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Suffering from a talent shortage' Move to skills-led organisation design

Mark Essex, course director of the Family Business Leadership Academy, KPMG in the UK.
By Mark Essex

“Back in the day” is a phrase my kids use a lot. Of course, they don’t mean the 1980s or even the 20th Century. They mean 2019. “You know, when you used to go to work every day, Daddy”. Leaving aside that working from home is working, there is a truth in what they observe. Especially when it comes to recruitment.

Because 2019 may as well be another century. Back in the day, we advertised a new role, designed perfectly to suit our organisation. Then we waited with the expectation of multiple applications, picked our best five and interviewed, and offered the best candidate the role and gave them a few days to think about it. If they turned us down, we might have reasonably expected candidate number two to be eagerly waiting for our call.

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Article authored by Mark Essex, course director of the Family Business Leadership Academy, KPMG in the UK.

It doesn’t feel like that any more, does it? Instead, businesses are competing to secure talent that, post-pandemic, seems to have suddenly become perilously thin on the ground. Some organisations try to solve this by repeating their old recruitment and talent approaches, hoping they will eventually find what they need.

But I argue that employers must adjust, they should change their approach to match what’s available. This includes putting more emphasis on the skills people have – a skills-led approach – rather than cling on to old notions of fixed job roles and specifications.

A problem that’s with us to stay 
This is even more necessary because the current talent crisis is not going away. It is not a short-term problem arising out of the pandemic, but the result of long-term demographic trends. What COVID has done is accelerate and magnify the problems – skills shortages for in-demand roles, technologically-driven change, flexible working and new employee experience expectations. The pandemic has led to discoveries which cannot be unmade.

So those who seek to ride out the change and then dust off their old job descriptions will be disappointed. Rather than continuing to persevere with recruitment and retention strategies designed for a pre-2019 labour market, I think those that succeed in navigating the choppy waters of the 2020s will need to be adaptable to changing skills in a more competitive external talent market.

Pegs and holes 
This means that employers can’t survive by constantly trying to push square pegs into round holes. And they can no longer ‘Shop around’ for round pegs in round holes. Instead, they need to look at what’s available to them in the talent market and conjure up a solution that meets their needs through a blend of sourcing and reskilling the existing talent they already have. Don’t try to find candidates with fewer corners. Make your holes squarer!

The skills-led organisation design concept 
This requires long-term vision, agility and creativity – something we think can be addressed through skills-led organisation design. What does that mean? Essentially, it’s about the skills people have replacing rigid job specifications and roles as the currency of the organisation. Rather than the fixed notion that this employee does that job, it’s about looking at the skills people have and asking where they can be applied in different contexts in the business. This creates a much more fluid, flexible and mobile organisation – and creates more variety, interest and challenge for the individual.

In this model, jobs will be broken down into skills. Organisations will need visibility of the skills their workforce has across the business to facilitate resourcing, recruitment and workforce shaping decisions. This, in turn, can support the agile delivery of projects so many organisations aspire to achieve.

Skills-led organisation design allows for a more flexible resourcing model that can better meet the needs of your customers and fluctuate with changes in demand. It can also support a truly agile project management and delivery approach.

Courgettes vs aubergines? 
For recruitment, this means being flexible in role requirements rather than rigidly expecting candidates to tick every box and meet exhaustive experience credentials. If you can’t find what you need, are you looking for the wrong thing?

Imagine you’re going to be holding a dinner party. If you promise to make moussaka, you’ll have to find aubergines. But what if aubergines aren’t available? Instead, if you keep the menu flexible, you could buy courgettes and make courgetti Bolognese. Just as good! Don’t insist on aubergines when courgettes are just as nutritious.

It’s the same with people. Of course, certain baseline quality and aptitude standards must be met – that’s non-negotiable. But maximise your chances by keeping the field as open as possible. “No experience necessary, all training provided” is a much better message than “A minimum of five years’ experience desirable.”

I’ve even met some business leaders advocating junking the whole role spec, CV, application process altogether. Instead, they recommend “Hiring for aptitude and attitude and training people in what they need to know”. That’s too radical for many, but I do observe that for family businesses, with some of their staff staying with them for decades, this flexible approach is second nature. Loyal staff who embrace the ethos of the businesses are an asset and often move within the organisation as needs change.

Leaders pulling ahead 
What I have seen in our HR Pathfinders research is that organisations who take an integrated approach to workforce shaping and are responsive to their external talent environment, are forging ahead post-COVID. They’re getting the balance right in designing organisations, roles and resourcing functions which major on skills over tasks, provide sufficient flexibility, and meet the external circumstances of an under-supplied talent market. It improves the employee experience too – a win-win.

So come on, let’s have a look at those 2019 job descriptions and see if they are good enough for today’s seller’s market for talent.

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