The Future of Human Resources is Agile Talent Management

The Future of Human Resources is Agile Talent Management
Upwork Staff
September 16, 2020
6 Min Read

Leaders used to say that their biggest asset would “walk out the door at the end of the day”; in other words, that their most important resource was their talent. Of course, given today’s more flexible workforce, the team is more likely to be logging off or shutting their home office door, but the sentiment remains the same.

Today, companies realize they need to focus on the people executing the strategies, rather than the strategies themselves. They recognize that talent is the key underpinning of a business’ ability to succeed in an ever-changing, increasingly competitive economy. In fact, that’s why the new paradigm making waves in business units committed to moving fast is a modern approach to putting people first for business success, known as agile talent management.

What is agile talent management?

Today’s flexible “agile talent management” strategy takes its cues from the successful agile project management model. It employs people-centered, decentralized decision-making that focuses on how to best serve the goals of the organization. Known to be far more easily adaptable, agile organizations can make swift pivots to accommodate volatile markets with greater ease, which is increasingly an imperative in today’s business environment.

In fact Upwork’s fourth annual Future Workforce Report calls agility the new “competitive advantage,” with much of the gains found in optimizing the workforce with independent talent; nearly 60% of hiring managers believe that organizations which don’t adopt a flexible workforce risk falling behind.

Contrast that with the traditional model of leadership, which entailed a “top-down,” hierarchical structure. In this antiquated talent management approach, decisions were centralized at the top, thus slowing the process, and lacked transparency, with information doled out on a “need-to-know” basis.

Why do companies need to care about an agile approach?

Companies must adapt or fall behind. That’s the reality of the business climate we operate in today, where companies must make decisions swiftly to react to  constant changes in market conditions. There are several factors contributing to this rapidly shifting environment.

Emerging, disruptive technologies

The way we work has fundamentally changed—and that’s thanks to the technology that allows us to provide service anytime, anywhere.

According to the World Economic Forum, four specific technological advances are reshaping today’s workforce:

  • Ubiquitous high speed Internet, which promotes work anywhere
  • Artificial intelligence, which can replace rote tasks and move workers to more impactful duties
  • Big data analytics, which uses data collection to inform better decisions
  • Cloud technology, which encourages information sharing and collaboration among distributed teams

Fast-moving priorities

Think about your organization’s original goals for 2020. It’s sometimes difficult to believe how abruptly things changed after COVID-19 hit.  While it’s hard to imagine another potential shift quite as staggering, organizations will always face shifting priorities in response to internal and external factors.

While we often assume these include technological factors, tech alone is not the sole driver of disruption. Today we are seeing that the rise of remote work due to COVID-19 and shifting workforce demographics, including a shift toward more independent work, has quickened the pace of change within organizations. The hardest part may be keeping up and anticipating as these changes are no longer arriving in predictable waves, but unpredictable downpours. In order to thrive, HR will need to transform their approach to people and work.

Digitization and democratization of information

Remember our autocratic “need to know” leader of the past? Today’s younger generations have always been able to access the information they need; in fact the cohort born from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s are often referred to as  "iGen"—a name given to them by Jean Twenge, Ph.D., professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Companies that hoard information will sacrifice trust if they don’t understand today’s wired world, eroding company loyalty in the process.

But this democratization of information is just one component.  Due to the impacts of COVID-19, workplaces have been forced out of the physical world and into the digital world, with an incredibly accelerated shift to digitization. This is leading to the need to upskill and reskill, as it requires a new set of digitally enabled workers. For HR, the merging of the physical with digital will require a new, more agile approach to workforce planning and development as they seek these capabilities from an increasingly project-oriented view of work.

War for talent

While COVID-19 has drastically changed the state of the current talent marketplace,  investing in time and resources to attract top-tier talent is still key for companies.

The future of work demands an approach to managing talent that disrupts the status-quo, breaking down rigid silos between business units and allowing people to work across various roles and departments in a non-linear way.

What are the hallmarks of an agile organization?

There are five key areas where successful agile organizations direct their focus:

  • Strategy: In the agile model, leadership provides broad direction and goals and creates buy-in for the vision on every team—then steps out of the way by empowering teams to define the objectives.
  • Structure: Decentralized leadership, characterized by a “flat” organization with nominal middle management, allows for greater team-based accountability and a clear purpose, whether the team gathers in person or virtually.
  • Process: Companies used to say, “You can have something fast or good.” Agile companies tweak their approach to focus on both goals by encouraging dynamic, rapid risk-taking and accepting failure as part of getting to the next solution. It also prioritizes moving quickly and adapting to changes almost immediately in order to achieve goals.
  • People: The agile model is wholly people-centric, committed to empowering the individual to take ownership of their role and their contribution to an organization. There is a key focus on investing in developing and coaching, all with the aim of increasing and improving performance. Coaching and mentoring the individual will nurture trust, passion, and connectedness to the greater purpose of the organization. Leaders become facilitators, coaches, and architects of the vision, as they trust and empower their people to execute.
  • Technology: No discussion of an agile organization is complete without mentioning the importance of adopting next-generation-enabling technology, and creating an environment where new tools are embraced for their ability to move teams forward.

What are some foundational elements of an agile strategy?

Wondering what this looks like across companies? From large companies to Silicon Valley start-ups, there are three common types of agile talent practices that contribute to success.

  1. Cross-functional teams: In this team-centered approach, it’s about outcomes, rather than process. Each team member has a defined role, overseen by a leader who will orchestrate the effort toward a clearly defined goal.  
  2. Self-managing teams: Who better to detail a process than the person doing it? In this construct, individuals take ownership of their work, relying on focused activities that are constantly re-prioritized as conditions change. In a nod to the demise of hierarchical structures, leadership in this group will be based on competency and skills, rather than position and tenure.
  3. Flow-to-the-work pools: These professionals hold “full-time” positions in disciplines such as HR, Finance, or Marketing. But rather than being permanently assigned to a business or geographic unit, they are redeployed as needed depending on priority projects.  

It used to be that organizations said that “the only constant is change.” Today, we can update that to “the only constant is rapid change.” Organizations that embrace an agile talent management strategy will be uniquely qualified to succeed in the future of work.

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