The 3-Step Process to Assess Your Workforce’s Technical Skills

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By Eric Wise

People talk a lot about “shrinking the skills gap,” but very few organizations go beyond verbalizing the recognition that a talent gap exists and that something, somehow, should be done. In our quest to help companies bridge their digital skills gap, we inevitably come across many of the same issues:

  1. Companies don’t know what they have. They might know anecdotally, or even semi-formally, what skills employees have, but they are rarely put on a scale that is peer reviewed or regularly updated; meanwhile a surprising number of organizations have no skills inventory at all.
  2. Companies don’t know what they need. You might be surprised by how many organizations say things like “We need data science” or “We need cybersecurity,” but they don’t know what that means from a skills standpoint in the immediate or longer term.
  3. Companies don’t know how to get from here to there. Well, that’s a prime reason why we’re talking in the first place! But without a clear view of the first two points, it’s tough to design an effective skills-acquisition strategy.

So let’s talk about how to get started on addressing these issues in a relatively straightforward and painless way. This three-step method is similar to estimating work on agile software projects, and it works well when applied to other domains.

Step 1: Identify and Categorize Skills

The first step is the core of your skill valuation guide. Categorizing individual skills into buckets is useful to identify on a broad scale where employees are versus overall organizational goals as well as aligning with learning opportunities, which also tend to be categorized.

These buckets will vary depending on the organization, but a good starting point is technical skills (programming, etc.), analytics skills (data), security skills (awareness to implementation), soft skills (design thinking, leadership, personal skills, etc.), application skills (Excel, etc.), and project management (Agile, Scrum, etc.).

List out all the skills present in the organization today, and all the skills that you anticipate you’ll need in the next five years.

Step 2: Weight Skills Strategically

Next, go through each skill and give it a series of numeric values that represent its value today and over the next five years. I tend to prefer a 0 to 5 scale where 5 is critical, and 0 is not important, which is useful when a skill is anticipated to become obsolete. Assign a value for the next 12 months, 12 to 24 months, and 24 to 60 months.  

As an example, let’s say that your organization anticipates moving away from Oracle to MySQL over the next two years. In this case, the strategic skills for Oracle and MySQL administration might look like this:

3 step process chart

Today, since the organization runs on Oracle, administration is critical, while MySQL is only starting to become important as the org explores the migration. The migration is due to finish after 24 months, but as everyone knows, projects run over, so we are not going to put a 0 in the last bucket for Oracle. We do, however, anticipate that it will be relatively unimportant or even able to be outsourced after that.

Not only does this approach give clear direction on your skills strategy in the organization but also sharing this information with your IT team can signal to them the importance of skill transitions.

Step 3: Weight Employees Against Skills

The final step is to cross reference your existing employees against the skills you have identified. This time, the 0 to 5 scale is used to indicate mastery, with 0 being unfamiliar, 3 being mid-level, and 5 being expert. The best way to get an accurate read on this is to ask the employees to assess themselves and then also have their peers assess them, taking the average. You can also mix in testing and assessment tools when available.

Assume a member of the database administration team is a 3 in Oracle administration, being solidly mid-level. I tend to multiply skill values to get a value over time, so given the framework, the value of this employee’s skill today is 15 (3 * 5), but in 24 months it will be a 3 (3 * 1). Time to reskill!

Conversely, if a new hire has some MySQL experience—say, at a 2 skill level—today they’ll be valued at 4 (2 * 2) but in 12 to 24 months that will jump to an 8 (2 * 4). But what happens when recognizing the strategic importance of MySQL, you decide to invest in training for this employee, raising their skill to 4 over the next 12 months. Suddenly their strategic value is 16 (4 * 4) while also serving as a hedge for any Oracle administrators who decide not to transition (which happens).

Creating a skills inventory, weighting those skills, and cross-referencing them against your workforce does not have to be complicated to be effective. In software, we talk about “technical debt,” which means that cutting corners on implementation makes more work down the road. I would put forth that many organizations I encounter are facing “workforce debt.” Establishing a good skills inventory and strategic plan cross-referenced with your workers is a necessary first step to creating a plan.


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