Experiencing Digital Talent Squeeze? Strategies to help you Manage

We are continually seeing reports today about the ‘great resignation’ and the need for strategies to manage the onboarding, development, and retention of employees. The need for these strategies has been primarily driven by the rise in Covid cases. However, even before the pandemic, we were in an age of ‘digital disruption’ driving ‘agile transformations,’ necessitating a shift in IT skills, organizational cultures, and people’s behaviors. In my recent article The state of the Union…70%,’ which analyzed various industry articles and reports examining why ‘70% of transformation initiatives fall short of objectives,’ I discovered five common challenges, one being ‘Not investing in the right skillsets and talents.’

Experiencing Digital Talent Squeeze

The below article is my take on the DevOps Agile Skills Association (DASA) Enterprise Leadership Forum (ELF) discussion held in January 2022, which looked at ‘Addressing the digital talent squeeze strategically.’

According to the panel, it was a clear indicator that Learning & Development (L&D) are critical. One reason is to deal with the shocking 70% mentioned above, along with the ‘great resignation.’ Another reason is related to a reference in the panel discussion to ISO 30414:2018 Human resource management — Guidelines for internal and external human capital reporting, suggesting that investors are looking at how organizations address the way they deal with and grow their people, and potential employees are more selective about the companies they join and want to know how they will be treated and their opportunities to learn and grow.

‘Learning & Development is a big red flag’ was one of the opening statements. L&D is not a revenue center, budgets are always inadequate, and L&D is one of the first targets for cost-cutting. This puts transformation ambitions directly at risk. There is currently a ‘panic’ as well as board-level recognition that steps need to be taken to improve the situation of talent squeeze through continuous investment in the L&D of employees in organizations.

Below are some of the key challenges and success factors explored in the Addressing the talent squeeze strategically ELF session.

‘Onboarding’ is the first important step. When someone joins an organization, part of the process is to ‘market’ it, creating a ‘brand recognition’ of how new employees are onboarded and how they are given growth opportunities.

‘Many organizations are immature in this space,’ in reference to L&D. One observation was that there is often too much focus on ‘hard things’ (e.g., technology, frameworks, certificates) and not enough focus on individuals and ‘soft skills.’ These soft skills are even more crucial in this age of disruption characterized by fear, uncertainty, and doubt. People don’t always want to change, and not everybody can embrace change easily. It is the responsibility of the leaders to enable this change.

‘People care about culture, not just payment.’ The culture word was heard often in this ELF event in the context of ‘Fostering a culture of learning and improvement,’ and ‘a culture of care,’ as two examples. Showing employees you care and supporting and enabling them in their journeys of change and towards continual learning were seen as key.

‘Motivating for learning.’ One discussion topic centered around the fact that learning programs and opportunities are in place, but people don’t use them! Part of this comes down to culture and social constructs. We may say learning is important, but pressure is put primarily on getting the work done. An opposite perspective was in a culture where people proactively come up with ambitious ideas to learn and adopt new experiments. However, these need to be brought back to the Why? Why should we do that? What will it deliver? And managers need to ensure that time and budget are made available. Not honoring these ideas can damage trust, cause people to leave, and put the business at risk. There is a need to incentivize learning. Consciously applying consequence management, such as answering ‘What is in it for me?’ and the ‘Why?’ questions providing purpose.

‘Domain knowledge.’ This comes back to the business context and the ‘Why?’ question.
On one side, this was related to ‘onboarding,’ ensuring people understand the strategy, the ‘Why?’ of the organization, and how what they do contributes towards this.

This domain knowledge also needs to be used for L&D initiatives, relating learning back to problems that need solving or supporting organizational performance.

This was also one of the top five challenges in my ‘State of the Union…70%’ article, i.e., ‘Not aligning initiatives to strategic priorities and business outcomes.’

Author’s note: To me, this is broader than simply having domain knowledge. This is also related to how we ensure learning is transferred into daily working practices. This has been a long-standing L&D issue, to my mind. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development,’ confirms our findings from the last ten years in global workshops with hundreds of organizations. ‘Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs,’ and ‘Only 25% of respondents in a McKinsey & Company’s survey believe that training measurably improved their performance.’

‘Leadership plays an important role.’ This is true in both creating and fostering the right culture in which time is reserved for learning and improving. In our global workshops using the ABC of ICT (Attitude, Behavior, Culture) cards, two cards are always in the top ten, year-in, year-out, and have been for the last fifteen years! Namely, ‘No management commitment’ and ‘Not walking the talk.’ Yet managers are convinced they are committed.

This was also one of the top five challenges in my ‘State of the Union’ article, ‘The need for executive and middle management commitment and leadership skills.’ Not only are L&D programs needed for employees, but also for managers. Example behaviors demonstrating commitment were given in the ELF panel discussion: ‘funding L&D,’ ‘stimulating people to learn,’ ‘recognizing learning and improvement achievements,’ ‘investing in good ideas and experiments linked to goals,’ ‘coaching and enabling,’ ‘removing barriers,’ and ‘creating safety to spend time learning.’ Individuals and teams often feel guilt or shame about taking time to learn. Cultural pressure is on ‘doing the work,’ not realizing that ‘improving your work is just as important as doing your work’ (Mike Orzen).


Watch the recording

Final conclusions

These were my final takes from the panel. ‘If you want to grow, you have to let things go.’ Let go of our old perceptions and ways of organizing L&D. As leaders, we must make L&D ‘mainstream’ in our thinking and acting. We must create a culture of care and collaboration, team ownership, and knowledge sharing. As leaders, we must support, coach, remove obstacles, and create environments for people to learn in and be able to apply these learnings to make a difference.

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