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Is corporate America more concerned with attracting top employees than developing the ones they have? That's the contention of John Hagel III, a director at Deloitte Consulting  and co-chair of the Silicon Valley-based  Deloitte Center for the Edge, which tries to help senior executives make sense of emerging opportunities in business and technology. 

Hagel spoke at the 21st annual SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas on Friday. SXSW — which stands for South by Southwest, in case you are unfamiliar — offers a unique convergence of original music, independent films and emerging technologies. The five-day event ends tomorrow.

Fighting the Talent War on the Wrong Front

Hagel returned to SXSW for the second consecutive year to talk about Workplace Redesign: The Big Shift from Efficiencya topic he said "goes to the heart of our future as workers, creators and learners." As he explained in a blog post:

SXSW Interactive is all about 'doing creative and revolutionary things with new technologies' — as individuals and organizations experience the increasing pressures of the Big Shift, where better to do creative and revolutionary things than in our workplaces?"

I found a kindred spirit in Hagel, who asked some of the same questions I often ponder. Specifically, "Why does almost every executive everywhere define access to top talent as a business priority without giving equal importance to  workplace engagement and employee satisfaction?" 

Hagel is obsessed with paradoxes and believes conceptual conundrums are the source of new insight and knowledge. His talk Friday revolved around a paradox most corporate workers experience every day. As he noted:

We all recognize that talent is becoming central to business success. Most companies focus on talent attraction and retention. Yet, there’s a missing middle here – talent development? When the topic comes up, we tend to fall back to thinking about training programs. Yet, the most powerful learning and talent development occurs on the job. What if we reconceive our work environment to include not only our own employees, but everyone outside the organization who has relevant expertise to help us learn faster?"

What's Going On?

Let's look at the facts. Employers know that they are in a competitive war for talent. But even as employee productivity improves from advances in technology, corporate return on assets are sliding. Blame it on competitive pressures in the marketplace and the talent pool, which is often characterized by people jumping from one company to the next. What's happening?

Hagel thinks senior leaders have a skewed view of the talent problem. Business executives focus on attracting and retaining talent — without  bothering to develop a strategy for talent growth and development.  The best talent doesn’t want to be “held onto,” he said. Top employees want to be given the room to reach their full potential.

Most companies that talk about about employee growth and development still miss the mark, he said. They institute  uninspired training classes that don’t yield much in the way of relevant and impactful learning. Disagree? Then ask yourself: When was the last time you attended a training class that helped you solve the most important and pressing competitive challenges faced by your enterprise? How long has it been since you left a training class feeling completely prepared to improve your company's competitive position?

Hagel thinks the best way to develop employees is through actual work experience. And he has applied this idea with a design thinking mindset to create a conceptual blueprint for next generation corporate workplaces.

Designing for Talent Development

What would the corporate workplace look like if talent development were the number one goal? Hagel said businesses should design the workplace and its platforms:

1) To help employees understand the most pressing performance challenges of the organization. Hagel explained how LiveOps, a cloud-based contact center, created personal performance dashboards — inspired by the dashboard feedback from World of Warcraft. LiveOps has a fully remote workforce and each employee has a dashboard of his performance with clear links that show how his tasks and performance affect the company from a strategic perspective. What would your workplace be like if people could see how well they were doing every day in a way that connected them to the company's biggest challenges?

2) To help employees make high impact connections. Hagel wants businesses to move from a world of knowledge stocks to a world of knowledge flows. Old business models centered around the idea of creating stockpiles of knowledge that are hoarded, cultivated and then harvested for value, all while making sure that knowledge is secure from the outside world.

Hagel’s new model centers on the idea that knowledge is a depreciating asset. Data and knowledge are growing more and more vulnerable as transparency increases and barriers to entry fade. In this new world, organizations must foster increased connections and knowledge flow to help employees learn and gain relevant knowledge faster.

Hagel spoke about Steve Job’s design of the physical offices at Pixar, where the cafeteria was purposefully understaffed and the tables only seated groups of six or more. Jobs made purposeful “design thinking” decisions to drive serendipitous conversations and connections between individuals by giving them unavoidable contexts to meet and connect.

3) To help amplify the impact of the connections they make and what they learn from them. Hagel said businesses need to find and unleash passion in the workforce. The key, he said, is to encourage "Passionate Explorers” who cannot deny their callings to learn and share knowledge.

Passionate Explorers comprise  11 percent of the workforce, he said. His suggestions: Recognize these employees want to make significant contributions over time, actively seek new challenges and form connections to solve problems and gain knowledge. 

Hagel spoke about SAP’s community network platform, which started as a Q&A for developers. Over time, this user base has grown to more than two million people worldwide and solves problems in  an average of 17 minutes. SAP has created a huge productivity driver for it’s worldwide network of employees and developers by fostering connecting, learning and coaching.

A Business Imperative

Hagel closed out his talk by stressing that his ideas are not "opportunities." Reshaping our workplaces is a business imperative, he said.

Companies that fail to figure this out will become marginalized — and individuals who fail to develop could lose their jobs. How does it feel to know that there are one million people around the world who could do your job? And very soon,  there will be one million robots capable of doing your job.

The solution is clear, Hagel said. Learn, learn fast and maximize the benefits of everything you learn.