Brad Zomick

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9 min read

Identifying and Building Pipeline for Edge Skills


New technologies mean new product lines and business models. How can companies future-proof their talent strategy to ensure they have the new skills that are on the edge of the horizon? Forward-thinking companies are designing their own internal learning programs that uncover and cultivate edge skills where they naturally occur.

Employers have a hard enough job filling talent gaps when they know what critical skills are needed and where the limited talent pool can be found. Add the accelerating pace of technological and economic change, and it gets difficult even to know what competencies will be critical tomorrow, let alone where to find people who have them.

A future-proof talent strategy needs to account for “edge skills” that will be essential to product development or business models that are only just appearing on a company’s horizon.

What are edge skills?

Edge skills are required for what’s probable in future but not for what’s currently at the core of what a company is doing. They are usually highly technical, and the need for them can arrive very suddenly. As a result, it’s difficult for a company to have a comprehensive understanding of edge skills.

Some of the edge skills talent managers are currently struggling with are in domains such as:

  • Data science
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Deep learning and predictive analytics
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Cryptography
  • Cybersecurity
  • 3D printing

These technologies have been commercialized only in the past decade, so there are no veteran employees, and demand in the marketplace exceeds supply.

You don’t have to be a startup to be suddenly impacted by an edge skill. Incumbent companies in mature industries like telecom, banking and consumer packaged goods can find that a competitor is building a new market lead thanks to an advantage in a new technology.

In short, any company that wants to ensure it has the talent resources in place for where the market is headed has to grapple with a two-part problem that traditional talent development strategies don’t account for: identifying edge skills and building a pipeline to acquire them.

What are the characteristics of edge skills?

Edge skills typically have one or more of the following characteristics that make them difficult to identify early on and difficult to get into your talent pipeline:

First, edge skills are “emergent.” In systems theory and biology, emergence is sometimes defined as a system where novel structures arise out of a self-organizing process. Similarly, edge skills arise organically out of a natural working environment to solve new problems.

That means knowledge about edge skills isn’t captured in employee training modules yet and exists only “in the wild” — in working documents, in GitHub repositories and in the heads of the people using the skills for the first time.

Second, edge skills have few workers coming out of schools. The usual starting point in the pipeline for highly technical skills is higher education programs, which are small and not scaleable. For example, a Ph.D. in data science may take five years or more to complete.

Meanwhile, university programs have as much difficulty — if not more — as industry when it comes to seeing which skills are on the horizon, and developing new curricula to teach those skills.

The result is that industry needs to acquire talent faster than higher education can produce it.

Third, edge skills often combine aptitudes from two or more areas. A data scientist, for example, must be an analytical mathematician in addition to a top-notch computer programmer (particularly in Python). These “hybrid jobs” are becoming more prevalent. The challenge is that such jobs require someone to spend time learning a new discipline when they are already an expert in a skill that has high demand.

Consequently, HR departments are frantically searching for dually qualified applicants from a shallow candidate pool. A 2015 report by the workforce analytics company Burning Glass found over a quarter-million jobs in a 12-month period that blended “a set of skills that typically are not taught as a package.”

An agile approach to identifying edge skills

Any list of edge skills — including the list we started with above — is really only a temporary placeholder, making it difficult to identify what’s next. You could reasonably argue that other skills already ought to be on our list.

For example, marketing programs in many industries are considering whether they should develop software and content to use chatbots effectively. A year from now, some other new skill may be essential for a marketing department.

Edge skills cannot be identified solely by company leadership. The C-suite, HR leaders or learning and development departments must guide top-level corporate strategy, so it’s very difficult for them to be in touch with the cutting-edge knowledge of the many disciplines impacting a business.

Instead, responsibility for identifying edge skills should be entrusted to experts throughout the workforce. Companies should recognize and take advantage of the emergent quality of edge skills by making the process of identifying them decentralized rather than management driven.

For example, one tenet of Visa’s approach to learning and development is to ensure it is differentiated, and, as Gordon Trujillo, Senior Director of Visa University, says, “What’s more differentiated than the people within your own company?”

He describes how established learning paths in Visa’s online training environment are constantly modified by contributions from internal experts who identify what they and their colleagues need to learn. “Empowering experts has transformed the way people think about learning,” he says.

Data mining to identify edge skills

Talent and HR leaders can be effective at identifying edge skills by mining data for trends, often using the work of marketplace analytics companies. One example is Burning Glass, which helps employers identify the “genome” of skills they may need in the future by analyzing over 3.4 million job listings daily.

As Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, described in a presentation at the ASU + GSV Summit in May 2017, analyzing that many job descriptions can reveal the hardest to fill IT roles (cloud security, for now). It also reveals how the data scientist jobs being advertised blend the skills of a business analyst (understanding the data) and a programmer (able to access the data).

In another analysis of the growth of data science jobs, Burning Glass identifies four categories of skills based on how important they are or will be, how many people have the skill and how easy they are to train for:

  • Stabilizer skills are fairly common in the workforce, there are enough training programs available, and being slow to fill them doesn’t jeopardize the company.
  • Escalator skills are fairly common but demand is growing fast, so employers need to step up training.
  • Challenger skills are in demand and costly to find, but training programs for them exist.
  • Disruptor skills don’t have a lot of training options and are critical to a company’s growth.

As Sigelman explained in a webinar, this kind of data analysis can reveal the talent pipeline areas where your company may be vulnerable and where you will be challenged if you are relying on external hiring.

Why companies should use internal learning to build their own edge skills pipeline

External hiring gets a company only so far in building edge skills because the pool of qualified candidates is limited. And the external hiring you can do for edge skills depends on having a critical mass of internal talent. Without enough in-house experts, you won’t attract the rising stars who want to learn from them.

Therefore, innovative companies must proactively develop edge skills from within by creating a culture of learning that attracts and engages next-generation talent. Companies committed to building edge skills through effective internal training programs have four vital characteristics:

1. An edge skills strategy breaks down silos between HR and organizational units to foster a bottom-up approach to skill building. Agile companies get input from frontline employees to surface what capabilities are needed for edge skills jobs, and they use those insights to form the basis of an internal learning program.

In the research paper Building Capabilities for Performance, McKinsey & Company urges organizations to undertake a cooperative strategy within their ranks to develop skills. This approach “aligns learning objectives with business needs.” McKinsey found that employers using cooperative learning report “a more structured approach to developing tools, methods and procedures to support capability building.” Yet, the authors also found that fewer than one in five organizations pursue cooperative learning programs.

2. An edge skills strategy taps the knowledge where it emerges organically — in research papers, in patent applications, in what employees are hearing at conferences or in the environments where people are actually doing the work. Just as identifying edge skills requires recognizing their emergent quality, so should training for those edge skills. It gets knowledge at the natural source — the everyday work of employees.

For example, in 2013, Qualcomm “flipped” the traditional top-down driven corporate learning model into a system mirroring how people consume information in their daily lives — through social networks, mobile devices and curated content. Qualcomm’s Learning Center pushed employees to chart their own learning path to become experts. Employees also recommended and discussed content with colleagues. Within a year of the launch of its renewed L&D program, Qualcomm employees completed 6,000 courses.

3. An edge skills strategy gives internal experts a platform to spread their insights and knowledge. Legacy elearning systems are too top-down, and their cycle times are too slow. Companies win at talent wars by empowering internal stakeholders to create, distribute and consume knowledge with learner-centered tools.

HP Inc.’s Brain Candy talent and learning initiative rose from its employees’ desire to share content and connect with internal experts to build skills. Brain Candy curates this content for its worldwide workforce of over 50,000.

4. An edge skills strategy is a journey rather than a destination. In a sense, few people, if any, ever have edge skills because the edge is always receding. High-skill professionals are always in the process of developing the next emerging skill. Companies with a strong talent development strategy build in the time this requires.

Not every employee who is acquiring edge skills will see right away why it’s important to share what they know, and not everyone will understand why it’s important to develop new skills. Innovative companies have the patience, the processes, the tools and the culture to capture internal expertise and to personalize learning journeys for each employee.

Enable curation and collaboration

Companies can’t wait for the market to tell them what skills will be needed. They can’t wait for traditional university programs to catch up. And they can’t wait for tomorrow’s talent to come in today through a job application portal. They must work proactively to identify and develop those skills. Forward-thinking companies are designing their own learning programs by curating available external research and tapping into existing internal talent.

An active employee-centered learning program grows organically when employees have the opportunity to shape the content and help their peers grow. This gives employees a stake in their own career development and in the future of the company. It also supports external recruiting by cultivating a cohort of leading practitioners in a new technology that attracts other ambitious professionals.

Technological innovations create new job classifications at breakneck speed. The only way for companies to keep up is to take charge of their own learning and training needs. In the workplace of the future, it will be up to employers, not higher education and off-the-shelf elearning content, to know what edge skills are emerging and to develop a pipeline of talent in those areas.

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