Every talent management program can benefit from data-driven decision-making. One of the most exciting additions to Eightfold AI has been our Talent Insights initiative, a deep dive into data to extract insights about the fastest-growing—and declining—skills and roles across industries around the world.
Led by Eightfold’s former Head of Insights and Analytics, Hicham Zahr, his team taps into powerful new research to inform better hiring decisions and identify internal talent for upskilling, reskilling, and new opportunities.
Zahr has a digital transformation background working for McKinsey, Oracle, and Gartner before joining Eightfold AI. Recently named one of 2022’s Top 100 HR Tech Influencers by HR Executive Magazine, Zahr has a love for learning that started when he was growing up in Lebanon. Now in Silicon Valley, he’s taken his lifelong passion for picking up new skills to transform people’s careers backed with groundbreaking insights from the Eightfold Talent Intelligence Platform.
Here, Zahr joins Eightfold AI’s Chief Marketing Officer Ligia Zamora and Senior Director of Product Marketing Jason Cerrato to discuss his research and how it can help any HR leader crack their talent code. (Ed note: Quotes have been edited for clarity and length. For the full conversation, listen to the podcast by Eightfold AI, The New Talent Code).
Putting data at the center of talent management decisions
Jason Cerrato: What challenges are most organizations coming to you with today?
Hicham Zahr: Let me put things into perspective as to why digital transformation is important. In 2020, digital transformation was around $1.3 trillion. In 2025 it is going to be $2.8 trillion, and I’m talking business practices, products, organizations. That’s what it’s forecasted to be. So it’s very important, but why is it important?
In digital transformation, a lot of people think it’s about technology. Let me get the latest and greatest tools and implement them and we’re good to go. Or we take a current manual process and automate it, and I’m good to go.
But that’s not the case. Digital transformations are about survival. I’m going to tell you other statistics, which are important from a study by McKinsey (2016). The lifespan of companies listed in the S&P 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today it is less than 17 years. In 2027, it says that 75 percent of the companies currently coded in the S&P 500 will disappear.
You need digital transformation to survive. It’s not about technology. It’s about fundamentally changing what a company is doing.
Ligia Zamora: I don’t think there’s going to be a choice in this hybrid world. The pandemic and lockdown accelerated it because it was the only way to survive.
H.Z.: Absolutely, but it’s hard to keep up with business as usual and transform at the same time.
This is where leadership comes in. This is where culture becomes important, and talking about people becomes important. The driver of the digital transformation and what you’re trying to achieve with digital transformation are two different things: customer value and employee value.
This is where Talent Intelligence becomes important because if these are the two main drivers that’s what you’re trying to achieve with digital transformation. Profit, revenue, and so on will follow.
If you just focus on profit, you’re going to miss out on a lot of things, and you’re not going to be able to truly achieve a transformation. You can boost profit in so many ways, but if you focus on those two things—I want to drive more value for my customers, and I want to drive more value for my employees—now you’re talking about a transformation.
L.Z.: What do you mean by talent intelligence?
H.Z.: It’s very simple. Talent Intelligence is about basically acquiring or using technology and data to drive talent decisions. That’s what it’s about.
L.Z.: What type of data is a talent intelligence platform looking at?
H.Z.: Talent intelligence has the ability to infer skills not only based on that person’s experience, education, and so on, but also on other people who work in the same role in the same industry, and other people at the same company. You’re not just looking at that individual in the silos. Now you’re putting those other elements—the ecosystem—around that individual to uncover all these skills.
We’re looking at millions of skills that we evaluate and analyze, and we can look at the most penetrated skills in certain industries. We can look at the most penetrated roles in certain industries. We can look at the fastest-rising skills, which is very important.
L.Z.: What does that mean, fastest-rising skills?
H.Z.: These are skills that over the last 10 years have achieved a certain velocity. We see more people entering the workforce with those skills.
Why is that important? If you have more people entering the workforce with certain skills that means there is demand for those skills. That’s triggering those people to obtain those skills.
We look at it for a 10-year period, but we give more emphasis for the last five years because the half-life of a skill is five years.
But there’s a caveat when it comes to technical skills, the half-life of a skill is two and a half years. So it’s diminishing. There is a lot of research that talks about two to three years. So I’m gonna take the midpoints here and say two and a half. What does that mean? It means a skill achieves its peak in two and a half years and then it starts going down. That’s why upskilling and reskilling are important.
L.Z.: It’s about being able to better prepare a company by being future-looking rather than backward-looking in terms of understanding the skill sets.
H.Z.: Absolutely. The key is to look not just backward, but at what is currently emerging, and what’s currently emerging doesn’t usually show because it’s truly under the hood. There are very few skills that you see because these have been emerging very fast, but not a lot of people have them. So not a lot of people talk about them, but companies should be aware of them.
J.C.: Is that why this type of view and information is important as companies and industries increasingly pivot?
H.Z.: When it comes to talent, there are two things that companies are trying to do. One, they’re trying to create a good, solid jobs architecture. And the second thing is strategic workforce planning.
A lot of people confuse one for the other. They think they’re one in the same. Let me put things in perspective and why this is important to propel or prepare companies for the future.
A jobs architecture is about how a company organizes itself so it can be successful. This is where we talk about roles, leveling, skills, hierarchy, and so on. And you might tell me it’s easy, right? Like org structure. It’s not simply about org structure. This is about architecting jobs within your company. And for that, the atom, the common denominator, the smallest unit is the skill.
For companies to improve their chances of success, I’m going to state the five things they need to do, and let’s think about how many of them involve people.
One is building capability for the workforce of the future. Two is having the right digital-savvy leaders in place. Three is empowering people to work in new ways. Four is giving day-to-day tools a digital upgrade—and this is the first time I’m mentioning technology. Five is communication and communicating frequently.
L.Z.: Four out of your five involve talent.
H.Z.: Exactly. This is where talent becomes very important. This is where job architecture becomes very important. And the next thing is strategic workforce planning.
Strategic workforce planning is truly deriving a plan that is aligned with your strategic ambitions and your goals. And that it’s aligned with your goals that has people as its core element.
For strategic workforce planning, this is where you need to look outward—what is happening in the market? That’s where you need to look at your competitors and what they are doing.
It’s also where you need to do an inventory within and see what skills your people have. This is also where you need to make strategic decisions in terms of what you need to be successful from an upskilling and reskilling standpoint.
L.Z.: What do you think business leaders can do to make progress here, especially for those of us getting started?
H.Z.: There can be a lot of fear with employees when you’re transforming, and that fear is detrimental to the digital transformation. How do you overcome that fear? By reassuring employees that there’s nothing to be afraid of and you plan on helping them stay in the long run.
How do you do that? You need to upskill and reskill your employees. This is the first thing that I recommend to business and HR leaders. Look internally. There are gems in every company, and I truly believe in lifelong learning. People love to learn. It feels good to learn. And that’s when you look at skill adjacencies and hire people with those adjacent skills and you upskill and reskill them from within.
Finally, when architecting jobs, do not architect for today. Today is going to be passed tomorrow. You want to architect those jobs and roles for the future. This is what we call calibration. Calibrate for the future.