Unlocking the Power of the New Human Ecosystem

Unlocking the Power of the New Human Ecosystem

Mercer Insights

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June 2014

Unlocking The Power Of The New Human Ecosystem


Today, more than one-third of employers worldwide cannot fill all available jobs. Yet an estimated 202 million eligible workers are unemployed globally. Employers, individuals and societies alike are challenged by the disconnect between the skills people have and the skills employers need,

The prognosis seems grim, but some solutions are already at hand and more are being developed day by day. Orlando Ashford, president of Mercer’s global Talent business and former chief HR and communication officer at Marsh & McLennan Companies, has seen firsthand how some of these solutions are already being implemented by leading companies and other stakeholders. In his new book, Talentism: Unlocking the Power of the New Human Ecosystem (2014, Mercer), Ashford shares new developments in sourcing and developing talent, articulates a compelling vision for the future, and describes how employers and individuals can win in the new ecosystem.

In the following exclusive interview with Mercer/Journal, Ashford shares some of the important insights from his book.

Q: Your new book is called Talentism. What is talentism and why is it important to employers?

Orlando Ashford: “Talentism” is a term coined by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. It refers to the fact that human capital is the most critical asset for today’s businesses — even more important than capital, raw materials, or technology. Today, what differentiates those companies that are going to win from those that are going to lose is the ability to identify, attract, position, pay, retain, and motivate people.

Q: Is the traditional roadmap for career success still valid?

O.A.: While I believe that people and organizations will continue to follow traditional paths to finding jobs or finding people, respectively, for the foreseeable future, I also think that we will see increasing use of a multitude of other approaches.

The ongoing shift in the employer/employee contract is one factor that is already prompting changes in how individuals plot their careers. As organizations pull back from providing all the benefits and services they once did — from health and retirement benefits to career development — individuals are becoming more mobile, perhaps working for one company for three to five years and another for the next five to 10 years. They are also thinking of themselves less in terms of a particular job and more in terms of the skills that they have amassed through education, experience, and life itself, and where they can best apply those skills on the global open-labor market.

At the same time, corporations are going through a significant evolution in terms of how they approach sourcing, positioning, and developing talent. Newer technologies, such as social media crawling, psychometric testing, gamification apps, and online video interviewing, are allowing organizations to assess an individual’s particular skills and capabilities much more efficiently than they can through a traditional interview.

Q: Can you give an example of how these new technologies are helping individuals and employers connect?

O.A.: Let’s say that a person’s LinkedIn profile indicates that she is a 20% match for a particular job. If she indicates interest in the job, the employer can then prompt her to answer a few questions, the results of which might indicate that she’s now a 40% match for the job. Next, the employer can send her a test or ask her to play a game that gives insight into her skills, capabilities, or leadership traits. Now, perhaps she is a 60% match for the job. Finally, she can be prompted to point her phone at herself and answer a few more questions in a video interview. Together these technologies have taken the candidate 80% to 90% through the assessment process before she has ever been brought into the office.

Q: In your experience as an HR leader and a talent consultant, do you see resistance to these technologies among business leaders and HR professionals?

O.A.: Some of these technologies, such as psychometric tests, have existed in different forms for 40 or 50 years. But individuals like to have control over who they hire, and certain paradigms and filters exist in our minds that influence how we interpret people as we sit across from them. So if the results we get from these technologies counter our gut instincts, we tend to ignore them and fall back on the idea that we are better predictors of future job performance than those technologies. We have proved, however, that individuals tend to be inefficient predictors of capability and talent, and that these technologies, particularly when stacked on top of one another, are much more efficient.

What I think will drive us to be more accepting of these different tools is the reality of the talent shortage and the resulting war for talent. Today, 202 million people globally are actively looking for work, yet 35% of companies in a recent study said they cannot fill all available jobs. In some parts of Asia, countries have worked really hard to accelerate the number of people coming out of college, but corporations say that less than 10% of those individuals are ready for the workplace. So the inefficiency of the yield coming out of current education systems and current assessment systems coupled with the expansive need for ready-made talent or talent with the appropriate potential are driving organizations to embrace some of these other talent-assessment techniques.

Q: What does the future hold for talent in terms of how individuals develop it and how organizations acquire it?

O.A.: Some of the tools I just described will allow people to be much more purposeful in assessing themselves and comparing themselves against opportunities. For example, instead of following an “accidental” career path based on what your parents do or something your guidance counselor happens to say, you have the ability to assess your own competencies and think about how you can apply them.

These tools will also allow you to determine what skills will be required for you to be whatever it is you want to be. For example, I know that if I want to be a lawyer, I should go to law school, or if I want to be a doctor, I should go to medical school. But if I want to be a marketing executive or the CEO of a company, historically it has been harder to understand exactly what I need to do to prepare. In the past, the only answer has been to get as good an education as possible. So if I go to Harvard or Yale versus some other school, for example, the likelihood of my being whatever I want to be maybe goes up.

Now, with more customized assessment tools at my disposal, I am empowered to identify my own competencies, identify the skills needed to achieve my goal, and, by comparing these, create a list of any skills gaps and develop a plan for building them.

Meanwhile, corporations can use these tools to become empowered with more information about individuals, which will help them identify who they want to attract to their organization — regardless of proxies such as what school an individual attended.

One of the changes to the human ecosystem already in play has to do with the rise of massive open online courses and the fact that major universities are placing huge segments of their curricula online. In speaking with a group of executives recently, I asked how they would compare two potential job candidates: one who attended MIT in person and one who completed the same courses online. One member of the group believed that the person who lived on campus would be a better candidate because he not only completed the coursework but also learned how to live alone, manage sharing space with others, engage professors — and even do his own laundry. Everyone agreed that this type of social development is important. But then I asked whether the group’s opinion might change if they learned that the person doing the coursework online lived in a remote village, was raising two children, taking care of an elderly parent, and had to walk to a central location for computer access in order to do the work and get the degree.

The point is that the human ecosystem is becoming much broader to include those who have not had the ability to participate in the traditional education process because of financial constraints, where they live, or socio-economic conditions. Now, talent will be allowed to play through and some corporations are at a point where they’re ready to accept talent irrespective of where it came from.

Of course, the social implications are substantial. As a person who supports open access for all, I am excited about how this change may expand opportunities to broader populations. But as the father of two boys for whom I am working very to pay for expensive prep schools and tutors so they can ideally go to top universities and have advantages in the labor market, I am faced with a conflict. This new idea of where we might look now to source talent is a change in the idea many of us have bought into for a long time — that the quality of education is a proxy for talent. So even after my sons get a wonderful education, the new human ecosystem may say, “That’s great that you went to these schools, but these other people are just as talented.”

Q: What do you hope business and HR leaders will learn from your book?

I want them to understand that change is coming — that alternative approaches to and technologies for talent sourcing and development already exist. Senior leaders and HR have to get to the point of putting more credence in these assessment tools because the data suggest that they are more efficient and effective in identifying and assessing capability than people are. When you need to hire en masse, or in economies that you are moving into for the first time, you will need to rely on some of these other approaches to get more than your fair share of the available talent and be able to win. Those leaders and companies that embrace this first and get out in front will have a competitive advantage.

Think about Google, which has an enviable employment brand and could probably get a higher yield from any top university than any other company. Nevertheless, it has seen where the world is going and has broadened its talent pool to include those who lack traditional degrees because the company believes it will be better served by having people who are talented, capable, and diverse in the broadest sense. If you have a premier employee-value organization choosing to embrace this change and broaden its recruiting pool, then the rest of us in HR and talent acquisition in other organizations better take heed, because if we wait too long, we will be at a disadvantage.

Q: What does the new human ecosystem mean for other stakeholders, such as educational institutions and governments?

In the book, I use the word “ecosystem” because no company or type of entity owns an ecosystem. While the book is directed primarily at corporate stakeholders who are feeling a lot of pressure to find the critical talent they need as they execute their strategies and take their businesses global, educational institutions at all levels also have a part in this. The tools I described could be introduced not only by organizations, but also by high schools, colleges, or community organizations to allow individuals to assess their skills, determine what career path might be the best fit for them, and map out what they want to do from a development or education perspective.

Moreover, aggregating the individual data not only can help organizations be much more precise in deciding where they want to build plants or how they want to attract certain talent but also can help communities and educational institutions as they plan and organize. You can see how all these pieces come together to create an ecosystem that thinks about talent very differently.

Learn more about the book, Talentism: Unlocking the Power of the New Human Ecosystem.


Orlando Ashford (New  York)
President, Talent
+1 212 345 4429
Barbara Marder (Baltimore)
Senior Partner, Talent
+1 410 713 0859


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