The Great Reinforcing: Realizing the “People ROI”

Moving Retail’s Workforce Strategy from “Just Enough” to “Always Enough”  

The industry that could once balance a “just enough” headcount model is now battling workforce shortages amidst a new mandate: building an adaptable workforce model that can flex with market demands. While some retailers are slashing jobs at headquarters, they’re holding tight to frontline employees, even seasonal workers, in a practice economists have coined “labor hoarding.” While the hoarding is understandable—Forrester found that 63 percent of retailers operated with a frontline employee deficit in early 2023—it won’t move retailers forward in the increasingly competitive battle for share of wallet. To meet evolving customer and employee demands, retail leaders need a new kind of workforce management model, one that develops skills for the future while delivering a superior employee experience today. Rooted in strategic skills development, employee-led talent mobility systems, and sustainable adoption methods, our new blog provides a framework for retail leaders ready to establish a data-driven, tech-connected, “always enough” workforce.  

Capture Greater Returns on Your Workforce Investments

Amidst heightened regulatory response, fluctuating inflationary pressures, and increasingly urgent digital modernization needs, financial services companies today are challenged to do more with less. Given this reality, North Highland has created a framework to help financial services companies realize greater returns on their workforce investments. Unlike traditional hiring and talent development efforts, a talent reinforcement system makes skills development part of everyone’s job. Digital accelerators, people-centric transformation, and strategic skill development enable financial services companies to generate immediate value while establishing a competitive advantage for the future of banking.

Navigating a Workforce at the Intersection of the Electric Future and our Gasoline Reality

Automotive companies will spend more than $33 billion over the next 10 years to reskill their employees, all in pursuit of the electric vehicle (EV) capabilities the industry will need exponentially more of over the next decade. Yet gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks continue to attract more consumers and foot the bill for EV investments: The three top-selling vehicles in the U.S. in 2022 were all pickup trucks. In the following, we provide a roadmap for automotive and manufacturing companies building a workforce for an electric tomorrow while continuously improving their internal combustion engine (ICE)-related services today. Powered by a talent reinforcement system, it’s an approach designed to help companies reskill and retain to capture greater ROI from their upskilling investments.

A Framework to Upskill, Reskill, Recruit, and Retain Top Transportation Talent

An ongoing workforce crisis has forced the transportation industry to hit the brakes. Ninety-six percent of transit agencies in the United States reported workforce shortages in 2022, and 84 percent said those shortages affected their ability to provide service. In the United Kingdom, labor disputes disrupted more than half of all train services at Great Britain’s busiest stations in 2022. With nearly half of the current U.S. infrastructure workforce over the age of 45, a “silver tsunami” threatens to compound shortages and wipe out legacy talent and knowledge. And yet, amidst this workforce crisis, the industry has been handed an incredibly ambitious mandate: Transform to be safer, cleaner, and more equitable—fast. In the following, we provide a framework for a new kind of workforce management approach, one that leverages strategic skills development and talent mobility systems to capture greater ROI from your people while building skills for the future. It’s an approach that can generate superior employee experiences, improved retention rates, and a capacity for change—all important characteristics of a workforce on the cusp of a revolutionary transformation.  

Reversing a Workforce Crisis in Crisis Management   

Burnout, retirements, and uncompetitive salaries have exacerbated long-brewing workforce shortages in critical Emergency Management positions. As the rate of natural and man-made disasters soar, EM talent has conversely grown scarce, inexperienced, and under-trained. Yet even as EM work is increasingly threatened by a lack of talent, employees continue to be treated as an operational expense, not an asset, with reactive talent development systems and structural silos that leave talent untapped and underutilized. To help EM organizations capture more ROI from their people, the following provides a framework for building a resilient workforce for the future and better leveraging human capital now. Through strategic, data-driven skills development and talent mobility systems, EM organizations can better deliver community safety and economic viability in an increasingly complex EM landscape.  

Evolving People Management to Match Pharma’s Pace of Change   

The life sciences industry redesigned its ways of working, launched novel treatments in record time, realized the initial promise of AI, and reimagined its industry-defining sales systems—all in a matter of months. Yet their workforce management strategies remain largely unchanged. In today's highly competitive hiring and retention landscape, industry leaders must transform their approach to the workforce to not only keep up, but to optimize their return on investment in people. In the following blog, our experts provide a framework for converting the industry’s momentum into sustainable, strategic workforce development and talent mobility systems. We unpack ways to support employees in shaping and advancing their careers, all while aligning with the objectives of the organization. In doing so, life sciences organizations can become employers of choice for a new wave of talent that values purpose over profits and personal development over corporate growth. In addition to exploring strategies for enterprise-wide upskilling capabilities, we also examine how digital accelerators and people-centered adoption efforts can cultivate a workforce that is resilient, adaptable, and driven by data, enabling faster breakthroughs and better positioning your current workforce to re- and up-skill for future needs.

Reinforcing the Energy Industry’s Most Endangered Resource: It's Workforce  

Conventional energy and utility businesses are teeming with talent. Even after a rash of pandemic-era layoffs—the industry shed about 10 percent of its total workforce in 2020—and an impending wave of retirees, energy and utility companies are rich with institutional skills and know-how. In the following blog, we provide a framework designed to help companies optimize their people by strategically transforming skills and know-how to power the energy transition. It’s an approach that targets the greatest barriers to an adaptable workforce to fuel superior employee experiences, boost retention, accelerate skill development, and promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

Don’t Band-Aid, Transform: The Cure for Healthcare’s Workforce Crisis   

Healthcare organizations have a major workforce issue. In September 2022, 58 percent of medical practices in the United States reported staffing as the biggest challenge heading into 2023, outpacing the second-ranked concern—expenses—by 35 percentage points. With fewer clinicians in the field, practitioners are finding themselves responsible for a larger number of patients, fueling soaring burnout levels that experts say raise the risk of medical errors. Moreover, the practice of healthcare is evolving to be more data-driven and tech-enabled, demanding a new set of skills and capabilities from already overworked employees. Up until this point Band-Aids have kept the industry operational—at times, just barely—however, systemic workforce changes are required to fuel growth in the emerging value-based, patient-centric, data-driven healthcare ecosystem of the future. In the below, healthcare leaders can explore a framework designed to cure endemic workforce challenges and build a workforce for the future. It includes practical strategies to overcome the greatest barriers to an optimized workforce, including employee-led talent mobility systems, reverse-engineered upskilling and reskilling programs, and human-centered transformation practices designed to improve the employee experience and generate greater ROI from your people.    

Reinforce Your Talent with Managed Services 

Like death and taxes, workforce shortages have been unavoidable and impactful in nearly every industry. Yet most companies are attempting to solve for shortages with traditional workforce management systems that weren’t built to support today’s employee expectations and ways of working. Instead of reactively managing employees, companies must reinforce them with data- and insights-driven upskilling, retention, and employee experience programs. In the blog below, we use data to showcase the potential of a talent reinforcement system and provide the pragmatic steps any company can take to start building one now. One critical step? While you’re building, borrow: Dedicated, adaptive Managed Services teams can accelerate your journey towards key business objectives while you’re building your workforce for tomorrow. This transformative workforce solution provides access to top-quality talent exactly when you need it. The result is speed to value while eliminating the costs that inevitably come with lower-quality talent—high turnover, disengagement, and ineffective deliverables, to name a few. And through a meaningful partnership with your Managed Services supplier, you are able to cultivate an empowering environment that fosters employee growth and the development of new capabilities.

Amidst a storm of workforce shortages, rapidly evolving social and political priorities, a new generation of workforce expectations, and financial safeguarding, are you pursuing the right talent strategy?

In today's fast-paced business landscape, a winning workforce strategy requires rethinking traditional hiring and talent development practices, with a focus on building critical skills and creating entry points for learning and growth. In doing so, leaders can elevate their "people investment," capture more value, and gain a competitive edge in the future of work...all with data and technology at their fingertips.

Just ask IBM, which in 2012 struggled to fill key roles in then-uncharted technology functions. The company's solution? Reflect and take intentional action to revamp their approach, ultimately opening up opportunities for new applicants and unleashing untapped potential across the enterprise. 

IDC Skills Research

That year, IBM discovered that less than 10 percent of its U.S.-based roles were open to applicants without a bachelor’s degree, regardless of other qualifications. So, it overhauled its practices to attract, upskill, and on-ramp existing employees, even those who were non-degreed or otherwise unqualified on paper. It reevaluated and rewrote job descriptions to focus on vital skills—such as being able to formulate hypotheses and apply programming languages—not generalized credentials. And IBM established entry points and on-ramps in the form of apprenticeships and formalized skill-building programs that were widely promoted and strategically targeted to meet future needs. 

Now, many companies are starting where IBM was more than a decade ago: struggling to fill key roles and navigating uncharted territory. And of course, the stakes have been raised by post-pandemic change fatigue, fallout from the Great Resignation, rapidly shifting social and political priorities, a new set of workforce expectations, and the looming threat of a global recession.

Yet what IBM demonstrated is still highly relevant. And in fact, powered by the technology and insights of today, the approach can be accelerated, strengthened, and automated to reinforce your human capital, capture more return on your people investments, and gain a competitive advantage in the future of work.

Accounting for the true value of your workforce

The peak of the Great Resignation has passed, and the subsequent wave of “quiet quitters” have been met with various management approaches and strategic decisions aimed at mitigating their impact.

Those employees still with you are more valuable than you know.

To capture that value and realize the “people ROI,” organizations must build an optimized talent reinforcement system. They must design and deploy this system through insights-driven, people-centric transformation, and adoption methods. And they must ultimately scale it enterprise-wide; skills are an asset, and they must be treated as such beyond the traditional HR function.

How reinforcing talent systems generate greater "people ROI"

  • Superior employee experiences. Seventy-five percent of employees report that training and upskilling have a positive impact on their engagement at work and job satisfaction. Ensure this is a part of your workforce strategy and leverage technology to personalize the employee experience with customized learning and development programs based on interests and job requirements. Use data and insights to enhance performance management processes, providing clear expectations, goals, and feedback to increase engagement and performance. Additionally, consider ways in which AI can automate routine tasks and offer personalized support, streamlining workflows, boosting efficiency, and empowering teams to achieve more.

  • Improved retention. According to a 2022 Gartner report, employees are leaving their current employers for better professional development opportunities (45 percent) at similar rates as they leave for higher compensation (48 percent). These stats highlight the importance of promoting or shifting high-performing existing employees into new roles to improve retention rates. Boosted by technology, businesses can analyze employee data to identify development opportunities and other retention factors. 
  • Rapid resource allocation. To meet emerging needs and opportunities, companies need a skills-based talent reinforcement system that enables quick redeployment of assets. Leaders can leverage data and technology to support this system and make more effective use of their existing talent pool. Data, for instance, can be used to identify the skills and expertise of individual employees and create a comprehensive database of talent within the organization. This database can be quickly accessed and utilized to reallocate employees to meet emerging needs and opportunities. Technology can play a crucial role in this process by providing a user-friendly interface for accessing the talent database, tracking employee availability and preferences, and identifying the best fit for each new opportunity. Additionally, data can help you evaluate the effectiveness of the talent reinforcement system and optimize it for future use, ensuring that companies can continue to respond quickly and efficiently to changing circumstances.
  • Strategic skills development. By 2025, half of your current employees will require reskilling if they remain in their current roles. Leaders must proactively invest in continuous, mutually beneficial skill-building programs that efficiently reinforce their defenses from the inside out. And, they must use technology to collect, analyze and interpret data to identify skill gaps and future talent needs. This can inform hiring decisions and upskilling programs that enable employees to pursue areas of interest and build skills for smooth transitions across roles. t is crucial to gain comprehensive visibility into the entire skill set of your workforce, enabling you to facilitate career mobility and pathing opportunities. Outside partnerships can also help fill expertise gaps and mentor employees through an apprenticeship program, accelerating organizational strategy and preparing the organization for long-term expertise. In Our Experience 1
  • A capacity for change. Organizations that change little and often at all levels—down to individual roles and skills—develop operational agility, and an ability to intentionally and successfully flex with shifting market forces. Data can support enterprise agility by providing real-time insights into key results and performance metrics, enabling employees to respond quickly to changes in the market and adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly. Additionally, by automating routine tasks and streamlining workflows, data and technology can free up employees' time and allow them to focus on more strategic work that requires critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Improved performance against enterprise-wide KPIs. Exposure to more aspects of the business helps connect your people to a purpose. Leveraging data and technology, businesses can provide employees with access to real-time data and insights on business performance, enabling them to align their individual performance with broader business objectives. This increased visibility and transparency can help employees better understand their role in contributing to the overall success of the organization, leading to improved motivation and engagement. Additionally, technology can facilitate the sharing of best practices and collaboration across teams, driving continuous improvement and higher performance against KPIs.
In Our Experience 2
  • Greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). More diverse and inclusive companies tend to outperform others, but also prove to be more resilient during times of disruption: during COVID, companies in the bottom quartile of DEI scores lost on average $62 million more in revenue (per firm) than those at the top. A skills-based approach to promotion and development for all employees can advance overlooked talent and increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in the entire workforce and the leadership pipeline. Leaders and teams can use data to understand DEI more clearly in their organization, identify areas for improvement, develop targeted strategies to get there, monitor progress, and evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies. Data can also be useful for revealing employees with untapped potential and supporting leaders in offering opportunities for skills-based development. On the technology side, AI and machine learning can be used to remove unconscious biases from the hiring process. Collaboration tools and communication platforms can help to create a more inclusive workplace by enabling remote and flexible work arrangements.

Solving for skills-based talent reinforcement with three strategic opportunities

While seemingly everything about the way we work has transformed over the last few years, workforce mobility systems remain largely unchanged.

Research shows that most internal talent development programs rely on a push system triggered by hiring leads looking to backfill vacant positions. Long-term skill development for high-potential employees is ad hoc, and only loosely informed by trusted insights. And opportunities are opaque: According to a study by the Brandon Hall Group, 55 percent say “lack of transparency about career opportunities and the qualifications needed” is a barrier to employee skill development and mobility.

Moreover, a cultural and organizational proclivity toward "talent hoarding" reigns supreme. In a survey of over 650 employers, half have talent-hoarding managers. Lack of access to roles in other areas of the organization encourages good employees to look outside for new opportunities.

However, by strategically wielding the right digital accelerators and people-centered transformation efforts, these barriers can be overcome. We’ll explore three of these strategies in the section that follows.

Opportunity One: Moving from the workforce as an expense to talent as an asset

  • Identify skills and talent from within. Barriers to career mobility tend to stem from a lack of transparency and understanding of the opportunities and considerations—including skills—needed for a particular position. At North Highland, one of the ways we aim to overcome this and promote greater mobility is through a periodic Skills Taxonomy exercise which creates visibility about skills needed across the organization, prevents “made-up” expectations, and drives equity in talent development. This approach fosters clarity and focus for continuous learning, empowering employees with tools to thrive in their careers and drive organizational success. We are using data and systems to create transparency, optimize our efforts, and support the process of identifying and matching skills within our organization.In Our Experience 3
  • Bring a product development lifecycle approach to your talent and “add features” over time. Just as a product must be marketed and sold effectively to reach its full potential, your talent must be positioned and leveraged in a way that maximizes its value and impact (“People ROI”). This means identifying the skills, knowledge, and abilities that are in high demand and developing a plan to acquire or strengthen them. Just as you would analyze market trends and consumer behavior to refine your product strategy, you can use data and research to make informed decisions about which skills to prioritize and how to acquire them. Then, it's important to set and monitor targets for skill acquisition in the same way you would for product sales. This means establishing clear goals, timelines, and metrics for success, and regularly evaluating your progress, and adjusting or adding as needed. By treating your talent development as a product sales process, you can ensure that you are constantly improving and expanding your employees’ skill sets, and positioning your people for long-term success.
  • Reverse engineer your talent development strategy. Internal recruiting activities are largely driven by the backfilling of open positions, not by skill opportunities or gaps. Establish a multi-channel, cross-functional pipeline to collect anecdotal insights and data to inform the prioritization of skill development activities.
  • Establish the governance to empower and guide active involvement in, and accountability for, talent reinforcement at all levels and in all functions. Talent must be accounted for as an asset, and as such, fall under the purview of corporate directors and frontline managers alike.

Opportunity Two: Moving from silos to skill sharing

  • Build before you buy. It’s important to invest in robust upskilling and reskilling programs. Bank of America runs what it calls the Academy, which provided education and skill-building opportunities to more than 65,000 employees in 2021. The Academy has redefined the bank’s talent acquisition allocation: While approximately 30 percent of vacant jobs were previously filled by internal hires, more than 50 percent were in 2021.
  • If you can’t build, borrow. As part of prioritizing upskilling and reskilling, consider developing internal capability and bringing value and vision to life by securing the right mix of external expertise with a Managed Service. It offers an adaptive “teams-as-a-service” workforce solution to your business, providing you with a pool of top-tier talent with a blended set of expertise, skills, and products, precisely when you need them. Dedicated Managed Services teams are designed to help businesses deliver immediate progress on emerging priorities and build capabilities within internal teams, such as through apprenticeship programs.
  • Establish a unified digital ecosystem. Rationalize and streamline your technology to establish a shared language, and democratized views and access. A cohesive technological architecture is the backbone of enterprise-wide skills assessments, continuous resource alignment, rapid resource reallocation, data sharing and collection, and performance management.
  • Get great at resource allocation. Automate it, make it continuous, and do your best to remove human bias. Doing so will require a flywheel of data fueled by a diverse set of inputs from across the enterprise, along with robust business rules in support of precise KPIs.

Opportunity Three: Moving from hierarchical titles to strategic skill development

  • Target the culture. A successful, interdependent, multifaceted talent reinforcement system requires a cultural shift; cultural shifts require comprehensive, human-centered transformation and adoption processes. Start with a precise understanding of your cultural norms now and establish the mechanisms to monitor sentiment throughout your transformation journey.
  • Consider ways to pipeline your upskilling. Bank of America provides career-development curricula to community colleges, workforce development organizations, and other nonprofits. Upon completing the curriculum, internal talent and recent graduates alike can be quickly onboarded or hired into new roles.  
  • Make skills identification and assessment everyone’s job. IBM established a cross-enterprise coalition called the “Enterprise Skills Team” to reevaluate and maintain a living database of the most important hard and soft skills for a range of entry-level roles. This database serves as the foundation for all hiring, talent development, and performance management efforts.
  • Make skill development an integral part of performance management. Provide every employee, at every level, with professional coaching to explore areas of personal interest and high potential, and a human connection to matching areas of opportunity.

“Building up as high as I can go”

In 2018, a man named Tony was working at a coffee shop at IBM’s Durham, North Carolina campus. He told Harvard Business Review, “Coming to IBM every single day, I’m thinking, “Man, it would be nice to actually work for IBM. But there’s probably no way unless I go to school for four years.”

Tony hadn’t pursued a formal education beyond his high school diploma and was the father of young children. He didn’t have the time, the money, or quite simply, the socioeconomic luck, to go to college.

But as luck would have it, Tony applied for and was admitted into a year-long IBM apprenticeship program, and ultimately landed a full-time technical position in customer support. IBM filled a critical role in a way that continues to pay dividends in the form of employee experience, retention, resource allocation, agility, and DEI.

“My manager started where I’m at now,” Tony said. “Maybe one day I can climb my way up and become a manager—someone that’s able to lead the team or lead a few different teams. Building up as high as I can go.”


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