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How To Build Digital Capacity And Attracting Talent

Traditional business logic dictates that you should outsource functions that aren’t core to your business in order to let the efficiencies of the market drive down costs. Let’s say you run a profitable magazine publishing company. You’ll probably have in-house editorial, marketing and finance teams. However, there’s little point in hiring your own cleaners because they’re not core to your business, and professional cleaning companies will almost certainly do it cheaper and better. [Links checked March/23/2017]

Digital services used to be seen in this way — as a cost to be minimized by hiring external agencies that would compete with each other on price and quality. Sadly, this attitude resulted in many large organizations spending less on their digital services than they did on their restrooms, which seems crazy considering how important digital channels have become. If you equate expenditure to value, this paints a stark picture of how some traditional companies valued this sector.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Because digital products and services play an increasingly important role in the day-to-day operations of normal businesses, it no longer makes strategic sense to outsource these activities wholesale. Instead, many traditional companies are starting to build internal digital capacity, which they can then augment and extend with agencies and freelancers. This allows product learning to stay within the team, and it ensures that these companies have control over their long-term digital future.

As a result, we’re seeing companies move away from the old way of engaging with agencies and towards something much more collaborative. Agencies are helping not only to deliver new products and services, but also to coach and train client teams along the way.

To attract digital talent, you need to provide space for designers to think — and draw.5

To attract digital talent, you need to provide space for designers to think — and draw. (Image: Google Ventures, Fastcodesign6)

Working as part of an integrated team helps to prevent projects from being thrown over the fence, breaking the three-to-five-year cycle of redesign and stagnation. Instead, both parties become mutually responsible for the solution, making it easier for the in-house team to manage, optimize and extend the output when the agency has left. Some agencies will go even further and actively recruit in-house teams to replace themselves in an attempt to ensure the long-term future of the product.

Agencies are still very good at managing large-scale projects in which risks need to be minimized. This is because agencies tend to deliver significantly more projects each year than internal teams and get exposed to a wider range of problems and working practices. However, the days of relegating internal teams to “business as usual” tasks are, thankfully, on the out. Instead, it’s much more common to see internal teams working on small experimental projects where the risk of failure (and, therefore, the cost of outsourcing) is much higher, but where the potential rewards and learning opportunities are higher, too. Internal teams also get to see projects through to the end, something that doesn’t happen as often as many agency practitioners would like.

It’s good news for traditional companies that joining an in-house team has become a more attractive proposition in the last few years. However, with demand outstripping supply, finding and retaining digital talent is still a major problem, and only getting worse. Here are seven simple techniques that traditional companies can adopt to help them find the talent they need to thrive in today’s digital marketplace.

Step 1: Publicly Commit To A Digital Future Link

Modern digital practitioners want to work in companies that share their vision and ideals. The first step to hiring the right people is for senior leaders to make a public commitment to change, and then back this up with the resources to make this happen.

The best designers and developers are motivated less by money than by the opportunity to make people’s lives better through design and technology.

As an example of this, look no further than Government Digital Service7 (GDS) in the UK. After all, who would have thought five years ago that the most exciting organization to work with in the UK wouldn’t have been some hot new startup, but central government? If the government can do this, any organization can.

Step 2: Back This Up With Exemplary Projects Link

Simply stating a desire for change is of no use if you can’t back it up with evidence. Companies that want to build a strong digital culture need to start by releasing some exemplary projects, projects that demonstrate the company’s ability to take risks and innovate. These early projects will probably need to be delivered in partnership with agencies or through small internal skunkworks staffed with talented freelancers.

A great example of this in action is Lowe’s Innovation Labs8. It is a small digital team in what would normally be seen as a fairly risk-averse sector. The mission of Lowe’s Innovation Labs is to work with “uncommon partners” and do interesting projects that attract the type of talent that Lowe’s recognizes it needs to succeed in the modern digital landscape.

Another example of innovation attracting talent is Nordstrom’s design team. It created a simple video charting its in-store app design experiments9. This went viral and labelled the design team as forward-thinking to a whole generation of UX designers.

Step 3: Hire Industry Leaders Link

Hiring well-known design and technology advocates can help legitimize your mission to become a truly digital company in the eyes of the community, as well as unlock a huge network of possible connections. If you can recruit somebody who has their pick of people to work with, this sends an important message to the community that interesting things are afoot. Having great communicators on your team will also help you spread your message of digital transformation far and wide, as long as you support them in their activities. I’ve seen too many amazing designers and developers hired by large tech companies because of their profile, only to be locked away and no longer allowed to speak to the public.

However, it’s not just about profile. When Tesco bought Blinkbox, it promoted CEO Michael Cornish to group digital officer. This kicked off a program of digital transformation, which led Tesco to disengage with digital agencies and build a formidable team in-house. Who knows where Tesco’s digital team would have gone, were it not for the creative accountancy problems the company has experienced recently.

Step 4: Build A Great Team Link

While hiring charismatic leaders who people want to work for is a good first step, it’s really all about the team. Good people attract other good people; so, if you get those early hires right and treat them well, then building out a great team relatively quickly becomes easy.

Today’s knowledge workers want to continually perfect their skills, and the best way to enable this is to give them interesting challenges and surround them with smart people they can learn from.

Twitter did an excellent job of hiring smart, capable leaders, such as Doug Bowman. This attracted a raft of other design talent who wanted to work under his tutelage.

Step 5: Give Them The Freedom To Do Great Work Link

Of course, there’s no point in hiring passionate, talented people if they’re constantly told what to do and how to do it. So, a big part of digital transformation involves putting the right structure and governance in place to allow teams to self-manage, and then trusting them to deliver the goods.

This is where good product management and the support of the board come in. Instead of stakeholders directing the output (for example, “What color should this button be?” or “How should this feature work?”), product managers need to start gathering outcomes and have the power and authority to deliver these in whatever way or format they see fit.

The idea of “signing off,” then, is abandoned, and design becomes truly collaborative and goal-driven. This can be a big and difficult culture change for organizations in which power is typically denoted by one’s position in the organizational chart rather than by one’s area of expertise, but it’s also where the magic lies. I remember chatting with a friend at GDS after coming out of a particularly heated meeting with a minister who was used to telling designers what to do. However, in this instance the GDS governance criteria made it clear that the designers were ultimately in charge of the design, and ministers could only dictate outcomes.

Step 6: Create A Great Space To Work Link

Your surroundings have a huge affect on both your happiness and your ability to do your job. Imagine being a designer or technologist in an office where you’re not allowed to stick things on walls, where whiteboards are banned and where meeting rooms need to be booked months in advance. Yet this is where many design and tech teams find themselves — in uninspiring buildings that actually conspire against their doing good work.

Your surroundings have a huge affect on both your happiness and your ability to do your job10

Your surroundings have a huge affect on both your happiness and your ability to do your job. (Image: Jim Pennucci11)

Compare this with the average design agency or tech company, with beautifully designed spaces where every surface can be covered in sticky notes or written upon, where meeting rooms can quickly be turned into a project room, usability lab or place for daily stand-ups, and where you can choose the area to work in depending on the activities of the day. We’re not even talking free breakfasts, snack machines or indoor climbing walls here (although a lot of tech companies provide these as well) — just the basic resources to get your work done.

Step 7: Reward Them For Their Effort Link

As I mentioned at the start of this article, the best designers and developers aren’t motivated by money. Instead, they want to work with great colleagues on great projects that make people’s lives better. That being said, money is always going to be a factor, especially in a seller’s market.

So, with increased competition from the big tech companies that recognize the value good designers and developers can bring, competition for talent is high. Traditional businesses will need to up their stakes in order to attract the right people, or risk being left behind. As one of my colleagues says, “Any number of Salieris couldn’t have written one Mozart concerto, so investing in the best will pay dividends in the end.”

As more and more traditional organizations build their internal capabilities, the digital landscape is experiencing a seismic shift. Demand is outstripping supply, and these organizations are finding themselves competing for talent with startups, tech companies and agencies alike. The only way to survive in this landscape is to understand what attracts people to these types of companies and play them at their own game: building a design and technology culture to rival the best that Silicon Valley and Shoreditch have to offer.

(vf, ml, al)

Footnotes Link

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Andy attends, speaks at and organises over a dozen conferences a year. He loves meeting interesting people so if you see him at your next event, pop over to say hi, buy him a beer and tell him about all the wonderful stuff you’ve been working on.

  1. 1

    Not a very diverse workplace shown in that first photo, and your article hints at why: it’s a consequence of team building via “Good people attract other good people” — these folks are hiring people just like them.

    Lazy applications of this approach lead to groupthink teams (all wearing jeans, shirts, and hoodies), aping the philosophies of some “dear leader” alpha employee (usually an employee hiring others in *his* own image).

    Look at that photo again. These guys could be sharing a fraternity house.

    It’s worth mentioning that twitter is not top-of-class, UI-wise. And their apps are second-rate in class. This despite enormous resources (unthinkable really, for what twitter is). They have literally hundreds of designers and recently laid a bunch of them off.

    • 2

      Crash Override

      November 23, 2015 4:27 pm

      The guy standing is from Google Ventures, the room is a startup he is helping, so yeah they probably were in the same fraternity.

      I think you’re completely missing the point of the article. I’m not totally sure what that point is, but what I do get is – agencies on decline because people are going in-house?

  2. 3


    November 23, 2015 9:50 pm

    Hi Andy, we have noticed a huge raise in companies requesting full training on how to edit their website, add blogs and where to promote their posts. The biggest raise we have seen, and now takes a proportion of our annual sales, is in-house internet marketing training. I think this is down to the amount of spam ‘SEO’ companies that dont know what they are doing and ripping off these companies for £1000’s. Our feedback is that the risk is far more valuable to the cost and they want to make sure everything will be done correctly n-house.

    Great post Andy, thanks… Kev – SixtyMarketing

  3. 4

    Our recommendation is to cost it out — unless it’s core functionality, it’s an expensive distraction to hire internally.

    Anecdotally, our startups can’t afford it anyway — a full content marketing/design team gives you one hell of a burn rate. With VC deals coming in at $1M or less for some of our companies, they’d be insane (IMO) to hire a web design team if that’s not their core product. You can outsource that part and still end up with a great, evolving site.

    Get on a retainer, push an MVP site, create a backlog and do 4 week sprints to get to the right place – then you can see what’s working, adjust, and end up with a site that is acquiring users, getting better every month. They can hire a team, at $15k or so a month (very conservative) or hire an agency at $2k-$6k a month and get the same or better result (no ramp up time with an agency, no training necessary — we know what we’re doing already).


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