Attracting talents in the era of digital transformation

TalentDigital transformation programs require employees with specific digital skills. But they are difficult to find. The problem of attracting these employees is to some extent self-inflicted. A quick analysis of what went wrong.

Moving from the age of IT craftsmanship, through industrialization, to the era of digitalization, requires right talent, digital talents – employees that understand the characteristics of the new digital world. Knowledge about technologies such as Machine Learning, Big Data, Internet of Things is vital. 

The three eras of IT
The three eras of IT

From bankruptcy to market leadership

In 2004 LEGO, the toy manufacturer was at the brink of bankruptcy. The company struggled to give the customers what they wanted. To stay on the market, it had to reinvent their business model. LEGO launched several digitalization initiatives (and other, too). Using the knowledge of smart people and handing some of the design activities to its fans (LEGO Digital Designer platform) they turned from a pure plastic toy manufacturer to movie and games producer.

Perhaps the most remarkable master of adapting its business model is Netflix. The company started with renting movies to its customers by sending DVDs per mail directly to their homes. Then, smartphones appeared on the market. The internet connection speed improved and people started to stream videos. Netflix pivoted quickly. They ditched the initial idea of movie distribution and switched to a video streaming service. Only to realize that negotiating with movie studios is painful and costly. Netflix wanted to own the whole value creation chain to act more independently so they decided to get into the business of content creation – reinventing itself is in the DNA of this company.

Pivotal moves are created by innovative, nonconformist people. They are not a product of an artificially designed algorithm. At some point in history, such companies had to attract the right talent (and sustain that attraction), and make sure they perform to their full potential.

For some years now, there has been a war for employees who know how to get around with digitalization. The shortage of people with the right skills should not be a surprise. A chain of events led to this state. It is not only the fault of companies. There are other parties to be blamed, too. But let’s briefly analyze where the organizations have failed (and still are failing).

Home-made problems at the core

Some experts argue that the occupation problems are primarily home-made. The existing workforce has not been trained and prepared for the new workplace. Succession planning was, and in some places still is, non-existing. And the talent from within own workforce, overlooked or underutilized.

Another reason is the exorbitant qualification requirements for the advertised positions. The companies essentially seek unicorns, people with very unique skills. In some cases, the job ads are ridiculously unrealistic, impossible to fill by one person.

The alumni networks have also been widely neglected. Keeping close contact with those who left was not the managers’ first priority. These alumni, however, often gain new skills that could turn useful to the company they left. By keeping active contact businesses are able to identify and re-attract the so much needed talent. There are firms who know how to profit from such networks.

The also often overlooked problem in keeping and attracting talents are the legacy technologies in use. According to a Dell study, 40 percent are likely to quit their job if the technology is substandard. Moreover, when implementing innovations is not the priority, good employees tend to leave. At some point, the answer was to introduce a bi-modal IT – on one side the stable, monolith systems with rare upgrades, and on the other side, the always changing, agile environment with apps developed at high speed. Such set-up was only a short-term countermeasure and Forrester already discarded this idea as too complex, ineffective and with a harmful impact on the culture.

Employees are still being hired on criteria that weren’t even relevant yesterday

The traditional IT’s desire is to do things clearly and in a predictable way. Even while managing digital projects. But there is not much of clarity and predictability in the new IT age. That is why there has been a shift from traditional management methods to more agile ones. Solving problems is an incremental process. Designing master plans for months, only to realize during the implementation that they’re not much worth, is pointless and wasteful.

The manager of tomorrow has to master new skills and behaviors that fit the new workplace. Those who are going to run the transformed organization won’t necessarily be those who used to run it until now. But, in the meanwhile, many recruiters still aim at validating skills in contexts that don’t apply anymore to today’s workplace. The hiring strategy has to change, too.

The study of Mindtake Research states, that one of the biggest criticisms of the IT community is the lack of expertise among hiring people, especially HR professionals. Many software developers complain that HR know little or nothing about programming. But for a sound and meaningful eye-level communication, this is much needed. The second biggest criticism: employers can’t usually immediately answer questions about the specific position and the field of potential activity. They just want to fill a vacancy, and they want to fill it fast. The “details” will be settled later.

Digital on the outside, analog on the inside

Sadly, in some cases, businesses pretend they are looking for digital savvy people. But what they actually do is to look for employees who will sustain its current operating model. They do not adapt to its working environment. Trying things out and failing? Not really an option. Open leadership culture? Better not, as it will disrupt the authority-based model. Curiosity and creativeness? Preferred are people who strictly follow the rules. Agile processes? No, bureaucracy instead. And those who challenge the status quo, the (digital) nonconformists, recruitment managers tend to mark as a “no fit”.

Even if the senior management realizes that something has to happen, they often overlook the power of its own organizational culture. If for years the current employees have been treated as a pure resource one can just “utilize”, then no one can expect these very same employees will lead the company into the new era of digitalization (or any other era) only because the strategy memo says so.

Looking beyond the IT

Digitalization isn’t only about technology. It is also, if not primarily, about change in the attitude, behaviors, mindset, and leadership. Because of the enormous change aspect, change management must be involved right from the beginning. You cannot expect to transform the company’s business model without an active participation of its employees. Look for open dialogue, inform, educate. 

There are fundamental skills and traits that every employee should gain and constantly improve, for example, adaptability, learning skills, and creativity. These are so universal, that no matter which era you live in, mastering them will guide you through rough or peaceful times.

Looking at the market for new talents is not always necessary. There is a chance that among your current workforce are already digital talents who have these skills and understand the challenges of digitalization. Too often they’ve been hidden and forgotten in a dusty part of the company.

It is also important to note, that many successful digital leaders come from the “pre-digital” era. The achievements of the traditional world should not be discarded. But these leaders have been very good at adapting to the current environment. They know how to survive.

I don’t have any particular specialist skills. I have a sort of vague knowledge of many areas.