Agile Talent Management Is Required During Turbulent Times

Many corporate practitioners and HR consultants talk about being more strategic, but then turn around and focus on incremental improvements to strategies, models and practices decades old. When most, if not all, of the practices that form the foundation of the typical HR function today were conceived, times were different. Economic cycles have become more volatile, the nature of work itself has shifted to be more knowledge-oriented, and product life cycles have and continue to shrink. The strategies and approaches to talent management that worked when conditions didn’t change so quickly no longer align with the realities of today.

New strategies and approaches that fundamentally alter how we organize work, resource the organization, and compensate for productivity are needed.

Those new strategies are often referred to as agile strategies because they enable the organizations developing/adopting them to be extremely flexible and adaptable to volatile conditions.

The Need for Agility

I first learned about the need for agility in talent management when a senior manager at Agilent Technologies asked me how our talent management strategy would shift as a result of a competitor opening a 5,000-employee facility directly across the street from ours. Obviously, such an act would encourage an uptick in attrition, but given the level of scarcity for the type of people we employed, it would also affect compensation, recruiting, development, and virtually every other aspect of managing people.

Like many organizations, all of our core processes were pegged to either annual or multi-year cycles, rigid structures and policies, limited agility, and staff had become accustomed to very predictable and stable workloads. We couldn’t change rapidly and few wanted to even try, despite the fact that our competitor was well skilled at building and operationalizing facilities in months, not years. Building on that realization, my observations over the past 10 years regarding the structure and strategy of HR functions around the world is that agility is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

The Concept of Agility

The concept of agility is well established in other business functions, including supply chain, manufacturing, and crisis management, but not so much in HR. In short, it means:

  • Being more than just fast
  • Being nimble, flexible, adaptable and responsive
  • Being able to shift direction
  • Anticipating a range of possible events
  • Dealing with multiple fluctuations simultaneously (churn)
  • Shifting direction, focus and resources accurately (into the right areas)

If you’re familiar with hunting, a shotgun would be a more agile weapon then a rifle, because it is more capable of hitting moving targets.

Apple: The Benchmark Agility Firm

Perhaps the best example of an agile firm is Apple. If you were a competitor of Apple, you would need an agile strategy just to keep up with its amazing rate of product innovation. Apple started as a computer company focusing on hardware and software (the Mac), then shifted into completely different industries starting with digital entertainment devices (the iPod/iPad) and Smartphones (the iPhone). With each foray into a new market, Apple must add significant talent capability and capacity to its roster, obsoleting older skill sets and leveraging new/existing skills in radically new ways. Skilled workers with tremendous value one month may be utterly useless to the organization months later.

Agile Talent Management Strategy Defined

An agile management strategy is defined as one that responds to environmental changes by rapidly and accurately shifting the direction and focus of talent management efforts and resources in order to increase HR effectiveness, business results, workforce productivity, and innovation.

An agile talent management strategy includes:
1.     Forecasting of and planning for a range of likely conditions/events including:

  • Economic fluctuations
  • Emerging business goals
  • Talent competitor actions
  • Labor market conditions/attitudes
  • Frequent revision of operating plans and budgets

2.     Identification of stretch/next practices, i.e. researching how firms that are in growth and innovation mode prepare for each condition/event or accomplish rapid-cost reduction without negatively impacting productivity and innovation.
3.     Development of tactical plans including processes and programs that enable all of the following:

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  • The organization to move faster or expedite product/service delivery (time)
  • Improve the quality of the output
  • Change the volume of output (productivity)
  • Applied innovation
  • Aggressive response to competition
  • Closer integration of functional interdependencies
  • Shift/cut budget … or generate new resources

4.     Broader use of contingent labor, because the most powerful agility solution is the widespread use of contingent labor (temporary, contract, service provider), your plan must include the capability of rapidly add skills (capability) and work hours (capacity)to meet nonpermanent needs.

5. If/then pre-testing — you can’t assume that your plan will work, so every plan must be pretested for viability using if-then scenarios.

Examples of Agility Shifts

In Southeast Asia and China where competition for managerial talent is beyond fierce, talent acquisition, development, and reward systems have been forced to radically adapt to market driven cycle times versus annual calendars and multi-year planning processes just to enable retention. Complex processes that once took months to execute (focal review, performance appraisal, etc.) were forced to become cleaner, faster, and less painful so that they can be executed quarterly, and in some markets monthly.

Globally consumer product companies have faced drastic reductions in the typical product lifecycle, forcing internal talent pipelines to allow for faster on-the-job development, greater job mobility, shortened time in tenure, and frequent organizational restructuring.

In greater Europe, where currency fluctuations and labor disputes can cripple manufacturing operations, organizations have had to increase leverage of contingent workers and cross training so that work can be shifted quickly from location to location.

Final Thoughts

Executing agility is as much of a way of thinking as a business strategy. Rather than developing a single, consistent, enterprise-wide approach, organizations today need talent management solutions that employ multiple channels and approaches to produce a target result because relying on one rigid approach is both ineffective and in many cases inefficient. Talent management leaders need to prepare for a wide range of both positive and negative business scenarios and build staff with mastery level competency in rapid learning and strategic agility.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



10 Comments on “Agile Talent Management Is Required During Turbulent Times

  1. “the nature of work itself has shifted to be more knowledge-oriented”

    But is that really true ? Have the proportions of high skill v. semi-v. low-skill jobs really changed in the economy that much ?

    Or has ‘knowledge’ so to speak become equally distributed in roughly the old proportions ?

  2. And this is precisely why “Best Practices” are so often vapor-ware. To be agile is to architect and execute on a micro-level . . . not the one-size-fits-all (macro) approach endorsed by our industry (through award shows, show presentations, etc.)

    To be agile often means to put yourself (as a Leader) out on a limb so as to capture/leverage against a trend or breaking development . . . but you have to be willing to take the heat when the ongoing mindset is, “Don’t think – Just copy whatever Microsoft does.” (As if the small and mid-size businesses that drive our economy have absolutely anything in common with the F50 Juggernauts.)

  3. Thank you Dr. Sullivan for alluding to my ERE comments of March 23 (, where I present my Agile Recruiting Manifesto:

    Manifesto for Agile Recruiting
    (This was “sampled” from the Agile SW Development Manifesto. -kh)

    We are uncovering better ways of hiring people by doing it and helping others do it.
    Through this work we have come to value:
    • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    • Quick, quality hires over comprehensive documentation
    • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    • Responding to change over following a plan
    That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

    Principles behind the Agile Recruiting Manifesto
    We follow these principles:
    • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of quality hires.
    • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
    • Deliver quality hires frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
    • Internal customers and recruiters must work together daily throughout the project.
    • Build projects around motivated individuals.
    • Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
    • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a recruiting team is face-to-face conversation.
    • A quality hire which is on-time and within budget is the primary measure of progress.
    • Agile processes promote sustainable employee development.
    • The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
    • Continuous attention to professional excellence and first-class service enhances agility.
    • Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work NOT done–is essential.
    • The best requirements, processes, and hires emerge from self-organizing teams.
    • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

    I challenge staffing organizations to adopt, implement, and maintain these policies and principles. Don’t know how? I’ll be happy to show you.


    Keith Halperin

  4. I understand the need for agility and there are some very useful points here. I work in the healthcare arena and we are making use of more flexible staffing. However, there is a need for quality in this arena. Some changes in healthcare quality are implemented through a rapid cycle process associated to Lean thinking and I have seen this happen in my organization. When we are talking about Talent Management or Development, I am uncertain if this approach will work. Certainly there are some training programs that will help managers develop Rapid Cycle thinking but how do you develop someone rapidly. I can see how rapid on boarding will work and getting employees to work as soon as possible but development takes more time. The article mentions retention. If everything in a organization becomes agile how would you retain workers? These workers, could months later, be of no use to the organization. Therefore, I think that implementing hyper-agility would cause a significant lack of employee loyalty which would likely increase turnover.

    Much has been written about Gen Y and Millennials specifically about the number of jobs they will have over a lifetime. Are we to accept that these new employees are incapable of long tenure and not waste resources trying to develop them? Granted we still want to retain them but if we move to a more temporary workforce or at least a term type workforce in order to keep pace with the business and environmental changes then there will be a lack of trust in workforce. If we are using time frames in months instead of years then how do you develop and retain top talent. Dell Computer Corporation implemented a Just-in-time/Just-enough development program like this from 1998-2000 and put the learners in charge. They received accolades for their innovation but the end result was lost of market share and poor customer satisfaction leading to the return of Michael Dell as CEO in 2007. Do you remember Jeff Jarvis’ blog from 2004?

  5. Wayne made an excellent point- how DO you retain people?
    IMHO, organizations need to operate under the following belief:
    Unless someone CAN’T leave you (you’ve given them a “golden handcuff or there’s no place else for them to go, either due to economic reasons, they’re ultraspecialized, or just nobody else would take them), they WILL leave you. This is consistent with what I call “Fault-Tolerant Hiring”:
    Creating an organization so robust that it can do quite well if not filled with irreplaceable superstars.



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