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What HR Can Learn from TEDxToronto

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to attend TEDxToronto – an independently organized TED event, which took as its theme: Alchemy, the seemingly magical process of taking ordinary elements, usually of little value, and combining them to make something extraordinary of great value.

TEDxToronto was thought-provoking. I’m definitely still contemplating some of the messages and speakers. But here are two key insights that I left with, which struck me as impactful for the future of HR:

1.     The technology innovators of the future are not learning their skills at school

Like a lot of attendees, I was charmed by the father/daughter game design duo Ryan Henson Creighton & Cassandra Creighton. At 6 years old, Cassandra probably already knows more about SDLC than I ever will…Ryan’s main thesis was that kids should be taught to use technology from an early age to create, not just consume.

He illustrated the profound degree to which traditional schooling has been unable to meet this need with a screen shot revealing some of the current computer training that he encountered in Cassandra’s classroom – Oregon Trail. After I recovered from the trauma of calculating how many years have passed since I had last played Oregon Trail, it occurred to me that it’s important for us to acknowledge that the pace at which technology moves today, and will continue to move in future, simply cannot be matched by traditional education. Given that an unmet demand for employees with niche technology skills already exists, I think that this has some pretty profound implications for our organizations.

There is little doubt that when Cassandra’s generation grows up and joins the workforce they will bring with them a previously unthinkable level of digital competency. But sophisticated users require even more sophisticated creators- where will we find the developers and inventors to allow our organizations to compete and succeed in this hyper-digital future? Is there anything we can do now to reduce the likelihood of such a profound shortage of the necessary skills? Should organizations intercede earlier and more holistically into readying the future workforce, rather than deploying narrowly focused employee training?

2.     We must seek innovative talent in unexpected places

My second HR take-away from TEDxToronto was the reinforced belief that we need to cast wider nets in our search for innovative talent. This was brought home by my favorite talk of the day, which came from Dr. Joseph Cafazzo, Lead of eHealth Innovation at the University Health Network. Dr. Cafazzo is a biomedical engineer focused on creating healthcare technologies that allow patients to deliver self-care for chronic illnesses to themselves at home, empowering patients and relieving pressures on an over-burdened system. His talk centered around the example of Bant, an iPhone app that may answer the question “How do we convince diabetic teenagers to take care of themselves?” The app uses gamification, awarding iTunes store credits to users when they test their blood glucose: elegant, ingenious and brilliantly designed with the realities of the user in mind.

Dr. Cafazzo closed out his talk with what was basically an open call for candidates. He made the point that he and his team are seeking to be truly innovative in their approach to health technology, and that to do this, it was often better to come to that mission not from healthcare, but from other industries, practices, and fields of study. He wants the best and brightest to put their minds to the task of creating tools that patients can and will use themselves.

It’s been my experience that in HR we’re often given the task of finding a perfect square peg to fit a square hole. Hiring managers frequently approach a search with a prescribed idea of what their ideal candidate should bring to the table in terms of experience, education and philosophy. We’re asked to find the purple unicorn:

“I want someone with an MBA and a M.Ed who has worked in the telecom sector with a focus on emerging markets. But I have a limited budget.”

Dr. Cafazzo and his team are doing some of the most inventive, progressive work out there, and it saves people’s lives. In that high stakes environment, if they can open their minds to see potential and take chances on great candidates from all walks of the professional world, then all of our organizations should certainly be able and willing to do the same thing. I’m not talking about hiring a sculptor to manage your audit, but I am talking about pushing back on the purple unicorn nonsense and trying to pry open hiring manager horizons a teeny, tiny bit.

Overall TEDxToronto was a great event- I hope to be there in future years to see it gain even more momentum. And in case you followed the #tedxtoronto hashtag last Friday, you should know that my bike did not get thrown in the bike furnace, but it did suffer some damage during the subsequent unicycle vs. Velociraptor jousting tournament. C’est la vie…

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have long been a fan of creative selection and placement…and your “purple unicorn” is so often what hiring managers want. Being able to identify the “non-trainable competencies” is at least a step in that direction, so that you can hire what cannot be trained, and train the rest. It makes such perfect sense. But like everything else, it takes time to do it the right way, and there is so little time available to hiring managers today.

    Years ago, I advocated a “creative placement” that backfired because the “non-trainable competencies” were not well crafted and the organization had a looonngg memory for that one mistake. Influencing the investment of time “up front” to identify the basics, and then creating a development plan for the “trainables” will go a long way to more strategic selection.

    December 4, 2012
  2. Carol, I think that you’ve hit on a very important point- identifying those skills that are vital to the role, and cannot be taught (e.g. a proclivity for innovative thinking) and determining what can be instilled post-hire (e.g. knowledge of a particular technology or software) is key to widening our hiring horizons with success…but that is difficult, because there’s a lot of subjectivity involved.

    Wonder why organizations don’t seem to have such long memories when things go right, hmmmm? 🙂

    December 4, 2012
  3. I agree that there is subjectivity, but I think there are also some skills that can be developed in hiring managers to better define the job. So often we rely on job descriptions that are focused on duties, and the KSAs are merely picked from a menu. Defining jobs from a competency base, rather than a duty base and then developing skills in the leaders to develop the skills and competencies of their teams, could be an effective way of dealing with the subjectivity.

    But yes, organizations do seem to have elephantine memories when it comes to mistakes, and not a lot of tolerance for getting to the root cause of the mistake. 😉

    December 4, 2012

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