Solving for the right talent is a hot mess. Here's why

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy May 28, 2018
Why do we continue to see problems in recruiting the best talent at a time when we are experiencing great change? Is there a software fix or are we staring at a deeper problem?

linkedin top jobs 2017

Over the weekend I saw an infographic that startled me. I've sliced a section from that infographic. It's the illustration at the top of this story.

Can anyone else spot the obvious problem? Customer success manager is #4 when I would have expected it to be #1. As I thought about why this might be I was reminded of a lesson I learned last year.

To paraphrase a well-known saying attributed to Marc Andreessen of Netscape and VC fame, software is eating the world. That's putting the cart before the horse in this context. How do I arrive at that conclusion? Here comes the lesson.

Carts and horses

Last year we were trying to solve a problem that seemed intractable. In truth, we had a lot of fuzzy thinking around it so brought someone in to help.

As we talked it through, our consultant pointed out that we were focusing on finding a technology solution to an ill-defined problem. Put another way, we were approaching the problem from the point of view that we needed to start with a bunch of technology that did certain tasks when we needed to better understand the problem and outcomes before thinking about technology.

I should have known better. But as is almost always the case, when you're inside a problem and the only thing you see in front of you is a selection of hammers, then every problem looks like a bunch of nails.

The same appears to be true in the world of AI. In addition to my ongoing critique around the hype surrounding AI, I have this nagging question: 'What problem is this (name your favorite tech here) supposed to solve?' The answer I get back from most of the white hat consultants at the coal face is: 'Customers don't know but they've been told (name your favorite tech here) IS the answer.'

Is it, therefore, any surprise that demand for machine learning and data scientists (whatever they are) are listed #1 and #2? To make matters just that bit worse, sales development is at #3. How can you develop sales when you come in front of customer success? It doesn't make sense.

Which leads me to ask the question - what exactly are businesses doing when they spout the mantra that customers come first? First for what? More sales?

My interpretation may be completely off but I find little evidence of businesses purposefully adjusting to customer wants when thinking about the many industries we love to hate and easily identified among the gyrations we see in retail.

Asking the wrong questions

As others have correctly analyzed, retail isn't failing because of Amazon, it's failing because Amazon is succeeding at the things that most people hate about retail. That is: excellent price points, infinite choice and top quality service (most of the time.) What's more, Amazon has proven that by offering a premium service aka Amazon Prime, you can get people to pay for those 'features' - especially the service piece of the equation.

Assuming that LinkedIn can be relied on to demonstrate professional demand trends, then the problem is much deeper than this easy swipe across the corporate bows.

Regardless of how you navigate between the extremes of 'AI will kill off 60% of jobs' to 'AI will create many more jobs' there is a genuine reality that many jobs will be eliminated over the next 5-10 years and it is far from clear what will replace them. Now put yourself in the shoes of employees at risk. Last time I checked, they don't behave like dumbass turkeys voting for Christmas.

In turn, that means you're not going to get too many people excited about collaborating with one another, sharing institutional knowledge that might feed the machines or help the business. What's more, HR isn't in a position to do much about it. Why?

Heh HR, you're doing it wrong

To answer that question, I had a long conversation with Naomi Bloom who announced her retirement from the world of HR technology last week. For those who don't know, Naomi has IP to her name, principally around the object model of software design. She is considered one of the best in the HR business. And she sure went out with a bang:

It’s also well past time for the next generation or three to take their turn at calling out the crummy software, passive-aggressive corporate cultures, never going to make money business models, 40+ year old data and process designs, intransigent HR professionals, dissembling marketeers, and all the other muck that I’ve been shoveling uphill for a half century.  Fortunately, those next generations include some very capable people, many of whom have become valued friends, in addition to the usual run of charlatans and wannabees.

(My emphasis added.)

I won't quote Naomi directly since ours was a wide-ranging and largely private conversation. But I was particularly interested in her understanding about why it is proving hard for HR to develop appropriate hiring strategies to help solve some of the really big problems that business faces.

Her answer isn't going to be one that many in HR want to hear but it goes something like this.

The U.S. tendency towards passive-aggressive behavior is highly debilitating for any organizational change. I saw this first hand while living in the U.S. It leads to situations where few people are prepared to take responsibility, let alone put their heads above the parapet. I could forward all kinds of explanation but among my top three would be the general sense of insecurity engendered by 'hire at will' labor laws coupled to deflationary pay increments.

HR tends to attract a certain type of person who, for the most part, don't want to offend others and who wants to be seen as 'nice.' In many senses, they'd be better off in retail sales. The problem comes when you ask HR to start measuring things because now HR is sitting in judgment, a task that leaves the attracted personality type uncomfortable. In turn, Naomi is of the view that issue leads to a subtle sabotaging of new technology and the new ideas that accompany them. Nothing gets done.

Understanding the best

According to Naomi, there's plenty of data pointing to the fact that the very best in any discipline have certain common characteristics that both come naturally and differentiate them from the average. In her view, where those characteristics are learnable then organizations should be either training or recruit those who already possess those characteristics.

You only need to look at the biographies of successful business people or the litany of 'How to succeed at...' books to find anecdotal evidence of that difference quality. More recently, some people have started to ask - what makes these folk different. Elon Musk is a great example.

She offered the example of programmers which she characterized as capable of seeing the pattern in the problem as a result of which they write far less code, replicate what they find works (hence the object model) while at the same time being extraordinarily sociable because they see the development of enterprise software as a team sport. They also respond well to criticism because they're in a constant learning mode.

That description is at odds with the popular caricature of the lone programmer living under a desk, surviving on little sleep but beer and pizza.

This was something with which I could readily identify. It directly reflected my early experiences alongside the best of SAP's hackers. It precisely explains how Thomas Jung used a three-hour plane ride to develop a much-needed, working UI for a prototype solution I was involved with that had largely defeated the rest of the team. As he walked away, I was left slack-jawed wondering what Thomas knew that the rest of us didn't see. Ten years on, I got my answer.

On the flipside, it means the processes, along with the supporting software to both find and develop the best talent are, to a degree, dumbed down. Workday might have something to say about that thought bubble. This from a conversation between Phil Wainewright and Workday’s HCM product chief Cristina Goldt:

Most (customers and prospects) are at that point where they realize that the way they used to think about their workforce and development of their workforce and performance in general, it’s not the same. That to meet the requirements of this workforce and to get the most success, the best outcomes, it’s really about enablement versus management of their people.

It should hardly be a surprise then that as the infographic shows, 38% of business doesn't have reskilling options or the new-new in place, and that more than 50% of executives say they can't find qualified people. Perhaps the wrong people are looking in the wrong place.

Incrementalism favors lukewarm responses

In closing this story, I'll throw this one out. Phil Fersht wrote a thought-provoking diatribe entitled: The G2000 is still cost-obsessed, but getting there now depends on process robotics, predictive data, OneOffice alignment and a whole lotta pain.

However which way we look at it, driving out costs from business operations still dominates the directives of C-Suites across the Global 2000 - just revisit our 2014 study to see how little has changed. Fast forward to today, and the only real differences, since then, are the methods to slake this thirst for cost elimination, as traditional operating models are no longer delivering much more than incremental value.

This is depressing and in part reflects the incrementalism I argued last week and on which my friend Vijay Vijayasankar expanded to great effect. Fersht takes a high level view to say that:

The only game changers have been the gradual need for less people to run operations as cloud-based software platforms take-hold, offshore talent is optimized, and the more recent introduction of robotic process automation solutions to remove manual workarounds and create broader digital processes, that can be aligned with common business outcomes and metrics.

However, these changes are more fundamental than merely slimming down the number of cooks in the kitchen and making the food taste better:  it's forcing a complete rethink from ambitious firms to redesign operating frameworks where revamped business processes are enabling true digital business models, where emerging AI capabilities can be weaved in... where innovation is native to the culture of the firm and its people. Yes, it's redesigning the entire kitchen, not merely hiring some better chefs with better recipes.

Fersht's approach is to argue for the development of the Digital OneOffice concept. I'm OK with that to the extent that it wraps up current technologies in a neat way that is both attractive and promisingly practical. Where I disagree is in Fersht's apparent emphasis on the technology element.

If  Naomi Bloom is correct - and I think she largely is - then any change requiring the resetting of skills means that organizations have to go back to basics. They must ask themselves the hard question: what characteristics are needed to run a 21st-century business? First and foremost then, adapting to the 21st century is a people problem, supported by appropriate technology and redefined processes.

Are we there? Not by a long way.

Image credit - Story image via AI Business, featured image of Naomi Bloom via HfS.

Disclosure - SAP and Workday are premier partners at the time of writing

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