Who is leading the race to find top digital talent?

Corporate academies are contenders, but industry could team up with universities

Digital by default has come to be expected in almost any job. But those at the top of the digital tree with specialised talents and job titles to match – such as data engineers or solutions architects – are often those pushing the boundaries in business innovation.

Attracting these elite experts into the workforce and hanging on to them has therefore become an imperative for big companies seeking a competitive edge. 

Kristine Dery, a research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, has been looking at how top digital talent is presently employed and the factors that lure them to a business. 

The majority of companies will typically employ a mixture of full-time and contractual digital staff. An MIT CISR study led by Dery of approximately 300 large companies found that in the IT departments, on average, 60% of digital employees were sourced externally either to enhance or extend the workforce.

The problem with this approach is that though it allows for flexibility, it’s not necessarily good for business. 

Those companies that have a contingent digital talent pool of 50% or more report lower net profit margins, are slower to introduce new products and services to market, and are less agile and less innovative. 

While the research doesn’t suggest that all digital talent should be full-time employees, what it does reveal is that digital talent responds well to a great employee experience and when that applies to every employee, whether full-time or contractual, the result is a win for the company’s bottom line.

'The price of these digital experts is going up and up and they are in such high demand'


Grow and experiment

But what does a great employee experience look like? 

“The way we define employee experience,” says Dery, “is how easy is it for me to do great work today and reimagine my future work? 

“It means you need to install integrated systems and provide great tools and provide people with relevant spaces to work in. It means you create environments where teams have opportunities to work on interesting projects that stretch them, and where value is measured on outputs.”

As digital capabilities allow us to get rid of all the replicable and standardised work, what is increasingly left is work that is less predictable, more complex and requires a human touch, says Dery.

It sounds straightforward but in a large workforce how do you create that rather bespoke environment?

At Spanish bank, BBVA, employing 130,000 worldwide, it has entailed setting up an entirely New Digital Business (NDB) staffed by top talent based in different locations. Revealingly, it calls them “Inside Outsiders”.

Dery says the NDB has been a big enticement for digital talent, particularly with data analytic skills, helping BBVA build a reputation as the place to go if you want the freedom to grow and experiment.

“The price of these digital experts is going up and up and they are in such high demand. Providing a different type of space and a way of exchanging knowledge was key, as well as giving them projects that weren’t just company related but community related.” 

Creating digital natives

Demonstrating the wider values of the business and its place in the world appeals to employees who want to feel they are making a difference – and digital talent is no exception. 

“The key to the success of the BBVA initiative has been their ability to spread the capabilities of the digital data scientists across the entire organisation,” says Dery. 

Transforming an entire workforce into digital natives has driven Singapore bank DBS to invest heavily in human capital, spending $20 million over five years on training 26,000 employees. 

The self-directed learning program encourages digital adoption by all bank employees, including offering scholarships and sabbaticals to further their skills in emerging technologies, such as data and analytics, design thinking and automation. 

Lee Yan Hong, DBS Bank's group head of human resources told The Straits Times: "As the financial sector evolves, the profile of jobs will change and we are committed to helping our people adapt and embrace digital transformation through innovative and immersive continuous learning programs.”

As the pace of change in the world of work increases, it’s fair to say universities have struggled to keep up with the demands of business.

The complaint often heard in corporate circles is that graduates are not arriving job-ready, or that they lack basic digital skills or business acumen, and is no doubt the reason why not just DBS and BBVA, but companies such as PwC, Apple and Google, have taken education and training in-house. 

Financial consultancy EY even got rid of degree requirements altogether in 2015, saying that a candidate’s degree had no correlation to their future job performance. 

'A cybersecurity expert or a data scientist is pretty intangible compared to an accountant'


A broader approach

Nick Wailes, professor, deputy dean and director of AGSM@UNSW Business School, acknowledges there has been a lag between what people think is a good career and the changing needs of business. 

“A cybersecurity expert or a data scientist is pretty intangible compared to an accountant,” says Wailes. “Education is a long, drawn out process and takes a long time to adjust to what is going on around us.” 

But Wailes doesn’t think the rise of corporate academies is the answer.

“For most organisations, being able to sustain the costs of that training over the long term is difficult. While they may be able to train people in the immediate challenges of their own business, what they miss out on is a broader well-rounded approach – focusing on their immediate problems. Not on problems of the future. 

“There’s also a question about the transferability of those tailored skills and whether those qualifications will be recognised somewhere else in other roles. There’s a high degree of risk for a job-seeker,” says Wailes.

In fact, business and universities have been collaborating for some time – and while other countries, such as Germany, have a much tighter and more evolved relationship between academe and business than Australia, the appetite for partnership is being explored. 

At UNSW, for example, the Work Integrated Learning (WIL) program offers undergraduates the chance to tackle real-world problems in real world organisations, either as interns or working in small groups that go on to present solutions to the business.

A radical model

But it isn’t just about universities making more space on the curriculum to address business problems, says Wailes. Businesses, too, should be thinking more about how to bring their challenges and experience into the classroom. At present, only a few of the biggest and best companies are proactive in doing this. 

“It’s not a generalisation to say that Australian businesses have under-invested in human capital development. The gap is massive on both sides,” says Wailes.

A more radical solution he suggests is that companies and universities enter partnerships to provide a different type of education altogether, where on the job training is mixed with high quality education. 

It’s an idea based on the UK model of higher and degree apprenticeship schemes. A collaboration could involve up to five years intensive training and would require the universities to operate in a radically different way. 

“My view is the pace of change demands that we must go for that radical model,” says Wailes. And of the digital component of this new style of education and training, he says:

“Twenty years ago we ran courses to help everyone understand how corporate finance works. Today we need to know how digital teams work and that needs to be part of the curriculum, so that even if you are not a digital expert, you can ask the right questions. It’s so much a part of contemporary business and if you are not across it you are not really effective.”

Kristine Dery was a featured presenter at the Association of Asia-Pacific Business Schools Annual Meeting, hosted by UNSW Business School.


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