Finding the right match: Why Microsoft launched a skills library

Jan 31, 2019   |  

Often, what you’re looking for is right under your nose.

Microsoft and other companies commonly find it challenging to assess the skills of their employees.

The reason?

The language people use to talk about professional skills varies widely (what one person calls content creation might be referred to as editorial planning by another). This can become an obstacle when hiring managers look for candidates inside their own companies, and when employees seek to make their next career move.

So qualified people and those in need of their talents, can end up like ships passing in the night.

“With no common language of skills being spoken, hiring managers at Microsoft often face the challenge of attracting the best talent and competing with other technology companies in securing the best quality of hires,” says Aparna Chadalavada, a senior program manager in Microsoft Digital.

It’s a challenge that needs to be overcome if Microsoft is going to truly take advantage of the diverse hiring pool it already has, Chadalavada says.

To tackle this challenge inside Microsoft, Microsoft Digital is working with Microsoft’s Talent, Learning and Insights group and LinkedIn to build a skills library, an enterprise-wide data lake where descriptions of the skills that are relevant to the company are housed. Launched in July 2018, the still-growing central skills library has more than 50,000 skills.

Brian Davis profile photo.
Brian Davis manages the new Skills Library for the Talent, Learning, and Insights Team.

As part of the broader development roadmap, the plan is to utilize machine learning to map skills employees have with the skills a hiring manager may be looking for. With an emphasis and pivot on skills, Microsoft is able to help facilitate the supply and demand side of matching the right talent with the strategic needs of the business, says Brian Davis, who manages the Skills Library for the Talent, Learning, and Insights Team.

“There was an instance where Harry Shum (Executive Vice President of the Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research Group) asked who at the company is skilled at machine learning? Where is our AI talent,” Davis says. “There was lot of manual effort to mine and surface this data because there was no system or framework in place that aligned skills to roles and to people. The skills library will give us more visibility to the skills within Microsoft and provide the business with strategic insights needed to maximize our resource capabilities.”

Put simply, by using machine learning, the new skills library weaves all the different ways people talk about a specific skill together (and as a byproduct, moves us down the road toward simplifying and unifying that language).

Power of the skills library

The potential benefits are many—employees will be able to identify emerging skills in the industry, understand what skills the company is making strategic investments in, and then be able to develop those skills to create new opportunities for themselves.

“Imagine the system recommending a course in Python programming because it sees that it’s been a while since you last took a R programming course,” Chadalavada says. “Imagine a talent management system that automatically understands what can help you grow in your career—it could provide personalized recommendations on people you could network with, suggest learning courses you could take based on skills that you possess and want to develop, and suggest jobs you could apply for.”

When an employee gets feedback on what skills would be good for them to improve upon, it becomes easier to push outside of their comfort zone.

“Our culture is to push ourselves so we can grow,” she says. “Getting your skills assessed will help you do it in a way that’s sensible for you.”

This dovetails nicely into CEO Satya Nadella’s call for Microsoft to become a learning company, Chadalavada says, adding that employees who take advantage of a skills library will have more tools for growing in their current roles.

Another major benefit of a skills library is it will help leaders see where there are skill gaps in their organizations, says Krishna Vemuri, a senior program manager on the Microsoft Digital team with Chadalavada.

“Where there are gaps, leaders can offer training to current employees,” he says. “Where that’s not possible, they can then bring in talent, ideally from other parts of the company.”

That can allow the company to keep valuable employees that it might otherwise loose. “We could prevent losing valuable talent to reductions in workforce by proactively identifying the best match for their skills in other organizations,” Vemuri says.

The company wins when it becomes easier for employees to identify skills that they can develop and then helps those employees move into new roles where they can take advantage of their new skills.

“This will give us another mechanism to facilitate a healthy movement across organizations,” he says. “We can avoid hiring talent that we already have in plenty in other parts of the company and deploy and redeploy talent optimally at the time of need.”

Understanding which emerging skills are being paid a premium in the market is another important competitive lever, he says, explaining that knowing more about what skills are hot will help Microsoft avoid losing top talent.

The skills library is just the start—there is much more you can do once you have a core skill mapping down, Chadalavada says. “Talent architecture is a huge opportunity area,” she says. “We’re on a two- to three-year journey to transform how we recruit, develop and retain talent. It’s very exciting.”

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