How Agile Are You When it Comes to Talent?

To thrive in the fast-paced digital age, organizations need to assemble a nimble workforce of talented learners who can grow with the company’s needs, agreed CEOs gathered at a roundtable sponsored by Cisco Services called “How Agile Are You When It Comes to Talent?”

“You can’t have an innovative agenda without having the right kind of talent.” —Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn (pictured above), VP/GM, Business Enablement and Strategy, Cisco

The continuously changing nature and diversity of skills needed means organizations must empower their workforces with knowledge and flexibility, as well as arm them with the digital tools and technology necessary to access that knowledge any time, any place.

Seeking Skills
The first step is having the right people. “You can’t have an innovative agenda, an agenda to collaborate, co-create or any of that, without having the right kind of talent,” said Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, vice president and general manager of business enablement and strategy at Cisco Services. But the way companies are finding that talent is changing. “A lot of organizations hire to a resumé. That’s not working anymore. You can’t find the kind of skills you’re looking for,” she said. “The skills gap is real. It’s in the tens of millions and, depending on your industry, you have to think more creatively about finding that talent and developing it with a learning-based culture.”

Chuck Smith, president of NewHire, pointed out that companies do need to try to find the “jigsaw puzzle pieces” to fill in their skills gaps, but they also need to be able to hire entry-level talent that can be trained and brought up in the organization to fill future gaps. “The question is, how do you balance those two things when you’re a smaller company?” Smith asked.

It’s important to do both, even as a small company, said Beliveau-Dunn. “We see most organizations are successful when they do some strategic buys, but do a lot of build. It’s sort of like the ‘80 percent build-20 percent buy’ strategy.”

On the build side, companies are employing new ways to deepen employee perspective and help them grow. BRR Architecture, for example, shifts individuals from studio to studio, said Joan Redhair, vice president. “That way, they get a more well-rounded approach or view of our business.”

Deloitte’s Rick Harrison urged CEOs to consider “knowledge repositories” that enable project managers to identify and consult with experienced colleagues.

Enzen Global Limited’s strategy is to take experienced people who have spent 25 or 30 years in the energy sector and blend them with recent graduates who are well versed in social media and have a different way of viewing things, noted Kutty Prabakaran, managing director. “When you blend them, you get unique thinking and that makes a big difference.” The company also moves employees around “to recycle people,” which not only develops high potentials, but keeps top talent engaged, challenged and passionate about coming to work, he said.

Tools for a New Age
Cisco has reinvented itself as a company at least five times, said Beliveau-Dunn, in part owing to having created a collaborative learning environment in which people are given information about and access to other employees who may be able to help them do their jobs better.

“By providing vehicles to collaborate, co-create and innovate together over digital or mobile platforms, we’ve been able to really change the paradigm.”

“We have this ability to connect people to others on the fly,” said Beliveau-Dunn. “By providing vehicles to collaborate, co-create and innovate together over digital or mobile platforms, we’ve been able to really change the paradigm.” Cisco can, for example, easily “rescale” talent, or move players around into projects where they can be most useful and connect them to groups that need their skills. “Rescaling is something that happens 80 percent of the day,” she added.

That agility allows the company to make strategic adjustments as needed and to co-innovate with partners and customers to outpace the competition. “In the days of such change, it’s really going to come down to the company that plays the best team sport of innovation winning—particularly if you can take that innovation and clear a path towards execution,” asserted Beliveau-Dunn.

The right technology and tools help move companies down that path. Deloitte, for example, has a knowledge repository that allows people managing projects to find colleagues who have managed similar projects successfully. By letting people drill down into the specifics of a capability area, they can find exactly the skills they need, explained Rick Harrison, national managing principal with Deloitte. “So someone might say, ‘We need some thought leadership development.’ And we have a whole service on leadership development, so you know exactly where to go for that.”

Companies are then making it easier for employees to communicate in virtual communities via chat and other open-communication technology. Once available only to deep-pocketed players, these tools can now be purchased off the shelf—or in the cloud—at a fraction of what they once cost. Scott Kinnaird, executive chairman of a la mode, pointed to inexpensive communication and
productivity software such as Slack that allow workers to connect virtually but feel as though they’re in the same room. “The tools that are built into Slack enable you to just type in ‘#groupmeeting,’ and then, suddenly, Google Hangout will fire up within the app. So you’re talking to people face-to-face.”

Mark Shlanta, CEO of SDN Communications, pointed out that not every geographic region is ready for newer methods of communication. SDN Communications employs 180 people, drawn from a talent pool made up primarily of South Dakota rural communities with populations of fewer than 2,000. “So when you start doing something like chat, they’re like, ‘Wow. How do you use that in the organization?’” said Shlanta. “So you have to kind of wade into these things a little bit differently.”

Small communities within organizations can also be developed in a high-touch way, said Greg Clark, chief marketing officer of Caliber Collision, which has 325 locations around the U.S. and conducts weekly team engagement meetings where employees engage in team-building exercises and games. “We challenge everybody in the organization to come up with fun ways for people
to just be people,” he said. “So that’s why I’m really interested in the low-touch side of it, because you can accomplish the same thing and do it across the whole enterprise instead of on an individual center-by-center basis.”

Making Room for Millennials
Shlanta noted that all companies have to think about how to create a culture to attract the next generation of talent, because as the baby boomers retire, the skills gap widens. “We have to import the talent. We aren’t growing it. We grow a lot of things, but we don’t grow the talent.”

“Collaboration is underutilized in our company.”

Ky Hornbaker, principal of United Excel, expressed a similar concern about his company, which operates fairly traditionally and may need to adopt new work systems to prepare for the future. “Collaboration is underutilized in our company,” said Hornbaker. “We come from a very traditional industry. We’re builders and designers. This idea of collaboration, to me, is so essential to the younger folks that we’re bringing into the organization. They demand it. So I’m sitting here thinking, as an older guy, that this is something we have to consider and get a team of people on board to implement it, because just the implementation of the tool to collaborate is a big deal.”

To be sure, those companies that want to attract millennials must create an environment that supports them, said Beliveau-Dunn.

“That means open, honest communications. It means having vehicles where they can communicate to you and tell you what’s on their mind and what they need from you, and likewise, with your customers and partners. That’s what they’re looking for.”

Attendees discussed the use of crowdsourcing games and polling tools to engage employees—particularly millennials—and to solicit innovative thinking. Of Woodforest National Bank’s 5,000 employees, 3,000 are millennials, noted Julie Mayrant, president of the bank’s retail division. “All of this gaming is sort of an expectation,” she said. “So that’s where we’re challenged to try and incorporate some of these tools while still running our business…[but] it’s less about gaming and more about creating environments for connection.”

Small and midsize companies have the advantage in creating that environment, said Beliveau-Dunn. “A lot of the younger generation likes to work, actually, in smaller organizations that they connect with. So being small shouldn’t be a problem in hiring. It should actually be a benefit in hiring, if you can figure out a way to connect your mission to the people and hire the right kind of people.”

Millennials want to work in a place where they have more opportunity to engage, to drive their own impact and to learn. So while it’s challenging to compete with employers with well-known brands, when it comes to talent, smaller enterprises can use their size to their advantage. And whatever your size, the key to success is to get people working together. “Innovation,” she said, “is a team sport.”

C.J. Prince: C.J. Prince is a regular contributor to Chief Executive and other business publications.
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