5 Steps to Leveraging Flexible Talent: A Prescription for Business Agility

Chuck Leddy

An HR leader sits in her office in the early evening examining her manufacturing organization’s strategic priorities, struggling to match available talent with strategic goals. Her company needs to focus more investment on cybersecurity, especially as so many highly publicized cybercrimes proliferate. She also needs to support the company’s digital transformation, especially around the Internet of Things and predictive analytics to keep the company’s expensive machines running.

But there’s a problem. There’s a lack of expertise and specialized skills at the company to deliver on those strategic initiatives. The strategy is terrific, but it means little without access to the right people.

There’s been much written recently about why leveraging flexible talent has become a major part of the future of work. Technological change is accelerating while automation is blending with humans to achieve strategic business goals. All the while, the need to identify the right skills, whether inside or outside the organization, is becoming a strategic imperative.

Instead of belaboring the why, let’s focus on how organizations can adopt best practices that enable them to effectively access and leverage flexible talent at their organization. Here’s a great, five-step approach:

1. Identify skills gaps.

The skills you have in house may not be the skills your business needs to meet your strategic goals. If this is the case, you’re confronting a gap. These gaps widen as technology offers new capabilities. Frankly, you might not even know what skills you’ll need in five years.

Leveraging flexible talent may be part of the solution, helping you future-proof your organization by providing access to the skills you need, whenever you need them. In late 2017, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how global firms like General Electric and Shell are leveraging scanning software, both internally and externally, to access the right skills for the job.

With talent-scanning technology, you can input the skills you need for a certain project, then scan your organization for available employees with those skills. If this internal scan uncovers gaps between what you need and what you have internally, you can go back to your software and scan for available external specialists. Thus, you can close any skills gaps by expanding your access to a database of external experts.

2. Think about the tasks to be done, not job descriptions.

As Director of the Center for the Future of Work Ben Pring made clear in a recent interview, organizations should no longer think in terms of jobs (which are simply bundles of tasks) but rather on the functions and tasks within jobs instead. As Pring explains, technology is either eliminating or transforming jobs by taking on tasks previously done by humans, which means people are doing fewer but higher-functioning tasks.

Simply put: jobs no longer matter; tasks matter.

Organizations hire skilled people to perform tasks that humans perform better than automated and AI solutions. For instance, in just a few years, the majority of accounting functions will be managed by technology, and the job title “accountant” may no longer even exist. You can think of the accounting-related functions you want done and then decide whether automation offers a better solution than humans, or possibly a blend of technology and human skill.

3. Assess your options: One size doesn’t fit all.

As any carpenter will tell you, be intentional about selecting the right tool to solve the problem in front of you. Using a hammer to tighten a screw is just a bad idea, especially when a screwdriver is easily accessible.

Instead, you must stop, assess and select the right option for what you need done. This step is where many organizations make a mistake by defaulting to a big name, high-priced consulting firm. Nobody is saying that a big-name consultancy doesn’t have its place, but you need to carefully assess what outside expertise you need, and all available options and solutions before you move to an expensive, global firm.

If your skills gaps are small and you don’t need a battalion of junior people working on your project, you should be looking at available options that would include boutique firms and independent experts. By doing so, you precisely and cost-effectively address your skills gaps. Due diligence matters, which means fully exploring all your options before making a decision. Defaulting to a big consulting firm or any other option is not always the right answer, especially if bringing in a single expert, with specialized expertise would do the job.

4. Educate stakeholders and solicit buy in.

Building your talent solution ecosystem won’t happen overnight. You’ll need to uncover what works and what doesn’t, formalizing best practices along the way. This is what any effective change management process looks like. Your team is an essential part of making that change work. Find ways to train your stakeholders and communicate with them about the processes and structures you’ve developed to support accessing flexible talent.

Set up communication channels that support sharing relevant best practices related to your talent management ecosystem. For instance, train your in-house managers in how to on-board contingent experts when they join an existing project team. Formalize a process for identifying skills gaps, assessing and interviewing candidates, hiring, onboarding and working with them. Taking this step creates the opportunity for clear communication and buy-in among stakeholders across your entire organization.

5. Consider a phased roll-out approach.

Learning by doing is the best approach. Identify a team within your organization to pilot with, then experiment with technologies that will enable identification of skills gaps as well as provide solutions for filling those gaps.

As the Nobel-winning Irish playwright Samuel Beckett once advised about learning to write well: “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better each time.” It’s not so much that you’re failing, it’s that you’re finding what works, scaling it up, while scaling back what’s not working. Such an iterative approach comes directly from agile methodologies, such as Eric Ries’s, “The Lean Startup,” which prioritizes taking action and integrating lessons learned along the way.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for effectively driving workforce transformation. What works for one organization may not work for another. The best way forward is to put an evolving process in place where you take action and learn from the results. The time to start is now.

Do you want to learn more about the biggest contingent workforce trends? Download Catalant’s commissioned study “Address Critical Skill Gaps With On-Demand Knowledge” conducted by Forrester Consulting.