Posted 5th August 2019

Today talent management is undergoing change at pace and organisations are under pressure to keep their HR departments equipped for what is to come.  The age of uncertainty is becoming characterised by skills shortages, the multi-generational workforce, the ‘gig’ economy, and a plethora of geo-political and macro-economic challenges, and they are all colliding to form a very complex and confusing future.

Technology, the very thing we are latching onto to grant us some form of salvation, is accelerating this trajectory. The inexorable march of the machines in all its guises – AI, machine learning, robotics, algorithms – can not and should not be halted, but for HR departments, the champions of human potential, the expectation needs to be properly set of what is in store. It has been widely shared that many of the jobs we will be recruiting for in 20 years’ time don’t exist yet. The generation currently in or about to enter education will be thrust onto a job market and a world of work the likes of which we cannot yet conceive. No company or industry can predict the specific skills and capabilities that will be required for market dominance or even survival into the next generation. Yet we are in the process of surrendering any semblance of control over not just our own future but that of our children. 

Let’s use a simplistic caricature to describe the current talent selection model: imagine you are trying to find your friend’s (non-gender specific) cousin in crowd of 500 people because you have a prize for the cousin. You’re not with your friend, you’ve never met your friend’s cousin and all you have to go on is a description of the cousin’s shoes: brown, lace-up, leather-upper and rubber-soled with a smooth tread. To narrow the field, you discount anyone not wearing shoes that match the description so that you’re left with a more manageable number of, say, 10 people. They are all claiming to be your friend’s cousin to get their hands on the prize, so you ask them questions about your friend to which only a cousin might know the answer, and you give the prize to the person most likely to be your friend’s cousin based on the answers. In this selection process you may deploy the technology of the day to make it quicker and easier, but what you don’t know is that your friend’s cousin was wearing trainers that day and was screened out at step one, the so-called top of the recruitment funnel. 

If you think this doesn’t happen in real life, think again. Recent research by recruitment agency Michael Page has shown that the skill most sought after by employers in the UK in 2019 is ‘adaptability’, but the research also highlighted that only 15% of job seekers have added it as a skill on their CVs. Would the CV sifting robot find them? No, which means that 85% of the potential pool has immediately been dismissed. And here’s the point: in the pursuit of consistency, efficiency and speed, most technology draws our limited attention towards those who conform to a predetermined and pre-coded role description. Not so ominous you might think, but replace ‘adaptability’ for any other skill or key word included in any of the 9.8 jobs added every second to Indeed globally and the problem is compounded beyond calculation. This  leads to the logical assumption that a vast percentage of CVs will never reach a human recruiter because the automated sifting technology would instantly screen them out. Is that fair? Of course not, so as a candidate you may choose to pepper your CV with relevant key words in order to be visible, but that may not describe you – who you are, what you can do and want to do in the future, and how you operate at your best. Add into this picture, some of the overly convoluted recruitment processes created by accident or, worse still, by design, and hiring managers are left with a normalised selection of survivors who live to tell the tale at interview. This results  in the “just a few more CVs” refrain from hiring managers that many recruiters will recognise with eye-rolling dread.

Under debate is not whether these technologies can source and select suitable talent, designed as they are to narrow the field using simple skills matching or more complicated algorithms perhaps based on what a successful career should look like. So far, so efficient, but we know we can’t predict what skills will be valuable in the future. We also know that today’s careers are meandering, non-linear journeys that are unique to each individual. Careers reflect opportunities given and taken, new skills or aspirations fostered, or even shifts in preferences or personal circumstances. People should therefore not have to describe themselves as a series of job titles, but they should be allowed to express themselves as a set of core, transferable and chosen skills because what they do today or did in the past is not necessarily what they want to do in the future. Nothing highlights this more than how the millennial generation perceives the world of work: in research by PWC, 72% of young people report having made some sort of trade-off to get into work, 55% cite career progression as the main attraction in an employer over competitive salaries (at 44%), but most noticeably of all, only 18% expect to stay with their employer long term. These findings expose an obvious and fundamental disconnect between the expectations of employers and those of the talent they seek to recruit and retain – employers value specialisation and a narrow subset of skills, whereas individuals value their whole selves and the composite picture of their skills, ambitions and motivation. The imbalance in this relationship has echoes across a business, with ineffectually aligned objectives and targets, poorly gauged reward structures, impenetrable promotion processes, and unconvincing succession planning, all of which create huge barriers to engagement and a colossal drag on productivity.

Being in business means making decisions, although sometimes it’s easy for HR and the businesses that HR serves to allow the decisions about people to be based on intuition, which is long proven to be an unreliable basis for decision-making. Future success for a business relies heavily on the decisions that are made today, so businesses need help to plan effectively by equipping them with tools that uncover from across the entire spectrum of talent both inside and outside the company, what capability they have access to today and what they need access to tomorrow. Such tools need to go far beyond what any skills database or HiPo programme can deliver and tap into the core beliefs, ambitions and self-motivation of all individuals in a business. Tools that give individuals a “voice” in and control over their careers. Tools that allow users to create and investigate potential career scenarios, decide what is more or less important to them, be connected directly to relevant opportunities and be instantly visible to HR and managers. This may sound like a faraway dream but such capability exists today. By allowing individuals to describe their value in their own terms, a democratisation in talent management is taking place that will allow a true alignment of employee and company purpose, in the process unleashing a surge in engagement and productivity.

The embracing by HR of a technology-enabled future can be seen as nothing but whole-heartedly positive, however the vast majority of talent technology currently falls short. Laborious processes can be speeded up and even eliminated, but there is a need for systems and ways of working that reflect how people and businesses want to work together otherwise very little will change. Giving a voice to individuals and allowing them to take control over their careers, catalyses a very different future model for managing talent within and finding talent outside our organisations. Most important though is the overriding need for business to coalesce around a common set of core and transferable skills and to translate that into something tangible for our education system to prepare young people for the world of work. HR has an unprecedented opportunity to take the lead within businesses in decoding the future in this age of uncertainty.

Teresa Fox
Post author:Teresa Fox

Teresa Fox is a Co-CEO and Founder of Optunli.

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