Kindled Meme

– exploring the purpose of connection


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Digital Talent Night in Oxford

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So this week I attended the @OxonDigital event because I’d seen some good content going around on Twitter about it ..and well.. anything around digital is hot right?

It was chance to see whats really going on and catch up wth some tweeps – and it was a great night because the people were friendly and open and enthusiastic. And optimistic too. Its a growing industry and everyone is hiring –  and lets face it Oxford is a pretty cool place to be doing it

As some one who has spent too many years focused on building the internet infrastructure – the backbone, access and datacentres – I’ve long been aware that the value had move to the content – its the apps that really plug into the behaviours that unlock commercial and social value. This stuff done right can make a difference.

The challenge we face

Simons of Ridgeway did a really good pitch about the changes to the climate for digital – with good humility – making fun of his own hair cuts and digital journey over the past decades – to the world of digital natives and the changes to how content will be consumed.

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He covered many of the challenges to delivering this – much echoed the thoughts I’d heard at the Guardian Media Summit. But sitting in a room full of the people that have to ride the back of this tiger, I was drawn to query where the talent was going to come from to build all this. Sure enought it seems its hard to find the right people at this point in time, with Ridgeway opening an office in London to get access to the talent needed (there is a shortage of people locally and the new grads from Brookes arnt up to the task on day 1 – there is a gap.

This is great news for those who are in demand and have the skills – but its bad news for the industry as it clogs up – it cant resource its own leading edge – and then we all get dragged down.

Finding good staff is an issue – a bottleneck and its not the biggest leap to see that the company in the room that has the biggest pools of skills will easily be the one with the highest brightest future growth. There is certainly not a shortage of business to be won – but who can execute?

When hearing this I was thinking of the challenges in the gaming industry – NESTA had talked about this when we went to visit them as a Henley “school trip” last year – there is a report they produced that captures why the UK slipped from being third in gaming to being sixth – and amongst other things talent is an major issue. (Check out a Vimeo Vid on the issues here)

Its pretty tragic that of all the courses that prepare the pipeline of skills for the gaming industry only 9 of them meet a standard that the industy requires. And the places that are getting it right arnt the places you expect – there are innovators in education and they are making a difference – but they are in isolated pockets and in unexpected places! (Check out the Skillset list here)

I wonder if its the same issue for digital content and as in the gaming industry; and I wonder whether its just a local issue – but Im thinking who is really compelling some different thinking between this industry and the work of (now expensive) universities. Have people connected to make a change? Engagement is a two way commitment after all.

The Boom

I saw the same talent crisis happening in my world 10 years ago

I came to Oxford to work in an a start-up ISP and was given a grand title and a seat with a view of a field full of cows. I got to live in Woodstock and make the most of the too many pubs the ‘town’ has.

But we couldnt get staff either then – finding someone with Cisco skills and the ability to write a BGP policy was near impossible, For me it was good times – there was a shortage of my skills and so I was paid well – all fine.

But we needed staff and we had to to grow people – and sometimes they came from unlikely sources – but we did get there in the end with some nurturing.

The NOC manager had once been the company receptionist, and before that she was a hairdresser. The customer service team were made up of ex-chefs and other hospitality types; and the new tech-ops guys had been installation engineers – trained in rigging microwave dishes on masts – but now building connections on Stratacom kit and fiddling with routers. It wasnt the rocket science stuff – but they were needed in the mix.

It wasn’t ideal at the time – if you like mastery and perfection it gives you the shits – but there was no other way. And surprisingly most of the ‘unlikely’ candidates developed to be good techies. I think it was the rock solid attitude and curiosity they had that made the difference.

Most managers are caught up recruiting people in their own image. We are always trying finding a tecnical-warrior that could cope with the ambiguity in a growth storm approaching things with some level of creativity, while also delivering reliably and fitting in with our own style. But in a boomtime we found recruiting was often a false-positive and we had more success growing from within. And unexpectedly – it wasnt that painful.(Or has my memory faded…)

It became less about managing resources but more about nurturing seeds.

Loafer Wisdom

Ive recently become a big fan of  Tony Hsieh – who build Zappo’s over 10 years and did some clever things to grow that business – often hopping from one crisis to the next – taking lessons from his past and always thinking very big.

Tony Hsieh is big on culture – his book is engaging on many levels but building a pipeline of staff is probably one of the great Zappo achievements – I really recommend it to anyone who is looking at resourcing during high growth – he has a very clear view on how to shape it. (It could be the only time Ive seen HR being visionary and delivering a strategic advantage – perhaps I just need to get out more…)

What came over from Tonys story is that talent is an issue that needs bigger thinking than just finding a resource. Zappos have a big commitment to developing from within and succession – backed by protecting their brand through right behaviours and having a culture that was homegrown and authentically theirs. So as well as shipping shoes Zappos became a killer learning and development machine. Its a compelling read.

I think if you are a technology SME this all sounds a bit tricky – all high-growth firms are very market focussed – if you invoice based on delivery – then you will focus on a project-by-project view. But at some point it grows one step too far and there is a time, maybe over a beer, when you ask: Is this all going to scale?

I got thinking about the expression “Build it and they will come” – however in the Digital space it looks like “people have come” and now we’re asking “who is going to build it”

Its a nice problem to have 🙂

James

PS – Just stumbled on this as I press publish –  someone elses view Creative Talent issues here.