How can HR functions adopt a more creative, targeted approach to developing home-grown digital talent?

The digital people challenge

The digital skills gap was already widening fast before COVID-19 struck, as this World Economic Forum report shows. Since then, the 1-2 combo of economic disruption and enforced remote working has additionally turbo-charged demand for workforce agility and flexibility, making the search, hiring and retention of digital people one of the top priorities for HR organisations world-wide.

The re-imagining of the future of work, now heavily tinged with urgent calls to re-skill alongside the inevitable mentions of hybrid workplaces and workforce automation, looms large in the business and HR forecasts of tech vendors and professional services firms alike; and while these are many and varied in their approach and conclusions, they all broadly converge on one fundamental challenge: digital talent scarcity is a key blocker to the re-invention required by many firms, who are now preoccupied not just with digital transformation, growth and competition, but – in the hardest-hit sectors – with survival itself.

This view is backed by regular conversations with HR leaders, telling us that adapting to the fast-paced talent needs of digital transformation is a now a greater challenge than ever before. Many existing talent frameworks are neither effective, nor sufficiently detailed to be actionable when sourcing digital talent, or planning the wider business competencies required by everyone in a truly agile and digital organisation. All of this is compounded by the pre-existing inability of traditional educational outlets to keep pace with sky-high demand for STEM graduates, leaving L&D functions to fill this ever-widening gap with limited resources.

Buy, rent or build?

The traditional approach to dealing with corporate talent scarcity is to buy, rent, or build. Buying digital talent has always been challenging, partly due to scarcity, but also other factors such as competition, mobility, generational expectations, etc. Often, firms have relied on external recruiters and university milk rounds to find the right people, but in most cases these approaches are both expensive and ineffective, with many new digital hires leaving soon after joining.

Renting – i.e. using contractors – can work to plug short-term or urgent project gaps, but it does little to build the in-house resilience and adaptiveness needed to weather the next VUCA challenge, as rented talent tends to walk out of the door the moment the assignment is finished. It is also questionable whether firms are able to get the most from their contractor relationships, given how few are able to properly scope project requirements and manage projects effectively (and respectfully).

Growing your own talent is, then, by far the best strategy when it comes to digital roles. Not only are the economics for doing so compelling, but internal development has a much better chance of producing a tailored result.

How to focus your build strategy

First, let’s try to clarify some key terms, which we often see used interchangeably, causing confusion: skills, competencies, and capabilities. There are multiple definitions of each, of course, but I’m going to refer to the work of Jane McNeill to define the first two:

Skills are the specific learned abilities that you need to perform a given job well. Examples, depending on the specific role, range from handling accounts and coding to welding or writing tender documents. […] Competencies, on the other hand, are the person’s knowledge and behaviours that lead them to be successful in a job. Examples of competencies, then, include the improvement of business processes, strategic planning and data-based decision-making.

When it comes to capabilities, I like Josh Bersin’s definition:

Put simply, [a capability] is a combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences employees need to succeed. And these capabilities are often unique, exclusive, and proprietary to your company.

This chimes with how we think about capabilities, going beyond the assessment of individuals, and being much more relevant to how your specific organisation works, its purpose and its needs. To bring this back to the digital talent realm, we can perhaps shorthand these definitions as technical skills, digital competencies, and organisational capabilities.

So, how can busy L&D professionals quickly plan the right learning interventions, for the right people, to begin growing digital talent from within the organisation?

One approach we use with large organisations is to start by mapping the organisational capabilities needed to achieve business goals that can either be accelerated digitally, or can only be achieved with a digital approach. Usually, the best way to identify capability gaps is to ask the workforce using different data collection methods, including chatbot conversations and open surveys. Having mapped the organisational capabilities, you can start focusing on the skills and competencies needed to support them, forming a picture of digital talent gaps and needs aligned to business objectives, enabling the effective targeting of learning and development activities in key business domains. This avoids the one-size-fits all of top-down learning provision, and can help make the learning experience much more engaging and relevant.

Harness people power

Beyond making informed decisions on how to grow internal talent, this type of mapping also throws up an incredibly valuable additional picture: it helps to identify those people within the organisation who already possess the required skills and competencies, but are just not visible in the org chart, as this is not their formal or primary role. Citizen developers, digital passionates, tech tinkerers, app makers – they live all over your organisation, but are often missed by formal HR processes.

The power of proximity and peer-to-peer learning generated by these internal digital enthusiasts is one of the best ways of spreading new competencies and skills, and we are seeing these expert communities pop up in the shadow of official IT/IS, sometimes out of necessity, but often out of sheer passion. With support and rewards, these communities can help advance overall organisational capabilities in precisely the areas you need to develop, so we would strongly recommend leveraging these, carefully, alongside structured learning programs.

If your organisation already has clusters of expertise and good digital practice (we call these ‘digital hotspots’) you can map them, learn from them, and establish whether what makes them successful in a specific business area could also work elsewhere in the organisation. Then, focus your efforts on building up digital teams in your new target areas by equipping them with the learning, frameworks and practices they need to develop the required mindsets, competencies and skills locally. Finally, put in place measurement criteria that enable you to evaluate both learning impact and business success, and re-target your efforts where they are needed most.

Naturally, all of this requires some careful planning and the support of leadership, who themselves need to possess the digital vision to at least get some of these home-grown talent initiatives under way, as well as publicly demonstrate their support. But at a time of incredibly tight talent supply, these efforts can be very successful and far more sustainable than other approaches.