Posted: 18 Jan. 2021 10 min. read

Predictions 2021: Skills Graph

The “skills graph” will spark a reimagined approach to workforce planning

How can organizations seize opportunities for the future of work when their understanding of the human element is fuzzy at best? Our 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey finds 53 percent of respondents believe between half and all of their workforces will need to change skills within three years, but 59 percent of respondents lack the insights needed to act. Only 17 percent believe they can even anticipate the skills needed. Given these gaps, how can organizations best invest in workforce development? Organizations need a resilient and adaptable workforce, but their efforts are challenged by a lack of clarity around the skills—and enduring human capabilities—of that workforce.

In 2021, we predict more organizations will begin using skills graph–enabled applications to navigate the emerging intersection of work and worker, sparking a new focus on investments in workforce development as the primary means of achieving workforce—and ultimately the business—strategies.1

A map to the future: The skills graph

Organizations have traditionally used structured frameworks (e.g., competency libraries, job architectures, organizational charts) to categorize both workers and work. But the nature of these frameworks—hierarchical, linear, and abstract—are too disconnected from work and worker to keep up with reality. For example, the organizational chart is a structured framework used to portray formal relationships and hierarchies, but it rarely provides anything actionable about how work gets done. Indeed, organizations are complex networks, and many now use organizational network analysis (ONA) to visualize the relationships and communication flows of day-to-day work—often leading to valuable insights and opportunities.

Similar innovations are happening within workforce skills and enduring capabilities. Organizations are shifting from structured frameworks to more dynamic, network-based ontologies2, borrowing the same graph theory3 concepts that underpin ONA to better understand the complex web of relationships between skills, capabilities, work, and worker.

Enter the skills graph4, which is a map of the skills and enduring human capabilities of an individual or workforce. Depending on the specific implementation, this can include:

  • A visualization of the network of current skills and capabilities
  • The relationship between skills and capabilities (e.g., those which occur together, are components or prerequisites of others, or which can combine in the creation of given outcomes)
  • The relationship of skills and capabilities to jobs, roles, demographics, external trends (e.g., ecosystem, industry, economic), and performance
  • The relationship of skills to the social graph (as social animals, humans use skills and capabilities socially)
  • Trends in changes over time

Simple skills graph

A skills graph can be used to show relationships between skills...

Highlighting the skills of a given job / role (e.g., bike courier) and the potential intersection points with other possible jobs / roles.

Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2020.

Skills graph-enabled applications (using machine learning and AI) are a leap forward from past methods for the inventory of skills and capabilities to:

  • Analyze disparate data sets from both internal HR or work systems and external sources (e.g., economic data, job boards, industry data)
  • Discover insights independent of employee input, including making sense of unstructured data
  • Identify hidden connections (e.g., infer the presence of one skill based on the presence of others)
Future-focused workforce development

Visualizing the dynamic interplay of work and worker can provide essential support to strategic workforce planning efforts. Identifying patterns in skills can help guide critical investments. Even more compelling, these patterns can be used to signal future changes in the work itself, informing the organization’s approach to the future of work.

For example, a global natural resources company is using a skills graph–enabled platform and other related tools to capture data from the work itself and identify worker skills. For some skills, workers with similar skill sets are asked to verify the proficiency of their peers. The company uses these tools to sense changes in skills needed, inform workforce development investments, and guide individual employee career choices.

Looking ahead

Organizations can start by taking stock of their overall approach to skills and enduring human capabilities as part of their workforce architecture. How do both the organization and the individual understand which skills and capabilities they currently have and what they will need going forward? And where should they make investments to help reach those goals? Organizations should investigate how skills graph–enabled applications could provide actionable answers to these questions. To get started:

  • Curate career development resources. Skills-graph data can provide more personalized, prescriptive recommendations to individual employees, including highlighting targeted developmental content or experiences or suggested career opportunities.
  • Establish an opportunity or talent marketplace.Organizations can facilitate developmental journeys and internal workforce mobility with skills graphs. Skills graphs are at the heart of several talent marketplace vendor solutions. These tools can match skills and interests with opportunities and help individuals better understand current strengths and possible pathways to future aspirations.
  • Reimagine workforce planning. Skills-graph data can help leaders recognize trends in changing workforce needs. Pairing skills data with traditional demand analysis may yield a deeper level of insight into the way work gets done—and how it could be done in the future.

Skills graphs can shift the gaze of workforce planning—using disparate sources of data about work and the workforce to identify potential futures and guide the ongoing harmonization of each with the other. 


David Mallon - Vice President & Chief Analyst

Mackenzie Wilson - Senior Research Analyst, Solution Provider Market

Chelsey Taylor - Lead Advisor


1 Seven Top Findings on Moving from Talent Management to Workforce Architecture, Deloitte Consulting LLP / David Mallon, Nehal Nangia, Mike Kemp, PhD, and Kathi Enderes, PhD, 2020.

2 Note: The term "ontology" comes from the field of philosophy that is concerned with the study of being or existence. The term has been adopted by computer and information science fields as a technical term for a way to model knowledge about some domain, real or imagined. Source: “Ontology,” Encyclopedia of Database Systems / Ling Liu and M. Tamer Özsu, eds., Springer-Verlag, 2009.

3 Note: The term “graph theory” refers to a branch of mathematics concerned with networks of points connected by lines. Source: “Graph theory,” Britannica / Stephan C. Carlson, November 24, 2020.

4 Note: For ease of use in this discussion, the short-form term “skills graph” is used throughout this document. However, all cases should be understood as pertaining to both skills AND enduring human capabilities.

5 (1) Opportunity marketplaces: Aligning workforce investment and value creation in the enterprise, Deloitte Insights / Michael Schrage, Jeff Schwartz, and Robin Jones, 2020 and (2) Discovering Talent Marketplaces: The Progression to an Open Workforce Strategy, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Matthew Shannon, Denise Moulton, Julie Hiipakka, and Chelsey Taylor, 2020.

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David Mallon

David Mallon

Vice President and Chief Analyst

David, a vice president with Deloitte Consulting LLP, is Chief Analyst and market leader for Deloitte’s Insights2Action team. He and the Insights2Action team help clients to sense, analyze, and act—with purpose and precision—at the ever shifting intersection of work, workforce, workplace, and industry. Part of Deloitte since 2013, David is the former Head of Research for Bersin. He brings more than 20 years of experience in human capital and is a sought-after researcher, thought leader, and speaker on organization design, organizational culture, HR, talent, learning, and performance. David is an author of Deloitte’s annual Global Human Capital Trends study and a co-host of the Capital H podcast.