Eight Ways to Create a Just-in-Time Workforce

Just as just-in-time processes help manufacturing companies manage risk, reduce costs and improve flexibility by delivering materials just before they are needed, companies hoping to nimbly adapt to changing business conditions should develop a just-in-time workforce — the ability to quickly locate skills based on demand.

In today’s increasingly volatile world, the ability to manage risk related to potential workforce shortages and to immediately tap the skills organizations need — when and where talent managers need them — can become a formidable business advantage.

Organizations hoping to develop a just-in-time workforce capability can do so in a variety of ways. What follows are some ways to develop a just-in-time workforce capability, based on ongoing discussions with organizations such as Microsoft, Hilton Hotels and Resorts, and German energy company RWE.

Find Talent Outside the Company
Many organizations are accessing talent outside their company in nontraditional ways that enable them to fill key skills gaps quickly for however long is needed.

Tap into talent in the cloud. Just as organizations can now access software over the Internet in the cloud, so too can they use the Internet to get instant access to a vast number of flexible, skilled and cost-effective individuals around the world who can perform work on a transactional basis.

Types of work that can be performed in the cloud range from tiny micro tasks, such as selling products for a fee using online social community LeadVine’s talent marketplace, to more complex project work like software design and programming using global software development and digital creation community Topcoder’s talent competitions, in which companies pay the winners for the work that wins the competition. Managing workers in the cloud will require adjusting talent management styles and methods, however — such as the ability to clearly define and carve work up into modular, discrete segments that can later be integrated into a final work product, or the ability to effectively source, motivate and manage unknown workers remotely.

Use a pool of pre-screened, reliable talent. Instead of turning to a staffing agency each time unexpected needs arise, many organizations are creating their own pools of known talent they can tap just in time on a contract basis. Often, people in this pool are former employees who now seek greater flexibility, but who can hit the ground running because they already have proven up-to-date skills as well as existing networks in the company. For example, Principal Financial Group has designed talent programs where retirees can work on a project consulting basis, and the network YourEncore enables member companies to share a pool of retired scientists and engineers who are available on a contract basis.

Although using known talent traditionally has been the most reliable way to tap external skills, data-based analytics can easily and effectively help get to know an untested and unknown worker. New companies, such as Elance, Behance and inno360, have emerged to help quickly and inexpensively collect information about potential workers to help managers easily select high-performing individuals with skills they need. Information may include scores on assessments that gauge a person’s skills, cultural fit, competencies, work motivators and interests; work competition results; portfolios of sample work; performance evaluations or key performance metrics from past work projects; and social media or article contributions that determine a person’s depth of knowledge in particular subject areas.

Create an employee loan initiative. If one company experiences a spike in demand for a particular workforce group, and another company experiences a corresponding ebb in demand for such workers, employees could be temporarily loaned from one company to another. For example, Chicago software companies 8th Light and Obtiva have an employee-swapping program — although it was designed to spur innovation and knowledge transfer rather than to cope with changes related to supply and demand for skilled talent.

A logical place for this type of transfer to occur may be through a staffing agency. Some agencies are hiring workers from clients with a surplus of talent, and then loaning them to organizations with a demand for workers, only to be deployed to the original organization later if needed. Staffing agencies also could build a pool of new college graduates who could be deployed on-demand to multiple employers in a global consortia model. Alternatively, some companies are creating their own staffing agencies to reduce costs and more effectively share labor with local companies.

Initiating a true employee swapping program to balance changes in supply and demand can have its challenges, however. Everything from pay, benefits, and sharing and protection of confidential information may need to be worked out. And if the visit is too short, the employee might have to leave before getting acclimated to a new office culture, much less getting work done. However, more companies may begin to experiment with employee exchange programs to achieve greater agility.

Don’t Forget Those Internal Gems
When the need for new skills arises, or when higher-skilled people are needed quickly, most executives will immediately think of retraining existing workers. But this can be a slow process. What follows are some fast alternatives to tap internal talent just in time.

Cross-skill people so they can use different skills on demand. When customer demand fluctuates in different parts of the business, it can be useful to have certain core workforces prepared to handle tasks outside of their normal realm of responsibility. At Hilton Hotels and Resorts, for example, housekeepers and service staff must know how to not only check in guests and clean rooms but also help travelers connect their iPads and use self check-in kiosks.

To effectively implement a cross-skilling program, many organizations are experimenting with talent models — tying pay, type of work, rewards, career paths and other talent processes to an individual’s unique skill profile rather than to specific jobs. Instead of defining career paths by jobs, for example, companies can define them by skills, and let workers choose their next moves based on their evolving skill base.

New technology, for example, can analyze skills, employee transfers and promotion histories to present workers with common or uncommon career paths taken by other workers. A worker can view actual career paths others have taken who have similar skills, preferences, and roles, and network with these people to learn more through social networking.

Create a dedicated pool of flexible, just-in-time talent. Some organizations have dedicated employees who can roam the organization, dropping in to work in roles or on projects as needed. Top-performing employees, for example, may be chosen to become part of an internationally mobile population who have the chance to work in various markets and parts of the business. These mobile groups may have dedicated HR support and segmented policies for career development, rewards and managing inter-country moves.

Alternatively, an organization may choose to set up a less expensive internal temporary staffing agency that either makes use of local people or turns to workers who can do their jobs remotely. Internal agencies can draw on skills databases that send only relevant assignments to employees. These employees can be managed like regular workers — with performance reviews, career progression and compensation plans tied to performance — but they would be able to customize jobs based on the ability to mix and match assignments.

Create a demand-driven talent marketplace. Another approach is to create an open talent market inside an organization where workers change jobs altogether based on changes in demand. “We’re creating an internally mobile talent market where there is a natural push and pull for skills,” said Matthew W. Schuyler, chief human resources officer, Hilton Worldwide. The company does this by documenting every employee’s skills, including languages, education, property experience, local market connections and affiliations with boards and nonprofits.

Many organizations are beginning to document employees’ career aspirations, competencies and cultural fit as well to enable organizations to make a better fit between talent and just-in-time tasks. Software and social tools such as UpMo, for example, enable companies to collect more information about employees’ skills and capabilities, and can help organizations fill open roles faster and more effectively with qualified internal hires. The technology captures data such as employees’ skills, experience, desired work roles and locations and the pace at which they’d like to advance. The technology then matches employees with internal opportunities, and provides executives with information about the talent supply, such as how many people are looking for which new roles.

Restructure work in terms of smaller, discrete, skill-based projects. Instead of having people switch jobs entirely based on demand, jobs can be broken down and structured into smaller projects that can vary with the business environment. Companies may ask a certain segment of employees to spend a percentage of their time on specific projects, or they may take apart the standard series of job tasks altogether and identify smaller, discrete chunks of work that can be modularly configured based on interest and skill, identified in part through skills databases and internal talent markets.

Alternatively, organizations can introduce projects outside of people’s jobs entirely. At Microsoft, core engineers can moonlight on special projects that lie outside their core jobs. Thanks to this approach, the company can quickly tap seasoned, skilled workers as needed for specific aspects of major projects. This tactic also benefits the engineers by providing them with variety in their work and extra income.

Define jobs more broadly. Instead of disaggregating work into smaller, defined projects, some organizations are defining jobs broadly so individuals or their managers are free to flexibly apply skills according to demand.

“For many positions, we have broadly defined roles so that we can move people from department to department or from project to project as needed without being slowed down or blocked by the administrative barriers we would have if we had to switch people’s actual jobs,” said Stefan Niehusmann, managing director of IT service, RWE. “This gives us the advantage of flexibly deploying skills based on changes in demand whilst maintaining the provision of varied and flexible career paths and improving organizational learning.”

The ability to develop a just-in-time workforce capability can create a significant advantage, enabling organizations to pursue market opportunities and respond to changing customer needs faster than competitors. Those who build a variety of ways to creatively tap the skills they need will create flexibility that can help them outperform the competition.

Susan M. Cantrell is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance and co-author of Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization. Breck Marshall is executive director in the Accenture Talent & Organization management consulting practice. Katherine LaVelle is managing director responsible for the Accenture Talent & Organization management consulting practice in North America. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.