IT’s ‘war for talent’ is a losing battle

It has been almost 25 years since McKinsey & Co. introduced the term “talent war” to the world. For almost a quarter of a century CIOs have been locked in a Sisyphean battle to attract and retain the IT talent necessary to create competitive advantage.

Every year, “talent” is one of the top challenges facing IT organizations. Every year, lack of critical IT skills is blamed for failure to deliver the full promise of IT investments. Is there something CIOs can do to transcend this endless cycle of lament?

Talent matters — but is ‘war’ the right metaphor?

In his 2001 best-seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, author Jim Collins reminds us that “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” In The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential, from 2017, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains that “All organizations have problems and they nearly always concern people.” Having the right people, with the right skills, working on the right tasks is the key to future success.

A recent report from Korn Ferry Institute predicts that by 2030 the tech industry labor-skill shortage will reach 4.3 million (85 million worker short fall for all skills), costing the global economy $8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenues. 

Yet, despite these projections, in today’s globalized and digitized environment, where talent can be sourced from almost anywhere, shouldn’t IT leaders be able to de-escalate the “War for Talent”?

I am not certain “war” is the appropriate metaphor for dealing with the massively complex human capital predicament CIOs are working through. While this point may seem pedantic on its surface, given that many IT leaders carry the metaphor through to their hiring and retention strategies, it is anything but.

War, for example, implies there are “enemies.” Who are the enemies in this “war”? Other companies? Demographic? Employees? A lack of financial resources? The traditional answer would be your hiring competitors, which, with every company becoming in some sense a technology company, is just about every business out there. How do you construct a campaign against that?

Unfortunately, the “war” metaphor, and its tendency toward dualities, is pervasive in hiring strategies and approaches. The we/they, manager/staff, company/employee dualism, for example, is dysfunctional. The concept of thinking of employees as “enemies” needing to be captured via pay packages and “employee experience” to labor toward some seemingly arbitrarily corporate financial objective is ludicrous and unsustainable. Partnership — finding a mutually agreeable path forward is a better way of thinking about the future of work.

Re-thinking work management and motivation

Right now, many employees and employers are not on the same page regarding productivity and performance measurement, pay, and commuting and remote work issues.

In a recent survey of more than 20,000 people, Microsoft found that 87% of employees say they are productive at work, while only 12% of leaders have confidence that their workers are being productive.

Moreover, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Every executive I have spoken with has a friend who knows a colleague employed in technology enjoying a six-figure-plus salary while they essentially ski in Idaho, snorkel in Bali, or sip margaritas on the Yucatán Peninsula.

In a world of increasing pay transparency, employee outcome transparency — determining every employee’s contribution — is required as well. But this doesn’t mean going as far as one overzealous manager who required two meetings every day: one at the start of the day to decide what everyone should do and one at the end to determine what was actually accomplished. And we are seeing the downside of top-down exhortations to “work hard or else” unfold at Twitter.

Instead, CIOs need to implement a performance management system that prevents slackers from abusing the system while at the same time stimulating the better angels of an employee’s creativity and work ethic. 

This means creating a culture where people want to work and establishing systems for work that people want to do.

Building a workplace that works

Many years ago, some IT organizations embraced the mantra, “We suck less,” by which they meant: We may not be the very best in the world, but we certainly aren’t the worst.

The good news for IT hiring managers is that a lot of places that employed lots of talented IT professionals are starting to “suck more.” Tech giants in Silicon Valley are exfoliating staff at rates never seen before. More than 100,000 tech workers have been returned via layoffs to the talent pool.

I suggest CIOs commit themselves to making IT a great place to work for all employees paying particular attention to not just to being a good place for women to work but being the best place for them to work. This would include investments in childcare, for example, as well as better maternity leave policies and support for perimenopause and menopause counseling and support services, given that more than 1 million American women enter menopause each year, and one in ten women employed during menopause leave their job due to symptoms.

This also means improving employee experience by implementing hassle-free workplace technology, which will be a great way to attract and retain quality IT staff. According to the Virgin Media O2 Business and Censuswide Battle for Talent survey, 72% of workers are frustrated at least once a week by the poor quality or lack of business technology available to them, and 48% say that poor-quality business technology makes them more likely to resign from their jobs within the next six months.

A new metaphor for talent acquisition

Creating a workplace culture where candidates want to work and employees want to stay will assuredly give you an advantage in the talent market, but so too will embracing a new central metaphor for your talent acquisition strategy.

Higher-ed inadequacies and demographic realities — a million fewer college students enrolled in 2021 than in 2019 — have created a human capital pipeline unable to deliver a reliable stream of fit-for-purpose technology professionals.  

Rather than “battle-plan” how to “win” given this faltering human capital pipeline, the only rational alternative is to create your own talent supply chain. Partnering with organizations such as Year Up and NPower, working with universities, and establishing apprenticeships are just a few of the ways to take your IT organization out of the “battle theater” and into a better place — one less ruled by the mentality of war and instead guided by supply chain imperatives: integration and orchestration.