For Digital Talent, ‘How’ Matters More Than ‘Who’

The pressures of increasing digitalization and rapidly changing work environments place new demands on talent identification. But is agility enough?

There’s no argument: As automation reshapes entire industries and artificial intelligence is on the rise, few would dispute that the future of work is being driven by a tidal wave of digitalization. Organizations everywhere are using digital technologies to develop new business models and pursue new revenue and value-producing opportunities.

These digital business strategies are enabled through talent, not machines alone, placing people at the heart of the business agenda. Digitalization is placing greater pressure on matching the right employees with the right jobs, and ensuring they are as productive as possible. It’s no surprise that 57% of Chief Human Resource Officers say that attracting and retaining digital talent is one of their top HR initiatives.

But, is the “right” talent fundamentally different today than yesterday? Myths abound about what that digital talent looks like, driven largely by hype or intuition.  Let’s take a look at the reality behind one of the most popular myths—that “agility” is the key to high-performing digital talent—before you build your digital talent strategy around it.

In a nutshell, this is the claim that there’s an ideal talent profile that defines an employee who is agile enough to perform effectively in any role using any technology in any situation. Just find or build employees with this one-size-fits-all profile, the story goes, and they’ll succeed no matter what your digital business strategy looks like. And, it’s not just about employees—leaders with this profile will also be “agile” enough to lead effectively in any digital context.

This myth takes several forms, but the most widespread version is centered around the notion of learning agility, typically defined as the ability and willingness to learn rapidly. The argument maintains that learning agility is the key to unlocking all other competencies required by digitalization. It’s that missing ingredient to your secret sauce for digital talent.

The reality, however, doesn’t support these claims. Yes, it’s true that the ability to adapt to ambiguity, new ways of doing things, different cultures, and change is an important attribute for any employee or leader in today’s rapidly changing work environment. Organizations are constantly changing:  98% of employees report significant changes to their business in the past four years.

But the truly agile employee—who can succeed in any situation—is the classic “purple unicorn”.  People like this simply don’t exist in nature, and you can’t create them by just exposing them to enough experiences to become fully agile.  And worse, the closer they get to becoming agile, you’ll find the greater the turnover risk becomes.  In the end, you’ll spend a lot of time and money developing someone else’s (supposedly) star performer.

Moreover, if you focus on that missing ingredient of learning agility, you’re unlikely to be investing your money wisely. Recent studies have found that how rapidly employees learn matters far less than how effectively they apply what they learn.  Employees who can apply what they learn are a double win: Not only are they higher performers, but they also use what they learn to develop productive relationships that boost the performance of other employees.

So, what’s the answer to getting your talent to perform in today’s rapidly changing digital environment? Yes, you still need employees and leaders who can adapt and innovate to drive their organizations forward. But, the answer is less about who they are and more about howyour organization enables them. In fact, we have learned that flexible and agile talent management processes that can easily adapt to new challenges in the environment are more important than agile talent.

This is something you can truly build your digital talent strategy around, without having to replace the workforce you already have—with purple unicorns that don’t exist.


Author: Mark Van Buren