Jess ElmquistDecember 22, 2022
Topics: Customer Stories

Skills: The Metadata of People

When it comes to an exodus of employees walking out the door, “most companies are like a leaky bucket,” shared leading HR analyst and thought leader Josh Bersin, during our recent fireside chat on skills and talent mobility. 

“There's people leaving, you don't really know where they're going or why they're going, and you're filling water in the bucket at the same time. That is really expensive.”

Josh hit the nail on the head. The brain drain also means companies are losing valuable experience and skills — which likely equates to more lost revenue, especially with the continuing talent shortage.

One way to stop the leak? Show your employees they’re a valuable part of your company’s future by empowering them to take actionable control of their career trajectory. And that’s exactly what healthcare insurance leader Cigna is doing with amazing results. 

I sat down for a recent fireside chat with Cigna’s Effie Gikas, Sr. Director, Enterprise Talent Enablement, and Josh to dig a little further into the topic, talent marketplaces, Cigna’s journey, and what other talent leaders can learn from it. 

Watch “Turning Skills-based Talent Mobility Into a Reality” on demand  

Why Skills Matter More Than Ever

I got a good laugh when Josh reminded us of the “good old days” of employee skills. HR would post a job description and choose from a set of competencies listed in a book.

You’d pick this one, that one…maybe one more…and figure out how to assess people against those competencies.

As unscientific and short sighted as that sounds, that’s the way HR was done back in the day. Not anymore. 

The distressed talent landscape and changing job markets has unleashed new roles, jobs, and industries. Digital transformation and the mainstream adoption of AI has brought smarter ways to process people’s background, experiences, and talents, allowing each person to see their job skills as “transferable” beyond their current industry or job title. In fact, 45% of the people that changed jobs during the pandemic changed industries, too — taking their valuable skills and applying them elsewhere. 

So we as HR leaders are invited to think differently. Instead of writing down competencies by job the way we used to, we use technology and great teams to support people to understand how their skills fit across wide ranges of jobs. “There's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of skills that we need to be effective at work,” Josh said. 

Yes, “skills as the metadata of people.” Fascinating way to look at them. Understanding our people’s skills helps move them into different positions with similar competencies. Plus, Josh pointed out, companies discover that talent has more skills in common than they originally thought — a discovery that can unleash a world of great possibilities.

“We're in the early days of this,” he noted. “Technologies like what you do at Phenom are relatively new, so the opportunities are massive. Things that Cigna are doing now are really available to everyone.”

The Elephant in the Room

Despite the benefits, focusing on skills isn’t easy – “it’s very complicated,” for organizations Josh admitted. Still, he added, there’s not a company doing skills and gig work that’s not winning from an ROI standpoint.

“People are more excited about working for a company where they can build a more interesting career,” he shared. “That's the way things were in the old days when I entered the workforce. We're going back to that again.”

But creating a scalable way to do that at the enterprise level is far from simple. 

Cigna’s highly skilled workforce of 70,000+ runs the gamut. On any given day they’re hiring physicians, attorneys, pharmacists, nurses, data scientists, and more — all working in more than 100 countries. “That’s really overwhelming trying to figure out what job could be next for me out of 2,000,” said Effie.

Case in point? A while back, Effie was interviewing an employee for an open recruitment marketing role, which naturally requires marketing skills, not traditional HR skills.

“I asked her, just like I ask everyone, ‘how did you hear about this role?’ And she said to me ‘I heard about it on LinkedIn. I would have never found this job internally.’ She goes ‘I didn't even know that you could apply marketing skills to an HR job,’ and I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, we have to fix this.’”

The problem that comes up constantly in my meetings with HR executives is that companies don’t know how to take that first step to develop a capability pipeline of people — let alone figure out who has what skills for which role. 

Turning To Tech for Help

Effie wasn’t alone when she said how hard it is for people on the inside than on the outside to apply for a role.

The fact is, most companies are in the same situation, according to Josh’s research.
Here’s what he had to say about how tools like Phenom’s Intelligent Talent Experience platform provide “the most high value” in HR tech.

Recognizing it was harder for employees to identify a job inside the company than it was for external candidates, Cigna knew they needed to emulate their amazing candidate experience for internals.

Already a customer leveraging a Phenom Career Site and CRM, it was a natural next step to look at our employee experience capabilities to fuel their internal talent marketplace

“Now our CRM not only includes traditionally all of the external non-employees, now all of our employees are in that same database,” Effie said. “Our recruiters are able to work the same way that they've been working all along, because you've got to make it easy for the recruiters.”

Everyone’s skills, experiences, and interests are in that same database, so Cigna’s recruiters are able to work the same way they've been working before, except now they can proactively outreach to employees in the company.

“And the cool thing about Phenom is the AI that's in there,” Effie shared. The technology automates the finding of employees for the recruiter, which provides tremendous value in just time savings, she added. 

In the six months since Cigna implemented their talent marketplace, about 50% of employees have: updated their skills and interests; signaled if they're open to other opportunities within the company; and inputted all other types of requested information.

“We now have information about employees that we didn't have before,” she revealed, including 24 skills per employee and 33,000 unique skills across the organization. “The data that I have now is so much more powerful.”

33,000 unique skills? That’s incredible. Imagine what your internal mobility teams could do with visibility into data like that — visibility that is only possible by partnering people with usable data, relevant to the situation. This change has made skills more powerful than ever.

Effie and her team are now proactive business partners with the organization rather than reactive, struggling to solve problems after the fact. And it’s all because they have a fresh line of sight into their peoples’ skills.

Another plus: when companies start an internal talent mobility journey, what they find is that hiring managers need an advisor.  

“That's a new role for the recruiter,” explained Josh. “Now they're an internal talent scout. Now they're going to want to look around inside the company and get to know what other people are doing, understand the organization, all the dynamics of which groups are growing, which groups aren’t growing. So it really makes the talent acquisition function much more strategic.”

Company Culture and “The Four Rs” 

The story doesn’t end there. Getting the tech right is important, yes, but so is culture.

Some organizations have siloed business units that latch onto star talent and prevent them from a lateral move to another department. Employees miss out on the chance to gain valuable insight into the organization from a new perspective that furthers their overall command of the business, career potential, and tenure at the company — and managers miss out on capable talent that’s already ingrained in the culture for faster time to productivity. 

From there, it’s often a downhill spiral that leads employees straight out the door looking for the same opportunities they should have been offered at their former company. 

One of my favorite takeaways? Josh’s insight here about the holistic view companies need to take to come out on top: “Recruiting does not stand alone,” he explained. Every recruiting or talent problem is really about:  

  • Recruiting

  • Retaining

  • Reskilling

  • Redesigning

And to address the root causes of these complex challenges and solve for them, the right conversations have to take place with the right stakeholders at the senior level. 

When it came to getting buy-in, Effie said it came down to persistence and proper positioning.  

“If we’re going to deliver to our customers, to our clients, to our shareholders, we need to be able to cross-pollinate talent, and [a talent marketplace] is an enabler to do that,” Effie noted. 

It’s no mistake: the strongest companies are the ones investing in employee growth, and ingrained that mindset into their culture. It didn’t happen by accident.

We’re In This Together

One of the lessons learned from my talk with Effie and Josh is that we’re all in this together. As my fellow CHROs can attest, when our customers win, we win. 

I love that. It gets me super excited to be in this line of work.

If your organization doesn’t have a firm grasp on your employees’ skills — or you don’t know how to leverage them in the best way for your people and your business — I encourage you to watch our discussion on demand. I’m posting it again here. It will be 50 minutes of time well spent learning how to fix your leaky bucket.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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