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Lessons Learned from Employers to Improve the Learn/Work Ecosystem Part 1: Human Capability Frameworks

Leveraging a human capability framework is critical to develop a talent pipeline but requires strategy and focus achieve goals for the institution and workforce.

The Learn & Work Ecosystem Library interviewed Denise Hartsoch and David Leaser on April 27, 2024, to explore key lessons learned from employers to improve the learn-and-work ecosystem. This two-part series features edited and abridged portions from the interview transcript. Part 1 focuses on lessons learned from employers’ use of a human capability framework for talent development. Part 2 shares other innovations from employers.

Holly Zanville: Thank you for joining the Learn & Work Ecosystem Library to explore what the learn-and-work ecosystem can learn from important employer initiatives. Let’s start with introductions.

Denise Hartsoch: Thanks. So glad to join today’s conversation. I’m the president and inventor of MyInnerGenius, an assessment tool to help both college-bound and non-college-bound individuals, in particular from disadvantaged communities, discover their untapped potential and align them to better careers and better learning pathways. We offer student products and adult products—serving everywhere from individuals aged 13 all the way up to the C-suite—helping with career exploration, career planning and preparation, and career development.

David Leaser: I worked at IBM for nearly 25 years focusing on developing solutions. I developed IBM's first cloud-based learning solution which embedded training into products. We created a new category of work at IBM that was called the Smarter Workforce, which led Ginni Rometty—chairman of IBM at the time— to come up with the “new collar concept:” the idea that you didn't need a college degree to get some jobs at IBM. This was a unique concept at the time. I was tapped to develop the new-collar certificate program based on the digital badge program we had developed. Our call to action was to first find out what people are “born to do,” or what they're going to love to do and what they're going to be successful doing as well. Then second, get them into some minimum viable training. Then, show them the unexpected side of work, maybe with an apprenticeship or internship. And finally, connect them to jobs with labor market data. At the time, we had relationships with various suppliers of learning solutions, but nobody had a way to identify a person’s hidden capabilities to make this work. MyInnerGenius was a core supplier for IBM (they also developed solutions for other major companies). Our goal was to have an assessment tool that did not ask, “Are you going to be good at sales?” but focused instead on, “Let's find out what you're going to be good at and then funnel it down to these are the roles and these are the training paths we have.”

Holly: Some of us heard a presentation at the annual 1EdTech conference on ways employers are using tools to strengthen their talent development. This has roots in new-collar research and influences many industry sectors now, not just IT. What lessons can we learn from this research?

Denise: Our company played a key role in the research you’re asking about. We were tasked with helping a large utility company with two things. One, they were told they had to break into three companies and weren't sure how to go about that. They wanted to make sure they didn’t have all the salespeople in one organization, all the leaders in one organization, and all of the innovators in one — without having the right balance of each in the three organizations. This is about rebalancing a company’s workforce on a large scale—rebalancing three companies from one and identifying gaps and determining how to fill them.

A second goal was to have more minorities and women in leadership roles. This was a good opportunity for change. They thought this was a good opportunity to start looking outside the company because they didn't think they had the talent inside. This was an assumption we had to question: Did they actually have the talent inside the company?

We created an assessment founded in research around the Human Capability Standards Reference Framework developed by Dr. Marcus Bowles, director and chair of the Institute For Working Futures in Australia. Our role was to create an assessment to operationalize his framework. Dr. Bowles’ framework involves human capabilities, also called “mindsets.” Mindsets are motivations, beliefs, and values—aligned to all of the work core to the company. Everybody in the company— from intern to the C-suite— was assessed on the same core competencies or capabilities to determine what level of each capability they had.

Dr. Bowles created the framework, and MyInnerGenius created the assessment tool. We went through a rigorous validation process to ensure that the assessment was working, that it was assessing what we said it was assessing, and that it made a difference in the workplace. We conducted a correlational study to make sure that what we were assessing, let's say an “adaptive mindset,” actually made a difference on the job and assessed adaptability in the workplace. And we did that across the board for all the capabilities we were assessing.

Holly: How many individuals were in the preliminary study, and when did this occur?

Denise: Between 2020-2022, we conducted an extensive validation study involving 3,500 individuals from different groups within the organization, across different types of jobs and divisions. We went through a rigorous process of collecting data. Supervisors were trained on how to evaluate people; we have a very structured process for collecting ratings so you can only rate people you know and can effectively rate.

We found significant correlations (p>0.001 to >p>0.05) for every capability scale. That’s difficult to achieve with personality instruments because personality traits are multifaceted constructs. Those findings were important because they supported the use of the instrument in the organization.

When we first administered the assessment to the company’s full population, we started to receive calls telling us, “We've got some people who have been in the company for 30 years who are being assessed at a lower level than some people who have been in the company for six months; that can't be right.” So, we did a lot of follow-up. We found that the assumption that the longer you’re in an organization, the more effective you are, in some cases, may not be true. With things like adaptability, resilience, growth mindset, and innovation—those are things that may become stagnant in a company after a while. Not necessarily, but they could be.

We also found that the company had a lot of women and minorities who had great leadership potential but the company was not aware of this because these individuals had never been in a position to demonstrate their leadership capabilities. For example, the company found two women in the Philippines who were really great in the call center. Their manager wanted to keep them in the call center; they were so good, he didn't want to lose them. But they scored very high across leadership dimensions. The company asked, “How can this be that these two women in the call center scored so high in leadership but never had a leadership position?” They went to the Philippines to interview the women and reported, “These women are phenomenal.” They flew the women to company headquarters and fast-tracked them in a training program for leadership. This has been highly successful. They did this with other people in the organization as well. That’s the beauty of these types of assessments: They reveal hidden, latent capabilities and potential which don’t show up on paper.

Holly: What are key lessons in this study?

Denise: There are several. The assessment tool helped the company identify untapped potential in their organization that they had no idea existed. Nobody had thought to look in the unexpected places for skills and talent—and people had never had an opportunity to demonstrate various skills. The company wrongly assumed the skills didn’t exist because they were not aware of them. This type of solution (human capability frameworks and assessment tools) can uncover hidden potential.

Another lesson pertains to evaluation approaches. There are tools in the market where you’re asked to rate yourself on your perceived abilities. But studies show people are not very effective at rating themselves—some people don't have good self-awareness. Self-evaluation is influenced by self-confidence, self-esteem and self-concept. These things have little to do with what your true capabilities are, but they affect how people rate themselves, which means it's full of error. A validated tool can quickly assess people across a wide range of capabilities important to the company's objectives. In 30 minutes, a company can literally assess 35,000 people and create a “skills cloud” to show what capabilities and talent are in the organization.

Holly: How is a skills cloud being used in companies?

Denise: When a company focuses on assessing its workforce, they can catalog those skills at the “nano level” and create a skills cloud. They can then use that data to identify strengths and hotspots in the organization. They can establish organization-wide talent initiatives with their skills cloud. For example, they may be an innovative company, but they may be low, on an aggregate level, in an area like adaptability. They can then create an initiative for the company to improve in those areas.

Creating a skills cloud also allows an organization to look at how to rearrange roles and easily move people into roles with minimal upskilling. Instead of saying: “I need everything and can't find everything” —which means the job stays open or you have to go outside the company to fill it—you might have somebody internally who could easily fill a new role with upskilling in just one or two areas. That means the organization keeps the institutional knowledge, can fill the position sooner, and creates thoughtful career pathways and increases loyalty.

Instead of thinking about things linearly or thinking about where somebody's at today or where they've been in the past, the organization can now look at what somebody can do, not what they have done. They’re shifting from a knowledge-based mindset to looking at personality and other types of capabilities in a new light. They’re realizing latent capabilities could be identified; that creates a new way of looking at career paths. If you only look at the career paths based on historic data—where they've been—you're missing many potential areas individuals could move into easily.

Another lesson is on change management. This company did an amazing job implementing a transformation that required a mind shift. They created organization-wide groups, held group meetings, and had a Slack channel to improve internal communication. We were involved in meetings early on to help them understand how the assessment works and to establish trust in the process.

David: It was eye-opening in many ways. One of the things they found, which wasn't an intended finding at all, was it really increased what people thought they could do. People didn't know they could do all these great things. People with low self-esteem didn't think they were valued in the organization. These assessments increased self-confidence tremendously. And anecdotally, the organization has said they have so many success stories—it's just off the charts. This work has completely changed the organization, and we’re seeing this type of approach being used in many companies.

The idea is that data now is in a consumable format. It's standardized, and then when it flows into a skills registry or a skills cloud, it's easy to mine and easy to analyze. I think the idea of a skills cloud is something people haven't really used in the context of digital badges, and they really need to. Digital badging is a great way to recognize skills identified in these assessments.

Holly: Are companies using the same assessment tool or are different tools needed for different companies?

Denise: The tool can be easily configured based on the company need. They can use parts of the framework, tailor-make it. Think of it as Legos. An organization may need innovation, adaptability, growth mindset, ethics, critical thinking, and collaboration skills. The assessment tool enables that focus. Another organization may need to improve sales, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, customer orientation, and ethics. So the tool can be configured as needed. And companies can tailor the assessment to their organizational objectives: What skills are needed to achieve that, and how do we make sure everybody's contributing to that. Bottom line is this: The tool assesses the core capabilities that everyone in organizations need today.

Holly: Are there other insights from this research?

Denise: Another eye-opening innovation for the company involved working with a local university to create a program in which they assessed employees’ capabilities levels. If an employee could show work product at that level, and it was verified by a third-party assessor, that employee would receive a digital badge and university credit for the work product they demonstrated.

Matthew: Was this company able to shuffle its existing workforce around and create internal opportunities for advancement sufficient to staff these three new companies? Did they find some gaps that they needed new recruiting drives to fill entire swaths of the workforce?

Denise: I don't know how much they had to hire from outside but I do know they shuffled people around and are still in the midst of this. The “outcomes” are not completed for the reorganization. One thing they did around leadership specifically was institute “stretch assignments.” They created parachute assignments for some folks who scored highly in areas where they were not using those skills in their current roles (like the two women in the Philippines). They wanted to see if various individuals could fill new roles, actually do the jobs. This has proven very successful. This is not just for leadership roles but others like strategic planning. They found there were a couple of stellar people who were pretty new to the organization; the organization didn't know what they could do when they hired them but they have fast-tracked them now after looking at the data. We had feedback not just on scores for the capabilities in their framework, but also had sub-scores. So a company can see—within adaptability, for example—if individuals have resilience. They can see if they have optimism. This granularity allows for more clear, nuanced, and prescriptive data-driven decisions.

Holly: What about the people who didn't rate as high as they would have expected based on their position? Wouldn’t that “evaluation” become a negative? Is the company moving people out of positions if they're not doing what they thought people expected them to do?

Denise: I'm not aware of anybody losing their position, but here's what they did that was really exciting. If somebody was lower in an area than they thought they should be or wanted to be, they had the results that person received linked directly to an intranet page that said, “Here all the things that you can do to grow and improve.” In effect, they said: “If you want to improve in this area, here's a training program. Here are some outside activities you can do.” It had a whole page on their intranet showing everything you could do for each level. The focus has been on professional development: “If you're high, here's how you can grow even further. Look for stretch assignments. Look for a mentor. If you're medium, here are some ways you can become high. If you're on the low end, here are some ways to start thinking about growing in this area.”

Holly: Do you have to repeat assessing people over time? If I'm resilient now, does that mean I'm going to be resilient next year?

Denise: When you're talking about personality traits and mindsets, they're very stable. They don't change situationally, and they don't change over time unless you develop them. They don't tend to degrade but they can improve. So let's say I have empathy, I'm not going to become less empathetic typically, but I can grow in empathy if I have training and interventions. And by interventions, I mean education and training to become better. And a lot of times things like empathy can be improved by taking out bias and improving tolerance and that sort of thing—which can be learned. A lot of people think that personality traits can't be trained or grow, but they can. It’s harder to do than learning math, and it takes longer—but you can absolutely improve those over time. There's a lot of research to support that.

Holly: Let’s stop here. We’ll pick up the discussion on other innovations you’re seeing in your work with employers in Part 2.