrow’s UX game developer, to say that skills are in a state of dynamic flux is an understatement. Not surprisingly, the HR tech space has seen a surge in innovative solutions devoted to solving some of these questions: assessing skills, mapping mobility, and quantifying skill gaps.

The skill assessment field was ripe for a change. Today’s most common means to evaluate employee skills is via manager evaluation, perhaps coupled with a test that gauges personality type. In addition to being time consuming, the unconscious bias in these evaluations is well documented: we gravitate toward people similar to us, to those who are attractive, and we may even downgrade the skills of someone perceived as a threat to our own status in the job. Similarly, there is scant evidence that personality types actually affect job performance.

Increasingly companies like AXA are focusing on the preconditions to success in a role—“traits” rather than “states.” The ability to map a workforce by traits provides a rich resource to identify paths for internal mobility as roles expand and contract in response to market conditions. Using this model, learning and development “upskilling” programs become integral; they marry applied “know how” to the raw talent and leadership abilities revealed through trait-based assessments.

In an effort to assess critical skills for the future, AXA engaged a leading talent analytics company that uncovers raw potential through collecting massive amounts of micro-behavioral data. This data is gathered via the most unsuspecting “test” ever—a 10 minute mobile game. As much as AXA was attracted to using an objective method to assess capabilities, it was also committed to demonstrating a willingness to embrace the innovative and unconventional; a digital game to assess skills, how 21st century!

The two companies co-developed a methodology to assess soft qualities identified as essential to the future workforce, including innovative thinking, listening and communicating, agility and ability to learn, collaboration, decision and execution, influence and conciliation, and customer-centricity. Each of these qualities was linked to specific traits that were measured through the tech company’s games, resulting in a full skill inventory across AXA. Having designed the framework to assess skills of strategic importance to the company, the question then became how to communicate to employees the value of participating in the project. Showing how a mobile game was connected to upskilling a workforce was a tall order; the appealing and addictive quality of games, so popular in today’s culture, did much to ease the participation hurdle.

Anticipating varied reactions from employees, AXA structured the skill gap assessment as the inaugural event in an employee listening campaign called “People Forward.” The initiative encourages employees to play a more active role in the work environment by volunteering information to inform workplace benefits, programs and employee development opportunities. People Forward was a natural extension of prior company efforts to encourage employees to be more self-directed in their work and growth.

To emphasize that a best-in-class workforce is necessary to being a digital front-runner, AXA’s top leaders kicked off game play events at each of its corporate locations and discussed how digital assessments like this can enhance business success. Participation was strictly voluntary but a strong communication campaign resulted in over 38 percent of employees, across all business areas and levels of seniority, playing a digital game to learn more about their strengths. Anonymous results were mapped to over 70 job clusters, which were transversal designations that aggregated roles by common skills and abilities. The exercise provided a company-wide view on areas that scored high and low across all seven skill dimensions. Unlike manager or self-reported personality assessments, the People Forward project offered specific, objective insight into the learning and development investments that could be tailored by business area, as well as level of seniority, to augment critical skills like innovation and agility.

Overall, the experience was a memorable employee engagement exercise that aptly communicated core aspects of AXA’s culture and brand. AXA was positioned as a digital leader committed to innovation and to giving employees the tools they need to remain competitive into the future. As an unanticipated coda, AXA was delighted to see many employee-led extensions of the exercise in the weeks after the official project closed. Some employees included their skill gap assessments to show goodness of fit when applying as internal candidates for jobs. Managers requested help in using their collective results to understand the optimal balance between caution and risk, consensus and independent execution, and other personality attributes measured by the game that could help with complementary positioning across teams.

The next step in the People Forward project is to institutionalize use of skill assessment results. AXA is creating toolkits that help teams reflect on how strengths complement each other and what types of learning investments can maximize their success as individuals. With an eye toward shaping teams with skills for future success, the toolkits will draw on other research to help managers understand key skills needed for future hires. And last, the exercise has been a proof point in AXA’s commitment to a culture of continuous learning to drive individual and business success.

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