Management, the Next Generation: Trilingual Talent

Image of a man looking at digital data

To effectively compete in the digital age, most companies now understand that they must see digital and analytics capabilities as a core competency and strategic priority. But with the supply of talent falling further behind demand every day, winning the race to attract the elite talent in this space has proven complex and difficult, especially for those organizations playing catch-up. Even companies with the most advanced digital and analytics capabilities are having a hard time meeting their needs. And the challenge is only going to get harder, as demand is expected to grow by at least one-third over the next five years.

Attracting the right people, of course, isn’t just challenging due to the skills shortage. Simply put, many companies fail to attract (not to mention retain) talent in this space because they don’t really know what skills they want from digital and analytics employees.

Why the uncertainty? Blame evolution.

Not long ago, the job in question was about data gathering. Then it became a job of converting data into ideas, or insights. Now, it has a new and critical facet: the application of insights to strategy. As a result, today’s top talent in the digital and analytics space are far more than mere number-crunchers with skills in coding and analysis. They are “trilingual” employees, inquisitive individuals well versed in technology and business in addition to the language of analytical modeling. Possessing skills well beyond math or technical ability, trilinguals are able and willing to look for new solutions “outside the box.” They are analytical and quant-oriented on one hand, and big-picture-focused on the other, enabling them to extract insightful stories from data and analytics and design creative approaches to drive growth.

As confirmed by recent research conducted by A.T. Kearney, this evolution represents a business-culture sea change. Gone are the days of siloed “geeks” crunching and analyzing numbers out of sight for some business unit. Data workers, at least at leading companies, have broken out of the backroom and now rate high-profile positions across the organization as strategic thinkers. They are ushering in a new way of doing business while impacting the growth and evolution of their companies.

Using input from nearly 450 senior executives across 10 countries and 30 industries, our second-annual Leadership Excellence in Analytic Practices (LEAP) study validated our view that companies face a growing number of challenges as they seek to build the next generation of digital and analytics talent. This research also helped to confirm our hypothesis that the approach that leaders take while seeking talent in this space is key to enabling them to stand out among peers. Following from previous work in this area, involving many companies and spanning across many industries, we tested the idea that having a mature view of digital and analytics competencies (as indicated by how companies define and use analytics) is key to attracting top talent.

Based on respondents’ definitions of analytics, we have defined four types of the analytics organization:

  1. Leaders: Organizations that deploy analytics to generate foresight on future business trends and to play a role in decision-making innovation.
  2. Explorers: Organizations that use analytics to help predict new trends to optimize business performance.
  3. Followers: Organizations that deploy analytics to understand and manage the drivers of cost and revenue.
  4. Laggards: Organizations that use analytics in the limited role of reporting on past performance.

All of the above employers, of course, are having trouble hiring the number of digital and analytics employees they need. Indeed, 43 per cent of our recent study’s respondents (slightly more than expected) reported that at least 10 per cent of their companies’ digital and analytics positions are unfilled.

Despite the significant challenges involved, leading organizations recognize the importance of attracting and retaining the best digital and analytics talent. They recognize the need to recruit and develop a new generation of business managers — core critical thinkers who bring to the table a proficiency in technology and analytics as well as an understanding of business strategy and the knowledge required to transform key functions.

There are a number of strategies used by leading employers to hire and retain intelligent, driven people who can work seamlessly at today’s intersection of technology, analytics and business – and speak the language of all three. These strategies include the following:

  • Building a unique digital and analytics brand: Organizations using this strategy build talent from within the organization or grab it straight out of college, rather than hiring experienced professionals. They give their junior hires the time and resources they need to grow, and then create unique analytics career paths for them, while giving them the opportunity to work on some of the organization’s most important projects.
  •  Embracing rotational programs: This strategy rotates talent through different silos in order to give the analytics talent an understanding of every function and to help cross-pollinate the analytics skillet across the organization. These programs help the employees combine their analytics knowledge with domain knowledge in order to gain a stronger understanding of the impact of actionable insights on the company’s day-to-day decision making.
  •  Using cross-disciplinary teams: Organizations using this strategy create “SWAT” teams of analytics talent instead of deploying them full-time in every part of the company, which is often not possible. These teams work shoulder-to-shoulder with functional teams in an incubator-style model, embedding analytics knowledge across the organization while giving the talent key company knowledge. They also develop formal training programs and centre-of-excellence and shared-service models.
  •  Building industry–university partnerships: This strategy sees companies building industry–university partnerships in a number of ways. The created outcomes include jointly run programs, internship programs in partner colleges and business schools, and the molding of curricula to be more relevant for today’s and tomorrow’s business needs.

Every organization has its own near- and long-term needs. And understanding them is key to figuring out how to best go about hiring and retaining the right people to address those needs. Nevertheless, success in today’s marketplace still requires acceptance of new normal in which digital and analytics capabilities are recognized as core to how any business operates. In other words, figuring out how to attract and retain trilinguals offers a distinct competitive advantage.