Rent-a-brain: Telecel and Apple win

STEVE Jobs, the Apple boss is renowned for his creative and marketing genius. But did you know Jobs is also an HR genius? The IPod, a gizmo attributed to Jobs’ signature simple-to-use gadget design savvy is as much a product of great thinking as it is of superb HR.

This brings us to the idea of a talent menu, a concept slowly entering the HR applications portfolio. When it comes to managing talent, an organisation has at least eight choices: bid, tie, grow, lift, chop, rent, loan and barter. The first five are very familiar. We will explore the last three.

Knowing what to order from the talent menu separates good HR from great HR. To develop the IPod, Steve Jobs chose to rent talent. He looked beyond the US. You had Asia’s best brains assembled into a virtual team, that is, people continents apart networked via computers linking them to Jobs and his US team. This phenomenon is called a creation network. Clever Jobs –– no need for expensive retention packages. Long-term incentives, pension, medical aid, company cars, and so on, were rendered irrelevant by the talent renting model.

Apple is not alone. Microsoft is well known for borrowing Indian brains to develop its revered software. On a per capita basis, India has the world’s highest concentration of IT talent. Telecel, the re-awakening telecommunications giant has successfully employed the rent-a-brain model to ambush its rivals strategically. Talent from its corporate sisterhood was brought in to instil new technologies, slashing operating costs, prompting a dramatic fall in the price of sim cards. Telecel’s strategy started the current ‘air wars’ or ‘sim wars’ pitting Zimbabwe’s cellular companies. The point is that you do not need to own all the talent you need.

Loan-a-brain is a deliberate talent strategy being employed by creative HR. Last year, I had the privilege of attending an HR conference organised by the Institute of Human Resources Management of Botswana. One of the key presenters was the general manager for human resources of Debswana, the diamond mining giant. It was at the height of the worldwide recession, which saw Botswana’s diamond exports fall by over 50%. Debswana reasoned that the recession was a passing phase, and thus it was necessary to hold on to its premium talent. However, low production levels meant that most of its key talent had little to do. HR suggested loaning its key talent to other mining concerns to keep its talent sharp in preparation for the eventual economic up-turn. By loaning its talent Debswana was at the same time growing its key performers. With a lease-your-talent strategy, problems can be turned into dividends.

For the Philippines, talent-leasing is a national strategy which is a significant foreign currency earner. The Philippines have identified the research niche. They produce many Phd-holders in the field of research for export. One of our local universities used to employ research experts in its business school from the Philippines. Zimbabwe could take a leaf from the Philippines national talent strategy. It is no use crying over a missed flight. As a country, we can change our conception of the brain drain the country has suffered in the past decade. We could view the mass talent-flight as some form of loan-a-brain scheme. In the meantime, we could rent this talent.

One university in Zimbabwe is using former talent that has migrated to our neighbouring countries to teach some of its post-graduate courses on as-per-need basis. HR in India is very much alive and pro-active. IT firms keep in touch with former employees with a view to re-hiring or renting. Likewise, HR in Zimbabwe needs to keep in touch with former employees who left the country due to economic push factors.

Research shows that highly talented people are highly mobile. In short, it is very difficult to keep top talent for long, the tie-the-brain option. For instance, Grey Consulting of South Africa recently revealed that employers in South Africa keep chasing the same pool of few highly talented and scarce skills, each time bidding up the price of procuring that talent. HR should present a case for exploring non-traditional talent options such as rent-a-brain and loan-a-brain as cost-effective talent management alternatives. John Maxwell, in his book 17 Irrefutable Laws of Teamwork noted that it is only the grave that does not lose. Maxwell advises that when an organisation loses a 7-out-of-10 talent, it must replace it with at least an 8-out-of-10 talent. This makes sense. In reality, it is not as easy as it sounds. One practical way of applying Maxwell’s wisdom is selecting the rent-a-talent option from the talent menu.

Renting and leasing talent are not new ideas. Sports, as business, have been so successful in using these talent models that these have become standard practice. If you come to think of it, the board of directors, with respect to non-executive director talent, is an application of the rent-a-brain model. Normally business outsources non-core activities.

The renting option is different in that core talent is involved. A case in point is the HR locum phenomenon gaining currency, which involves HR consultants visiting companies on a routine basis to do HR work. One theory advanced is that HR is failing to add value to the organisation, therefore organisations are finding it logical to outsource HR. The school of thought I subscribe to posits that highly skilled HR professionals who are strategy architects and with the gravitas to match are very few at the moment. Botswana has only one chartered HR professional. In Zimbabwe, for now I know of one chartered HR professional who is chairman of one of the local listed companies. Naturally, these highly skilled HR professionals and immensely respected by business will be better off running consultancy firms. To access their skills organisations have no option but to rent their expertise.

Brain barter is the third option under discussion. It is a simple idea. Let me share with you my recent experience. Last month a company needed my expertise and it so happened that I needed their expertise too. I proposed a barter deal and we simply traded our brains.

Creative HR orders wisely from the talent menu, fashioning new sources of value for key business stakeholders.

Do you think renting our world-class skills in the diaspora can help us in the economic transition phase?  Feedback to brettchulu@consultant.com.

By Brett Chulu

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