Human resources professionals are familiar with the idea of a “war for talent”. What they may be less familiar with is how that, by now well worn, phrase can be a barrier to good HR practices.
Speaking at the World Employment Conference in Dublin, sponsored by the national export agency Enterprise Ireland, Social Talent founder Jonny Campbell spoke about the phrase’s origins, in a highly influential McKinsey report published in 1998.
Campbell established e-learning company Social Talent in 2010 and it is backed by Enterprise Ireland. Today, the company has 60 staff and is the largest provider of training to the recruitment industry in the world. Selling into 90 countries, it has trained and qualified up to 30,000 people via its online platform.
This success, plus Campbell’s previous career as a recruitment executive, gives him a bird’s eye view of how the industry is changing, and how it needs to develop to cope with future change.
The McKinsey report of 1998 asked if a company made ‘improving its talent pool’ one of its top three organisational priorities. “The thesis was that the organisations most likely to succeed were those most successful at attracting, developing and retaining talent. But as an industry we latched on to just one word – attracting,” said Campbell.
Birth of talent acquisition
The concept of talent acquisition was born, and huge amounts invested in talent acquisition strategies.
“Talent acquisition is still very much the hot topic of organisations, attracting the best talent into their business. But 20 years after this report, if you look at all the investment that has gone into it, new tools, things like LinkedIn, and the development of artificial intelligence, yet we still complain about these skills gaps,” he said.
This is true across health care, life sciences and technology, in particular. “We don’t have enough people with the right skills but ironically, we have loads of people. This is an interesting dilemma. We’ve lots of people, but no skills? No talented people? That just doesn’t feel right to me,” he said.
“The old approach to finding more people, with more skills, isn’t working, with the result that organisations of scale are revisiting their approach.”
The solution is not to continually seek people with the requisite skills but to redeploy the people you already have and train them up. “The war for talent is incorrectly framed. It suggests that it’s about finding someone else’s talent, which is what we have tried to do for the past 20 years.”
War for skills
Instead, it’s a war for skills. “Skills are required to get things done. Skills are something we can bring in. We already have the people.”
The solution is working together to develop talent from within. Doing so requires a breaking down of the silos separating talent acquisition, talent development, and HR administration.
It also means hiring not just for IQ, or its successor, EQ, but for LQ – a person’s learning quotient.
“What organisations like Accenture do now is hire for your ability to learn new stuff again and again. This is because they know the skills they hire for today are not the skills their clients will need in two, or four years. And if they keep hiring for the skills they need today, there will be a constant cycle.” What they want are people who are willing to change, who can take on new skills, and who can adapt, “because that is going to be their core strength in terms of evolving their organisation,” said Campbell.
He referenced a pilot study being undertaken by Electrolux, the kitchen appliance maker. It is looking at taking staff out of areas in which they have worked for a long time, such as logistics, and putting them into areas such as R&D, with training support.
The workers chosen for the pilot were happy because of the opportunity to change, develop and learn new things. The new product development team, in this particular case, got fresh insights, while the company “was delighted because they couldn’t get enough product developers,” said Campbell.
One of Social Talent’s clients, Cognizant, has taken a similarly innovative approach to the global shortage of data scientists, training and certifying its own in 90 days.
“It involves team-worked solutions – no silos where people have just one trick to solve a company’s problems.”
Learning is now a top three issue on CEO agendas in every market, he said. “If all (recruiters) can do is find external talent, we will soon run out of options. We won’t be the partner we always dreamed of being with our client organisations.”
From an employee perspective, while pay still tops the poll in relation to why people take a job, numbers two, three and four are challenging work, opportunities to advance in their careers and to learn new skills. “That is what is driving candidates.”
For the recruitment industry, “joining up the dots” to deliver on that will be the key to success in the 20 years ahead.