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The pandemic has left even the most prepared, agile organisations scrambling in numerous and previously unimaginable ways.

Consider how the coronavirus has blown up global supply chains. Many companies have focused on diversifying and adjusting supply networks to reduce risk and salvage some continuity. But are businesses giving the same consideration to the supply of talent?

The pandemic underscores the need for “fluidity” in talent and a seamless flow of knowledge and innovative ideas to enable capability, capacity and agility. As companies begin their return to the office, shoring up this talent supply chain is a crucial part of mitigating risk.

By mid-May, most organisations were discussing or creating strategies for a return to the workplace — 75 per cent of 255 large and mainly global businesses according to data collected by my firm, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), a think-tank that researches human capital. Executives need to consider some important questions about talent.

First, what skillsets and mindsets will be needed to continue to operate, grow and evolve in a time of continuous disruption? Second, how can we augment our sources of talent to position the organisation to meet future needs? Third, where will we turn for quick, trusted access to capability and skills if critical talent is unable or unwilling to return to the workplace or to resume working at all?

Recent months have taught valuable lessons about being prepared for worst-case scenarios. Executives now need to go a step further and ensure that organisations’ talent supply chains can not only respond to further outbreaks, but also capitalise on opportunities that may arise.

Our research, supported by the perspectives of members of i4cp’s network of senior human resources officers, offers insights into how some leading organisations are responding.

“Discoverability”. It is vital that businesses understand their talent supply. They must compile an accurate picture of the skills, capabilities and experience in the workforce, as well as of key influencers. Companies should start with full-time employees, then hourly, contract and gig workers. This is paramount, says Monica Pool Knox, Microsoft’s global head of human resources for AI, mixed reality and cloud security/identity.

“To deliver on our big bets,” says Ms Pool Knox, “it will be critical for us to easily discover and tap into information about the talent we already have. This might mean discovering the skills of our global talent pool, whether learned at Microsoft or elsewhere, so we can identify collective skill strengths, gaps and ultimately talent action plans.”

Skills forecasting. What capabilities and knowledge are needed for a response to the pandemic? Let us assume the move to a digital model has been accelerated by measures such as working from home. It is then important to ask what roles and aspects of work will change because of artificial intelligence and other advanced work automation. Our research points to a looming gap in capabilities — even in high-performing organisations only one in four respondents indicated that they were prepared.

Diane Gherson, IBM’s chief HR officer, says: “We need real-time, sense-and-respond capabilities for skills as our businesses move to agile models and adopt new technology, exponentially changing the nature of work. In this environment, strategic workforce planning is relegated to the trash bin.”

Technologies such as AI enable a rethinking of talent management to incorporate the latest data from across a business and the market. This will help anticipate recruiting and workforce training needs months in advance, she says.

Tapping into “trapped value”. In 2019, Unilever introduced an internal talent marketplace that matches employees to projects across the group that stretch their skills and knowledge.

In return, Unilever can draw on a deeper, more diverse pool of talent. Jeroen Wels, Unilever’s executive vice-president of HR, says this “gives us a frictionless way of letting people apply to jobs . . . because they’ve been selected based on their skills, experiences, and interests”.

Infosys, the Indian tech and outsourcing company, wanted to draw on the hidden value of influencers in the business. “We conducted a survey asking employees who they thought the key influencers were . . . individuals who were experts on a particular technology, skill, or subject,” says Nanjappa BS, head of HR for Asia/Pacific, Latin America and employee relations. These “thought leaders” help drive learning and innovation in the company.

“Next practices”. Our research often identifies “next practices”, those with relatively low levels of adoption across businesses yet a strong correlation to market performance. An example is the creation of a network of trusted partner organisations through which businesses can share, borrow or “rent” talent from each other. We found that such partnerships are in place at higher-performing organisations three-and-a-half times more than at lower-performing ones.

The pandemic has illuminated the importance of collaborative partnerships between complementary companies and industries. For example, pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk and drinks maker Carlsberg recently worked together to convert ethanol into hand sanitiser, while innovative group 3M partnered with carmaker Ford to develop N-95 face masks at scale.

Imagine how much more powerful collaborations can be with planned rotations of employees and cross-business programmes to strengthen understanding of the wider enterprise, or to build relationships with stakeholders such as customers and suppliers.

Now is the time to ensure “fluidity” of knowledge and insights across organisations and to create the ability to draw on all sources of talent, from full-time employees, contractors and gig workers to partner organisations, robots and AI. This will build capability, capacity, agility and innovation where and when it is needed. In this era of continuous disruption, it is essential to be able to manage amid change and not be managed by it.

Kevin Martin is chief research officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

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