HR and the talent ecosystem

Organisations that refuse to embrace an ecosystem of dispersed talent will be at the bottom of the food chain

Freelance, part-time and contingent workers have traditionally resided at the bottom of the resource talent pool. By contrast the full-time, desk-bound corporate carnivores have historically occupied the upper echelons of the food chain, trampling on or devouring any threat in their path.

But as companies are required to be more agile they are becoming reliant on those less traditional workers who are empowered by technology to work remotely – to a schedule that suits them. And so the natural ‘laws’ of the environment appear to be shifting, particularly in knowledge-based sectors such as tech, consultancy and media. In this new paradigm it is not the fittest individual corporate entities that necessarily survive and thrive, but the most collaborative professional communities.

Peter Brown, HR partner at PwC, believes that in five to 10 years top talent will feel more of a sense of belonging to their professional network than to an employer. This will compel HRDs to embrace, and value, the free flow of people both internally and externally.

Another subscribing to this vision, and leading the charge towards making it a reality, is Anna Gowdridge, head of people at Virgin Unite: the charitable foundation underpinning the work of the Virgin Group. She recently co-commissioned New Ways of Working research, driven by a desire for companies to “share and learn from each other”. “In the past organisations have been very guarded about how they do things, but many now want to collaborate,” she says.

Unfortunately not everyone is this forward thinking, Gowdridge warns. “It is surprising how many organisations are still working in a very old-fashioned nine to five, trapped-to-desk type way, as would have been common in the ‘70s,” she says. “But new generations are coming through and there’s a war for talent. Those that win will be those that trust their people and give them freedom and flexibility.”

“Some HR people think ‘we’ll put effort into making a collaborative environment, tick that box, then move on’. But collaboration needs constant care and attention,” agrees Rob Jones, head of organisational effectiveness at the Crossrail project, the entity tasked with constructing a railway line across London by 2018 – something it can only do by working closely with a network of suppliers.

Jones’ biggest piece of advice is to treat everyone as you would your employees. For Crossrail that means all workers, contingent or otherwise, are put forward for internal awards and training. Culturally this shift can be difficult and, in order to be successful, it needs buy-in from the top.

“I sat down with my boss when we were planning the programme and said ‘we could be really parochial about this and say this is only for people who work for Crossrail, but I don’t want to create division and in the end everyone is contributing to the performance of the programme.’ We need to get over our petty preoccupations with where the budget comes from and take action, or we’ll lose the momentum around solving the problem,” he adds.

Crossrail has recognised that in order for this talent ecosystem to thrive, it needs very different types of HR specialists working on separate briefs: “I focus on the organisational development side of HR and work for the talent and resources director,” says Jones. “Neither of us can do our jobs well if we both focus on the same things. We have a very effective head of HR who worries about all the things that heads of HR need to worry about. By splitting our roles this way Crossrail has created some capability in HR to address issues around the ways of working we need.”

While Crossrail’s talent will typically need to work at a specific site, more knowledge-based enterprises must consider being flexible around where their talent physically works.

Dell, for example, has launched a virtual working ‘Connected Workplace’ platform to embrace a ‘location agnostic’ approach to talent. “Talent resides everywhere. We need to be everywhere,” says Dell’s HR director for UK & Ireland Dan Grant. “Back in the day corporate functions like sales would have needed to be based in our Bracknell office. Now our default setting is to hire people who choose how and where they want to work by leveraging technology.

“If you don’t do that you’re limited to recruiting talent purely in locations around your offices. We don’t have any difficulty finding talent now because we have a much bigger pool.”

Other businesses may, however, feel it’s important for their workers to come together at a physical premises at least some of the time, believing this is better for company culture. Therefore they will need to invest significantly in making the corporate environment so attractive that employees want to be there.

Software firm SAS has done just this. Around 30% (and growing) of its workforce are millennials who have grown up with the internet and are used to doing everything remotely.

“The environment is critical to attracting and retaining this talent,” says Jenn Mann, chief human resources officer. “We’ve created a place that considers the whole person. There’s open space, cafes, walking trails, a healthcare centre, a training academy and daycare facilities. It’s true integration of work and life so they can be themselves when they come into work. And they can do their hours when they want to, which could be early in the morning or later in the evening.”

But Mann emphasises the importance of meaning above all. There’s no point creating a place full of luscious landscapes if workers “don’t see the meaning in their job and how it impacts their customers and their world; that’s why making this clear is our number one priority”.

Providing such a sense of purpose will be critical in a more flexible future landscape, where employees’ purpose won’t simply be turning up nine to five to the same place every day in return for secure, full-time employment.

Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, predicts that the new ecosystem will “begin to break down the differentiation between a full-time worker and a non-full-time worker”. In its place, she says, “will be a deeper understanding that what’s really important is reaching out to the most talented people”.

To attract this talent companies must pay much more attention to their ‘employer brand’, positioning it as one that provides meaningful work, a desirable working environment (where applicable), flexibility, good benefits and personal development opportunities.

“How can HRDs engage [non-full-time talent]? There’s an element of a sales job here,” says professor of human resource management at Dublin City University David Collings.

He adds: “We’re beginning to see, in more forward-thinking organisations, a greater sense of HR and marketing working together.”

This is less of an issue for sectors where jobs are in short supply and where there is limited flexibility in how and where employees work, such as manufacturing or retail. But it is a serious challenge for knowledge-based sectors, and for industries where certain skills are scarce. And so for many companies, embracing this emerging talent ecosystem isn’t a nice to have – understanding the new food chain will be critical to surviving.