Nick Gidwani

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18 min read

Mastering Talent Agility: 4 Steps Every Business Must Take to Build the Workforce of the Future


Talent agility is the single most important factor that determines whether your business will succeed or get wiped out by competition in the future.

Having an agile workforce spells the difference between being an industry leader or falling behind. PwC reports that when businesses have development programs that increase agility, 86 percent respond rapidly to changes in the business environment. Without these kinds of programs, only about half do.

Some companies are discovering the strategic advantage and undergoing transformations to build the muscles required for talent agility. But across the United States and around the world, most companies remain uninformed about how to build an agile workforce.

What is talent agility?

Talent agility is a company’s ability to change the composition of talent inside the organization quickly and cost effectively. It takes into account all the levers that are needed to build and develop talent: Learning & Development, acquiring and retaining talent, and engaging them.

The more agile its talent pool, the better a business can reshape itself constantly to address new market challenges, offer new products and services, and fend off competition.

Agility helps a company become an employer that employees seek to work for. And they stay longer, seeing the benefits of developing skills that will help them throughout their careers.

Why is talent agility so important?

We’re living in an era in which tech startups can supplant traditional businesses. It’s happening everywhere and to everyone. Airbnb is stealing even more business away from hotels than initially anticipated,  all without owning a single room. Casper is overturning the mattress industry and doesn’t have a single showroom.

Whether it’s digital marketing and direct-to-consumer, the sharing economy and leveraging existing infrastructure, using data to provide better pricing and economies of scale, or building software to automate many tasks typically done by service providers, there are few areas of competitive advantage left.

In the auto industry, Tesla is now valued at more than General Motors. Based on current profits, this makes no sense. But in the big picture, it does. Because over the next 100 years, I’d rather have Tesla’s talent than GM’s. Tesla’s great asset is not mechanical engineers — it’s their software engineers and data scientists.

As BMW board member Peter Schwarzenbauer told The New York Times: “I am convinced that we are going to see more change in the next 10 or 15 years than we have seen in the last 100 years. The big question is always, Do we car manufacturers learn to become tech companies more quickly than a tech company learns to be an automotive player?”

The operative words in that quote: “learn to.”

“It’s up to companies to make sure that learning takes place and is supported by the business. That’s the crux of talent agility.”

The greatest talent is adaptability

As big as these industry disruptions are, they don’t give us a view far into the future.

No one can know for certain what kind of homes-away-from-home people will look for when they travel 10 years from now, or how they’ll book them. We can’t know what kind of mattresses they’ll sleep in. And we can’t know what kind of cars they’ll drive.

Uber is seen by many as a challenged company with very limited competitive advantage, which is probably why it’s shifting quickly into a self-driving car company, which requires dramatically different skills than it has today. But even Uber can’t know what lies ahead.

Technology is changing so fast that it’s impossible to predict how business will be done a decade out. And the pace of that change is accelerating.

New technologies pop up, and your business needs experts ASAP. Then those same technologies get phased out and become obsolete within just a few years. LinkedIn’s 2017 Workplace Learning Report found that the average shelf life for skills is now less than five years.

So as you build an agile workforce, it’s important to stop simply looking for people who already have certain skills. Instead fill your ranks with people who prove their ability to adapt to new technologies and pick up new skills quickly. And help them find which skills to develop and the quickest way to do so.

This is why workplace Learning & Development must be a central pillar of any successful organization.

So how do you go about making this happen? Here are four steps to not just build but master talent agility.

Step 1: Talent Assessment

You can’t move forward if you don’t know where you are starting from. This means doing an assessment of strengths and weaknesses.

But beware: Many businesses do this wrong.

They try to pull an assessment together using employees’ titles. For example, they’ll say, “We have 800 engineers who use Java.” But they don’t know that many of those engineers also have skills in cryptography, angular and data ingestion, which they simply haven’t been tasked with using at work. And they don’t know that employees in other departments also have those skills.

Some businesses decide to conduct an internal survey on employees’ skills and have analysts sift through it, or, worse, sign a seven-figure contract with a consulting company to figure this out. That process can take six months or a year. Often, the actual talent pool in the company has changed by the time it’s done.

There’s a much faster way, enabled by a software layer that can keep this inventory up-to-date. A learning experience platform, such as Pathgather, enables employees to keep track of their own skills. We’ve found that employees are both honest and accurate in doing so, knowing that they may be called upon to use these skills and that their self-ratings will affect their own development plans.

As this information is entered, the platform automatically pulls together the information you need to understand your company’s talent.

You can then get  a picture of your organization’s “talent shape.”

The further you are from the central circle, the more talent you have available in your ranks. This shape becomes helpful as you enter Step 2.

Step 2: Competitive assessment

With an understanding of where things currently stand, it’s now time to determine how your competitors, and your industry as a whole, are shaping up when it comes to talent.

“If they’re hiring people with expertise in an area your company is either weak in or not paying attention to, why is that? What do your competitors know that you don’t?”

At Pathgather, we have access to this data for every company in the world, including information pulled from hundreds of millions of job posts. These posts are extracted, dissected, checked for duplication, and tagged with metadata gained through machine-learning and artificial intelligence.

Here’s an example of how your company’s talent shape may compare to a competitor’s, or to your industry broadly.Be sure to examine not just traditional competitors, but the startups and so-called unicorns in Silicon Valley as well. What talents are they focusing on?

Often, competitor’s public statements and recruiting activities can give you a sense of why they want people with those talents. It’s a chance to consider their takes on the changing marketplace, buying habits, and what consumers (or other businesses, for B2B) are looking for.

It’s also important to get input from leadership and the broader community at your company about what the “next big thing” will be or can be, and to do so with a truly open mind. If Kodak had done so, it would have realized that its own employee had crucial talents for creativity and engineering when he invented the first digital camera back in 1975.

Be ready to pounce as talent shapes change.

Keep in mind that your company’s talent shape is not static. But neither are your competitors’ talent shapes. Constantly keep an eye out for the talents that startups and other disruptors are looking for. Your learning experience platform can keep you updated on these trends, so you don’t have to play catch-up at great expense.

The most typical way to think about playing catch up is with M&A — buying a company with the talents you need to compete. GM recently bought Cruise, a relatively early stage startup with an immense amount of talent in the self-driving space. Years ago, an acqui-hire like this would have been done for $10 million, $20 million or $50 million. Instead, the price of talent and competition is so high that Cruise was purchased for $1 billion, despite not having a product to show for it. The market, however, applauded the purchase.

And that’s part of the lesson here: You don’t have to be first at doing something new. You can be second or even third — if, and only if, you can pick up quickly on ideas of your competitors and put them into action just as quickly. That’s where your existing infrastructure will come in handy and act as the competitive advantage, assuming you’ve closed the technology gap.

This does require that your own innovations should be as good or almost as good as your competitors’ — and you can’t be five years behind the curve in creating a similar solution. That’s what happened when New York City taxis tried to compete with Uber by creating an app called Curb — too little, too late.

Step 3: Plot your path

This one requires some tough decisions.

If you’ve followed the first two steps, you have a clear sense of what your talent shape looks like and how it compares to those of your competitors. Now, you have to pick a direction.

It’s up to CEOs and other senior leaders to decide: Which parts of your industry do you expect to ramp up in the next two to four years? Which talents are worth investing in?

Unless you’re a massive corporation like Google, you can’t fill up an entire talent shape graphic like a big circle — it’s just not affordable without monopolylike profits and the ability to attract such varied types of talent. No matter what, there will be white space. But the good news is that picking a direction doesn’t lock you in. As things change, you can change your plan with them, so long as you are tracking everything in a scalable and continuous fashion.

That brings us to the final step.

Step 4: Enable learning

When you see the skills you want to increase in your talent pool, don’t rush out to hire people. Instead, realize first that you may have much of what you need already inside the organization.

“The quickest and best way to grow in the right direction is to help your employees do so.”

You probably already have employees with some level of the skills you need. Give them time and opportunity to learn to enhance those skills. And give other employees a chance to learn them as well.

They know the company, its goals and challenges. They have relationships — with customers, suppliers and other departments internally — to help things run smoothly. Invest in them.

Not only will you develop high-value internal talent pipelines, but you will keep your people longer and create a magnet for others interested in developing themselves.

Finding proximity

To orchestrate your learning strategy, it’s crucial to find out which of your employees have proximity to what you’re looking for.

In this sense, “proximity” indicates that someone has skills that are adjacent to or that serve as prerequisites for the skill you need. Using your learning experience platform, you can strategize to help move them in the right direction.

For example, many finance professionals have great experience working with databases. They need to use those databases to get financial data. That gives them proximity to data analysis. So they’d be first in line to learn the data analysis skills you need.

Without understanding proximity, you may be at risk of providing learning paths and pipelines to employees that are simply too far away from making the leap into a new role or acquiring a new skill.

Carving out time for learning

A powerful example of how to enable learning is AT&T, which is changing its core identity. It’s turning from a telecommunications company into a cloud computing company.

Rather than mass layoffs and hirings, the company took another route. “AT&T has chosen to rapidly retrain its current employees while striving to engender a culture of perpetual learning,” John Donovan, the company’s chief strategy officer, explained in the Harvard Business Review.

AT&T is making learning and talent development a central pillar of its entire organization. CEO Randall Stephenson told The New York Times that he has called for learning to be a sizeable chunk of employees’ work time. People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning “will obsolete themselves with the technology,” he said.

When you take steps like this, you enable real, practicable talent agility. As new tools and technologies pop up, you have a system in place that allows employees to learn them. Together, your company becomes a growing organism, evolving and adapting to its environment.

Key for engagement

By focusing on learning as the chief means to build talent agility, your company also benefits in other ways.

Learning is crucial for employee productivity, retention and engagement. It’s key to attracting excellent workers, especially millennials, as Gallup has found.

And there’s a lot of work to do on this front. Deloitte found that 84 percent of executives rate learning as important or very important, but only only 37 percent of companies believe their current programs are effective.

Experts say investing in Learning & Development has become so seminal that development executives should now be part of the decisions made at the very top of the company.

Ratios matter

This doesn’t mean you should avoid hiring to fill skill gaps, of course. It just shouldn’t be the first, let alone only, move.

Ratios make a big difference. You can’t have only people with junior levels of any given skill. You need experts to oversee them as well, and put the right content in front of them. In general, you want to keep the ratio at least 1-to-10 — one true expert for every 10 workers at a lower level — and even that’s not enough for certain skill areas.  (PwC’s team of strategists called Strategy&, for example, uses a 1-to-6 ratio of partners to junior consultants.)

It can take three to six months to build skills, but more than a year to become an expert in something. As you work to grow your talent shape, you surely will need to do some hiring, particularly to bring in experts without a delay.Even still, you’ll want to make sure that everyone you hire has a track record of being good at learning. And you want to make sure that they’re given time to learn new skills as well.

Even still, you’ll want to make sure that everyone you hire has a track record of being good at learning. And you want to make sure that they’re given time to learn new skills as well.

This is what Visa is doing as it strives to become a leader in cryptography. Using Pathgather’s learning experience platform, the company is advancing its learning efforts internally even as it hires established experts to join the team.

Getting started

It may seem intimidating. After all, this is about a new way to understand your business and move it forward. We’re here to help make it easy to get started.In an era of fierce competition, the need for talent agility boils down to a single fact: Companies save themselves by being agile. Without agility, they decline. With it, they can succeed no matter what comes along.

In an era of fierce competition, the need for talent agility boils down to a single fact: Companies save themselves by being agile. Without agility, they decline. With it, they can succeed no matter what comes along.

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