By Chris Underwood, MD at Adastrum Consulting
The pandemic vastly accelerated adoption of digital technology, with McKinsey estimating that in Spring 2020, consumers and businesses leapt 5 years in digital technology adoption in a mere 8 weeks1. The rate of digital adoption to the point of commercial and domestic dependency means that all leaders, regardless of role or remit, must understand data and digital models. Our latest report explores the competencies and behaviours that HR teams should prioritise when recruiting and developing talent, which will enable organisations to succeed in this age of data and digital dependency.
The current landscape
The speed of technological advancement and the resulting changes in the workplace suggest organisations will face constant disruption. Transformation is a never-ending journey as businesses strive to improve and drive efficiencies with new developments. Yet it is counter-productive to invest in technology without investing in the leaders to implement new digital systems and developing the teams to use it.
The pandemic highlighted the value of a strong, adaptable workforce that can manage change. In its wake, HR teams will be involved in supporting wider business strategies, which includes building greater resilience, supporting post-pandemic recovery and preparing for the future.
Closing the digital skills gap
In preparation for the post-pandemic world, 67% of companies have accelerated automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) development2 and by 2030, more than a fifth of jobs across the EU could be automated3. Investment in digital skills training and education is necessary to accelerate economic recovery and enable organisations to progress sustainably. Currently, 63% of workers do not believe they have the digital skills to fulfil new and emerging roles in their industry4; to maintain performance, enable employees to thrive and drive delivery, HR teams will need to address potential gaps sooner rather than later. At the same time, without the leadership to make new systems work and deliver against business objectives, outlay in innovation quickly becomes a source of future technical debt.
Developing future leaders
The pandemic showed organisations the importance of solid leadership during periods of change for operations and personnel management. Leaders who successfully delivered the transformation that allowed businesses to operate near normally throughout lockdown are in high demand. They have overcome a “black swan” event – in terms of unpredictability, impact and rarity – and quickly adapted to work in a new and unknown environment. Having experienced the speed at which transformation can happen, these leaders are accelerating future plans and out to redefine “the art of the possible”.
Organisations need to be ready to navigate disruption, whether it is incorporating new technology and processes or reacting to external changes in the marketplace. Individuals who are ready to tackle new and sometimes unforeseen challenges head on will be indispensable; making recruitment, retention and development of change-led leaders an important part of talent management strategies.
In addition to the pressures of succession planning and talent development and upskilling, HR professionals will also have greater involvement in ESG, as corporate values becoming an increasingly important part of communications when it comes to recruitment and retention. Greater awareness of corporate social responsibility and the complexity of true ethical action complicates expressing company values. Where previously organisational efforts were lauded, businesses face greater scrutiny and are increasingly held accountable by customers, stakeholders and wider society, to deliver against those values.
Employees now look for employers that align with their own beliefs and world views, expecting their workplace culture to amplify their own contributions to making the world a better place. Where previously, many organisations have purely paid lip service to social and environmental issues, today’s employees are looking for action behind the messages. Value hypocrisy has the potential to damage both profits and reputation, as we have seen in the past year with big brands coming under fire for lacking diversity in senior leadership.
Addressing diversity and wellbeing
Businesses benefiting from diversity of thought, background and experience. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams are a third more likely to be the most profitable players in their industry, whereas those failing to bring diversity into the boardroom are lagging behind5. Too often leaders hire in their own image, rather than seeking candidates that complement their strengths, mitigate weakness and bring new skills and experiences to the table.
When it comes to recruiting, organisations need to cast a wider net, looking at different sectors, and in turn, they must adjust their expectations for the type of candidate that will come through the door. These individuals will not necessarily work in the same way as others – that’s exactly why you hired them! – and they will require support strategies to help them succeed and stay. Happiness is key to retention and performance but being the “new guy” wielding maverick ideas can take its toll on confidence and wellbeing. Creating support networks and mentoring programmes is part of the solution but addressing resilience, courage and communication skills will also build confidence and enable leaders to successfully articulate their ideas at all levels.
To read more about effective leadership for progress and change, download our latest white paper, The D Suite: Digital, Data, Disruption and Dependency.
 The COVID-19 recovery will be digital, McKinsey, May 2020
2 2021 Predictions, Forrester, November 2020
3 Future of Work in Europe, McKinsey, May 2020
4 Unlocking the UK’s potential with digital skills, Microsoft, October 2020
5 Delivering through Diversity, McKinsey, January 2018