The war for talent is over – and talent won

4 minute read
The future of talent lies in open talent, say John Winsor and Jin Paik from Harvard Business School. For no matter who you are, the best talent doesn’t want to work for you. So what does this mean for your organisation?
Sian Harrington

Graphic of lightbulb with world inside it and people around it to represent open source talent

When US professional mountain climber Jimmy Chin wanted to go on an expedition in the past he would try to convince a magazine to write an article. That magazine would focus on getting some advertising from one of his sponsors (which would pay for Chin as well), the expedition would last a couple months, it would take a couple months to edit the article, a couple of months to produce the magazine and a couple of months to distribute it. The total: eight months between the initial approach and the magazine being published.

Now Chin will say: “ Hey, I'm going to be climbing with my buddies this weekend. Drop off a car in Jackson. I'll spend the weekend driving the car around, shooting photos of us climbing and two days later, I'll post the photos and charge you $50, 000."

This, says John Winsor, executive-in-residence at the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard Business School, is what open talent is about. Today Chin can reach 3. 7 million people on Instagram for $50, 000 in two days versus an eight month process for a magazine reaching 850,000 people for $250, 000. And it’s just him, all by himself.

“This has worked out well for the enterprises that want to use the talent. It's worked out for the talent. But it's really squeezed the old, analogue way of working,” says Winsor.

It’s why Winsor and his colleague Jin Paik, principal visiting research scientist at D^3 Institute, Harvard Business School, believe open talent is the way forward. Indeed, they conclude that the war for talent is over – and talent has won.

What is open talent?

Open talent refers to the democratisation of work, where individuals can offer their skills and services through various platforms and companies can tap into this talent pool on a project-by-project basis. This model offers a more flexible and agile approach to talent management compared to the traditional employment structure.

To be more specific, Winsor and Paik define open talent as the digital transformation of talent through a globally distributed workforce accessible to companies ondemand via digital connections and platforms. It represents the rise of micro-entrepreneurs who look at work as a thing to do, fitting it into their lifestyle, instead of a place to go or a definition of who they are.

This talent has been enabled by digital technology, which has allowed for the rise of a new class of creators and freelancers by radically reducing the cost of production. And this will help to solve the talent crisis employers are experiencing, say Winsor and Paik.

Take technology talent. McKinsey reported earlier this year that even with recent industry layoffs the tech talent shortage shows few signs of abating, while Korn Ferry says that by 2030 there will be 85 million tech jobs that will go unfilled – and that will cost companies $8.5 trillion.

“No matter who you are, the best talent doesn’t want to work for you,” says Paik, referencing conversations he has had with many organisations.

The networked organisation

To combat this Winsor and Paik believe the future of the organisation is the networked organisation, where talent is taken from inside and outside the organisation as needed, via a global ecosystem. This is a key aspect of the open talent approach. It involves creating an organisational structure that embraces flexibility and agility by tapping into different types of talent and expertise.

Internal talent mobility is a crucial element of the networked organisation. It empowers employees to manage their own career paths, find new opportunities within the organisation and develop their skills. Rather than being restricted to a specific department or role individuals can navigate various projects and teams, gaining diverse experiences and contributing their expertise where it is most needed.

Open innovation is another key component of the networked organisation. It involves tapping into external talent through platforms and crowd-sourcing methods. By accessing a broader pool of talent companies can seek solutions, insights and expertise from a diverse range of individuals. This collaborative approach enables organisations to tackle complex problems, generate new ideas and drive innovation from both within and outside the company.

The networked organisation also embraces the concept of external talent clouds. These are large networks of talented individuals or specialised firms that can be enlisted for specific projects or tasks. By leveraging these external talent clouds companies can access highly skilled professionals on a project-by-project basis, providing flexibility and cost-effectiveness.

How to implement an open talent system

In their book, Open Talent: Leveraging the Global Workforce to Solve Your Busines Challenges, they suggest a model based on a six-part system.

  1. Transform: In particular, shifting mindset from a fixed to growth mindset. Key to this is framing and reframing ideas and a developing a networked culture
  2. Assess: Looking at an open talent risk assessment model including vision, appetite for risk and how to set up an open talent operating model
  3. Learn: Keeping track of everyone in the ecosystem. There are 700 platforms in the market and it is difficult to get agreement on a common language – so understand the ecosystem and decide where to start: what works best for your organisation?
  4. Experiment: For example, looking at artificial intelligence and crowd-sourcing to solve problems. Take US space agency NASA. You could see it as a 17,000 person organisation or a 17,000 person organisation digitally connected to 30,000 contractors or, with its 40 platforms, a 17,000 person organisation digitally connected to 30,000 contractors which can access another 110 million people in its ecosystem globally
  5. Build: After experimenting, Winsor and Paik suggest building an external talent cloud, first to reduce hiring time and increase productivity, then developing open innovation capabilities using contest-based problem solving to drive innovation and then creating an internal talent marketplace to empower your organisation’s intellectual surplus.
  6. Scale: Taking an open talent approach can reduce costs exponentially and create momentum on digital transformation. Winsor points to the example of digital technology firm UST, whose HR team needed to transfer a spreadsheet document of new recruits into its Oracle system. It approached a consulting company to figure it out, who came back with a bid of $250,000 and fourmonths to get the work done. VP of strategic initiatives Vinod Kartha went to Upwork and found three people to get it done in a week for $20,000. This started the open talent journey for UST.

Open talent is not limited to technology-related skills, stress Winsor and Paik. Any individual with marketable skills, regardless of their background, can benefit from this approach. For example, neurodiverse individuals, who may find it challenging to secure traditional employment.

Open talent represents the future of talent management, Winsor and Paik conclude. As Winsor notes, while companies – the demand side – have controlled the dialogue for the last century, this has shifted and now the supply side controls it, especially in technology. “The tech guy decides where they work. For anyone today, you have to have the best talent to work for you. If  you don’t have the purchase power to demand they come into the office you will have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth having someone in the office or having the best talent in the world?”

And for individuals Paik adds: “This is a generational change. This is a whole new way of thinking. For many of us who work today,our parents were company men or women, working for one company for a career. That doesn't work today."

Published 25 October 2023. John Winsor and Jin Paik were speaking at a Harvard Business Review webinar
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