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Dec 10, 2020

According to the World Economic Forum, four technological advances are disrupting the world of work: high-speed mobile Internet, widespread adoption of big-data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology. These new technologies are economic game changers. While the rate of technological change remains unabated, disruption abounds in all sectors, from retail to health care and beyond. 

What implications do these changes have for the people in your organization? How can you find the talent you need when the life span of any technical skill is only a few years? The answers to these questions require no less than rethinking how work gets done.  

The Half-Life of Skills

The rate at which new skills emerge and become obsolete is accelerating. In 2011, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown found that the half-life of learned skills is only five years. In other words, new technologies or transformations in business practices will make half of what we know obsolete in a five-year span. What’s more, the half-life of skills is decreasing. 

The hot jobs today — full-stack developers, user-experience designers, cloud developers, data analysts, and AI engineers — didn’t even exist a decade ago. Who knows what the next hot skill set will be? The shrinking half-life of skills means that we must all embrace a lifetime of learning.

Companies, employees, and governments must respond to this emerging reality. Employers must develop new strategies to upskill and re-skill within the flow of work. Employees must proactively pursue continuous learning opportunities. And governments must provide incentives and facilitate the creation of public-private partnerships to encourage companies to invest in reskilling their employees.

Organizing for Adaptability

As the speed of change continues to accelerate, companies are organizing around the ability to adapt rapidly. Historically, businesses were built to be efficient and effective, which was appropriate in an era of predictability. The resulting business models established strong silos that discouraged cross-boundary collaboration. 

But in today’s era of unpredictability and constant business model disruption, companies must be fast and adaptable. And sure enough, organizations are responding by creating flatter, more agile, more fluid structures. They’re using interdisciplinary teams. They’re applying lessons from the gig economy to get the most out internal skill sets. Some companies are even building an internal marketplace for skills that allows them to deploy talent not only to retain and satisfy employees but also facilitates the mantra “always be learning.” 

Interdisciplinary Teams

An interdisciplinary team pools skills from different domains to achieve a goal or to solve a problem. These teams assemble to realize an objective. When they are finished, they disband and move on to other projects.

This deliberate, cross-functional team structure is often seen in the biotech industry. To turn a molecule into a viable drug takes the expertise of many technical disciplines working together at various points in the R&D timeline. Interdisciplinary teams pull talent from across different functions and groups to match skills to specific projects to create results.  

Such a shift to team-based structures enables companies to be more agile because these groups are formed quickly, expanded, reduced, or eliminated based on changing business dynamics. An individual’s contribution to a team can ramp up or ramp down based on the current needs of the project. Meanwhile, allowing people to participate in interdisciplinary teams, in addition to fulfilling their usual roles, contributes to their development by offering varied work assignments with different people in the company — all while exposing them to new skills. 

Internal Gig Economy

Given the proliferation of on-demand talent platforms  — such as Topcoder, Toptal, Appen InnoCentive, Upwork, and Guru — there is no longer a necessity to create a “job” to meet your organization’s every momentary need. Because you can divide large programs into discrete tasks or projects, companies can access the specific skills required now, and then let the individuals involved move on to other projects where they can put their skills to the best use.

Just as companies do this with external or on-demand talent, they can also do it internally, providing employees with new, challenging projects to keep them engaged. An internal team pulled together from different departments within a company, sharing the values and norms of the organization’s culture, has many advantages over a team of contractors who do not share the same mindset. 

By creating a gig experience inside your company, you can offer employees a better learning experience, improved variety in career development, and better engagement around corporate strategy, all of which will help them to use their skills while not feeling underemployed.    

Internal Talent Marketplace

Employees today want new and different work experiences. They want to decide what work fuels their passions and interests. Yet most jobs are so specialized that people get “stuck” doing the same work over and over again, which leads to boredom and disengagement.

A chance to work with new people on different projects is exactly the type of dynamic learning environment today’s employees seek. And if they do not get the work experiences they want, they won’t hesitate to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

This is driving some companies to create structures where people can spend a portion of their time enrolled in projects of their choice, while also retaining their existing responsibilities. That is, they are developing marketplaces for internal talent. 

Unfortunately, many organizations do not even know what their internal skill sets are — many employees have hidden or latent skills that are invisible to managers. By creating a skills database that defines and catalogs these skills, and by freely matching needs with skill sets on a project-to-project basis, companies can leverage the inside gig economy to develop and retain the best talent.

This is not your grandfather’s business environment, and yet so much that we do to manage human capital has not changed in decades. Organizations that collaborate across functions, and that proactively optimize their internal talent pool, are able to create the agile workplaces required to adapt to an ever-changing business environment.

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