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COVID-19 - accelerating the move to Talent Liberation

Posted on: September 11, 2020

By Dr Maggi Evans

The change we’re going through is unprecedented.  Having managed the chaos of the early days, we then established a ‘new normal’ of remote working, furlough and cost control.  We’re now exploring what the ‘next’ normal looks like and how to reinvent our organisations to survive in the short-term and to thrive in the longer term. 

During the crisis I have spoken with many CEOs, HR Directors and other senior leaders about the challenges posed by COVID-19.  Many are delighted with the way in which their organisations have been able to rapidly adapt to things like home working and ‘change faster than we thought’.  As highlighted by Alistair Cox, Chief Executive of Hays plc, organisations must now go further, transforming their pre-COVID people strategies to successfully navigate the change and uncertainty we are facing.

Access to the best talent will continue to be essential, but to be successful we must rethink many of our assumptions. To do this we need to transform the typical cumbersome, annual talent cycle that is focused on a small number of ‘high potentials’.  Instead, we need a more holistic lens and dynamic, agile tools that drive competitive advantage and minimise risk in an uncertain world. It is time to move from an HR driven activity to one that is truly owned by the leaders and their teams. We need to find ways to empower, inspire and engage everyone to create the flexibility we need.  It can be done.  For example, Andi Britt, Senior Partner for Talent and Transformation at IBM recently told me about the approach that they have taken to build an ‘adaptive, self re-inventing workforce’. Working from business scenarios, they identify and communicate ‘hot skills’ for the short and long term, using their Learning Experience Platform to connect learners to quality development opportunities and feedback. It is solutions like this that embody talent liberation.

Not all organisations are in a position to implement an AI enabled learning platform.  But COVID-19 is driving adoption of many other new talent approaches.  Below are five ways in which I am seeing organisations shift their talent agenda.  If these first steps are harnessed and built upon, they will transform talent strategy, establishing it as fundamental to successful organisations.

  1. Increasing talent visibility.  The current crisis has raised the visibility of previously ‘hidden’ talent and emphasized that flexibility and adaptability are highly prized attributes. Many organisations have found their ‘star performers’ struggling, while other people have unexpectedly thrived. This highlights the risk of using historically based assumptions of who is talented and it raises two essential questions.  Firstly, what type of talented people do we need to be successful in our future business scenarios? Secondly, what skills, capabilities, experiences and motivations do people across our team already have, and what can be easily developed to meet future needs? Answers to both these questions are essential for the short and long term.  For the short term, organisations need to know how to deploy their existing people to best effect, and to take action to fill any immediate gaps.  For the longer-term, this information is crucial to mitigate any risks of future talent gaps and to consider the opportunities that may be unlocked through better use of the talented people in the organisation.  As thought leader and Futurologist, Ade McCormack says, the challenge for organisations is to build a business around the talent that you have access to. 
  2. Broadening the talent ecosystem.  COVID-19 has been a catalyst for unprecedented collaboration between organisations as they have been sharing resources and workers, with new platforms to facilitate this.  Many organisations have started to embrace the ‘talent ecosystem’, looking beyond traditional sources of employees and being willing to borrow, redeploy or share talent.   We need to find ways to harness this trend, to build agility into the organisation by thinking beyond the traditional, employed workforce.  This requires us to be creative and to explore a variety of ways in which tasks can be completed and in which people can make their best contribution.  For example, with increased remote working, can you now attract people who wouldn’t have been able to work traditional hours in a city centre office? Can you access skills from people in different countries or time zones?  Can some tasks be automated so that your people can concentrate on the added value that they can bring?  Can you access or ‘borrow’ specific skills that you don’t want or need to employ, through   consultants, partnerships, full-scale outsourcing opportunities or the ‘human cloud’? 
  3. Building the talent climate.  Organisations that have adapted quickest to the current challenges seem to be those that have existing cultures characterised by high trust and empowerment. For example, David Leigh, CEO at Alexander Mann Solutions recently told me how their experience as a global, multi-site organisation has enabled them to readily adapt to virtual working.  In particular he cites their established virtual ways to engage, empower, connect and include people.  Recent surveys suggest that organisations expect their cultures to change as a result of Covid-19, previous patterns of behaviour are being broken, and ‘how we do things round here’ will be different going forward. We need to make sure that we’re proactively shaping these changes to support agility and to enable everyone to perform at their best.  At a simple level, we need to think how to encourage leaders to motivate, develop and inspire their teams, how we can remove barriers to people’s performance.  At a more complex level, we need to think through our approach to ‘disruptive’ or ‘different’ talent.  Our success is likely to rely on having access to a broad range of skills and backgrounds so that we’re prepared for a range of scenarios.  We need to make sure that we are actively encouraging and supporting these diverse voices, not forcing them to conform as can so often happen.  
  4. Overhauling talent processes.  Over recent months, organisations have had to develop totally new talent processes – ways of deciding who to furlough, how to redeploy people, how to design roles for unique circumstances.  These adaptive strategies are helping organisations to rapidly manage risk and drive competitive advantage.  They are likely to be a cornerstone of future adaptive talent strategies with a new set of ongoing, ‘real time’ processes to track business needs, understand and fill gaps, re-skill and up-skill people.  Alongside these, many organisations are also redeveloping processes for stages of the employee life-cycle, finding new ways to attract, recruit, on-board and develop people.   In addition to these tactical processes, organisations need to look to the future and consider the more strategic talent processes that are required.  This is difficult when you can’t predict the required skills, roles and structure.   We therefore need a radical rethink on the formal talent processes that will drive success.  We need to find structured ways to understand the possible future scenarios, to assess possible needs, to review current access to talent and to plan how to fill any gaps – by developing, reskilling, recruiting or borrowing that talent.  This forward-looking strategy needs to go beyond isolated HR practices to look across the whole organisation at how to build agility and diversity to enable success.
  5. Partnering with the ‘talent’. As a result of the pandemic, changes are being experienced at a very personal level.  For example, some people, used to long commutes and long hours are questioning what type of working life they want, as one senior executive said to me recently, ‘I’m really enjoying being around at the kid’s bedtime – I want to keep that as my ‘new normal’’.  Other people are struggling with the idea of long-term remote working, unable to perform with an ironing board desk in their bedroom in a shared flat in the city centre.  Meanwhile others are feeling overwhelmed by the increased demands from work, childcare and health concerns.  It has been heartening to see the care with which many organisations have approached this, providing additional support for mental health issues and actively adapting work in recognition of personal circumstances.  Stepping back from the current situation,  Professor Dave Ulrich, has identified personalisation as a key principle for the post-coronavirus world.  This has to be a key element of our future talent strategy, approaching our people as partners - be they employed or borrowed, temporary or permanent.  We need to engage with them to find the ‘sweet spot’ between their wants/needs and those of the organisation.  This will require us to be flexible, to move away from a ‘one size fits all’, to embrace varied and flexible contracts, different ways of working and new ways to reward and recognise people.  In this way we can help everyone to thrive and perform, we can attract and access the broad range of talented people we need to safeguard success.

Now is the time to let go of some ‘taken for granted’ assumptions, to reshape the talent agenda and embrace talent liberation.