Steven Forth is a Co-Founder of TeamFit. See his Skill Profile.
Top image: A tree near Berkley Haas photographed at night by the author. It suggests resilience.


Last week, my TeamFit colleague and I were in Berkley CA for the How Silicon Valley Does HR event organized by Orange Silicon Valley. I was on a panelDigital Transformation for Skill Assessment and Corporate Training to enable Internal Employee Mobilitywith people from LinkedIn, Degreed and Udacity. The panel was lead by Gregory LaBlanc, Faculty Director at the Berkeley Haas Fintech Institute. We each have our own perspectives on skill and skill development but we all agreed that investments in understanding and developing skills are critical to internal employee mobility.

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Following the panel discussion, many of the participants joined a design thinking mini-course: Design Innovative Solutions for Internal Employee Mobility ably led by Professor Elizabeth Kovats. We only had a few hours for this, but I felt the group uncovered some important insights. The following are my own thoughts on what is required for internal mobility.

The session followed an accelerated version of the Stanford methodology (see above), with a focus on the first three steps. People worked in groups of four to five and iterated on Empathize and Design several times before moving on to Ideate.

Following a standard design thinking process, we began by asking why internal mobility is desirable thing at all, for the employee and for the organization. We realized this is not always going to be the case.

Employee view – grow my career or become unmoored

On the positive side, many people want to grow in their jobs, build new skills and try out new things. They also want to keep their jobs, and in a time when technologies and business models are evolving this requires new skills and a willingness to move into new roles.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who find this kind of mobility disorienting. Some prefer to work in a predictable environment where they know what to expect and what is expected of them. Regularity is comforting. Other people want to develop deep expertise in narrow field. One of our early developers, an incredibly capable engineer, decided that his passion was app development and that we were asking him to do too many different things. He has gone on the be very successful in a specialized field.

Organization view – a flexible workforce or a group of generalists who may leave at any time

Organizations seem to have several different reasons they want to promote internal mobility. Some believe that greater mobility will promote more employee engagement. Virtually everyone wants to make better use of resources (or to have more effective people operations if you follow the current trend to reposition ‘human resources’ as ‘people operations’) and realizes that it is often cheaper to transfer people internally than it is to hire. A company that is good at moving people around and developing new skill sets will be more adaptive and better prepared to shape its environment.

There are some negatives as well. Organizations need new blood. New people bring in new ideas, skills and relationships and these may be necessary for change. Internal mobility is not always the best answer. There is also concern that increased internal mobility will also lead to increased mobility in general, and that people who are mobile with constantly developing skill sets will be more likely to leave. This reminded me of the old joke. “There is only one thing worse than training people and having them leave, not training them and having them stay.”

We can combine security and mobility to see four different types of organization. Those with low security and low mobility are likely to be found in declining industries or companies.

Then, there are companies with low security and high mobility. The fast food industry and many retail outlets are examples. These companies have built business models around employing low skilled, high turnover, workforces and paying them as little as possible. The start-up industry also falls into this quadrant. Many start-up companies go out of business and their teams often go on to other start-ups. This becomes a lifestyle for some people.

Mature companies are to be found in the bottom right quadrant, where there is high security but low mobility. It is these companies that are most interested in promoting internal mobility. They see a risk that their teams will become too set in their ways and will fail to adapt when adaptation is necessary.

Then, there are companies that can offer both security and mobility. Parts of Google are like this (we also met with Google X, the moonshot factory, while we were in the Bay Area). The best strategy consulting firms like McKinsey do a great job of rotating young consultants across a variety of projects and developing diverse skill sets. Many mature companies are going to need to move from Mature to Adaptive if they are going to survive, while young innovative companies need to move from Fluid to Adaptive if they are going to scale.

Many ideas were generated in the Ideation phase of the event. Some of those that stuck with me are summarized below.

  • Have an internal job exchange where people can see what jobs are available and make it easy to apply
  • Reward managers when people who come from their team contribute to the success of another team (too often managers ‘hide’ or ‘protect’ their top performers and make sure they do not find opportunities on other teams)
  • Give people more control over their careers by
    • Supporting them by giving them multiple options and making it easy to change course
    • Providing more flexibility in working arrangement for different stages of their career
    • Allowing them to share ownership of their career records
  • Provide a safety net that allows people to fail
  • Make benefits more portable as people move from job to job
  • Make skills and potential skills visible and connect these to job opportunities

That was as far as got in this short design thinking session. The next step would have been to organize the ideas into meaningful groups and to tease out the connections between them. For example, making benefits portable could be one way to provide a safety net, or an internal job exchange should be integrated with a skill management system that make skills and potential skills visible.

One idea that was mentioned later that evening, after a few glasses of wine, was that journey maps could be used to show the different paths that people can take through their careers: what are the branches that take people from one career to another, how do skills evolve along different career paths, what are the unexpected connections between skills that help one succeed in one career and other seemingly unrelated careers? Answering these questions will help organizations offer internal mobility and move them down the path to adaptability.