Building skills the top priority for HR leaders in 2021

HR leaders were asked to list their priorities.
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HR leaders’ top priority for 2021 is to add critical skills, once the immediate threat of the Covid-19 crisis recedes, a prominent study has found, while questions emerge over trust in and quality of senior management.

According to global business analyst and consultancy Gartner in a wide-ranging survey of chief human resources officers, which also covered issues such as diversity and leadership, more than two-thirds (68%) of HR leaders feel that building critical skills would be the most pressing issue for the coming year, followed by organisational design and change management (46%), current and future leadership (44%), the future of work (32%) and employee experience (28%).

Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice, said that although the coronavirus pandemic was still in full swing, senior HR professionals were “moving away from crisis management toward focusing on what will make their organisations strong, both today and in the future, including having the right skills and competencies, building resilience and having a strong cadre of leaders”.

When it came to top business-level priorities (as opposed to HR-level priorities) for 2021, 65% of HR chiefs selected improving operational excellence. A similar proportion of the 875 people surveyed cited growing the business (64%), while 54% said executing business transformations was the top priority. Fifty percent of HR leaders said they would focus on optimising costs in 2021 – a 13% increase from last year.

When it comes to building critical skills, Gartner suggests that organisations “need to take a dynamic approach to reskilling and redeploying talent in which all stakeholders work together to sense shifting skill needs and find ways to develop skills at the time of need”. Gartner’s study pointed out that, currently, only 21% of HR leaders say peers share accountability or partner with HR to determine future skill needs. It added that a dynamic approach to reskilling enables faster identification of skills needs, and employees apply 75% of the new skills they learn.

The survey showed that more than a third (37%) of HR leaders reported that their organisation’s managers were not equipped to lead change. Further, in 2020, the amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued had been cut in half compared to 2019.

Whittle said: “HR leaders need to focus on future-forward work design that eliminates the work friction that frustrates employees today and allows employees to be responsive — in sync with customer needs, in a position to anticipate changes in those needs, and able to adapt their approach and activities accordingly.”

Also on leadership, more than one-third of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner reported that their succession management processes did not yield the right leaders at the right time, while only 44% of employees said they trusted their organisation’s leaders and managers to navigate a crisis well.

A lack of diversity was also undermining confidence and trust in leadership with nearly 50% of HR leaders report that their organisation’s leadership bench was not diverse. Organisations that implemented diversity networking programmes were three times more likely to report they were effective at increasing opportunities for talent mobility, noted Gartner.

More than half of HR leaders (62%) said their organisation did not have an explicit future of work strategy. Gartner said the Covid-19 pandemic would accelerate certain trends – such as in remote working and increased use of employee data – and was leading to organisations distinguishing themselves as a top-tier employee brand based on their crisis response.

Whittle said: “The lens through which HR leaders must understand the relevance, impact and opportunity of each future of work trend for the business is critical to strategic planning and scenario planning.”

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