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Disruptive technologies like Big Data, IoT and AI are shaping Industry 4.0 at an unseen pace and inevitably, companies are faced with increasing skills gaps in their employees and leaders. By 2020, more than one-third of the desired skills for most jobs will be comprised of skills not considered crucial today.

The European Commission’s 2017 Digital Transformation Scoreboard issued a warning about the scale of the skills gap facing Europe: “Despite rapid growth in the ICT sector, creating some 120,000 new jobs a year, Europe could face a shortage of more than 800,000 skilled ICT workers by 2020."

What’s more, the Commission’s research shows that around one in three European companies do not have the necessary skills to take full advantage of digital technologies. The digital skills gap is holding back the acceleration of digital adoption in Europe.

Build a Supportive Culture

To be future-proof and fill this gap, companies have to invest in their talent management and succession planning processes. To achieve this, companies need a well-defined talent strategy for the digital age and business leaders need to take action when it comes to reskilling the workforce. Talent management should become an integral part of a company’s culture and should be advocated on every level of the organization.

Bradford Bell, Associate Professor of HR Studies at Cornell ILR University describes the following 5 step model to build a supportive culture around talent management. Using this model, we can dig a little deeper and look at some examples and suggestions for building a structured talent strategy:

1. (Re-)Define Talent

Given the current and upcoming evolutions of the Industry 4.0, companies will need new types of leaders. Over the past few years we’ve seen a bigger focus on executive positions like Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, and Data Privacy Officer. These roles are often defined by a set of required hard skills, but there is a drastic change in soft skills needed to fill new digital leadership roles. There is also a large shift in the meaning behind these titles, with a focus on responsibility rather than hierarchy.

The digital skills gap is defined by a combination of specific hard and soft skills. To overcome this gap, companies need to redefine their ideas of talent.

To illustrate, the 2016 IBM Global C-Suite Study found that CEO’s of the most successful companies are more focused on experimentation and agility to drive disruptive innovation, and people are central to their strategies for organizational reinvention.

Client centricity, emotional intelligence, willingness to change the ‘status quo’, the ability to carry out people management in horizontal not hierarchal ways, and the ability to thrive in times of change will be key personality aspects found in any successful digital leader.


2. Identify & Assess Talent

Talent can sometimes be found within an organizational where one does not expect to find it. Once a talent has been identified, it is crucial for a company to allow these employees to make lateral moves in a simple way. Reskill or upskill talented employees and support internal mobility and job rotation to cover the digital skills gaps.

Externally, change talent sourcing procedures if they’re not successful, take advantage of new technologies to increase diversity and bring on board new skills. For example, in 2016, Unilever started using AI for entry-level recruitments, and as a result, the diversity of their workforce increased significantly.

Work with trusted advisors with industry specific knowledge, look to new geographical regions, stimulate cross-border activity and target universities to uncover new talent.

Attract and retain talent by making sure your company stands out as a ‘hot’ place to work, and if necessary work on your company branding to attract HIPO’s.


3. Develop a Communication Plan & provide feedback

Employees should be aware of the companies’ talent strategy and the possibilities for personal and career growth. Communicating clearly (preferably directly by the CEO) to HIPOs about targets and about their status will raise awareness and motivation. This buy-in will translate to commitment to the development programs and make sure that all stakeholders are aligned.


4. Provide strategic developmental experiences

Lifelong learning should be a mantra in talent management, especially during times of disruptive change. Combining formal training programs with challenging projects will enable high potential talent (HIPOs) to develop new skills while taking on different responsibilities. Most development occurs through on-the-job challenges, so having structured ‘high potential program’ that facilitates such opportunities is important.

Keep the baby boomers’ wisdom and ‘turn silver into gold’ by passing on knowledge to next generation leaders.


5. Measure success

Research by SHRM found that 97% of companies’ report having a process in place for succession planning but most also report that it is not working and that it is out of sync with what the company needs to grow. Research by SHL and Accord, provided the following insights:

  • 73% of the HIPO programs don’t have ROI
  • 69% of these programs are not contributing to the succession pipeline
  • 64% of the HIPOs are not satisfied with their development experience
  • 1 out of 4 HIPOs is planning to leave the company in the next year


It’s clear that there is still a long way to go. Therefore, setting up clear KPI’s and continuously measuring the success and understanding the failures of the implemented processes is vital to build and maintain a successful talent strategy.

Take on a customer-centric approach with HIPOs to reflect on their development experiences and provide mutual feedback on:

  • New skills/knowledge acquired
  • Operational efficiency that enables better leadership
  • Improved communication skills
  • Time spent on training and effectiveness of delivery method

The role of executive search consultants in ensuring a successful talent strategy

The duty of executive search consultants is to coach candidates and prepare them for leadership roles in the digital age. Added value can be created by helping them to focus on creativity, collaboration and business acumen while communicating clearly about new developments in their industry. This can give candidates an edge in this ever-changing digital leadership landscape.

Using formal assessment methods enables us to discuss openly about skills gaps and potential for the future while providing the best possible fit for the long term. Executive onboarding helps candidates to take a step back and regularly discuss with a neutral party about the organizational socialization.


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