Veteran CIO, Frank Wander writes that your human talent infrastructure is the key to competitive advantage.

How the industrial dehumanization of the workforce spawned the biggest leadership opportunity of our era.


In this rapidly advancing era of digital, mobile, social, analytics and cloud computing, building a high performing talent infrastructure is rapidly becoming every successful leader’s focus. Now, more than ever, people really do count. It is vital to understand which roles are assets and which roles are expenses, because this is the only enduring source of competitive advantage - and survival.

Yet today, this remains a blind spot.

There are no examples of companies that have outsourced their talent infrastructure who now dominate their industry, unless they are in decline from a once lofty height. More importantly, how did we even arrive at a point where talented, highly trained workers do not count? Why did competent leaders exchange tenured professionals with productive working relationships, deep institutional experience, and a track record with unproven junior resources, who have no working relationships and zero institutional knowledge? How could this strategy ever succeed without knowing which roles are assets, and which ones are expenses? Moreover, why do leaders know more about their processes and technology than their people? 

As IT has become half the brain and the nervous system of every company, this collective blind spot has become more dangerous, and we now see leaders crying out for strategic CIO’s who can innovate. To flourish, IT leaders must understand how to design and implement a high performing culture, how to do asset-based workforce planning, and how to select, nurture and grow talent. The human factors of engagement, leadership, collaboration and innovation are now the source of competitive advantage, not ITIL. The leaders who recognize this will shift their focus over to the talent infrastructure, and will adeptly lead their organizations on to greatness; those who do not will be shown the exit, just like the talent they so blindly dismissed.

Legacy of the Industrial Revolution

How did get ever here? If you seek a root cause, you will find that the industrial revolution is still with us. Although much of our manufacturing has been off-shored, it was the industrial revolution that gave birth to the modern corporation. Many of the management practices and beliefs that took root to support the growth of the corporate sector remain to this day. Some, like process efficiency, are still highly valuable. Others, like the dehumanization of the workforce, have greatly damaged the productivity of our knowledge workers, and cultivated cultures that are toxic to creative work.

The industrial revolution enabled us to perfect the use of machines to mass-produce goods. The machines were costly, so companies worked them around the clock.

In retrospect, the winning companies of the industrial era:

  1. Became experts at harnessing energy to power machines.
  2. Used these machines to efficiently convert raw materials into finished products.
  3. Relied on standardized, interchangeable parts to minimize costs.
  4. Embraced and refined processes to improve quality and drive out inefficiency.
  5. Developed deep expertise about their machines.

However, all of the accomplishments were not beneficial. Craftsmen - the production machine of the prior era - built products by hand, in small craft shops, or on their own. They took great pride in their skill, were appreciated for their mastery, and produced a quality product. However, craftsmen became manual workers, one of the interchangeable parts in the manufacturing process, consigned to perform a simple, repetitive action. Unions formed to wrest back a measure of control. When it was over, companies had taken the craftsmen of the prior era, and used them for their hands, not their minds. With the advent of the moving assembly line, the dehumanization was complete.

But in short order, a new revolution arrived. Beginning in the post-war period the information economy blossomed, giving birth to a new machine - the computer.

Shift Back to the Human Talent Infrastructure

By themselves computers are commodity devices that impart no inherent competitive advantage. It is the software that counts. Programmers, engineers, and designers must collaborate to craft each new software solution. Consequently, the equipment that actually matters is human. The knowledge workers' brains -- not the computers -- are what create competitive advantage. The software is their “fingerprints”, an imprint of the mind of the maker. It is the brains of these creators that drive the information revolution forward - make no mistake about it.

So, the pendulum is swinging back. Suddenly, talent counts more than ever. Therefore, the winning companies of this era will:

  • Become experts at harnessing emotional energy to power the human equipment.
  • Convert concepts, the raw material of this era, into solutions.
  • Rely on non-interchangeable parts - high aptitude talent - to impact the bottom line.
  • Build collaborative cultures, the assembly lines of our era, to connect the workers.
  • Develop deep expertise on how to unlock the full potential of the workforce.

What really matters is the talent infrastructure. Today, the raw materials are concepts, which are fed into a factory of knowledge workers, who absorb them, envision an end product, and create a software solution. It is a product of collective understanding, collective institutional experience, and collective intelligence (raw aptitude). They are not just coworkers, they are co-creators.

We have come full circle. The craftspeople have returned! 

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