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IBM Finds Behavioral Skills Development Takes Priority Over Technical Skills. How Should You Respond?

Operationalizing the New Behavioral Skills Development Imperative

IBM’s latest biennial report assessing the workplace skills gap finds that behavioral skills training has surpassed technical skills on the list of executives’ priorities for their employees’ professional development.

That key takeaway may be surprising to many who see the pace of technological innovation increasing, but here’s how things have changed in just two short years:

  • In 2016, IBM reported that technical core capabilities for STEM and basic computer and software application skills were listed at the forefront of competencies that employers were looking to develop in their workforce.
  • In 2018, behavioral skills, such as managing work and teams, communicating effectively and anticipating how the nature of work is evolving, have supplanted technical skills at the top of the list of needs.

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This sea of change does not imply that technical skills have diminished in importance. In fact, the IBM report agrees that the half-life of skills is continuing to shrink at an accelerated rate, while the time it takes to close the skills gap is rapidly increasing. It does, however, indicate that companies are realizing that they need to put greater emphasis on equipping their employees with the behavioral skills needed to manage this acceleration of change.

It’s encouraging to see broad recognition that behavioral skills development is a crucial need. Despite this, half of the executives surveyed by IBM report not having any skills development and execution strategies in place. So how can organizations incorporate behavioral skills development to add sustainable value across their workforce?

What Organizations Need to Start Doing: Coaching 

Rather than deploying on-demand courseware or organizing one-to-many live training classes to teach leadership and other behavioral skills, companies should look to institute individualized, one-on-one coaching engagements to give each employee what he or she really needs.

Leadership coaching programs are formal engagements aimed at helping employees grow in their roles by developing core competencies that apply broadly across their job responsibilities. The most effective coaching programs start with a skills assessment and then pair an employee with a professional coach whose expertise matches the gaps identified in the initial assessment. Coaching programs engage external resources tapped for the specific expertise they possess in order to focus on a particular employee and their specific needs.

Coaching is proactive and designed to start closing skills gaps before a situation presents itself that exposes the employee in a situation he or she is under equipped to address alone. Professional coaching allows employees to evaluate themselves with a wider perspective and often focuses on modern methodologies for problem-solving, critical thinking and relationship-building.

How Coaching Can Help Close the Skills Gaps

The IBM report recommends three actions to close the skills gap, each of which a well-structured coaching program should include:

  • Personalizing the skills gap assessment
  • Bringing transparency to the upskilling process
  • Looking both internally and externally for needed expertise

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One-on-one, personalized coaching with career development professionals is the best way to incorporate all three of IBM’s key recommendations.

Personalize: While organizations may look to learning management systems, courseware and other external sources for one-size-fits-all technical skills development, these by nature are unable to be fully customized to an individual’s needs. One-on-one coaching is the most personalized way to address behavioral skill gaps by allowing each employee to concentrate on skills development that reflects his or her unique profile of need. Through individualized, professional coaching, employees develop the behavioral skills that will equip them to deal with a rapidly changing workplace and connect employees at all levels of the organization with their full potential. Additionally, the coaching needs to be framed around data-driven assessments of individual employees’ skills gaps, and it must be accessible across the organization.

The issue of scalability has traditionally been a stumbling block for organizations that want to provide personalized professional development. Fortunately, tech-enabled frameworks now exist to operationalize coaching. These frameworks make coaching customized, impactful and measurable for each individual employee while also democratizing coaching so that it is widely available and affordable.

Be Transparent: A coaching program deployed across a whole team or organization allows easy accessibility by both the employer and employee in order to track progress along the prescribed skills development path. This plan should require each employee to participate in a personal assessment with 360-degree feedback from upper level management, peers and internal customers. By gaining feedback from all levels of the organization, executives can more holistically evaluate the learning impact of coaching on employees’ abilities to develop critical competencies.

Look Internally and Externally: The third action encourages organizations to develop talent from within rather than automatically looking externally to hire the needed talent. When recruiting, hiring and onboarding a new employee can cost significantly more than retaining and developing an employee already in the company fold, the economic benefit of investing in existing employees becomes very clear. There is also an added benefit of increased employee engagement that results from the company making an individualized investment in the employee which pays dividends throughout the employee’s tenure with the company.

When organizations invest in professional coaching services to make behavioral skills development a more seamless, structured and accessible process, employees develop the leadership skills that will help them manage the accelerating pace of change businesses today are experiencing. Executives can then depend on their own employees for both the behavioral and technical skills needed in order to grow their organizations.

What Are You Waiting For?

In previous years, behavioral skills development was seen as a nice to have for organizations. Now due to the diminishing half-life of job skills, behavioral skills development is the new leadership imperative. To future-proof against this acceleration of change, it is necessary for organizations to incorporate a new business model that prioritizes upskilling high potential employees and leadership talent from within. Individualized, one-on-one coaching within this model fosters growth for each employee while contributing to long-term success for the organization.

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