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HR's guide to thinking like a researcher: Why we need to activate our curiosity

HR's guide to thinking like a researcher: Why we need to activate our curiosity


The boundaries once assumed to be the natural order of things—such as that jobs can be categorised and contained wholly within the organisation—are falling away, which is why we need to refresh our thinking.

Nearly three years after the pandemic, CHROs and their HR team still face a slew of global, economic, and societal changes.

The boundaries that were once assumed to be the natural order of things—that work can be organised into clearly defined processes; jobs can be categorised and contained wholly within the organisation; work occurs within the four walls of the workplace; and organisations can center their decision-making around shareholders and the bottom line—are falling away.

In the new order of what Deloitte calls the "boundaryless world" in its 2023 Global Human Capital Trends report, differentiation and winning will come not from always believing you must have the right answer at the start, but by:

  • Being able to challenge orthodoxies,
  • Operating with humility and empathy, and
  • Learning from new information so you can refine as quickly as possible.

As such, the findings, which include views of more than 1,500 C-suite executives and board members, suggest that all business leaders, especially the CHRO, must think like researchers. In doing so, they will be able to frame business challenges in a language that all stakeholders understand, and this will enable them to prepare and react proactively.

"The opportunities for leaders and their teams across all industries are boundaryless and open new frontiers in the relationships of workers, customers, stakeholders and leaders," said Art Mazor, Principal and Global Human Capital Practice Leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Below, we've shared excerpts from the report that align to HR's role as a researcher, and the need for activating HR's curiosity.

Why organisations and workers need to think like a researcher

Navigating the end of jobs

The boundaries that delineated job from job, grouping tasks and categorising workers into narrow roles and responsibilities, are now limiting organisational outcomes, such as innovation and agility. Many are experimenting with using skills, not jobs, as the baseline for how workforce decisions are made.

When unboxed from jobs, workers have the opportunity to better utilise their capabilities, experiences, and interests in ways that advance organisational and worker outcomes.

Powering human impact with technology

The boundary between humans and technology as separate forces continues to disappear as new technologies are entering the workplace that not only automate and augment the work done by humans, but actually enhance human and team performance. Forward-leaning organisations are exploring how to use technology in ways that encourage humans both to be their best selves and to do better work.

Activating the future of workplace

Digital and virtual technology advances and the emerging role of the metaverse are redefining the concept of the workplace as a physical space. Now, greater interconnectedness and the blurring boundary between home and on-site work give organisations a unique opportunity to experiment with not 'where', but 'how' work should be done. Location and modality have become secondary to the needs of the work and the workers.

What curiosity means for day-to-day HR

A new brand of leadership will be required—one that focuses on where you show up and how you show up, and the mindset you adopt to drive work forward. More specifically, you will need to:

  • Use experimentation to inform better solutions, foster learning, and accelerate value,
  • Cultivate deep and intimate relationships with the workers across your broader ecosystem through cocreation, and 
  • Widen the aperture of your decision-making to understand its full impact with the human agenda in mind.

Those who partner with their workforce and experiment with what’s possible will be able to create sustainable models of work.

Move over 'jobs': Welcome to the 'skills-based approach'

The concept of the job—a predefined set of functional responsibilities assigned to a particular worker—is so ingrained in how organisations operate that it’s hard to imagine any other way of managing work and workers. Yet many recognise this traditional construct is failing to serve the boundaryless world.

As a result, a growing number of organisations are beginning to imagine work outside of the job—turning workforce management on its head by increasingly basing work and workforce decisions on skills—not formal job definitions, titles, or degrees.

This shift is being driven by several related factors:

Performance pressure. One in three (30%) of Deloitte's skills-based organisation survey respondents report their organisations are ineffective at matching the right talent to work. A skills-based approach can boost productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness by better aligning workers with work that fits their skills and capabilities, including technical skills, soft or human skills, and potential future skills in adjacent areas. 

Need for agility. Close to two in three (63%) of business executives report workers are focused on team and project work that falls outside their current job descriptions. As such, a skills-based approach may improve organisational agility by enabling workers to be quickly deployed—or redeployed—based solely on their skills and the work that needs to be done, irrespective of their job title or functional area.

Talent shortages. Focusing on skills could help alleviate talent shortages by providing a more expansive view of the work people are able to do, instead of artificially limiting the talent pool to people with specific backgrounds and job histories. This can also allow organisations to mitigate talent shortages by plugging gaps with internal resources instead of hiring from outside. 

Increased focus on equitable outcomes. A skills-based approach can also help promote diversity and equity in the workplace. In fact, hiring, promoting, and deploying people based on skills (versus tenure, job history, or network) can help democratise and improve access to opportunities.

Prioritising curiosity: You need to adopt a skills-based approach to jobs if:

  • Your organisation spends too much time adjusting job descriptions to accommodate changing work.
  • You are losing top talent as a result of inadequate development opportunities to grow adjacent skills.
  • You are having difficulty accessing talent due to overreliance on degrees and previous roles over skills and potential aligned with emerging business priorities.
  • Promising, diverse candidates are being screened out of talent pipelines due to their supposedly inadequate job history.
  • Workers are struggling to find new opportunities outside of their siloed business units

How you can be more curious: The new fundamentals of skills

Define work based on the skills required. Instead of defining work as a specific set of tasks and responsibilities (i.e., a job), define work primarily based on the skills it requires. Organisations will need to first consider their strategic objectives or desired outcomes, then identify the work that needs to be done to achieve them and the skills required to do that work.

Collect and analyse data about worker skills. Thanks to recent technology advances in skills assessments, skills inferencing, analytics powered by artificial intelligence (AI), and live 'tryouts' for evaluating external candidates, organisations have access to a differentiated level of work skill data. Similar technology can be used to inventory the skills of existing workers, supplemented with more holistic data about workers’ interests, values, work preferences, and more.

Collecting data about workers can be controversial, however, in the context of skills, research suggests workers are more open to having this data collected. Eight in 10 workers are willing to have their organisation collect data about their demonstrated skills and capabilities and seven in 10 are willing to have data collected about their potential abilities.

View workers based on their skills, not job titles. Instead of viewing workers narrowly as job holders performing predefined tasks, view them holistically as unique individuals with a portfolio of skills to offer—and then match them with work that aligns with those skills. The work might be performed by an individual, a team, or a shifting set of resources, each person contributing their appropriate skills (while improving their current skills and developing new ones), then moving on to other work when their particular skills are no longer needed.

As part of the deployment process, it’s ideal to match workers with work that aligns not only with their skills, but also with their unique interests, values, passions, development goals, location preferences, and more—since people are happiest and most productive when doing work that fits who they are and what they care about. 

Make decisions about workers based on skills. Beyond matching workers to work based on skills, organisations will want to make skills the focal point for all workforce practices throughout the talent life cycle—from hiring to careers to performance management to rewards—placing more emphasis on skills and less on jobs. For example, in hiring, that means evaluating candidates based on skills and capabilities rather than degrees and certifications. 

Looking ahead: Skills-based thinking to drive curiosity

A skills-based approach is not an invitation to exert more control over what people do by using algorithms to assign people to ever-smaller pieces of work based on ever-narrower definitions of skills. Talent marketplaces today, in contrast, use AI to suggest new opportunities to people (e.g, projects, tasks, mentors, learning experiences, and more), granting workers autonomy and choice in what they decide to pursue.

To thrive, organisations should trust workers to deliver outcomes based on their skills, interests, and potential, not just their past credentials and job history. It will also require a willingness to assign work based on adjacent skills, not just current skills. This will give workers opportunities to grow in adjacent areas by building on the skills they already have, which is extremely beneficial both for them and the organisation.

Efforts to adopt skills-based thinking range from modest to radical. Some are starting with classifying skills, while others are doing away with the concept of jobs entirely. Regardless of which approach you take on your journey to become a more skills-based organisation, one thing is clear: There are significant outcomes to be achieved, both for the organisation and for the workforce.

Lead image / Shutterstock

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