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The Talent Question

February 1, 2016

One of the common things heard at the recent #BCTECH summit was the cry from organizations for more talent. The government responded with coding in schools and investment in post-secondary facilities (let’s build more talent) and relaxed immigration (let’s buy more talent). One aspect I wanted to explore is the third element – organizations investing in talent development (let’s shape more talent). Pushing the burden of providing talent to the education system is a long term strategy, but it’s also flawed. Education does not produce talent.

Here’s a parallel example: many organizations we work with lament the lack of critical thinking in their workers. It’s not that they have hired adults that can’t think, it’s more that the context of their thinking is not ingrained. They need to figure out how to apply their critical thinking to the organization. Critical thinking to one organization might be very different to another organization. I think the same will be true with hoping that schools teaching coding is going to solve the problem. I suspect it won’t deliver exactly what tech companies are looking for out of the box.

Does skill = talent?

The biggest question you need to answer is… “what IS talent?” or more specifically… “what does talent mean to US?”.  If you assume that every skilled hire you make is going to hit the ground running, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment. An old adage in the training industry is that you hire for fit, but train for skill. However, getting people to do great work is not all about skill, so recognize that you need to improve the onboarding and orientation to your organization. It’s not enough to just hire them and give them a computer. You have to help them fit in. Figure out what it means to work for you. You have to set and communicate expectations. You have to be able to give constructive feedback. You have to provide direction and support. You have to lead and manage. A skilled employee is not enough. Talent is a skilled employee who can adapt to excel in a particular environment. A talented employee at Microsoft is not the same as a talented employee at Apple. So, you have to invest in shaping your own talent.

Industry needs to step up as well. If you invest in people, we all prosper.

I would urge organizations to invest in their own talent development initiatives, some of which stretch beyond their own walls. This doesn’t have to be a big financial investment, but it does need to be a time investment. Some approaches you could consider, some are specific to “coding”, but most could be applied to a variety of skills:

  • Tapping into existing bootcamps – encourage your staff to volunteer or get involved with them. The best way to learn is to teach!
  • Partnering with other organizations that have a similar ethos to build some training/development initiatives. These could be lunch-n-learn sessions (shared cost/logistics), temporary job swaps, other brainsharing ideas. Think of it like a guild…
  • Internal hackathons – get people working on things hands-on – and provide ways to discuss/share/learn together
  • Hosted hackathons – invite prospective employees or students or community groups to participate in your hands-on activities
  • Partner with local schools or community youth organizations – you could help students gain real world experience
  • Hire co-op students or paid interns
  • Discuss with other organizations how you might reduce the gap – could you automate certain common things that would benefit many organizations? – could you change the workflow to support someone who has less skills? Training everyone to do the same thing is not the most productive.
  • Build training and documentation for things that are critical to your organization – make sure your developer’s notes are annotated. Invest in simple screen recording capabilities so key tasks are recorded for future reference. Don’t make new staff learn everything the hard way.
  • Introduce an “each one teach one” philosophy – apply it to your existing employees and have them find a buddy inside or outside your company to teach and learn with.
  • Reward staff for teaching non-coders how to code – encourage them to find someone outside the tech industry and skill-swap

There’s a reluctance to spend on training and development when you are small, but it’s an investment.

I’ll leave you with this:

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Or in the context of this post – the more you put into the talent pool, the better talent there is in the long run. For everyone.

Love to hear your thoughts.

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