“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” is a classic line heard twice in the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” once delivered by Paul Newman as he’s surrounded in a church, about to be shot. A failure to communicate about the work people do may not be as dramatic, but it’s an increasingly important barrier to achieving a company’s mission.

John Boudreau

John Boudreau

Suppose a company adopted its own unique definitions of sales, cash, and depreciation. They could probably make reasonable decisions about money internally, but financial markets would refuse to trade in that company, and financial institutions could not move money between it and other organizations. It’s the common language of accounting that wards off such a failure to communicate and allows money to move beyond organizational boundaries.

Work and workers are also moving beyond organizational boundaries, and beyond traditional employment. Most companies will increasingly use workers that move quickly from one organization to another, or that never join an organization at all. Current examples are everywhere. Siemens borrows Disney employees to market its hearing aid for children. Apprio and Tongal supply hundreds of thousands of freelance workers on projects ranging from logo design to software application development to documentary production. None of those workers become employees of the organizations that engage them.

How do you know what you’re getting when the workers you engage don’t have skills that your organization has defined and tracked throughout their careers? Just as institutions can’t trade money without a common language, neither can they easily trade workers without a common language. Workers can’t move efficiently between projects and organizations, or even between positions within one organization, when the language of work is imprecise or incompatible from place to place.

One of the most vivid examples of this disconnect can be seen in the military’s descriptions of its vast number of jobs. Organizations from Walmart to Starbucks to the U.S. government wish to hire veterans, yet the military language of work doesn’t map well to private-sector jobs.

The Department of Labor provides a website that translates military occupational specialties (MOS) into civilian equivalents. Select the Air Force from a dropdown menu and search for “analyst,” and you get a long list of “interpreters and translators.” Search “leader” and you get a list of jobs called “architectural and engineering managers.”

Another DoL site allows federal hiring managers to see a list of military occupations that are related to civilian job families. If you choose the job family “Accounting and Budgeting Group” and the MOS called “Auditing,” you get matching military jobs such as comptroller and yeoman. But the Coast Guard job description for “yeoman” is “counselor and source of information to personnel on questions ranging from career moves, entitlements and incentive programs to retirement options and veteran’s benefits,” whereas the Navy describes a yeoman’s job as encompassing a wide range of almost purely clerical and administrative duties.

Not only is “yeoman” seen differently by the two military branches, the language of the job descriptions is unlikely to provide sufficient insight into whether either type of yeoman can do a civilian auditing job.

The same kind of disconnect applies in corporate America. In our forthcoming book “Beyond Employment,” Ravin Jesuthasan, David Creelman and I describe how solutions are evolving. For example, freelance platforms for computer coders and advertising designers only list projects that have a very clear and tangible deliverable (an application or a web ad) that can be judged for its quality, independent of the skills and other attributes of the person that produced it.

Yet even with tangible results, worker attributes matter. Uber and Lyft provide a very tangible transport from one place to another, and you don’t pay until you get there, but customers still count on the idea that the drivers are licensed and have basic driving skills and service standards. But how do the customers know for sure? There are driver ratings, but they are at best a rough guide to driver qualifications.

When organizations borrow talent, as Siemens did when it allied with Disney employees to market its children’s hearing aid, they rely largely on the partner organization’s language of their workers’ qualifications and capabilities. When you get workers from an agency or consulting firm, you rely on their language to describe what the workers can do. Often, these organizations have very different language for the same work, just like the different military branches.

There is change afoot. IBM’s Global Workforce Initiative aspired to have talent move freely across global units and between projects. That required IBM’s global leaders to adopt a common skill taxonomy to describe the work, so that one region didn’t define things like “project manager” differently from others. IBM required all units to adopt the same common language based on about 100 “roles.” The company then required all of its external talent suppliers to adopt the same language, to better connect the external supply to IBM’s internal supply. The greater clarity about what work was needed and what suppliers provided saved millions of dollars through better pricing for external talent. IBM and Kenexa have turned this into a solution called Smarter Workforce.

To be sure, this is no trivial administrative issue. If you fail to develop an adequate language for work, you’ll overspend or miss opportunities to optimize getting work done with workers beyond your boundaries.

Some organizations have adopted LinkedIn profiles as their record of employee experience and capability, noting that employees are far more motivated to keep their LinkedIn profiles up to date than to update profiles on an internal system that only works in one organization. Organizations such as TalentSky propose to take this to the next level, allowing workers to describe their careers as stories on a platform with a common library that translates those stories into work requirements for hiring organizations.

Policy debates about reducing global unemployment and skill shortages often focus on creating more “good” jobs. Yet, a significant solution may be to create “good work” that lies beyond jobs. That requires workers’ credentials be transportable. A 2014 report on the “Future of Youth Employment” lists “alternative credentialing” as a requirement for the future, and recommends that “a new organization should be formed and tasked with aggregating and evaluating credentialing platforms in a modern, decentralized way.”

Are LinkedIn, IBM, and the DoL building early versions of a professional audit organization for work generally? One that may soon resemble audit organizations in accounting and finance?

The Rosetta Stone of work is far from reality, but there are signs that it is evolving, just as a common language of accounting and finance evolved. If your work is trapped in a language that makes sense only for your own company’s jobs, think about whether you should be exploring how to extend it beyond employment?

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and co-author of the forthcoming book “Beyond Employment” with Ravin Jesuthasan and David Creelman.

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One response to “In a New Era of Work, Skills Are Lost in Translation”

  1. Hi John,
    Always enjoy reading your posts. This post tool me down memory lane, reminding me of the work I was involved in with at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the mid ’90s to define a common language of work activities and skills to facilitate career movement across various professional & administrative jobs, and scientific jobs among federal agencies. It was a huge undertaking (surveying close to 100,000 federal employees, and their supervisors)…the results were incorporated into an online tool to support job design/redesign, hiring and selection, training and development and career movements. We used this data to also streamline job titles for one State gov’t. Interested to see how the common language develops.

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