Five key insights from our research and recent events

Developing agile talent – still in the foothills but gathering pace

It’s no secret that how we develop talent needs an overhaul. Many businesses are finding their established methods simply don’t cut it any more. They need talent strategies, processes and initiatives that are responsive to very different business needs and that can cope with the pace and uncertainty and pace of today’s environment.

Laura Walker

Talent Development Specialist

5 Minute read

11 August 2022

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Becoming more agile is a commercial and business agenda not just a people agenda.

Earlier this year, Hemsley Fraser’s Insights Group commissioned a piece of work to review the best evidence available, evolve our ‘developing agile talent’ model and provide practical guidance for L&D and Talent professionals. 

We have shared this work with global audiences over the past three months, gathering additional insights and top tips along the way. If you missed out on these sessions, you can find our model and interactive insight paper here.

How agile are organizations, and can you be too agile?

We asked participants, across several geographies, how agile their organizations are currently. We found that most have made a start, some are making good progress, but all have some way to go. The need to become more agile was understood, but many were less confident about how to make the shift in practice. 

Some are still unsure about whether or not it is possible to be too agile. Fortunately, we were able to clarify that agility is not about being loose or chaotic. Agile talent development is about being: 

  • Responsive: reading the market, re-visiting evidence, adapting plans regularly
  • Proactive: actively shaping a compelling talent and career proposition and agenda internally and externally
  • Evidence-led: making the most of your data – ask challenging questions of it and use it to inform investment decisions 

Given most organizations are still in the foothills of the shift they need to make, we have synthesized five key insights from our research and these sessions to help any practitioners.

#1: An agile approach is both strategic and tactical – helping you deliver on both

The tension between meeting short and longer-term needs has always been tricky, and the uncertainty of recent years has undoubtedly had an impact. We want to make a real, sustainable difference but we also need to address current, pressing issues – hard to fill vacancies, business acquisitions, introduction of new policies or regulations. 

An agile approach can help you tackle both challenges – by taking a holistic, integrated and evidence-based approach. By it’s nature, agile is outcome-focused and evidence-based. 

Being outcome and goal focused is a core tenant of agility. As are regular reviews and revising of plans. Clear defined outcomes and transparent plans – that show your workings – make it easier to engage stakeholders and adapt when necessary. Course correcting or adjusting priorities. 

Evidence-based decision making about what you develop and how you do it also helps. The evidence takes the strain. Helping you stay future-oriented, ensuring new capabilities don’t get lost under the urgent pile.  

#2: Agile development is agile by design

Traditional approaches are not generally agile. Rigid programs are being replaced by learning journeys that excite, engage, embed and evolve. Career development is less about predetermined, standardized pathways and more about ‘squiggly’ or ‘lattice’ career adventures. 

Technology is a key enabler like never before, but needs to be leveraged in service of human-centered design – not the other way around. Digital first, not digital only. Curation is becoming more important to ease access and reduce overwhelm or digital fatigue. L&D teams can no longer assume a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality – we have to be good at marketing learning too.

Development conversations are becoming agile. Organizations are shifting to more regular conversations, monthly or quarterly rather than annually. 

Senior leaders are keen to see more cross-business movement so we are seeing the emergence of talent marketplaces or talent exchanges. Those further along the road are opening up career development and career opportunities like never before – to employees at all levels, with full transparency, career tools and coaching.  

#3: To be more agile, you need to create capacity

At the risk of stating the obvious, you need enough space to breathe to be able to move, shift, change direction. L&D is in hot demand right now, resulting in many L&D teams feeling the pressure and struggling for capacity. Creating capacity is key to becoming more agile.

Businesses are working to automate ‘BAU L&D’ creating space to add more value. Others are simplifying processes or streamlining reporting.  The traditional learning needs analysis is lighter touch, replaced by future focused skills assessment (e.g. high, medium, low) in order to prioritize resources and inform talent development strategy (buy, borrow, build, keep). 

Leader ‘pet projects’ or ‘the latest shiny thing’ can often become part of a Talent teams work. Evidence drives agile innovation helps challenge whether we are doing the best work by focusing on what really works – impact, speed, flexibility, ROI, experience and usability. 

#4: It’s more about discovering unlikely talent pools than spotting Hi-Po’s

Agile talent development is about all talent. Everyone has talent, the question is what for, how, when and where. Most talent is already employed, so developing existing employees, teams, and leaders is core to any agile talent strategy. 

We are seeing more creative sourcing of scarce but transferrable skills. For example, in the insurance industry Actuarial skills have a lot in common with Information Security, offering new opportunities for employees and a new source for businesses. 

We are working longer, but skills are changing faster. As a result, development is increasingly about up-skilling and broad-skilling more than bringing in new talent.  

Requirements are increasingly about types of experience than particular jobs or competencies. Organizations are introducing career families and experience maps making them more adaptable and inclusive. 

#5: Becoming agile is a team sport 

Shareholders, customers, and employees all care about businesses being agile – responsive, progressive, successful and sustainable. During our recent webinar series we polled participants and discovered employees are a particularly key driver with implications for talent attraction and development. L&D can’t make the shift alone, many parties are involved. 

Managers play a critical role of course. Great people managers develop their talent every day and help avoid the ‘leaky talent bucket’ situation we all dread. Agile teams learn constantly - in the flow of work – they feel safe to take risks, can apply the learning quickly, and learn from each other. 

Senior leaders cast a powerful shadow, setting the tone as to what is expected, what is valued, what is acceptable. What they pay attention to, and what they do, matters. Are your leaders active role models of inclusive, agile talent development – in their everyday actions?   

Boundaries are becoming less rigid – organizational, geographic, demographic – so talent development needs to reflect this. Organizations are opening up and extending the reach of their programs, succession plans, and experiences into partners, suppliers, communities and so on.

To find out more about our new developing agile talent model, click here


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