The Four Ways to Manage Digital Talent and Why Two of Them Don’t Work

With digital skills in short supply, companies must rethink the ways they engage with key talent

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Digital has not only forced us to reimagine where and when work is done, but also who is going to do it. Digital leaders are experiencing new challenges as they compete for digital talent that is in high demand. They are dealing with three key shifts: (1) a shortage of talent with the requisite digital and social skills, (2) the need for flexibility to scale according to project requirements, and (3) skilled digital workers often choosing to work as freelancers. Digital marketplaces for freelance IT talent, such as Topcoder, Upwork, Kaggle, are rapidly growing as more people are choosing alternatives to full-time employment. Forbes estimates that 35% of people are choosing freelance work and this is rapidly growing, particularly among millennials. Companies that design workplaces for flexible approaches to both work and workers are more likely to succeed in the world of digital.

We have been studying what it takes to design and manage workplaces that enable our people to be the best they can possibly be in the digital era (see our recent piece in the MIS Quarterly Executive). This study found that two design levers really matter in the implementation and management of digital workplaces: (1) enabling employee connectivity and (2) facilitating a responsive, evidence-based leadership. High-performing companies focus on the digital capabilities to connect people with each other, with ideas, and with the broader world. At the same time, these companies are deploying very different leadership capabilities — actively building test-and-learn environments.

Actively deploying digital workplaces is challenging for more traditional companies built on command-and-control principles. It is even more challenging when the key digital talent demands to work in new ways. We wanted to know more about how this shift in talent needs and demands was affecting the way companies design their workplaces to attract and retain the best people. We conducted interviews with 40 senior executives from IT, HR, and talent management in 28 companies across a range of industries at the end of 2016. While all interviewees faced significant challenges, they were approaching digital talent management in very different ways.

We have been able to identify four distinct approaches to managing talent in this challenging environment (see Figure 1): Aligning, Orchestrating, Architecting, and Curating.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

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