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Internal mobility: Benefits, tools, best practices

Internal mobility is meant to capitalize on the organization's own talent. Learn why it's important, what stands in the way and how best to support it.

Many of today's leaders are realizing the best talent is right inside the organization and that a strong internal mobility program is key to finding and supporting that talent.

At its simplest, internal mobility refers to a qualified employee's general ability to rise through the ranks or transfer laterally within the company to another job role that has more appeal, is an advancement opportunity or represents a career change. In today's more sophisticated approaches, formalized internal mobility programs are an integral part of the overarching HR strategies in recruitment, retention and strategic staffing. They typically require the support of strong upskilling and reskilling programs.

While there are two general types of internal mobility, the goal is the same: capitalizing on the internal labor market for the organization's highest benefit.

"Internal mobility initiatives must focus on two types of mobility -- role-to-role mobility, where employees are changing roles within the organization, and also project-based mobility, where employees can dedicate part of their working time to another project beyond their normal workflow and team," said Lauren Smith, vice president of Gartner's HR practice.

"Organizations are increasingly looking to boost both types of internal mobility given the economic uncertainty, hiring constraints and fast-changing skills needs," Smith said.

Promoting the upward mobility of current employees is a powerful tool to both future-proof the company and sweeten the company's recruitment and retention appeal.

The importance of internal mobility

An internal mobility program can be a powerful source of top-notch talent, reduce the cost of talent management, boost organizational agility and improve retention rates.

For example, promoted employees perform better and for less money compared to outsiders hired for the same role at higher pay, wrote Matthew Bidwell, the Wharton School's associate professor of management, in a post about his research study on job mobility. Newly hired employees can also take two to three years to learn the company and perform at par.

"So even though you're hiring somebody who's doing worse because they don't know the organization, you're paying them maybe 10 to 20 percent more," he wrote.

Effective internal mobility programs are critical to moving away from that practice -- especially today.

Everything from recruiting and interviewing to onboarding and managing is more likely to be virtual now, often making the process feel ambiguous, overwhelming and riskier. In response, many companies are mitigating risks and filling talent gaps by turning to internal talent.

"Leveraging the internal labor market allows organizations to get the most out of the talent they already have, minimizing the impact of constrained hiring and potential layoffs," said Diane Gayeski, founder of learning consultancy Gayeski Analytics in Ithaca, N.Y. "Using internal talent to fill skills gaps is both more cost-effective and speeds the time to productivity."

In other words, using effective internal mobility can help support critical retention goals.

"Internal mobility programs are key to attracting top talent -- especially among younger workers in highly competitive fields," she said.

COVID-19 has forced some critical and unexpected changes, Gayeski noted. Many young people are moving back into their parents' homes or at least close to their families. Community ties are proving to be increasingly important. Travel is less attractive. This means that individuals will prefer internal mobility rather than looking to job-hop, especially if it means a geographical move.

"People are looking for stability," Gayeski said.

In addition, many organizations are dealing with unfilled positions and new jobs as a result of automation. Focusing on internal mobility can help fight those skills gaps.

Internal mobility tools

While no technological panacea exists, a variety of helpful software tools can prove beneficial to internal mobility strategies.

An effective learning management system is likely to be a cornerstone technology.

With a robust LMS, organizations should be enabled to map specific skills against specific jobs, give employees access to the associated training, then track their mastery, Gayeski said. Using an internal digital badging system to denote demonstrable competency gains in specific skills can provide incentives.

Internal mobility is not technology-dependent; it should be woven through an organization's culture and entire talent management lifecycle.
Lauren SmithVice president, Gartner HR practice

As with virtually any other business initiative, technology is a tool to support -- not replace -- strategy.

"Internal mobility is not technology-dependent; it should be woven through an organization's culture and entire talent management lifecycle," Gartner's Smith said. "However, organizations looking to advance internal mobility strategies can consider building in-house or investing in internal talent marketplace technologies."

The use of internal talent marketplaces (ITMs), which support an internal gig economy inside an organization, have grown recently as workforce needs have changed.

ITM platforms match people to work assignments or projects based on inputs from various sources, such as employees, managers or enterprise systems.

"Organizations can use these platforms to provide visibility around development opportunities through short-term assignments but also move talent internally in times of sudden change or economic uncertainty," Smith said.

Internal mobility best practices

The key to creating an effective internal mobility initiative is that it must not be an afterthought. Below are five best practices to consider.

1. Get top leadership buy-in

Because internal mobility affects so many different aspects of HR, recruiting and talent management, ensuring that leaders are on board is crucial. The lack or presence of internal mobility is deeply embedded in the culture, and leaders -- as with any other deeply embedded cultural value -- are critical for creating success.

2. Understand the current situation

Job changes can be emotionally triggering, both for the employees who are changing roles and for the people around those employees. In addition, some leaders automatically view outside talent as talent they take more seriously. These are just two of the more human obstacles that can get in the way of internal mobility.

To create success, it's critical to do a thorough review of how well the organization currently cultivates internal talent. The key is that internal mobility tools also support strategies around upskilling and reskilling as well as succession planning.

3. Prevent talent hoarding

Many managers aren't happy about lending out or losing talent when the team already has too much on its plate. This leads to talent hoarding, where managers may try to downplay talent on their team and find ways to avoid lending talent to other company projects. Business and HR leaders can help prevent this practice by advocating that overwhelmed managers receive additional resources.

"Organizations can find ways to help supervisors collaborate to trade employees and to let employees gradually assume new roles," Gayeski said. "[This way] losing someone to another area is not so abrupt and disruptive."

Rewarding managers for not blocking talent sharing and employee promotions in efforts to meet their own obligations begins with developing supporting and specific goals and objectives.

"Build manager and leader accountability through goals and objectives for not just recruiting and developing great talent but also sharing talent across the organization," Smith recommended.

Organizations should provide meaningful rewards to encourage this managerial behavior, and resources to make upward, internal and sharing mobility work.

"There should be rewards for supervisors who promote the upward mobility of their subordinates -- and substantial resources to help the source and train replacements," Gayeski said.

Organizations can offer incentives to managers and highly skilled employees, such as new titles and small bonuses, for working as coaches or mentors to others in the company, she added.

4. Support internal recruitment

Internal mobility requires adjusting HR processes to ensure success.

Smith recommended the following to adjust recruitment processes and increase the appeal and the types of internal mobility openings:

  • Create internal recruitment roles. Designate specific HR roles for internal sourcing and internal mobility to identify great internal candidates for roles, applying the same skills recruiters use on the external labor market to understand the skills and talent within the organization.
  • Change policies. Revisit HR policies to ensure that they do not stand in the way of employees seeking internal moves; this may include changing when managers need to be notified of an employee's interest in a role.
  • Embed internal mobility processes. Add internal mobility as part of manager-employee coaching conversations to create two-way transparency about the types of opportunities employees want to have and those the employer needs.

5. Get serious about internal recruitment marketing

Managers and HR leaders shouldn't assume that simply offering a current list of job openings is enough of a draw to entice interest among the internal workforce in making a move. Instead, great recruitment marketing is required.

Organizations should actively advertise open positions internally to address the unfortunate reality in many companies that employees often know more about jobs outside their own employer's company than within them, Smith said.

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