Digital Economy
Finding 'digital talent' is an increasingly indefinable expertise Reuters

One thing all industry bosses can agree on is that managing change is hard. Business disruption stalks almost every sector. Driven by rapid innovation, traditional models are being upended – and many organisations are struggling to transform quickly enough.

The cost of failure to do so is stark. Since 2000, over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list have vanished. Change may be difficult and painful, but doing so is now a business imperative.

Yet, if you ask chief executive officers to name their greatest concern, nine times out of ten you're likely to get the same response. It isn't fast-growth start-ups, regulation, or new technology that CEOs prioritise when looking to transform. It's people. The pace of change puts a huge premium on new talent: finding it, developing it, harnessing it.

'Digital talent' is an increasingly indefinable expertise to meet emerging and yet-to-be identified challenges and opportunities. In order to navigate the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities, organisations must train and hire not for the type of business they are, but for the business they seek to become.

They must upskill ahead of the curve. But the very nature of this indefinable expertise, and a lack of context for new skills, makes the task of manually managing competencies and job mapping almost impossible.

Alongside this, where once the challenge was finding potential hires, the advent of platforms such as LinkedIn means there are now a wealth of potential candidates – in fact, probably too many. This situation has led to the rise of a new recruitment conundrum, one that faces every company seeking to embrace transformation. They are burdened by a need to filter more candidates than ever, yet cannot know precisely what they're looking for.

The first step in addressing this problem is deceptively simple. Organisations need to actually define the issue. To do so demands moving away from the unhelpful, nebulous concept of 'digital talent' and being meaningful about what specific skills, levels and volumes are required. Bringing greater clarity to the issue will inevitably give rise to a more complex challenge though. Hiring people with 20 years' experience in these new fields is impossible. They simply don't exist.

The immediate reaction is likely to be a desperate search for external talent with these new skills, even if they do not have extensive experience. However, many of the talents that are needed to win in digital are likely already within your company's talent pool – they just need to be unearthed and nurtured.

There are three main types of talent organisations should be seeking:

1) Existing employees who have the core capabilities that can be reassembled to match the new requirements.

For example, one of the hot new skill areas in the market is digital manufacturing. While finding digital manufacturing expertise is unlikely, there a many more people who understand some of the core components and related areas, such as Internet of Things (IoT), analytics, manufacturing processes and the supply chain. Broadening the internal search parameters will help identify a larger group of people that can become capable in the new skill areas, once given incremental training or support.

2) Employees who have skills in a similar domain or technology that can be re-purposed to the new requirements

This situation might be familiar, particularly to those with marketing technology experience, and is one we can learn from recent transformation efforts. Through the early 2000s, Siebel was the dominant content customer relationship management (CRM) solution. Yet a powerful new platform was emerging in Salesforce, one that many companies sought to transition to. The best approach wasn't to immediately discount teams that had deep knowledge and expertise in using Siebel and bring in a new team of Salesforce specialists, as the technology was too new for these to exist in large numbers.

Instead, as businesses grappled with the technology, they realised that the skills set needed to work with Salesforce had many areas of overlap with that of someone proficient with Siebel, as they share the same functional foundation. They identified Siebel talent within the organisation and outside of it to develop them into Salesforce experts, then embedded these employees within wider teams to imbue their skills more widely.

3) Employees with the raw talent and ambition to learn the skills of the future

Those that are establishing themselves as experts in emerging digital specialisms are newcomers, simply because their areas are so fresh. These people have taken the initiative to do so, and it is a truism that similarly motivated people exist in every organisation. They simply lack the impetus and opportunity to evolve and grow into these new specialisms, which leaders must properly encourage and support them to do.

Once these internal options are explored, external recruiting can be used to fill the remaining gaps. It's critical to note that, no matter how well you do it, this is an expensive way to find talent with a high upside and an even higher error rate. While recruitment certainly needs to be part of the talent equation, it is just one part - and a relatively small one at that.

The answer to CEOs concern over finding talent in a world where the skills they need don't exist? It might well be that the talent you need is already working for you.

Dee Burger is the Head of Digital and Member of the Group Executive Committee at Capgemini. In his career span of over 20 years, Dee has also held positions as vice president in Ernst & Young's Telecommunications practice and led Gemini Consulting's Telecommunications practice before joining Capgemini.