Talent Mapping: How HR Can Use a Skills-Focused Approach

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Talent Mapping: How HR Can Use a Skills-Focused Approach

Talent mapping is an essential tool for HR professionals to develop a comprehensive understanding of their workforce’s skills levels and gaps and address these gaps. In this article, we propose a skills-focused approach toward talent mapping as an alternative to the traditional 9-box grid and explore the benefits of shifting towards a skills-focused approach. Let’s start!

What is talent mapping?
Why do we need a new approach to talent mapping?
The skills-focused approach to talent mapping
How to do talent mapping
Benefits and limitations of skills-focused talent mapping

What is talent mapping?

Talent mapping is used to:

  • Understand the current talent supply within the organization with a focus on critical and scarce skills,
  • Utilize these insights to inform decisions regarding people development, succession, mobility, and investment, and
  • To ensure that the organization has access to the right skills at the right time to deliver on organizational goals.

To use a metaphor, talent mapping is the process of understanding the ingredients (skills) you have within your pantry (organization) and evaluating the available ingredients against the recipes (goals) you plan to cook in the future.

Why do we need a new approach to talent mapping?

The skills revolution is upon us. As global skills deficits reach new heights, organizations are rethinking their approach toward sourcing, building, engaging, and retaining the skills required for success. A study by McKinsey estimates that 87% of organizations will experience a skills gap over the coming years, while the impact of the skills gap in the US alone will total $8.5 trillion by 2030.

Businesses are getting creative with finding talent outside of the organization. One example is searching within employees’ networks. AIHR’s Chief HR Scientist, Dr. Dieter Veldsman, discussed the power of employee referrals with Nasser Oudjidane, the CEO of an employee referral platform Intrro. You can watch the full interview below:

Hiring new employees is not the only option to fill skills gaps. Harnessing and developing your existing employees’ skills is a great way to prepare your business for the future.

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Organizations such as the World Economic Forum, Microsoft, and LinkedIn have invested significantly in reskilling and upskilling, yet more work needs to be done. A key challenge, however, is the ability of organizations to use skills-based approaches toward talent planning.

Traditional talent management approaches predominantly focus on jobs or roles. Recently, the call to “deconstruct” jobs into activities, skills, and tasks has dominated the talent management conversation. Organizations have struggled to see how they can adapt their current talent management practices away from a job-based approach toward considering skills as the unit of measurement.  

Shifting to this approach does not imply that jobs will no longer exist. But, it does mean that jobs will become more fluid, with individuals applying their skills across different assignments, responsibilities, and activities. Organizations need to understand the current skill requirements and the skills that they have available within the organization. A good starting point is to focus on skills-focused talent mapping.

The skills-focused approach to talent mapping

The most well-known talent mapping approach is the 9-box grid. Even though useful and practical, the 9-box grid is often criticized due to the subjectivity associated with measuring performance and potential – the two axes that drive decision-making within the 9-box grid.

9 Box Grid for Leadership Development Plan

While we firmly believe that the 9-box grid, when used correctly, has a place in the toolbox of the talent management practitioner, this should not be the only tool available. As organizations seek more flexibility in their approaches to talent mapping, a skill-focused approach is a viable alternative to enable more robust decision-making and agility.

We developed the skills-focused approach to mapping talent as an alternative to the 9-box grid. Even though there are some similarities, this approach differs in terms of the following:

  • Our approach does not use individual potential or performance as the starting point to map individuals. Instead, it focuses on the timeframe required to develop a skill and the importance of the skill to the organization.
  • Our approach does not limit an individual only to be considered on one set of criteria, but rather to be evaluated against various skills. That results in more growth and internal mobility opportunities.
  • The skills-focused approach does not categorize people into boxes. Rather, it aims to drive specific actions to take based on data-driven insights.

You can apply the skills-focused approach at any stage of the talent management cycle. We recommend using this method as part of workforce and demand planning as a precursor to talent reviews and succession planning.

Below, we unpack how to apply this approach to your organization.

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How to do talent mapping

Step 1: Identify your critical and scarce skills to map

The first step is to identify the critical and scarce skills that will be important for organizational success. Then, you can prioritize those for detailed talent mapping.

To do so, you can use a simple talent segmentation matrix that evaluates skills in terms of the criteria of criticality and scarcity.

Let’s start with the criticality of skills.


  • How important is this skill to achieve organizational goals? 
  • How severe is the business impact if this skill or role is not accessible?

It is important to utilize various data points as input to determine criticality. Engage with subject matter experts, use business strategy documents and goals, and include these insights to rank the skills in terms of how critical they are for organizational success.

A common mistake organizations make is to determine that all skills are critical. It is essential to avoid falling into this trap. What you need to do is differentiate and identify the 10 to 15 critical skills that are key to the organization’s competitive advantage. It doesn’t mean that other skills are unimportant, but it helps focus your time and resources on the areas with the biggest impact.

The second part of the task is to determine scarcity.


  • How readily available is this skill in the market?
  • Is this skill in high demand?

It’s good practice to collect external data such as labor statistics, job board data, or trend reports to assess which skills pools are growing or declining in the market. Scarcity will also depend on influencing factors such as location. Ensure that you consider these when identifying the level of scarcity of a specific skill.

Using these criteria, you can map skills into four quadrants:

Talent Mapping: A Skills-Focused Approach
  • High Impact Target (A): This group contains skills high in criticality and high in scarcity. These are extremely hard to find and very important for your business.
  • High Impact Replacement (C): This group contains skills critically important to the business, yet not that hard to source. Gaining access to these skills in the market is not that difficult, and the time to replace them is low.
  • Mass Market (D): In this group, you have skills low in both scarcity and criticality. You can recruit for these skills as and when you require them, and time to fill tends to be low.
  • Scarce non-critical (B): This group refers to skills that are hard to find but not that critical to the business. The business does not stop when this skill is unavailable, but finding this talent in the market is difficult.

Using this talent segmentation matrix, you can identify which skills you want to target to map. Depending on the resources available, it is important to map all skills identified as “High Impact Target” and “High Impact Replacement.”

For skills in the other categories, you should focus on using more general approaches to determine how to access those skills. These could include targeted recruitment strategies, internal development of skills pools, or temporary assignments.

For our talent mapping example, we have used the example of three skills clusters to demonstrate the process. A skills cluster is a collection of related skills that we group together to perform a specific task or outcome.

Talent Mapping: Critical and Scarce Skills Example

Step 2: Identify the employees who represent your critical and scarce skills now and in the future

Next, you want to identify which employees you want to include in your talent mapping exercise. To do so, it is best to define criteria that you’ll use to identify which employees to include or exclude. Criteria could include factors such as:

  • They currently possess the skills identified in your talent segmentation matrix
  • All employees above a specific level in the organization, for example, middle management
  • Employees that fall within a specific job family, for example, IT, that have skills that are related to the skills identified within your matrix

Using these criteria, you can identify a pool of individuals within your organization that you can utilize as a talent pool to evaluate against the different skill clusters.

Step 3:  Collect talent data for identified individuals

Your next step is to collect talent data for the identified target employees.

Ultimately, we want to understand the fit of individuals against our critical and/or scarce skills so that we can make certain talent decisions. This information can be gathered through a talent survey asking specific questions to the individual or their line manager, engaging directly with managers and employees, or sourcing data from other sources, such as the HRIS and performance systems.

Over time, you should keep all this information up to date as part of your talent master data and profiles. 

At a minimum, you want to collect data to understand the following for these employees:

  • Educational background
  • Past experience
  • Past performance ratings
  • Current performance ratings
  • Current development plan and progress
  • Career ambitions on a broad level (e.g., upward movement, lateral movement, etc.), but also an indication of fields of interest that you can compare to the skills you have identified to be mapped

Step 4: Develop your talent mapping skills matrix

Using the talent data gathered, look at which employees show a good fit for the skills required for these roles through their past experience, educational background, current position, and level of skill attained. Remember that talent planning helps us understand our talent supply and how ready our talent is to be deployed and mobilized where it is most critical to the business. 

At the same time, taking into account the career ambitions of individuals ensures that we develop people in line with not only what the business needs but also their career aspirations and goals.

To understand individual readiness, you can look at:

  • past performance (how well have they mastered their current skill set),
  • what their potential is (how likely are they to be successful in practicing other skills), and
  • what their career aspirations or goals are (what do they want to do in future).

A helpful way to indicate individual readiness is by using relative time frames. You can use whichever timeframes make sense for your exercise. The most important thing to remember is that you should consistently utilize these time frames in subsequent development activities and conversations.

You can map employees on this time frame based upon feedback from their managers, outputs of validated psychometric assessments, skills assessments, and other relevant data that help understand how long it would take before this individual is ready to master these skills. Bear in mind that employees could be relevant for more than one skills cluster if they meet the minimum requirements for those positions.

Skills Cluster Individual Readiness
0 to 2 years 2 to 3 years 3+ years

IT Cluster

  • IT architecture
  • Business analysis
  • IT project implementation
Person A   Person J

Financial Cluster

  • Financial acumen
  • Financial transacting
  • Financial systems
Person B

Person C

Person K

Person D

Person E

Person F

Marketing Cluster

  • Brand management
  • Social media management
  • Marketing strategy

Person G

Person H

Person I

Once you’ve mapped employees according to their readiness and skills fit, you can visualize the talent map for each skill cluster.

For our example, we have three visualizations; one each for the IT Cluster, Finance Cluster, and Marketing Clusters. The visualization maps the talent into four categories that each provides us with a recommended next step, focused on the development of individuals:

  • Future pipeline implies these are good-fit employees to develop for immediate deployment into these skills clusters.
  • Invest for the future means that these employees need to be incubated and developed to take on the identified skills in the future, but they will not be ready in the short term to meet talent demands.
  • Prospective pipeline indicates that individuals may have the potential to be prepared in the future, however, at the moment, they lack the skills required. This group of individuals is a potential future talent pool that you could explore. Their development should be focused on stretch assignments and specific skills development through different types of exposure. In this pool, it will also depend on whether the individual sees the development of this skill as part of their longer-term career ambitions. If not, it is not worth focusing on development.
  • Not worth pursuing refers to individuals who are developing in their current skill set. They lack the skills required for the identified skills clusters and, due to various factors, will not be ready to move soon. Development for this group of employees will be focused on mastering their current skill set and identifying their next career step in consultation with them.
Talent Mapping Skills Matrix

The mapping looks something like this for the Finance Cluster using the data collected in the table above:

Talent Mapping Skills Matrix Example

You can also consolidate these insights if you want a broader overview of your employees. This is especially useful if you deal with multiple skills employees could acquire.

Suppose we are doing this mapping for the skills clusters of Business Architecture Design, Business Analysis, and QA Testing. These clusters all have some overlapping transferable skills. In that case, your consolidated table could look something like this:

Employee nameBusiness Architecture DesignBusiness Analysis QA Testing
Employee AInvest for longer termFuture pipelineNot worth pursuing
Employee BProspective pipelineFuture pipelineNot worth pursuing
Employee CNot worth pursuingNot worth pursuingInvest for longer term
Employee DInvest for longer-termNot worth pursuingProspective pipeline
Employee EProspective pipelineInvest for longer termProspective pipeline

In this view, you can immediately see that when engaging with employee C, the opportunity is to invest in them to develop QA Testing skills. For Employee B, we want to discuss developing Business Analysis skills, and potentially, you might persuade them into Business Architecture Design in the longer term.

Benefits and limitations of skills-focused talent mapping

When using this approach, educate your stakeholders on how to use the information in the right context. The added benefit of this approach is moving away from discussing highly controversial concepts, such as whether individuals have the “potential to fulfill a role” and the “subjectivity related to previous performance”, toward a conversation regarding “the time required to develop” and the “urgency of having access to that skill for the organization.” 

This approach provides more flexibility as you can map out individuals to various pools, opening up many internal mobility opportunities. From a career perspective, this approach also balances the wants and needs of the individual while considering what the organization requires to deliver on set goals.

From a limitation perspective, this approach relies heavily on good talent data, the ability to define the necessary skills requirements, and using a data-lead approach to determine how long it will require to develop a particular skill.

When starting out, we recommend using a skills taxonomy to populate basic definitions of skills. Over time, you can adapt and customize it to the organization’s needs. Consistency and a common language are essential when discussing skills and having good data available to identify the relevant actions to take.

Over to you

We firmly believe that skills-based approaches are the future of talent management. Yet, more work is required to help organizations successfully transition how to adapt and rethink current talent practices.

Skills-focused talent mapping is a first step to enable organizations to view their talent pools through the lens of critical and scarce skills. That way, they can identify various mobility and development opportunities that will ultimately be able to bridge the skills gaps and achieve organizational goals.

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