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Dani Johnson

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Why internal mobility is key during a crisis

Internal mobility is key to harnessing the right skills during challenging times.

For many of us, 2020 has been a year of hard lessons. Many organisations are learning that the way they move and develop talent needs to change. Career paths (like everything else, it seems) are, out of necessity, becoming more flexible and less predictable.

Career paths are looking less like lines and more like Pollock paintings. Employees are looking for a different kind of work experience... 

Interestingly though, career paths not becoming less important. Why, amid a global health crisis, social unrest, natural disasters, and an upcoming election, is employee mobility more important than ever?

Why now?

The answer has three parts. First, investing in career development is one way to keep your most talented employees. As a result, career paths are looking less like lines and more like Pollock paintings. Employees are looking for a different kind of work experience – to develop more holistically, learn new things, and expand their skills stack. This necessarily affects how and where they move within your organisation.

Second, great talent is becoming more difficult to find, with organisations facing the largest talent shortage in over a decade. Looking internally, rather than externally, to find the skills to compete provides an often underused solution to the challenges plaguing many organisations.

Finally, given the world's current state of affairs, organisations need to react more quickly to external and internal pressures. That often means ramping areas of the organisation up or down quickly – something difficult in many of the structured career paths many companies use.

It isn’t just the ladder anymore

While we’re still in the midst of this research study, one common refrain we’re hearing from virtually all parties is that the career ladder is not the only way. As organisations face some of the challenges we spoke of above, they’re tailoring the way they think about mobility to meet those challenges. Generally, organisations participating in our research are falling into one of four models.

1. The ladder model

Employees generally move around (and up) in predictable ways, with a focus on following predefined paths and building specialty.

Ladders are becoming increasingly rare. While in the olden days they were the most common model (likely because they followed organisation’s structure and were therefore easy to implement and account for), there seems to be a lively debate among leaders about how valid this model is. Many feel that the model is outdated, restrictive, and not at all what employees are looking for these days. Others feel that deep expertise is best served by this model and that there will always be a place for it in industries where deep expertise and institutional knowledge is key.

2. The lattice model

Employees explore related areas and a broad range of experiences, with a focus on using their skills widely in the organisation.

The lattice model has been actively talked about for at least ten years and is the most popular of the models. To accommodate employees’ development and career goals, organisations began to offer employees opportunities to move about the business, picking up new skills and applying expertise.

Hints of this model appeared even earlier with new graduate, HIPO, and leadership rotations to ensure a breadth of experience and knowledge rather than only focusing on depth.

The majority of the organisations we have spoken to thus far use the lattice model. It has the benefit of meeting the general needs and wants of their employees without causing major disruptions to systems and processes that support traditional organisational structures.

3. The agency model

Employees are grouped around work to be done rather than the work being grouped around existing people structures. This generally means more project work, more reconfigurable teams, and more flexibility.

Most commonly, we see the agency model in industries such as technology, consulting and professional services, and increasingly, in medicine. These industries naturally lend themselves to project work, side-stepping many of the challenges more traditional organisations may have implementing this type of model.

That said, we have spoken to organisations that are dipping their toes in this model by freeing up some of their employees’ utilisation to participate in open talent marketplaces (some people are calling them internal gig economies or project marketplaces), which allow leaders to post small projects and employees to accept small gigs.

To this point, talent marketplaces have been used for employee development, but we see it as a first step to organisations thinking more broadly about how to organise work (and therefore careers).

4. The reset model

Organisations reskill and redeploy employees to do different kinds of work. This generally requires investment on the part of the organisation and commitment on the part of the employee.

We have heard a lot about the use of the reset model in recent months, likely because of Covid-19. As organisations have changed their operating models and strategies, they have realised the need for different kinds of skills.

They also realise that reskilling is often much cheaper. For example, HBR reported that Credit Suisse conservatively estimated an eight-figure cost savings when it focused on hiring internally first.

Aside from the cost savings, many organisations implementing a reset model often adhere to values that emphasise employee wellbeing and taking care of their own.

Mobility is now a business imperative

Mobility models and strategies are, and should be, dependent on an organisation’s goals, values, employee population leadership style, even the data they have on employee skills. What may work in one organisation may not work in another.

What we do know, and what we’ll continue to research, is that there are some pretty big benefits by focusing on career mobility. In this day and age, with all of its craziness, we think that organisations not focusing on it will be left behind; it’s become a business imperative.

Interested in this topic? Read The future of work: empowering people to take charge of their careers.

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