Talent Development in The New Workplace

The Great Transformation

Over the last twenty or thirty years, Learning and Talent Development organizations have made a lot of progress. We’ve established ourselves as valued partners to business leaders by developing and implementing learning and talent platforms, adopting rigorous competency structures, aligning learning courseware to our competency structures, pioneering distance learning in all its forms, and beginning the difficult work of tracking the learning and business outcomes of our work.

But while we’ve been busy driving these incremental changes through to completion, transformational change in the businesses we serve has accelerated. The world we designed our infrastructure for has vanished. Simple team structures, stable work processes, clearly defined job descriptions, and plodding career progressions in huge co-located office spaces are all over. We need to increase our own rate of change if we are going to adapt and demonstrate our value in the reality of this new normal.

Right now, people are focused on pandemic-related changes like the more widespread adoption of remote work as the driver of our current sense of dislocation. In fact, the pandemic and remote work were more like the last straw added to a pile of changes that have been building for the last ten to twenty years, and which have finally broken the back of a lot of our assumptions about how people should be managed, and how they learn and grow in the workplace.

The New Workplace

In the last twenty years, we have, without fully recognizing the nature of what we have been doing, made the transition from a workplace structured around individual performers and simple teams, to a workplace structured around complex cross-functional teams of deep subject matter experts jointly executing highly variable performances.

That is a lot to comprehend. What it means is that today:

  • Nearly all work is done in teams.
  • Some teams are still traditionally structured, and act as little more than lightly coordinated collections of individual performers, each of whom works more or less on his or her own.
  • But, automation of simple, linear processes continues relentlessly, and there are fewer and fewer such teams each year.
  • Increasingly, teams execute the far more complex and highly variable processes once handled by individual experts.
  • These teams now execute nearly all of the tasks that are critical to today’s economy – performing surgeries, playing symphonies, designing immersive games, structuring mammoth data sets, developing branding strategies, designing operating systems, building aircraft, and constructing power generating plants.
  • Teams like these execute performances so complex and so variable that no single individual in the team can understand the full range of performances and specialties involved, and everyone depends increasingly on networks and collaboration just to execute his or her part of the process.
  • Everyone’s job and relationships change almost every day as these enormously diverse teams adapt in real-time to shifts in circumstances and technologies in the larger world.

From a new employee’s perspective, onboarding, enculturating, learning a job, building networks, communicating, handling conflict, and navigating a career are all profoundly different in the new workplace environment, and require different forms and levels of coaching, sponsorship, and mentoring than most companies make available.

However, even among employees well-established in their roles, burnout, alienation, and turnover have increased. Most businesses’ management practices were built for a different world. Now, even well-established employees find themselves working around outdated management assumptions, archaic process documentation, and irrelevant metrics while struggling to navigate in a workplace that depends on relationships, constant communication across a broad network, unwritten rules, tacit norms of behavior, and instant responsiveness to emerging issues.

What Does This Mean For Talent Development Organizations?

Even in stable working environments, Talent Development professionals have a broad remit. Our roles can include:

  • Representing our firm’s culture and organization.
  • Managing the organization’s people management processes.
  • Partnering with business units to document individual job requirements.
  • Onboarding employees to culture, organization, people management processes, and their new role.
  • Orchestrating the processes that deliver relevant and supportive performance feedback to employees.
  • Managing the processes that deliver formal and informal learning and development opportunities.
  • Providing guidance and support to employees as they navigate their career journey.
  • Working with functional and firm leadership to manage the organization’s competency levels and talent pipelines.
  • Providing functional and firm leadership timely, accurate feedback as to employee satisfaction and career goals.

Practically all these areas have been affected by the changes in the way people work. It will take us years to sort it all out as we gradually learn more and more about how complex, highly distributed cross-functional teams operate, and develop methods to optimize performance in them.

However, given the current competition for talent and the imperative to incorporate diverse perspectives into our teams, some areas stand out as an immediate need of attention.

In the Short Term…

Right now, the most urgent priorities for Talent Development professionals working with complex cross-functional teams in global organizations have become:

  • Reworking and updating onboarding programs and bringing early career mentoring resources online to accelerate entry and enculturation into complex teams.
  • Intensive training and coaching for managers at all levels focused on inclusion and incorporating diverse voices to maximize the performance and resilience of their teams.
  • Creating sponsorship and networking opportunities for early and mid-career professionals to support them as they put together the networks crucial for success in the new workplace.
  • Examination of how skills build within complex teams and how careers are navigated in the new environment to drive skill-building and career development/employee retention support.

In the Long Term…

Until the most urgent needs for welcoming new talent, diverse talent, and accelerating the overall speed to competency in the new working environment are met, Talent Development professionals will need to shift their focus to:

  • Understanding the key factors driving performance of complex cross-functional distributed teams by observing the full activity system in action, including:
    • Locating key decision points.
    • Identifying variation in process states or output.
    • Examining distribution in the decision-making processes involved.
    • Capturing roles involved in distributed decision-making processes.
    • Identifying where learning is or is not captured in response to each decision across the full extent of the activity system
      • Actor/Agent/Team
      • Tool Set
      • Output
  • Understanding key factors driving individual performance within complex cross-functional distributed teams.
  • Aligning organizational structures and management processes to the realities of the new workplace.
  • Aligning performance management processes and standards to new expectations.

What’s Best For You?

Understanding the new normal for talent development in the workplace will take time. The changes we are seeing are still evolving and adapting to the current norm. If your organization is struggling to adapt, you are not alone. Take the time to understand how the new normal is affecting your organization and put a strategy together. If you have any questions or need assistance getting started, reach out. We are happy to answer any questions related to talent development.

About the Author:

Kevin brings 25 years of experience modeling the dynamics and improving the performance of complex teams to his role as a StC consultant. Kevin’s approach is built around a structured process for analyzing the performance of complex teams, modeling the factors that drive performance and learning in those teams, and deploying a set of interventions that include communications, change management, organization design, learning system design, and design and implementation of metrics for organization, team and individual learning. He offers our clients his unique ability to accelerate learning and innovation in the complex teams that drive today’s economy.

Kevin has a Ph.D. in Education with a major in Instructional Technology and Design from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His theoretical work centered on modeling complex, distributed performances in teams of highly specialized functional experts. His dissertation, Language and Learning in Distributed Systems, zeroed in on the drivers of both team performance and organizational learning in large distributed networks of teams.

Prior to on his doctorate, Kevin earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and History from Columbia College and a Master’s degree in the Fine Arts from the University of Michigan.

Kevin McMahon