Future talent: grow your own

Before the gardeners among you get excited about the prospect of horticulture tips, I’d better explain that I’m talking about managers, team members or just specialists within your organisation.

Every year, around this time, we read about the difficulties of recruiting graduates or school leavers. Usually, there are too many chasing too few opportunities or their skills are not suitable for business. But, apart from grumbling, what can employers do about this state of affairs?

There is always the option of attracting talent from other organisations, but that’s expensive. What’s more, in uncertain times many workers prefer to stay where they are rather than make a potentially risky move to a new role elsewhere.

This is where “growing your own” comes in: recruiting those straight from school, college or university and shaping them for the roles that will be needed in the future.

Nobody expects 2011’s graduates to stay with one employer for the whole of their career (although we may see longer term periods of employment in a flatlining economy) but we should bear in mind that this year’s university graduates may well be in the workforce until 2060. What roles are we preparing people for? What will that future look like? Imagine someone joining an organisation in 1951 and retiring this year – look at the changes they have experienced. Will this year’s graduates look back at our highly technological work environment and see something they regard as equally antiquated?

Those who succeed will do so not just because they can respond to change, but because they drive it – innovating on their own and applying last year’s innovations in new ways within next year’s contexts.

So, we are preparing people for a very different organisation and a very different world to the one in which we currently work. And that brings us to the challenge facing HR teams and learning professionals – to adequately prepare a new crop of future employees for a world which may be very different.

I predict that whatever development route is envisioned for this group will harness a connectivity, the endless opportunities to interact with information, opinion and people remotely, which those of us who grew up with a typing pool next door are only just coming to terms with. Our “generation C” (for connected) employees take this for granted.

There will also be formal training input but for the main part the learning will be work-based. But this is not the same as some talent management programmes in larger organisations, where staff are moved round every few years, taking on new projects and new roles.

I recently spoke to some senior managers about career and development planning and performance appraisal meetings. Every one of them noted how the people who report to them were hungry for progression – repeatedly outlining how their potential could best be achieved by taking on a new challenge, stretching their skills in new environments. Clearly, it is easier to make a mark by sweeping out the old, than it is by maintaining and incrementally enhancing the familiar and the business as usual.

Development of future talent

So, we may need a new paradigm for the development of our future talent – talent that will succeed or fail in a very different environment than the one we now know. That paradigm starts with identifying the crucial skills these individuals will need.

I don’t think that universities and colleges should be criticised for not developing the skills to work in current business. This would be a backward-looking step. We wouldn’t be impressed by someone who drives a car forward but focuses all their attention on their rear-view mirror. So, why would we want someone with a skill set which is already out of date by the time they have a chance to use it?

Instead we must look for those individuals with universal skills to enable them to take advantage of the uncertainties of the future.

Skilled information seekers

First among these is being a skilled information seeker. I first coined this phrase around 10 years ago. The internet was still relatively new and we were just coming to terms with these new sources of information. An organisation called Echelon published a report based on a survey of HR directors and training professionals. It said that work roles were so complicated and required such depth and breadth of knowledge that an individual couldn’t realistically be expected to know everything they would need to do their job. In short, knowing how to look things up was going to be essential for the future.

As the wealth of digital information and disinformation has grown, being a skilled information seeker has become not only an essential capability for the 21st century, it has also evolved as a skill set. No longer is it enough to know how to search and navigate various information sources. Now, it is necessary to have a degree of media literacy previously undreamt of.

The differentiator for those who succeed through to 2060 will not simply be an ability to find information, but to critically analyse it, to sift the definitive from the deceptive, and to know the difference between the proven and the “porky pie”.

So, skill one for those who will lead our organisations in two or three decades’ time is to be a skilled information seeker with the ability to differentiate reliable from unreliable information.

But looking things up is not the same as learning and my next crucial capability is to be a skilled, independent learner.

Multi-dimensional learning

In an environment in which work-related learning may be fragmented, the multi-dimensional learner will be a valuable individual in any team. The connectivity I mentioned earlier will be critical to this. Not in being a consumer of the blogs and wikis of others, but in contributing and articulating concepts, theories, ideas and experiences in ways which resonate with peers.

The real value of online connectivity as part of the learning process is not necessarily in the information that becomes available. It is in the process of constructing these artefacts of our work experience that real value will be – and already is being – generated. Working on a project recently in which groups of learners from different locations were to be brought together for short periods, the value of the remote community was discussed. We agreed that membership would be reserved, not for those who turn up for the workshops, but for those who contribute to the ongoing debates through posts, blogs and online experience sharing. Contributing is not an option, it is a requirement.

Enquiring minds

My third and final skill is what I call an enquiring mind. This is not just a function of problem solving in a connected world. It is about someone who asks the awkward questions, and challenges received wisdoms and established conventions. Recently, when working with a group involved in innovation, I came across the concept of “knowledge scouts”. Their role is not to think up new ideas, but scout around for new insights about how innovations are being used and the people and organisations with the capabilities to contribute to the creation of commercially viable new products. They are mining the creativity which surrounds us and asking simple questions. “What if we did that too?” “Does the fact that these consumers use X mean that if we create Y they would also use that?” They are trend-spotters and observers of the zeitgeist; not to rip off the ideas of someone else, but to re-shape novelty in their own image. They synthesise what is going on and create new opportunities from unexpected combinations of ideas and innovations. The mash-up first seen in night clubs and music videos has become a tool for exploiting ideas by standing on the shoulders of the fashionable giants around us.

Now look at your own organisation’s competence framework: there will be a set of core behaviours and skills, common to all roles in your organisation. They are intended to be the essence of your organisational culture. Do you recognise my key skills for growing your own talent in those common capabilities?

Teaching your 2011 intake the stuff that gets done in your organisation is going to be hard enough. If they don’t have these essential skills, teaching them in the future will be almost impossible.

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