HR and the Challenge of 'Agile Talent'

By Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood Apr 27, 2016
agile talent.jpgThere is no doubt that the dependence of organizations on external expertise is growing. Deloitte estimates that 30 to 40 percent of full-time workers today are what we term “agile talent” (contractors, gigsters, consultants and other external advisors sought for their special expertise). Our data suggest that number may grow in the future: More than 50 percent of the global companies we surveyed plan to increase their use of agile talent.

In our new book Agile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016), we describe the strategic and , we describe the strategic and organizational consequences of the rise of agile talent. While cost and staffing levels are key elements, they are not the only driving factors. Expertise, innovation and speed are also of great importance.

But while organizations depend more on external talent, not all organizations are evolving in the same way.

Through our survey research and interviews with hundreds of external experts and internal organizational leaders, we’ve found four key factors at the heart of building productive and mutually satisfying agile talent relationships:
--  Strategic alignment. Is the organization disciplined and rigorous in identifying areas where agile talent Is the organization disciplined and rigorous in identifying areas where agile talent is required or potentially beneficial? Are external experts used well? Are they doing work that matters and is important to the organization; moreover, do they feel the work is meaningful? Is the organization effective at defining the role, relationship and scope of initiatives addressed by agile talent so that both goals and roles are clear? Does the work have the right level of sponsorship? Are timing, budget and resourcing consistent with what is required for a successful outcome? And when scope changes occur, is the work plan and budget revised appropriately so that external talent doesn’t feel taken advantage of or exploited?

--  Performance alignment. How well does the organization convert a plan or initiative into well-defined objectives and timelines? Are performance expectations clearly defined, established and communicated so that the accountabilities are clear to both agile talent and the internal colleagues they depend on? How often is performance assessed and feedback provided? Is the feedback balanced or focused primarily on problems and mistakes? Does the organization take responsibility for its part, or does it tend to blame external talent? What metrics are used, and are they reasonable? When performance problems arise, how promptly and effectively does the organization take the required action?

--  Relationship alignment. Does the organization consider cultural fit as well as technical expertise in the choice of external talent? Are external experts thrown into the task or given a solid orientation to the organization and the people with whom they will work? How promptly and effectively are conflicts resolved? Is external talent engaged and involved, kept informed appropriately, and treated with the consideration and respect that any professional would expect? Or, as the expression goes, is such talent treated like mushrooms and kept in the dark?

--Administrative alignment. Is the organization set up to work well with agile talent, or is such talent treated with suspicion, as a necessary evil? Does the organization respond bureaucratically in dealing with external experts’ concerns—for example, is the contractual process benign or difficult and excessively time-consuming? Are pertinent rules and policies communicated appropriately and early? Are external experts paid promptly? Is the orientation of the organization one that views external talent as interlopers or as welcome colleagues?

Alignment is key. When top external experts choose from among the opportunities available to them, they want to make a difference (strategic alignment), to make a significant and measurable contribution for which they are recognized and appreciated (performance alignment), to be treated as a valued colleague (relationship alignment), and to work with an organization that is easy to work with (administrative alignment). Not surprisingly, agile talent wants to be treated as important talent, as a contributor rather than an interloper. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Jon Younger, @jon_younger on Twitter, is a partner at The Agile Talent Collaborative and is well known for his work in HR transformation, talent management and change leadership. He consults widely and is a member of the executive education faculties of the Ross School of Business, the University of Michigan, Indian School of Business, and many corporate universities. He has co-authored four books and many articles.
Norm Smallwood, @normsmallwood on Twitter, is president and co-founder of RBL Group, a founding partner of The Agile Talent Collaborative, and an advisor to many organizations. He is well respected for his consulting and writing on leadership effectiveness. He teaches and consults widely in North America, the Middle East, and Asia.

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