In these turbulent times, it is more important than ever for organisations to have the right person in the right place at the right time. However, it is also good for employees to change roles regularly within the organisation: this gives them the opportunity to develop, learn new things and work with new people. In his PhD, Philip Rogiers investigated how the internal mobility of employees could be further improved. Although he studied this in a government context, his conclusions apply to all kinds of organisations.
Employees who stay put, is that really such a problem? What's wrong with someone wanting to stay where they are? “If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that organisations need to be able to reinvent themselves quickly, adapt their processes and deploy employees in a flexible manner,” Philip replies. “It was all hands on deck for government organisations too, and employees were mobilised for things such as contact tracing. Separate from the pandemic, there is also digitalisation. In the past, the government typically outsourced non-core tasks to consultants but gradually realised this was not a sustainable solution. The shift towards Digital Era Governance focuses on keeping competences internal. The only issue is that often people don't know who has which talents. And if employees keep doing the same thing, you can't even discover their hidden talents, let alone deploy them.”
But what if an employee doesn’t want to change? Philip smiles. “Unfortunately, research shows that people who have been doing the same job for years are often doing it involuntarily. They encounter all kinds of barriers, external, but also internal psychological barriers. And if they don’t manage to overcome these barriers, they convince themselves that they don't really want to change at all.”
Philip sought out government organisations that are adopting a new approach to internal mobility using digital technology. He did not restrict his research to Belgium.
In the first instance, an international panel of experts from the public sector was put together. In an interview-based Delphi study, they shed light on the future of internal mobility. Which processes are replacing the conventional ways of stimulating internal mobility and development, and which technologies will play a role in this?
Among other things, the Delphi study revealed high expectations for digital talent markets. In the second part of this study, Philip therefore delved deeper into this phenomenon on the basis of a concrete case study with the US federal government: Open Opportunities or Open Opps, a digital platform for flexible project work. Here, officials can post projects that are then carried out by colleagues from their own department or from other departments, alongside their regular job.
Finally, Philip analysed the experiences of the officials involved in Open Opps on the basis of interviews.
The opportunities posted on Open Opps are tasks and short- or long-term projects. Officials are allowed to spend up to 20% of their time on these assignments. Philip had expected them to regard this talent market primarily as a way of learning new skills so that they could perform their existing role more effectively. However, it turned out to be much more than that: Open Opps is a new form of job crafting.
“Interviews revealed that platform participants had sometimes encountered barriers when they wanted to personalise their jobs,” he explains. “Either their supervisor wasn’t open to the idea or their position was very strictly defined. Open Opps gave them the opportunity to experiment with tasks and skills that are independent of their normal work, such as user experience design, research, social media communication, web development, graphic design, editing, etc.”
The participants did not just regard the opportunity to experiment with new skills as a plus.
“Thanks to Open Opps, they were able to establish new contacts with colleagues from other departments and expand their network,” says Philip. “For some people, Open Opps proved to be the first step towards a career switch. However, the contacts with colleagues also served another function: they gave the participants a feeling of involvement, of belonging to something, which they often lacked in their normal job.”
“They were also able to experiment with new professional identities and highlight them in their Open Opps profile and on social media, with descriptions such as designer, leader, innovator, problem solver or change agent. Some of them did this not only to profile themselves within the Open Opps community, but with a view to a full-time career change.”
However, Philip does point out that participation in Open Opps not only involves advantages but also a few disadvantages. “Precisely because people are supposed to work on the projects during normal working hours, they need permission from their supervisor and didn’t always manage to win them over.”
“Participants also experienced tension and stress,” he continues. “Combining different roles, responsibilities and agendas isn’t always easy, especially if your supervisor and/or colleagues are sceptical. It also proved difficult to integrate this new professional identity into their existing job, which sometimes led to conflicts with managers.”
Philip’s research shows that the digital talent market is a radically new concept of internal mobility that introduces the key ideas of the freelance economy – autonomy, flexibility and project work – into organisations, even the most traditional ones such as government bodies. It also offers more advantages than just those for individual employees. For organisations, digital talent markets respond to the need for flexibility and ongoing development without the need to provide formal training. They also enable collective learning and collective innovation.
As far as the technical and functional aspects of the platform are concerned, Philip believes it is important to keep the governance as simple as possible and minimise red tape. “The last thing you want is cumbersome bureaucracy. In Open Opps, for example, the participant was able to tick a box to say that his manager had given permission. You also need to make sure that the participants can create a personal profile, like on Facebook or LinkedIn. This allows them to profile themselves within the organisation and promotes mutual communication, which benefits the cooperation.”
In order for a digital talent market to succeed, those at the top of an organisation would do well to convey the message that flexibility and internal mobility are encouraged. “These signals help to overcome the admittedly understandable resistance of middle management,” says Philip. “After all, middle managers are caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they have the complaints of their employees to deal with and, on the other, the targets imposed by the people at the top.”
“However, the strength of a digital talent market lies in the fact that it’s otherwise a bottom-up concept,” Philip emphasises. “It isn’t the people at the top who determine how many projects you need to take on or what skills you need to develop. Employees post projects themselves. After all, they are in the best position to identify needs – tasks and projects for which they have no time or budget. And their colleagues work on projects because they also want to learn new things, make contacts and reinvent themselves, with pleasure and driven by intrinsic motivation.”
“You'd be amazed how many employees you can positively mobilise using this concept,” he concludes.
Source: ‘Essays on the Future of Employee Mobility’ by Philip Rogiers. Doctorate in Business Economics at KU Leuven in 2020. Supervisor: Professor Stijn Viaene (Vlerick Business School). Co-supervisor: Professor Jan Leysen (Belgian Royal Military Academy). The study was supported by the Belgian Federal Public Service for Policy and Support and the Civil Service cabinet.