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The RCSA World Employment Conference: Leadership in a New World of Work, held on the Gold Coast three weeks ago was a big success.

The speakers were uniformly excellent, the social events were fun and the networking was plentiful.

I took plenty of notes and over the subsequent weeks, I have written additional notes based on various books and articles referred to by the keynote speakers.

The best summary of my conclusions has been provided by Deloitte’s Peter Williams. I have heard Pete present a few times before and he is always engaging, educational, and energetic. The fundamental premise of his presentation The Future of Work – Opportunities for Labour Market Enablers is about taking opportunities.

One of Pete’s final slides captured this advice and his recommended action steps succinctly:

  • Think ahead
  • Orient towards partnerships
  • It’s people with technology
  • Learn faster to move faster

I have used these four action steps as a useful structure for my musings on (some of) what I took from the conference speakers.

1. Learn faster to move faster 

To me, hands down, this was the single most important point.

Netflix are famous for their culture, and just as famous for the public articulation of that culture. Here’s what the document says about leadership, decision making and learning inside their company:

The leader’s job at every level is to set clear context so that others have the right information to make generally great decisions. 

We strive to develop good decision-making muscles everywhere in our company. 

Each leader’s role is to teach, to set context, and to be highly informed of what is actually happening. 

The single most-effective way for employees to learn faster is to have both the capability and authority to make as many decisions as possible, related to their area of responsibility.

At the conference Talent’s CEO, Mark Nielsen, presented a case study of how Talent had accelerated their performance by focusing on employee engagement. A critical component of this engagement has been the empowerment of employees to become more self-directed in both their job and their career.

Talent supports this empowerment by providing the necessary resources, both human and tech, to help employees streamline work processes and focus on high-value activities.

Mark’s goal is to have everybody in the company embrace their whole self where confidence replaces fear.

The company-wide results at Talent have been unambiguous and dramatic:

YearStaff turnoverUnder performersEBITDA growth
2019 10% 2%44%

Talent is a local, industry-specific example of how deliberately creating a culture of engagement to learn faster has the whole company moving faster and, critically delivering both outstanding financial results and a better employee experience

2. Think ahead

Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, mentioned that one of her regrets from her time in office was not enforcing a ‘Cone of Silence’: a time to think about what her priorities are, review them, and plan for effective action. She urged us to “Aim big on this front”.

What might a recruitment agency owner or executive best spend their time thinking about?

A good place to start is to understand what customers are doing now and thinking about in the near term, with respect to talent acquisition and management.

John Nurthen of Staffing Industry Analysts shared an array of fascinating data about the trends SIA is identifying. In the SIA’s Workforce Solutions Buyers Survey completed in September 2018 the respondents identified their current and near-term initiatives and priorities as follows:

  • Diversity/women/minority supplier program (56% of respondents reported this was in place, 29% of respondents said they would be exploring in next 2 years)
  • Analytics for evaluating vendors (43% in place – 47% exploring)
  • AI automation project to replace jobs (15% in place – 52% exploring)
  • Online staffing platforms (20% in place – 56% exploring)
  • Trying out new staffing suppliers (48% in place – 35% exploring)

A wise recruitment agency owner or executive should be looking very carefully at what impact these areas of talent acquisition are having, or might have, on their business.

Gus Balbontin, the opening speaker on Day One of the conference, made a powerful point with his slide showing the respective home pages of Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, from 2001. Trip Advisor’s page was focused on helping travellers and tourists make better decisions about where to go, and how to get there. Lonely Planet’s home page was focused on selling guide books.

Gus’s metaphor of ‘your company’s concrete’ (a set way of thinking and doing inside a company, that’s not focused on what the customer wants and how they are behaving) is one I am sure ‘stuck’ for many in the audience.

3. Orient towards partnerships 

Recruitment agencies have made good money for decades by serving all-comers. Manual systems made focusing on market niches difficult. Even when databases dramatically improved a recruiter’s ease of creating, and working, niches through drop-down menus, tags, and the like, most recruiters didn’t take advantage of what was available to them.

The recruitment agencies that effectively collaborate with their clients, candidates, industry colleagues, and suppliers and then build on this collaboration to create deep partnerships will win big. These agencies will be closest to the early signs of changing market behaviour that will enable them to respond fastest and most effectively.

A simple example would be the insight from the SIA research mentioned earlier that 43%of organisations have analytics for evaluating vendors in place and 47% of organisations are planning to explore this within the next two years.

Those agencies that respond the fastest to being able to produce metrics that evidence their capability to consistently and effectively deliver, for example, shortlists that contain gender diversity or minority representation will be well-placed to help improve their clients’ diversity efforts and win new business on the back of such capability.

4. It’s people with technology

The week after the conference Hudson announced a $500 million deal with Expert360, a marketplace and management platform for independent consultants and contractors. The specifics of the deal were not announced and it’s unclear what the $500 million actually relates to, however, this deal is another example of traditional agencies getting into bed with technology platforms.

In the past five years staffing firms have made over 200 acquisitions, globally, of non-staffing companies. By category, these purchases fall into the following categories:

  • Talent acquisition technology (36%),
  • Direct work engagement (10%),
  • Payroll and compliance (11%),
  • Process outsourcing (16%),
  • Other workforce solutions (27%). 

Some technology platforms have the potential to be valuable partners for some recruitment agencies.

John Nurthen shared the PwC Economics view of how the future in the AI/machine learning/robotics space may unfold:

Wave 1: Algorithmic wave (to early 2020s) – automation of simple computation data and analysis of structured data, affecting data-driven sectors such as fin services, accounting, law etc 

Wave 2: Augmentation wave (to late 2020s) – dynamic interaction with tech for clerical support and decision making. Also includes semi-robotic tasks in semi-controlled environments, such as moving objects in a warehouse.

Wave 3: Autonomous wave (to mid-2030s) – Automation of physical labour and manual dexterity and problem-solving in dynamic real-world situations that require responsive actions, such as construction and transport.

The work for owners and executives of recruitment agencies is to be continually reviewing the landscape for what’s here, what’s coming, and how the technology may pose a competitive threat or how it may help leverage the agency’s existing strengths and reduce low-value work. Or maybe it’s potentially both. 

In part 2 of this blog, available next week, I make specific recommendations for recruitment agency owners with respect to (no or low cost) action to take right now.


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