There’s been a growing interest among big companies in the so-called agile organization and agile workforce. The Harvard Business Review outlines how agile methodologies—in which cross-functional teams are empowered to work independently and iteratively on large, complex problems—are transforming talent management, boosting productivity, and improving speed-to-market.
What “agile” means at an enterprise level is still being assessed and debated. Yet it’s clear that the push for agility is driven by a need for companies to respond more quickly to opportunities and threats by nimbly adjusting the assets—including human ones—they put against each. McKinsey notes that companies that proactively realign their best talent to their highest-value initiatives are 2.2 times more likely to outperform their competitors on total returns to shareholders.
No wonder 79% of global executives rated agile performance management as a top priority in a recent survey by Deloitte.
What is agile, anyway?
It would be difficult to dispute the fact that big companies need to move faster and more flexibly. It’s also worth remembering, as do McKinsey’s Ram Charan, Dominic Barton, and Dennis Carey, that one of the biggest impediments to rapid talent reallocation is the failure of senior executives to identify and nurture top performers. The agile workforce has renewed people’s focus on attentive talent management and creative talent deployment, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing.
Yet while many companies are thinking big about agile opportunities, the trouble—paradoxically—is that many aren’t thinking big enough when it comes to their teams and their people. In particular, CEOs, CHROs, and CFOs need to recognize that the agile organization goes beyond the four walls of the company. That means the shift to agility is not simply about transforming the way in-house teams operate, but about transforming the way they interface with the growing pool of on-demand talent that powers all big companies.
Agility is not about ownership
Building an agile organization and an agile workforce starts with the recognition that much of the talent needed for critical business moments—the most proven skills, the most relevant experience—isn’t actually in-house. Why?
Because, by definition, many of the biggest challenges and opportunities that today’s companies face are either at the margins of traditional areas of business strength or else completely without precedent. Has anyone cracked the code for determining how to defend your business from the Amazon-ification of retail? Or how traditional consumer companies can size innovation opportunities in light of the Internet of Things revolution, or non-healthcare companies assess how to chart their moves into that sector? Your team has an existing business to run. What’s more, it may not have much previous experience to pull from to approach these moments confidently, skillfully, efficiently.
- Shortfalls of up to 40 million high-skill workers are projected globally by 2020.
- Only 7% of senior managers strongly agree they have enough talent to pursue all or most of their promising opportunities.
The answer to talent shortages isn’t simply to focus on hiring and retaining the best. It’s to recognize that—already—40% of today’s total global workforce is comprised of non-employee talent, including independent contractors, freelancers, professional services, and temp workers.
What happens when you need a world-class pricing or forecasting expert, an experienced integration leader, or even a top product developer? Many of these workers aren’t available through traditional channels like full-time hires or big consulting firms. Instead, they prefer to work independently, supported by new project-based career paths that are powered by technology and by companies like Business Talent Group.
Agility is about fit and speed
Few would disagree that critical business moments deserve the right resourcing and leadership. And yet it can be surprisingly hard for companies to regularly and repeatedly accomplish when top leaders are already busy managing the normal demands of business. And when the critical business moment involves something where prior experience or related skills are at a deficit within the company? The trick is to get the right leaders from inside—and increasingly, from outside—the company involved in the right configuration to make the most of the moment.
What’s more, during times of major transformation or growth, it may even preferable to have a neutral, external perspective to bring order and objectivity to complex, high-impact tasks:
- Integrations: When internal teams are navigating a type of acquisition they’ve never done before or dealing with complex business workstreams or political and cultural issues.
- Innovations: When teams are piloting innovations on which they need additional expertise, skills, or insight.
- Market moves: When companies are moving to a new market and need to quickly master the skills and insights that are second-nature to people who understand it.
Agile growth with on-demand talent
By now, the use of external talent isn’t new. In fact, almost 80% of chief human resource officers see a greater use of contingent, nontraditional employees as one solution to future worker and skill shortages, according to The Conference Board. This type of external resourcing provides important value in terms of adjusting resourcing with demand.
To solve problems in an agile world, however, you can’t fall into the trap of seeing external talent resources purely as a productivity play. Some providers offer 24/7 access to remotely-based, on-demand independent talent for discreet tasks such as translations or infographics. These task-based services provide not just speed—overnight results!—but also often significant savings because of a labor arbitrage using off-shore talent.
The full value of the high-end on-demand market is much greater. It’s rocket-fuel for growth and agility, empowering companies to move quickly on new opportunities, pilot new ideas before building them out for the long-term, and access hard-to-hire skills.
But on-demand talent can power fast, agile growth only when it is recognized as a value-driver for the business. Every team within the company must understand its benefits and how and when to use it. And they must be supported by dedicated internal infrastructure, processes, and technologies that make engaging on-demand talent as seamless as possible. The on-demand talent program that helps you stay agile is the one that’s customized to your company.
Agile teams need agile resources
The surest way to empower internal teams to be agile is to give them access to the resources they need to make fast, intelligent decisions about where to go next—including external resources. Here’s a primer:
- Think bigger than your organization
- Build a channel for using on-demand talent as part of your agile workforce
- In particular, leverage on-demand talent for agile growth—the best form of agility
- Invest in developing your leaders so that they understand and use external resourcing strategically and fearlessly—it is now not only available at the highest caliber, but truly a new source of agility and competitive differentiation.
Sandra Pinnavaia is BTG's EVP and Chief Innovation Officer. She brings over 25 years of experience as a business leader, management consultant, and trusted advisor, and she drives the development of the company’s enterprise relationships with top clients.