HR skills get a makeover

To help organizations reskill for the future, HR teams need to start with themselves

“We’re the shoemaker’s children,” says Karen Keegans, senior vice president and head of human resources at Rockwell Automation. The proverb she references—“The shoemaker’s children are always barefoot”—helps sum up one of HR’s biggest challenges today: When it comes to helping workers learn the skills they’ll need to compete in the years ahead, the department that often gets ignored is HR itself.

By 2022, more than half of all employees will need to acquire new job skills, according to the World Economic Forum. HR leaders are the tip of the spear for those initiatives—yet many don’t feel they are equipped to lead the way. Most HR executives (70%) recognize the need to reskill their workforce for the digital age, but only 39% are confident in their ability to get it done, according to a 2019 survey by KPMG.

28%

of HR leaders say ‘people analytics’ is the most desired HR job skill

That won’t cut it at a time when HR’s mission is changing rapidly. While HR teams previously managed administrative functions for the most part, today they help drive strategic goals—assessing and filling talent gaps, managing an age-diverse workforce, redesigning employee experiences, analyzing data to foster performance excellence, and more.

To succeed at that level, HR teams must upgrade their own skill sets. Here’s a look at both the hard and soft skills that tomorrow’s HR professionals will need to remain competitive in coming years.

Future HR skills

More than 1 in 4 HR leaders today (28%) identify “people analytics” as the most desired job skill for the future, according to the 2019 “HR Skills of the Future” survey by myHRFuture, a London-based consultancy. That includes the ability to leverage data about recruitment, job performance, employee engagement, and other HR benchmarks into actionable insights.

Today’s HR teams need more than traditional people skills to help drive business goals.

That doesn’t mean knowing how to train an algorithm, says Keegans. It’s more about analyzing complex datasets to improve decision-making, and communicating that knowledge to others. One example: Accurately forecasting staffing needs as a company expands into new markets or rolls out new products and services.

“It’s really about storytelling,” says Keegans. “It’s taking this copious data and creating a story that resonates with the direction that you need the business to go.”

A strong grasp of advanced HR technologies—such as AI-powered recruiting tools or mobile apps that automate the process of employee onboarding—ranked as the second-most important skill for HR teams to develop, according to the survey.

“Core digital savvy is critical, as is knowing how to use smart automation,” says Max Caldwell, principal in charge of HR transformation at The Hackett Group.

DIY digital HR

Taking inventory of an HR team’s skills is the first step toward a successful reskilling strategy, says Harry Osle, who leads Hackett’s global HR advisory practice. After that, leaders should assess what digital skills the team needs short-term, to keep pace with the rapid adoption of AI, machine learning, and related technologies.

“Forget about five years out,” Osle says. “What do you need in the next one to two years? Can you get there through training or do you need to hire to fill that gap right away?”

At IBM, HR teams have embraced a DIY strategy. “We’re telling folks within HR, ‘You’ve got to get your arms around emerging technologies,” says Carrie Altieri, the company’s VP of communications for people and culture. “Understand AI and how to apply it in your workflow. Our HR teams are learning how to code chatbots as part of the job.”

The coding push began in 2016, when two of Altieri’s staffers taught themselves how to design chatbots. Frustrated by constantly having to answer the same routine questions from employees, they created Bena, a benefits bot, and Checkpoint Bob, a similar tool to help employees set workplace goals. Since then, HR has created 15 chatbots that have handled more than a million queries from employees, says Altieri.

Critical soft skills

Soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, leadership, and creativity have long been a key component of HR. One example is the ability to make difficult judgment calls in hiring and firing. But today’s HR teams need more than traditional people skills to help drive business goals.

70%

of HR executives recognize the need to reskill their workforce for the digital age

“What’s emerging as a critical HR skill is the ability to support broad-based organizational change,” says Caldwell. That requires more business and industry knowledge than typical HR teams have needed in the past.

“We’re telling our folks, ‘You need business acumen,’” says Altieri. “‘You have to understand the portfolio. Take your cues from what’s happening in the marketplace and understand your industry in ways you weren’t prioritizing in the past.’”

Companies can teach that by flipping the reskilling script and having senior HR staffers mentor more junior talent, says Caldwell. They can also hold intensive, multiday HR boot camps led by senior staff. “This is a way to give HR staff new tools, templates, and perspectives to jumpstart skills development,” says Caldwell.

Regardless of the digital skills and proficiencies HR teams must acquire, one crucial skill can’t be taught in a class—the ability to roll with the punches and adapt to unexpected challenges and opportunities. Put another way: When the shoemakers in HR finally get their new kicks, they’ve got to be ready to run wherever the road leads.


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