How telecom icon AT&T’s talent reskilling enables future relevance

How telecom icon AT&T’s talent reskilling enables future relevance
Posted on September 27, 2016.

The talent crisis and some of the ways organizations are dealing with it has been a topic of conversation on HR Times since we started. We’ve discussed it from a manufacturing perspective (and in particular, the chemical industry), an HR perspective, a finance industry perspective, and a broad national perspective. Now in a new Harvard Business Review article, John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and group president, and our own Deloitte Consulting LLP principal, Cathy Benko, take a company-specific perspective, explaining how one of the largest and most iconic companies in the world (No. 10 on the Fortune 500) is addressing the talent challenge.

AT&T’s “Ma Bell” legacy is in landlines and hardware, but its future is in the software. With an average non-call center tenure of 22 years, the vast majority of its 280,000 workforce came up through the ranks of fast-evaporating roles and antiquating skills, far from the tech-centric and ever-expanding landscape of cloud-based computing, coding, and data science. Predicated on corporate-lattice thinking—a model first introduced in Benko’s book, The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work, the aim of AT&T’s aggressive program, dubbed Workforce 2020, is to create a culture of continual reinvention where long-standing though newly empowered employees can thrive. The company holds strong convictions that giving its employees—those who have built the brand over the last hundred-plus years—the opportunity to ensure their future marketability through reskilling is the way to go.

AT&T’s approach includes several leading talent practices:

  • Creating a future talent blueprint and then analyzing gaps between current vs. emerging skills, with roughly half of AT&T’s total workforce assigned a new role and expected to acquire the training or credentials to fill it.
  • Consolidating roles, reducing 250 roles across the company to 80 with the goal of increasing job mobility and the development of interchangeable skills.
  • Rethinking performance management and compensation to simplify performance metrics, raise performance expectations, and redesign variable compensation around “hot jobs” and performance.
  • Baking development into the corporate culture, making it clear that while the company will play a strong role in enablement, each employee needs to commit to and invest their own time in relevant skills development.
  • Providing tools to help manage the change, including an online self-service platform for performance management, career development and learning (workshops, courses, and degree programs), and talent planning.
  • Embracing lattice vs. ladder thinking, where employees careers are marked by zigzag movements rather than a one-way-only progression. Indeed, employees who are essentially doing the same role for more than three or four years, are likely to be “dinged” for failing to continually stretch and grow.
  • Moving toward networked teams, one of 2016’s top Global Human Resource Trends.

A few years into the transformation, early results are encouraging. In 2015, for example, reskilled employees filled half of the company’s technology jobs and received nearly half (47 percent) of the promotions in the technology organization.

Learn more about AT&T’s reskilling efforts, including the four metrics it’s using to measure results, by reading the full story, AT&T’s Talent Overhaul, at

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