The way we work is changing. A large section of workers are no longer satisfied with doing the same job for the rest of their lives. They are constantly looking to expand their skill sets and explore new professional interests. At the same time, organizations are finding out that their skill requirements are rapidly evolving, even as they struggle to find the talent to fill open positions. How do both sides navigate this tricky period of transition? With internal mobility.
Internal mobility is the movement of employees across roles within an organization. Its foundation lies in teaching employees new skills (reskilling) or facilitating and improving their existing skills (upskilling). This helps them move across departments and functions, prepares them for any changes in the way their current jobs might be done in the future, and satisfies their aspirations for career growth and new experiences. For employers and HR leaders who are finding it increasingly difficult to find talented people to hire, reskilling/upskilling their existing workforce makes a lot of sense. More so at a time when businesses are still feeling the effects of disruptions caused by Covid-19.
Closely tied to internal mobility is another workplace concept that is fast gaining traction – skill adjacencies. There are certain skills that are related to a worker’s existing skill set, even if they don’t seem obvious at first. These related skills are called adjacent skills. For example, you might be in human resources but have a talent for public relations. If you aspire to move to a new and more exciting role within the organization, then it’s important to develop those adjacent skills.
Given the growing importance of internal mobility and skill adjacencies, let’s take a deep dive into these concepts.
What is internal mobility?
Internal mobility is moving jobs within the same organization. The movement could be vertical, as in a promotion, or lateral, where you move within the same job level. It could be role-based or project-based. For example, a company hires someone trained to work in marketing. But that individual’s skill set might make them capable of filling an entirely different role, say media relations. With the right guidance and reskilling, they might thrive in their new role, benefiting both the employee and organization in the long run. Thus, internal mobility empowers employees by helping them expand their skill sets. And it allows employers to meet the challenges of a shrinking market of skilled talent, retain workers and train future leaders.
Of course, lateral moves within an organization without any concrete long-term rewards is not internal mobility in the true sense. Internal mobility must be matched by higher salaries, promotions and opportunities for further growth.
What is skill adjacency?
For its Future of Recruiting report released in December, LinkedIn asked global recruiting leaders what top skill they were looking for in 2021. More than half of the respondents chose adaptability, or the skill to learn new skills. According to a 2020 Gartner study, “58% of the workforce needs new skills to get their jobs done”. The pandemic has brought greater urgency to the reskilling and upskilling needs of both employees and employers. “In today's environment, hiring is not possible for many organizations. Instead, companies can look at current employees who have skills closely matched to those in demand and utilize training to close any gaps,” says Alison Smith, director, Gartner HR practice.
Transitioning from one skill set to another might fill some with dread. But developing adjacent skills doesn’t necessarily mean changing careers completely. Rather, it means developing skills related to those you already possess. Here’s an example of internal mobility and skill adjacencies at work: during the 2020 pandemic, a bank used skill-matching to move employees at its branches, which were witnessing a lull in business, to its call centre, which was struggling with high demand.
Benefits of internal mobility
Promoting internal mobility has advantages for both employees and employers:
- Talent retention: When a company encourages internal mobility, it shows that it is invested in its workers and their professional development. Firms that actively offer internal mobility opportunities are 41% more likely to retain employees than those that don’t, says LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2020 study. Another LinkedIn study suggests employees who make lateral moves are more likely to stay on (62%) than those who don’t (45%). The top reason employees quit is to find opportunities for promotions and career advancement. They might not leave if they find these at their current place of work. The 2019 Gartner Global Labor Market survey says 10% of active job seekers prefer to find opportunities within their own workplace.
- Talent management: Shifting talent around helps organizations fill skills gaps without having to hire externally. Internal hires perform significantly better than external hires, at least in their first two or three years on the job, research by Wharton’s associate professor of management Matthew Bidwell shows. This is because internal workers are already familiar with the company’s culture and practices and make an easier transition.
- Employee engagement: What happens when employees are given the opportunity to advance in their careers, try something fresh and exciting, find a role that fits them better, or learn new skills? They don’t look for opportunities outside. They work longer and harder. And they stay loyal to the company. Internal mobility is great for employee engagement and morale.
- Cost and time savings: Hiring internally translates to money and time better spent. Companies save on external hires, who are paid 10%-20% more, according to Bidwell. Furthermore, the internal recruitment process is faster and less expensive. This is favorable at a time when HR leaders have had their recruitment budgets cut significantly.
- Redeployment instead of layoffs: The advent of artificial intelligence-driven automation has made millions of jobs obsolete. Due to the effects of the pandemic, even more jobs are expected to be displaced by technology. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs 2020 report says 50% of employers surveyed are in favour of accelerating automation of tasks while 43% expect to reduce their workforce due to technology integration. Avoiding layoffs at such a time might seem impossible but internal mobility holds out hope. Organizations can choose to reskill employees who are at risk of being displaced by the ongoing digital transformation and redeploy them in other roles. This will not only save jobs, it will help companies protect their employer brand and boost employee satisfaction. The World Economic Forum report presents another perspective on the impact of AI on the transformation of work. It reports that while automation will eliminate 85 million jobs by 2025, it will also create 97 million new jobs in that same period. These new roles are expected to require new skills, which once again makes the case for organizations to reskill and redeploy their employees.
Challenges of internal mobility
Despite the many advantages of internal mobility, companies have yet to embrace it fully. Only 6% of respondents in the 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey said their organizations were “excellent” at enabling internal mobility while 34% rated themselves as “fair” and 16% as “inadequate”. Here are the biggest obstacles to internal mobility:
- Lack of visibility: As a manager, how well do you know each team member’s skill set? Do you know their adjacent skills (which you probably won’t find in their resumes or LinkedIn profiles)? Do you know what growth opportunities they are looking for? What potential roles and projects might interest them? The reason why many companies struggle to make internal mobility work is because they lack visibility on employee skills.
- Lack of processes: Sometimes, organizations want to shuffle talent around but don’t have the processes and policies in place to do so. They might have job opportunities but lack the technology and tools to effectively communicate this to interested candidates. Many companies don’t have complete profiles of their employees that list not just their known skills but also those they wish to acquire or have acquired privately. Most importantly, they lack the tools to match these skills with the roles that need to be filled.
- Management resistance: Some managers like to hoard talent. Others resist attempts by other departments to recruit their star workers. There are also managers who believe it is bad practice to “poach” talent from another team. Reluctant managers are a major stumbling block to internal mobility, according to 70% of respondents in LinkedIn’s 2020 Global Talent Trends survey and 46% of those surveyed in Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study. In the face of such resistance, employees might hold back from exploring internal job opportunities for fear of being seen as disloyal.
- Tradition: It is particularly difficult for internal mobility to take off in a traditional organization with a top-down hierarchy. For employees to make lateral moves, the lines between departments need to be blurred. But companies with traditional organizational set-ups have very defined lines. Their departments work as stand-alone units.
How to create an effective internal mobility strategy
Despite the challenges, many organizations have tasted success with internal mobility. One such firm is Spotify, which encourages its employees to try out different roles every few years. It calls these rotations “missions”. Google and Facebook are other success stories. The reason why these companies succeeded while others failed is because they had well thought out internal mobility strategies. Some best practices:
- Build a skills database: Get to know your employees’ skill sets. This requires a high level of engagement with your staff. Holding regular employee reviews is one way of doing it. Then there’s the Facebook method, where managers have “honest conversations” with team members about career progression. During these interactions, managers must take the trouble to identify their team members’ hidden skills and pick those that can be polished. Once you have the information in hand, maintain a file, update it regularly and upload it to the HR system where it is easily accessible.
- Skill up: Most employees expect more than a paycheck from their workplace. They want the chance to develop their skills and grow in their careers. To retain such talent and help them succeed, companies need dedicated upskilling and reskilling programs. The idea is to not judge an employee by their existing skill set but to consider their future potential.
- Encourage cross-collaborations: Once they have knowledge of the various skills on board, companies can move workers around and fill critical skills gaps faster and more efficiently. But they must be open to such an exchange. Cross-collaborations require an environment where internal candidates aren’t afraid of expressing their wish to work in a particular department or on a specific project.
- Coach your managers: Most managers earn their positions not because they excel at being leaders but because they are skilled in their area of work. Like any employee, a manager, too, can and must be trained to become a leader who looks out for each team member’s professional growth. They must learn to be career coaches and mentors. Mentorships have a proven record of improving employee engagement and retention rates, as this 2016 Deloitte survey of millennials shows. Apart from training, organizations can use incentives to motivate their managers to embrace internal mobility. For example, managers can be rewarded for referring a successful internal candidate for a job or for helping a team member learn a new skill.
- Make internal recruitments formal: Internal candidates deserve the same experience an external candidate gets. Organizations must interview, assess and communicate with them the same way they would somebody from outside. If the internal candidate doesn’t get the job, this, too, must be formally communicated to them. For an ideal candidate experience, the hiring manager could advise the candidate on how to work on their shortcomings. At some companies, the process of hiring internally is informal and based on personal connections. This can lead to bad hires.
- Use AI to drive internal mobility: The application of technology can make a company’s internal mobility and reskilling/upskilling processes more effective. Companies are increasingly using AI to assess and analyze their employees’ skill sets, identify skill gaps, recognize future and emerging skill requirements, match skills and jobs, and create reskilling opportunities. In a 2018 IBM study, more than 80% of the HR professionals interviewed were of the view that AI solutions – with their use of data, pattern recognition and natural language learning – facilitate better matching of skills and jobs, an enhanced experience for employees looking for new opportunities, a larger pool of internal talent to consider for positions, and better visibility of opportunities for employees, among others.
- Build a culture of internal mobility: Finally, for an organization to cultivate talent and use that talent efficiently, it must make internal mobility a part of its culture. Internal mobility cannot work if it is an occasional practice.
Internal mobility is the future of work. Today, new jobs and new skills are emerging every day while old ways of working are dying out. People with the right skills are an increasingly rare commodity. Employees want new experiences and pathways to grow in their careers. The workforce of tomorrow must arm themselves with the right skills to meet the demands of this fast-evolving workplace.