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Talent Acquisition needs to think and act bigger

Talent Acquisition teams have never had a better opportunity to deliver competitive advantage back to their organisations.   

Despite continuing short-term economic and political uncertainty, the long-term changes in technology, in the global workforce and in expectations from companies and candidates alike are putting Talent Acquisition and the wider HR community right at the very heart of critical business decisions.

But are today’s Talent Acquisition (TA) functions ready to seize the opportunities created by these fundamental changes? Or has TA become so geared to delivering in the short term that it is unprepared for the bigger challenges coming down the road? 

The Great Recession marked a tipping point for TA in many organisations. In the late Noughties, the discipline had started taking some significant steps to becoming a more strategic player. HR and Recruitment functions understood the link between brand, culture and performance so started to invest significantly in longer term initiatives that would underwrite their organisations’ success in the years ahead.   

For example, employment branding, candidate experience and online behavioural assessment (powered by new recruitment technology) all attracted more investment as companies sought the best candidates. The recession put paid to that for a lot of businesses. Understandably, short-term tactical gain became the guiding light with CEOs and Boards around the world becoming more cautious about long term investments.    

More often than not, recruitment success started to be measured by cheapness and speed, by operational efficiency, by ‘butts in seats’.  This inevitably had an impact on the shape and skills of TA functions themselves, as these teams adapted to their new reality.  TA became characterised as a service, a transactional machine filling holes in headcount, geared to hire quantity, quickly and without fuss.

But we’ve reached another fork in the road. 

In today’s economy, competitive advantage increasingly comes from the quality of people hired and deployed by organisation.   Having a fluid, engaged and highly capable workforce that can adapt rapidly to shifting global forces has become business critical. And that puts TA and HR back in the driving seat. 

The opportunity is huge.  To name just three recent sources, McKinsey published an article quoting Sandy Ogg, former CHRO of Unilever underlining the need for a re-imagined HR function (McKinsey Article) that went beyond HR being a partner to the business but a leader of the business.  Accenture’s latest technology report (entitled “Technology Vision 2017: Amplifying the Power of People”) identified the coming shift in the workforce marketplace and noted that fixed roles are being replaced by on-demand labour, making flexibility and agility the order of the day. And research by the Korn Ferry Institute recently met the issue head on - concluding that ‘organisations can no longer afford to view talent acquisition as a service function’ (source: The Talent Forecast).

So what does this mean for TA today? Can TA continue to be successful just as a service function? Can competitive advantage still be delivered through faster, cheaper, short-term tactical fulfilment?  Or do TA functions need to think and act bigger, blending the strategic with the tactical?

I believe TA functions should consider a few key actions when preparing for the fundamental long-term changes coming down the road.

I’ve talked in previous posts about the importance of having a strategy. It helps focus your team and the business on results (value), not tasks (service).  But it also helps shift the conversation with senior leadership away from what’s cheapest towards what delivers competitive advantage. Consider writing your strategy with a clear Return on Investment (ideally in £, $ or €) for each initiative you are proposing, underlining not the cost but the clear measurable benefit to your organisation. I’m not suggesting for a second that you should ignore operational prudence, but organisations can no longer afford to view recruitment exclusively in those terms.

 Second, re-position TA with your key stakeholders. Easier said than done but it’s critical that TA and HR are seen and recognised as the People experts. To borrow from Sandy Ogg again “you need to use language that’s your leaders’ language – we’re going to mobilise change. I’m going to be a shaper of the organisation”.   If your key stakeholders don’t understand how TA is a leader of the business vs. a partner to the business, TA will remain stuck in the world of transactional service with ever diminishing returns, which in turn leaves it even more vulnerable to automation in the months and years ahead.

Finally, consider developing a risk profile on your TA strategy. Like any good investment strategy, risk should be spread throughout a portfolio so when the unexpected happens, an opportunity can be grasped or an issue contained. Your recruitment strategy should be no different.  Start off by spending time with your key stakeholders, working out their level of acceptable volatility/willingness to take risks.   Next, look at the talent risks and threats that your organisation is likely to face.  

Then, as you shape your strategy, align your key initiatives to address the key threats whilst ensuring there are lower risk initiatives that address them too. This will allow you to proactively target your budget and efforts on the highest value opportunities whilst simultaneously building in agility to adapt if the unexpected happens.

In spite of the ongoing political and economic uncertainty, TA functions can no longer afford to ignore the fundamental long term changes shaping the world of talent & recruitment. Success in the coming months and years will be dependent on TA effectively blending the short term with the long term into a coherent and agile approach for their organisations.  

To do that, TA will need to shift away from just partnering with the business to leading it, talking the same language as their critical stakeholders and focussed on delivering commercial ROI as well as managing operational cost. And those functions need to start thinking of the changes now, before it’s too late.  

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