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Talent, technology and the future of work

By Karen Forward | October 17, 2016

The way we work is transforming. A generation of baby boomers is set to retire, taking with it deep institutional knowledge accumulated over many decades. Gen Xers are assuming the reins of leadership. An up-and-coming millennial generation, forecast to represent about half of the global workforce by 2020, is bringing new expectations of and attitudes about work. And all the while, exciting new technologies are changing how, when and where we work – providing a wealth of insights and making individuals and organizations more efficient and accountable. These new realities are upsetting longstanding employer-employee relationships and forming three interconnected priorities for talent leaders:

1. developing and sourcing new skills to create a technology-enabled workforce.

2. applying skills such as problem solving, intuition and creativity to foster innovation.

3. sustaining employee relationships beyond the traditional work life cycle.

This dynamic environment brings challenges and opportunities. Filling gaps in the workforce is no longer enough. As they set their strategies, talent leaders are looking longer-term, building out their people analytic capabilities and working throughout the business to become more data-driven. Whether inside the human resources function or within a specific business unit, workforce data is an increasingly powerful way to align employment practices with business objectives.

A case in point is Canada’s forest and paper industry, a traditional resource sector that is transforming through technology-driven innovation. We recently spoke to HR professionals from across the supply chain – from forest operations to manufacturing and retail – about what it means to be a strategic talent leader and how technology is influencing their work.

Engaging with a wider talent pool

With technological advancement comes a new set of skills that companies need to develop or hire for. In forestry, more jobs now require the use of computer systems and data analysis. However, not all employees have the flexibility needed to adapt to these new ways of working.

For example, Norbord Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of wood products, recently implemented mobile technology to monitor remote operations from a central office and provide real-time data.

Nigel Banks, Senior Vice President, Corporate Services at Norbord, says the changes required retraining of employees, some of whom were reticent. “People couldn’t see the real value at first,” Banks recalls. But once staff began to receive the data and use it to improve their work, they were hooked.

Banks believes talent leaders need to work across generations to support this sort of transition. “A talent leader has to be somebody who is extremely adaptable, able to adjust to different personalities and different groups of employees,” he says. “They have to be able to connect with people right across the spectrum.”

Talent leaders must champion a cultural shift in the workplace to foster much-needed innovation throughout the business, says Jan Marston, Vice President, Human Resources at Vancouver-based timberland company TimberWest Forest Corp.

“As talent leaders, we need to be able to communicate to a variety of people in the workforce today as well as those that are coming into the workforce,” Marston explains. “As we position our business and our value as an employer, the role of a talent leader is going to become much more important across the generations.”

Moving from technology adoption to innovation

Technology-driven innovation to increase productivity and profitability puts a greater emphasis on skills such as problem solving, intuition and creativity. It’s not just about adopting technology to gather data; it’s about analyzing and interpreting information, gaining insights, improving results and achieving outcomes.

At TimberWest, for example, the search is ongoing for employees who can use the latest technology but also analyze the data from it and drive innovative solutions. Marston says her team’s challenge, especially given the aging workforce in the forest industry, is to build a talent pool that aligns with technological advancements.

In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs survey, 66 per cent of HR officers list workforce planning and change management as a top priority. The main barriers are a lack of understanding of disruptive changes ahead, resource constraints, profitability pressures, and a weak alignment between people and innovation strategy.

Talent leaders can use new analytic technologies to better grasp how employees are adapting to change, managing their workload and responding to the needs of the business. Measurements of knowledge retention, the rate of retirement, turnover and other data can help provide valuable insights into how employees are creating value for the business and how the business is creating value for them.

Work, interrupted

The average work life cycle used to have a fairly linear trajectory: You completed your education, got a job, then a promotion, maybe moved to different job and then retired. That’s changed. Now you may get an education, get a job, switch jobs after a year or two, then switch again and again, maybe go back to school, change careers, retire, then go back to work, then retire. It’s less of a straight path and more of a twisting, winding road with some switchbacks.

This altered sequence changes how talent leaders view employee relationships. Instead of expecting people to stay on for decades and helping them advance, talent leaders now accept that staff will come and go, depending on their own career goals. They know that if an organization respects and nurtures its employees, those people will go on to become brand ambassadors, recruiters, clients or even business partners. 

At yoga wear and running gear retailer lululemon athletica inc., which uses cellulose fibre in some of its fabrics, there’s an expectation that some employees, especially those from the millennial generation, will leave for other professional pursuits within a few years. In fact, lululemon indirectly encourage it through open short- and long-term goal setting, both personal and professional. Those goals often include working at a different company or in another profession down the road.

“We expect some turnover,” says Janelle Aaker, Director of People Potential at Vancouver-based lululemon. “We’re okay with sending leaders out into the world. As talent leaders, we have to reset our goals and be okay with that.”

It does require a new way thinking about talent attraction and retention. For Aaker, the focus is more on motivating employees to reach their potential than trying to pin them down on a career path at the company. The challenge then becomes helping new talent learn to work in the lululemon culture and with others to develop new ideas and fuel innovation.

“In my experience, the key to innovation is diversity of talent,” Aaker says. “When we think of talent leaders driving an innovation strategy, it’s heavily geared toward bringing in diverse talent, the best talent, and retaining that talent and developing them so that they have long careers at their companies.”

The future of work

By focusing on these three priorities – technology, innovation and work life cycle – talent leaders can not only stay on top of hiring trends but ahead of them, anticipate what work will look like tomorrow and adapt quickly. This is increasingly important given today’s war for talent, which is intensifying thanks to the shift in attitudes between the generations in the workforce.

Proactive sourcing, training and communicating with employees is critical if organizations are to better align their talent strategies with their business needs and objectives. Workforce analytics can help. As we move toward the future, those who get this right will quickly outpace those who don’t

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