Why HR must learn lessons from marketing

Written by
Nick Kemsley

07 Sep 2015

07 Sep 2015 • by Nick Kemsley

A shift in power

A collision of factors has shifted the balance of power. The rise of the portfolio career and an increase in the importance of personal career brand, a year-on-year reduction in the supply of certain skills, globalisation and expansion of demand, the retirement of baby-boomers, the rapid evolution of information technology, and the beginnings of an economic recovery in many markets. This would always result in a shift in the power balance toward those with valuable skills, but has also been amplified by an aspiration by employers to push career management increasingly into the hands of the individual.

Our research is highlighting how talent shortages are now among the most common blockers of strategy, yet HR and business leaders are speaking of feeling almost subservient to the demands of a skilled workforce that knows what it is worth, knows what choices it has – and is not afraid to use them. HR has been trying to manage the situation, but it feels more like triage than addressing the core issue, which, to me, is that many HR approaches to talent management are based on what are now out-moded career assumptions and models, and need to be refreshed to reflect the modern reality.

The changing behaviours of talent

This changing attitude to careers and the relationship between those with talent, and those trying to attract and retain it, is posing the most significant challenge. In the words of one senior leader ‘top talent is collecting scout badges’. These people now talk not of the career that they hope to have in an organisation, but of a mutual exchange of value – ‘I will give you access to my skills until I have what I need, or until I don’t feel I am getting what I need; and then I’m off to procure another piece of my career/life jigsaw elsewhere. Why? Because I can!’ Add to this an enabling infrastructure of advancing technology, social and business networking, crowdsourcing and instant information propagation, and we cement in the potential of our future talent to have us over a barrel. Talent has a clearer view of what they want - a more complex and personal set of satisfaction criteria, no obligation of loyalty, the power to negotiate, a strong awareness of brand, the ability to communicate immediately and a more self-centred perspective. In other words, they have become consumers, but of careers.

Scratch the surface of many of our employee offers and we see elements of an out-dated view that the organisation is the master and the employee the servant. If retention and attraction are issues, and the future employee has more choice and a stronger awareness of brand and what’s in it for them – then shouldn’t we be pouring much more effort into our EVP? It feels in many organisations that, instead of recognising, accepting and adapting to these trends, we are trying to fight them instead, using tools designed for a model will not exist in the future. 
In short, we in HR need to start thinking about talent much more as we think about the consumers of our own organisation’s products and services. This is perhaps especially true for the generation of employees currently entering our organisations, but the technology and demographic drivers are putting more power into everyone’s hands.

Adapt a marketing mindset

Here is the irony. We already know how to do this in our organisations, because we do it every day for the people who buy the things we make or sell. We segment our audience, understand their needs, develop propositions, turn these into products and services, and them market these under brands and via relevant channels to drive consumers to us rather than our competitors. We just don’t properly apply the same principles to the people we need to run our organisations.

The time has come for HR to start applying more of a marketing mindset. It needs to recognise and fully engage with the notion that talent are consumers, and develop joined-up strategies to address their needs. We need to move embrace the ‘’exchange of mutual value” model. We need to be very clear about how we stitch together the different elements of our EVP, and then focus on ensuring that the reality of the experience matches the hype. 
To do this, HR should leverage and build on an understanding of consumers already existing in our organisations, start positioning talent as full-on career consumers, and begin treating them as such. If we do not, we risk isolating ourselves from their plans and aspirations, with a potentially catastrophic impact on business strategy. HR functions must align themselves to those elements of talent culture where the train has already left the station – or risk being second to those who have.