Skillability: Will It Solve the Talent Crunch?

The current talent market poses numerous challenges for leaders and employees, alike. Perhaps the most disruptive force redefining the post-pandemic business landscape is persistently high employee turnover. This Great Reshuffle” demonstrates just how quickly teams can change—even beyond the pandemic shift to remote work.

A New Business Necessity: Skillability

This fluid employment environment brings good news and bad. Employees are welcoming it as an opportunity to advance their careers. But among employers, it has given rise to the practice of talent poaching. Global companies are proactively pursuing candidates from all over the world, culling the best talent away from other, smaller businesses.

And on top of this highly competitive talent market, employers are now struggling with the effects of inflation. As the cost of living continues to increase, so do demands for higher wages. And candidates are willing to hold out when employers don’t meet their salary expectations. These dynamics can make it tough to fill openings, even for high-paying, highly-skilled roles.

At the same time, employees face a volatile economic landscape that is sending conflicting messages about how to weigh the stability of an existing job against other attractive options. Today’s sky-high inflation hasn’t done employees any favors, either. Even though individuals have more bargaining power, inflation quickly eats into any wage increases gained from a job switch. As a result, economics plays a much more active role in career choices these days.

But despite all of these issues, both employers and employees can rely on one shared secret weapon. It’s something I call skillability.

The Power of Skillability

A skill is an individual’s capacity to perform a job task or function, based on existing knowledge, ability and competence. Skillability, in contrast, is an individual’s capacity to develop proficiency in an unfamiliar skill.

The faster and more efficiently someone can develop a skill, the better. So, skillability can be measured by determining the time an employee needs to develop new skills, along with the investment needed to build those skills.

Training, alone, is not enough to improve skillability. It also requires a supportive, learning-forward work environment. Together, they can nurture professional growth and create a win-win for individuals and their employers.

It’s essential for leaders to develop key workforce skills internally. This gives them new ways to support employees in their current roles, while helping them prepare for future growth within the organization. At the same time, by proactively encouraging team skillability, leaders can uncover new growth opportunities for themselves.

For example, consider technology advancements. While new technologies may promise greater operational efficiency and profitability, they also require specific skills that existing employees may lack. Employees with a high level of skillability can help companies hedge against the uncertainty of changing technology by being adaptable and agile in the face of change.

Building Skillability Within Your Organization

Skillability may sound like a trait, but the ability to develop new skills can actually be learned. It’s all in your approach to training, development, and talent acquisition. Here are just a few ideas to help your organization move forward with this strategy:

1) Consider Candidates Who May Not Fit the Mold

Candidates who lack one or more “required” proficiencies can bring a background or experience that enables them to quickly pick up new skills, duties, and responsibilities. Don’t screen out these individuals.

This approach offers several advantages. First, it opens your organization to new, often untapped talent pools. Also, it encourages the development of existing internal talent, which can drive retention and avoid the consequences of unwanted turnover.

Think about it. If you hire new employees for skillability and their desire to learn, you’re not just investing in their future, but in your organization’s future competitiveness, as well.

2) Build Achievable Benchmarks Into Training

Benchmarking is nothing new. Business leaders use it to determine the highest standards of performance. However, it can also be used for training and onboarding. Benchmarks and timelines can spur self-driven learning over a defined period.

Industrial technology provider, Emerson, relies on a powerful version of this model. It instills lifelong learning “DNA” in new employees to ensure that they will be skillable throughout their employee journey. This kind of approach indicates early on whether employees are likely to grow continually and take on new challenges as they arise. It also encourages the most enterprising employees to quickly distinguish themselves and demonstrate their skillability.

3) Break Employees Out of Their Comfort Zones

Sometimes, the most effective way to cultivate skillability is to nudge employees toward learning opportunities that push their existing boundaries and routines. This strategy is inspired by the fact that people learn more effectively when they’re somewhat uncomfortable as they explore new ways of thinking and doing things. 

Effective learning disrupts the status quo, so to speak. And overcoming these challenges has a way of encouraging people to continue pursuing learning opportunities for themselves. This means you’ll want to put employees in new situations that force them to challenge their thinking, expand their knowledge, test their abilities, and ignite their desire to grow and evolve in their careers. 

4) Establish a Supportive Environment

The climate you establish for new and existing employees is paramount to skillability’s success. It’s important to create a setting where fear is seen as an invitation to grow, rather than a signal to hold back.

Often, leaders inadvertently discourage growth in others because they fear negative consequences or they’re anxious about their own ability to grow. This can intimidate others and put a damper on skillability. One way to avoid this is for senior leaders to consistently and openly encourage all team members to develop skillability, and for the organization to reward people at all levels who step up to the challenge.

Final Thoughts

Employers can become so invested in hiring for a specific skill set that they fail to consider a candidate’s skillability. When you hire people, you’re already planning to involve them in training. So, why not broaden your talent options to include those with a stronger likelihood to learn much-needed skills in the future?

Even if you look within your ranks for employees with motivation and a commitment to continuous learning, you’re likely to find viable job candidates you might not have otherwise considered. It may only take a gentle push in the right direction and an environment that gives them the support they need to grow and succeed.

Employee Education: How to Avoid the ‘Forgetting Curve’

You’ve spent the day at a leadership conference learning all sorts of great things: how to coach your team, how to build engagement, how to run effective meetings, how to encourage career development, and more. You go back to work the next day with good intentions—but quickly lapse into your old habits.

Within a few weeks, you try to recall what you learned, but even with your notes, you have a hard time. What on Earth happened? If he were still alive, 19th-century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus would have the answer: You just experienced the “forgetting curve.”

We’ve known for 126 years that the human brain doesn’t retain a lot in terms of memory, and Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve shows just how rapidly new information is lost if we don’t have the opportunity to put it into practice quickly. But just 12 percent of professionals use their newfound skills right away.

This means taking people out of work and putting them through a formal, structured class (where they might even be tested with the accompanying assumption they know what to do if they pass) and then putting them back in the workplace doesn’t actually influence the performance.

Being expected to retain large volumes of information all in one go is like trying to drink from a firehose—sure, you absorb a little bit, but the majority washes over you without sinking in. Fortunately, though, there are employee education tactics to make knowledge “stickier” and avoid the forgetting curve.

1. Give workers access to bite-sized learning.

When it comes to employee education, it’s common to bombard employees with large amounts of information. But most people, especially your high performers, are time-poor and constantly pulled in competing directions.

The way around time constraints is to give workers access to quick information that can be ingested in small bursts. For instance, a self-directed program of 15-minute modules allows employees to tap into knowledge at their point of need. So rather than spending a week learning about agile management, they get a distilled understanding of the principle that they can apply immediately.

Microlearning is also an effective way to improve uptake and engagement. Eighty-five percent of all educational content is either forgotten or rendered useless within six weeks of learning it, which indicates that traditional training might not be the most effective way for people to learn. Pandora is one example of a company that turned to microlearning for its workforce and saw training completion rates go from 15 percent to 90 percent. Busy people who might not be able to commit fully to an all-day event can usually find small nuggets of time to devote to a little education.

2. Encourage managers to follow up after training to help reinforce learning.

Having team members share how they’ve applied what they learned is one of the most effective ways to overcome the forgetting curve and to ensure behavior change (which is usually the goal of employee education). These informal interactions can be brief; think of them more as a huddle than a formal check-in, as discussing what has been learned in conversation can help make knowledge stick.

This is especially important after bringing new employees into the fold. Onboarding typically involves a large volume of information: “Here’s our tech system. Here’s how we do stuff.” Once onboarding is over, employees frequently experience the forgetting curve. Meeting with their team leaders to go over digestible chunks of the material they learned while onboarding helps with retention.

3. Stack new knowledge on top of prior knowledge.

Another way to bypass the effects of the forgetting curve in employee education is to build learning experiences. For example, an employee would need to be able to demonstrate and apply specific behaviors before learning something else. This type of information “stacking” creates a strong foundation and avoids learning loss. Over time, the lower levels of the “stack” become more and more ingrained.

Be careful, though: Not all knowledge “belongs” on top of other knowledge. Learning has to make sense for your employee. Take the idea of a public speaking course for a performer who doesn’t have a speaking engagement planned. The material may seem unnecessary, making it more likely to be forgotten before it can be applied.

To ensure that you’re stacking knowledge efficiently, request feedback from your team members. You can always fix something that’s not working.

4. Create training opportunities that are easily accessible and device-agnostic.

People in need of information don’t always want to read about the topic. Many people are visual or auditory learners. Or they may want to interact kinesthetically with curricula if possible. Be certain that you’re offering training that meets people’s learning needs and preferences.

Similarly, be sure that all employee education content is accessible on any device. Use laptops, tablets, smartphones and desktops for learning purposes. The more user-centric your learning content is, the more it will become a reliable resource.

Calculate which types of devices or learning styles are being used most often by your team. Maybe the majority of employees seem to tune into podcast-style micro-content on their smartphones, in which case you might like to add more audio formats to your learning toolkit.

5. Go for a blended learning approach that still includes formal learning.

Formal learning has a place in corporate training, as long as it’s equally as engaging and effective as other types of education. Intersperse formal learning with other types of employee education, such as microlearning, feedback loops, and self-directed learning.

When designing your learning processes, go for a blended approach with multiple touchpoints. Don’t just have a lecture-style marathon. Instead, add a post-workshop task and follow-up sessions to round out the learning and reinforce the transfer of knowledge.

The forgetting curve may be a proven phenomenon, but there are certainly ways to overcome it! Just put a few measures in place, and you’ll have far less forgetting—and far more employees eager to show off their mettle.

#WorkTrends: Build an A Team

Companies want to hire experts who can jump right in on day one and add value to the organization. But that recruiting strategy may be flawed. Could hiring and training inexperienced workers be a better approach?

This week on #WorkTrends, we’re talking to Whitney Johnson. She’s a seasoned leader and business coach and author of three of my favorite books, “Disrupt Yourself,” “Dare, Dream, Do,” and her latest book, “Build an A-Team, Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.”


Johnson is also a coach for Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, a LinkedIn influencer and host of the weekly Disrupt Yourself Podcast.

You can listen to the full episode below or keep reading for this week’s topic. Share your thoughts with us using the hashtag #WorkTrends.

Johnson explains how the S curve can help companies make better hiring decisions.

The S Curve

When Johnson was working with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, they were looking at disruptive innovation using the S curve (popularized in 1962 by Everett Rogers to figure out when an idea is going to get adopted) to decide whether to invest in a company or not. “The big ‘aha’ that I had as we were applying this is that this S curve or learning curve could also help us understand people,” Johnson says. “If you can picture in your mind the bottom of the S, you know that when you first try something new, a lot of time’s going to pass and very little’s going to happen.” And this is what you would expect at the bottom of the S.


However, when you start piecing things together, you’re moving into the knee of the S; this is the steep part where everything is starting to coalesce. You stop feeling discouraged and wondering whether you know what you’re doing. “In fact, now you’re feeling increasingly competent, and with that comes confidence. And this is where you’re fully engaged in the work that you’re doing.”

After two or three years, you get to the top of the S and once again, nothing is happening. “Now it’s not because you don’t know anything, it’s because you know too much: You’ve become a master. And once you become a master, you become bored. So you need to do something new.”

The Organizational S Curve

Johnson says your organization is a collection of learning curves, and you build an A-team by managing where people are on those curves. “At any given time, you want to have 70 percent of your people in that sweet spot, that steep part of the curve,” she says. “You want to have 15 percent of your people at the low end, the ones that are inexperienced, the ones that are a little bit discouraged.” These are the people who ask why you do things a certain way.

She says you also want 15 percent of your people at the high end. They’re not necessarily learning a lot at this point, but they’re the pace-setters. “They’re the people who have this perspective, they’re on the top of the curve and they can give you a sense of what has been done and what hasn’t been done.”

By embracing the S curve, you’ll have an engaged organization where everyone is learning, and this will allow you to be innovative and competitive.

Hiring at the Wrong End of the Curve

Companies should be willing to hire at the bottom of the curve rather than at the top. We’re afraid to hire inexperienced people and train them because we think they will leave. “We know from the data and the research that one of the things that people most prize is being able to be trained,” Johnson says. “When we’re trained, that builds loyalty. So, people who are trained are less likely, not more likely, to leave.”

The Boston-based security company SimpliSafe used this approach. They hired people with no industry experience. “They wanted to train their people in-house — from their call center workers to their engineers.” By taking this approach, they sought to avoid having bored employees, because bored employees get lazy. “So, hire for potential, not for proficiency.”

Continue the conversation. Join us on Twitter (#WorkTrends) for our weekly chat on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 10:30 a.m. Pacific or anywhere in the world you are joining from to discuss this topic and more.

How 3 Innovative Companies Are Rethinking Learning at Work

According to a 2017 survey, 71 percent of employees have had to undergo training to either keep or advance forward in a position. Nearly half say they have not been able to advance due to a lack of training.

This is a twofold problem for employers. Companies not offering learning opportunities may be hindering the professional growth of their employees, which in turn negatively affects the organization. But even when companies provide opportunities to learn, training is often perceived as being cumbersome, time-consuming, inconvenient and even irrelevant.

Looking for new ways to get employees involved in their own professional development? Take a page from three innovative companies that are rethinking their approach to learning at work, and producing a more engaged workforce.


Deloitte’s learning process integrates gamification: The company has literally made learning a game. The firm originally struggled to get employees and client companies to take online courses in executive training through The Deloitte Leadership Academy. By incorporating game mechanics — such as leaderboards, badges and missions — Deloitte reported a 50 percent faster course-completion rate and a 36 percent greater weekly retention rate. Deloitte’s use of competition, fun and design have helped to create a learning process that is informative and engaging.


Inspirus is taking another approach to make learning less cumbersome. Theresa Harkins, VP of Client Success and Engagement Solutions, understands the importance of making learning more palatable. “Delivering learning in a fun and interactive manner drives business outcomes while engaging employees,” she says.

The Inspirus approach involves microlearning. “Microlearning consists of short, five-minute bursts of content available via mobile devices that can be easily blended into a workday, and that empowers the user to learn anywhere at any time,” Harkins says. “Our clients are realizing that employees don’t have as much time to attend a training class or take an hourlong online course.”

Four Day Weekend

Four Day Weekend is committed to making learning more fun for everyone. The improv comedy troupe has a corporate division that meets with companies to build communication and other skills through skits. Every high-energy show is different, since it’s tailored for each client. The troupe’s roster of clients includes American Airlines, FedEx Office, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt Corporation.

One key theme in their work is the build-upon concept of “yes, and” as a way to encourage creativity and embrace new ideas. The goal of such a skit is to never say no, and that leads to some pretty funny scenarios. The troupe allows the audience to participate by suggesting words that can worked into the skit.

These are just three companies using new approaches to make learning both informative and engaging. Use these as a jumping-off point to innovation in your own organization.