Think of an organization like a home kitchen. The way we stock our pantries needs to be directed toward higher optionality and adaptability.
by Apoorva Mathur, Mike Pino
April 5, 2023
Business investments in employee experience have focused on addressing the challenges of offering meaningful and appropriate choices for a whole host of HR initiatives, across the hire-to-retire employee lifecycle. Unfortunately, however, these efforts to improve employee experience have not yet addressed how to integrate culture and talent efforts to impact and influence employee morale.
As organizations create a dynamic, diverse and curious workforce to tackle today’s economic challenges with right-sizing and streamlining expenses to outcomes, many would need to solve complex business problems, continual innovation and deliver customer value with remaining talent.
On the face of it, addressing culture, talent and employee experience is a complicated, multifarious problem to solve. It will likely require multiple approaches and efficient use of tangled technology. And an answer for one business unit, let alone one company, won’t likely be appropriate for all. It starts first, however, with questioning the approaches being used to deliver on each of these components: Understanding the criticality of skills to business-critical capabilities, sourcing and/or developing talent for those skills and integrating individual development and career aspirations toward business-critical capabilities.
Rethinking the talent fit metaphor
Think of an organization like a home kitchen used to prepare, cook and share meals. The approaches that organizations use to source, develop and integrate talent is as though we are planning to cook the same recipes in the same ways ad nauseum and restocking the kitchen is merely a matter of identifying what is currently low on the shelf or for a new dish on the wish list.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, especially if we are not limited by time and budget to restock this way. Applying a fixed mindset to our pantry means we don’t overstock (and perhaps waste ingredients). But, if your grocery list reflects all that you consumed in the past week, it is more likely to limit what we can prepare in the kitchen if we’re buying ingredients that can only be used in a few recipes. If you would like to be able to introduce greater variety in the recipes and meals served on the fly without a run to the grocery store, the way we stock our pantries needs to be directed toward higher optionality and adaptability. Some recipes need a greater amount of time to prepare but can be shortened with additional ingredients. Others need a greater variety of ingredients, each of which may have a short shelf life. Is there a way to have recipes and ingredients be responsive to changing contexts?
The current economic climate for hiring and developing talent, in this way, is like a family trying to balance nutritious meals while being able to adapt to changes in preferences, eating schedules, snacking, etc. That requires creativity and critical thinking to create flexibility and optionality. Talent in the current market is like ingredients in the kitchen. When we have the time and optionality to keep cream on hand or buy it when we need it for a particular recipe, we can approach recipes without thinking about alternatives. But when we are limited by time or budget, we may need to think about using something other than cream in North Indian butter chicken. It’s not that cream is the only option: milk, butter, sour cream and Greek yogurt could be substituted (and those ingredients can also be used in other recipes, like breakfast, or a Mexican burrito dish the next day). This forces us to think whether alternative approaches would work just as well and give us greater benefits.
How changing work context is pushing us to adapt our recipes
Talent leaders have often thought of this flexibility as an evolution from T-shaped to M-shaped talent. That can still be true, but only if the nature of roles and work within the organization is not likely to change over a long period. What the last several years have shown for many organizations and industries is that it’s no longer true. The issue is not whether the shape should be T-, Pi-, or M-shaped. Rather, the emphasis is on finding ways to support optionality and flexibility that can create shapes needed quickly and comfortably, just like the materials in one’s pantry. For survival and beyond, talent leaders and organizations must actively explore elasticity and fluidity of talent.
Talent elasticity and talent fluidity
Elasticity, rather than scalability, means the focus is not on the oversight of the system to make adjustments, but rather that the system itself is built around adapting to shifts. A framework for talent elasticity has several components based on systems, processes and policies. It becomes elastic when they work together to adapt to changes. To enable elasticity in HR contexts, the policy needs to be less about interventions and more about a framework with trigger points set in visible and business-enabling parameters. An example from Agile product development can help HR orient policies and the framework toward dynamic decision-making.
Let’s say you had an internal talent marketplace for providing experiences on different projects and trying to get the talent ready for moves. Perhaps you implemented the internal talent marketplace because you recognized that making career pivots inside an organization is considered hard for employees — e.g., for a developer to switch to the corporate product strategy role may be tough with many years of pure developer experience. When that internal talent marketplace is combined with opportunities for people to signal interest in movement and try experiences in diverse projects without requiring significant oversight and intervention by HR, you now can see emerging talent streams.
The approach becomes elastic when the internal talent marketplace opportunities combine with a policy that business-critical capabilities starting to run low in the pantry are automatically flagged, like a Netflix recommendation, to employees with skill adjacencies in order to identify who is interested and who is near ready for stretch opportunities.
Fluidity when applied to talent is a movement away from the distinct boundaries of roles toward awareness of what other options or possibilities may be. For instance, many of us can point to successes we have had helping people take on stretch roles because we understood that the people had certain types of skills and awareness, but needed knowledge and support to have a chance to be successful.
Fluidity is a bit trickier in the modern organization for a few reasons: supervisor behavior (like talent hoarding), lack of sufficient support (like undertaking smaller tasks as a form of toe-dipping before diving in), and lack of visibility (understanding what the real needs and opportunities are), to name three. Some cultural interventions needed may require changes to policies and ways of training and supporting supervisors to encourage different ways of leading teams. Talent fluidity will likely take time for an organization to embrace. Start now with increasing visibility in behaviors desired for better elasticity.
How to introduce elastic talent principles
Part of this approach requires a multifaceted way of understanding organizational talent; talent plays a critical role in finding their fit in the existing parameters. This is a static view of talent, a point-in-time snapshot. But talent and organizations have ambitions about where they’d like to grow, how exploration will raise awareness to break silos, and how an experience flow will advance upward, which requires a dynamic view (i.e., thinking of talent as streams rather than pools).
There are a few emerging practices for talent development, team capability and performance development that talent leaders can implement now to stay ahead of the curve:
1. Business orientation. Define and catalogue skills that map to critical business capabilities (with some insight into whether those skills are hard to source for critical-to-have business capabilities.)
2. Source. For hard-to-source skills in critical-to-have capabilities, gauge the relative build-vs-buy-vs-borrow loaded costs (that is, a back-of-envelop guesstimate of the time and cost to (a) develop internally and backfill vs (b) hire directly considering remote/hybrid/onsite vs (c) contracting third-party labor.)
3. Slack. For hard-to-source skills in critical-to-have capabilities, create enough slack and opportunity for people to raise their hands in interest, try it out, and be recognized for this effort. Not everyone can afford the 20 percent that Google offers full-time employees to pursue interests and opportunities. But what would it take to make it possible for more people to show their interest in areas that you’re struggling to fill?
4. Recuperation. Humans cannot run at full speed indefinitely. We need ways to break and recharge, and that requires not merely vacations but also well-being support. Well-being coaching from leaders or embedded roles in teams are needed to create streams of talent acting with agility.
5. Visibility. Making internal talent mobility stories more visible and part of the culture requires an investment in recording and sharing them as well as presenting new forms of measurement to indicate talent growth.
How to connect talent elasticity to culture and employee experience efforts
Talent management is a team sport that, unlike a home kitchen, is more like a hotel kitchen and probably needs multiple cooks at many restaurants to work in sync when developing talent. Now more than ever, companies need their talented professionals to bring new tactics to address changing contexts. When organizations bring some of those five practices in – business orientation, source awareness, policies to leverage slack and recuperation and mechanisms to capture interest – they begin to help individuals recognize that there is a place for them to grow and an intention to help the growth happen. Not everyone will be at the same place in their interest in growth, but many will recognize the efforts as something to encourage a different collective behavior. Though one may not be able to introduce all five at once, working across HR by focusing on communication and coordination while introducing some of these approaches will help to build the organizational momentum for the larger change.