The Digital Tsunami: Talent Management


Talent ManagementThere was a recent report in New York Times about the astronomical salaries being paid to people who have a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence. People with barely a few years under their belt are getting paid anywhere from $300,000 to half a million. What is interesting is how this may be peek into Talent Management in a digital world. It will force organizations to rethink the way they view talent.

Limited talent pool

When the entire talent pool consists of a few thousand people in the world, the demand and supply equation does get skewed in favor of the experts. In case of Artificial Intelligence, the talent pool is limited to less than 10,000 people across the world. These people are being tapped by everyone from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft as well as every other industry. The MD of Daimler Benz recently said their competitors are no longer other car companies like Tesla, but Google, Apple, Amazon etc. The same holds true for talent.

If Artificial Intelligence is on its way to becoming like electricity, there are not enough electrical engineers being churned out.

Buy versus build talent

When it comes to deciding whether to buy out the talent versus building it over time, the employers are seeking to outbid each other and mop up not only students but also the professors in this field. The talent pool can decide whether they want to use their knowledge to help use AI in driverless cars or diagnose life threatening diseases. When each employer is paying the same salary, what makes one employer better than the other is the ability of the leader to articulate a compelling proposition.

Acqui-hiring is becoming a popular way to hire several experts at once. Google spent £400 million acquiring DeepMind, the London AI company. In Jan 2016 purchased Emotient Inc., a startup that uses artificial-intelligence technology to read people’s emotions by analyzing facial expressions. No wonder the iPhoneX is offering face recognition. Expect Apple to build a database of your moods and then predict how to influence you.

When a company buys out these companies, the experts have to be made to feel like citizens of the new company. Else, there is a massive churn and the specialists leave en-masse once their firm has been bought over.

The only beneficiary of the bidding war is the talent. They are spoilt for choice. Take the case of Andrew Ng. In 2014m, the Chinese search giant Baidu poached him from Google’s Deep Mind project. Under his leadership Baidu’s AI group grew to roughly 1,300 people, which includes the 300-person Baidu Research. Then in March 2017, Andrew Ng left Baidu to do his next big gig.

Building strategies

Hiring people from adjacent fields like Astronomy and Physics and then training them is another strategy to build your own talent pool. I have seen people from Insurance and Finance being trained in compensation and becoming superstars in that field. Often it is easier (and cheaper) to invest in developing people because it is after all a great retention tool as well.

Companies like Facebook run training programs to build these next gen skills among their employees.

Most employers groan at the quality of fresh hires and speak of their low employability. Yet, few employers think of hiring apprentices. In the digital age, new job roles are coming up that need new skills.  AI and robotics are creating new jobs that are hard to fill because there is no ready-made talent. Coders need to learn new programming languages that are not being taught formally.

Companies like Pinterest, LinkedIn, Visa, Airbnb and many more are using apprentice programs to hire those who may not have a degree and yet are quick to learn the skills. It is a MUCH better way to hire talent that can thrive in your company culture. The apprentices work on real projects and problems. This is a great way to identify people with learning agility. Educational qualifications are increasingly being separated from skills. Learning agile people are motivated to keep learning continuously. Apprentice schemes can be a great solution to quickly build skills of the one million youth who join India’s workforce every month.

As machines start understanding human voices, India needs to move beyond the target of 100% literacy and focus on building 100% employability. The apprenticeship program in Germany is a successful program that can we can learn from. In the digital world, we cannot use the past to make predictions for the future. Being able to keep the mindset of an apprentice maybe a terrific strategy even for experienced professionals.

Machines are certainly getting smarter. A team at Northwestern has developed an AI that could solve the Raven Progressive Matrices Test, an intelligence test of visual and analogical reasoning, better than the average American. It is time for humans to catch up. Buying off talent works to plug skill gaps in the short run, but there is no getting away from building talent.


Previously published in Business Line dt Nov 8, 2017 <Read the column>

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  1. Gautam Basu says:

    Very well written on a very topical issue. However talent poaching or the more sophisticated, talent acquisition, is still rampant as many companies have little patience in investing in training and development. The common refrain being cost, time and finally ” What happens if he leaves after the training,”.

  2. The analog mindset is indeed one of scarcity. That comes from the employer seeing themselves in a position of power. In the digital world, investing in talent will become one of the best ways to retain talent.

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