Digital talent: Build it, use it, or lose it

Posted by
Margie Painter
Carlos Larracilla
on October 20, 2017.

Like it or not, digital is here, and in a few years, “being digital” will likely no longer be a competitive advantage for companies, but necessary for survival. With the dropping costs and rising adoption of AI, cognitive computing, and robotics, companies could easily be faced with applying these technologies everywhere, regardless of industry, function, or even company size. And that takes digital talent. But what does that mean? Who are these people? Where do we find them? They may not be who you think they are: digital talent is not strictly about “techies” and people who know how to use, build, or invest in new disruptive technologies.

Think of it as a mind-set and a set of characteristics more than a specific set of technical skills. Digital talent is excited about the potential of digital technologies, exponential disruption, and new ways of working. They organize, operate, and behave in a digital way. They are agile, risk takers, intentionally collaborative, and customer centric. They want to learn fast, and apply this learning and excitement in their daily work in an environment that supports and enables this way of working.

And they are in high demand—a talent war more mature digital companies seem to be winning.

Research from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte1 indicates that digitally maturing organizations2 (the most mature organizations studied) take steps to cultivate digital talent and feel much more confident about having the digital talent they need, in sharp contrast to organizations that have not progressed far on their digital journey.

Figure 9: Commitment to digital talent and digital maturity. My organization:3

So, we have organizations that are committed to taking advantage of attracting and retaining digital talent, while those that are not providing the environment for digital talent to thrive and grow simply can’t attract them (many times they don’t even know who or how to attract), much less retain them.

It’s a classic chicken and egg scenario: digital talent is attracted to digital-ready organizations, but how does an organization become digital ready without digital talent?

Investing in digital
Just as digital talent doesn’t only involve talent with certain tech skills, organizations can become digital in ways that don’t necessarily involve digital technology. It’s more about establishing the structure, systems, and culture that support digital ways of working—and understanding the digital DNA traits that define how an organization is organized, operates, and behaves. For example:

Organizational structure: Is your organization set up in a traditional hierarchical structure or is it flatter to support the more networked, team-based environment that characterizes the the organization of the future? Do you understand the networks within your organization and how people use them to get work done?

Organizational operating model: Does your operating model enable the digital organization you aim to be? An operating model can provide the link between organization structure and business strategy, ultimately dictating how work gets done. It can impact organization design, culture, leadership, talent, employee network, agility, and much more. (This three-part series highlights the essential role of operating model design in achieving business transformation.)

Job architecture: Traditional, structured job hierarchies were developed based on rigid frameworks and generally lack flexibility and discourage some hallmarks of digital talent, like mobility and team-based work. Implementing a flatter, more team-oriented job architecture by reducing the number of levels, titles, and pay grades in the organization can benefit companies and completely transform the employee experience.

HR operating model: In addition to setting up the organizational operating model to support digital talent, the HR operating model is also crucial. As businesses make the transition to the digital future of work, HR has the opportunity, and perhaps even the mandate, to take the lead in digital enablement across the organization. Adopting a high-impact HR operating model, thinking through the role of HR in a digital workplace, and employing design thinking to craft an “irresistible” employee experience that keeps digital talent engaged are all part of HR’s digital role.

You’ll notice that the above organizational structural elements don’t directly involve digital talent, yet play a huge role in building an organization that attracts, supports, and retains that talent.

Of course, talent programs themselves should set up be for digital enablement. For example:

Leadership development: In this year’s MIT Sloan-Deloitte digital research results, vice president-level respondents who don’t feel they have access to sufficient digital development opportunities are 15 times more likely to say they are planning to leave in one year or less than are executives who have those chances.4 How are you equipping your leaders to be able to operate effectively in a digital environment? Are some of your leaders more ready than others? Think about where and how your organization should lean in in terms of being able to build (or buy) digital leadership capabilities so you can say, “I’ve identified the gaps and have an organizational development plan in place, and I’ve identified the people I want to accelerate and how they will be developed.”

Learning: Of all the talent programs being disrupted by digital, learning may top the list, evolving from episodic events into a continuous, always-on element of employees’ daily lives. Learning transformation is an essential part of digital transformation and a key element of being able to attract and retain digital talent. Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report noted that the “ability to learn and progress” is now the principal driver of a company’s employment brand. Yet only one-third of surveyed Millennials believe their organizations are using their skills well, and 42 percent say they are likely to leave because they are not learning fast enough.5 So how is your organization digitizing the learning experience? What steps are you taking
to get to digital learning?

Performance management: Is the way you measure and manage employee performance helping or hindering a digital mind-set? Today’s trend is toward continuous, feedback-based performance management to maintain engagement and motivate talent. Regular feedback can empower people to reset goals continuously, change projects, and feel rewarded for their work and contribution, regardless of their particular job or role at the time.

If considering all of these factors seems like a tall order, remember that “being digital” is an investment for the long term—a transitional transformation that should be executed on an ongoing and iterative basis rather than a once-and-done event. Your organization likely has some elements of digital already in place, and some people who are or can be tapped as advocates to help advance it further. It may be that you can “rewire” parts of your organization for digital vs. a wholesale redesign. You can look to the full MIT Sloan-Deloitte research report for more insights and inspiration.

Margie Painter is a principal in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, specializing in integrating people issues with business strategy. She has led and delivered all phases of organizational change initiatives, including major enterprise-wide transformations.
Carlos Larracilla is a senior manager in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He works with HR and other corporate executives to transform their organizations in the face of radical disruption impacting their business and ecosystem.

1 Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, Natasha Buckley, Achieving digital maturity: Adapting your company to a changing world, MIT Sloan Management Review in collaboration with Deloitte University Press, July 13, 2017.
2 In the MIT Sloan-Deloitte research, survey respondents were asked to rate themselves on a 1 to 10 scale in terms of being an ideal organization “transformed by digital technologies and capabilities that improve processes, engage talent across the organization, and drive new value-generating business models.” Three maturity groups were observed: “early” (1–3), “developing” (4–6), and “maturing” (7–10).
3 Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, Natasha Buckley, Achieving digital maturity: Adapting your company to a changing world, MIT Sloan Management Review in collaboration with Deloitte University Press, July 13, 2017.
4 Ibid.
5 Christie Smith and Stephanie Turner, The Millennial majority is transforming your culture, Deloitte, 2016, pp. 1–15,, accessed December 21, 2016.

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