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Build, buy or borrow talent: Why your decision is critical to addressing the skills gap

Build, buy or borrow talent: Why your decision is critical to addressing the skills gap

A growing part of HR’s responsibility is understanding the skills an organisation has internally, and identifying the skills that are missing, to successfully address the skills gap. 

This dilemma was discussed in a recent Virtual CHRO Roundtable organised by HRO & Workday. Aditi Sharma Kalra’s report on the best practices in skilling you can’t miss. (with inputs from Lester Tan)

In a recent Gartner report, The Top 5 priorities for HR in 2021, building critical skills and competencies for their organisation was the top priority for 68% of HR leaders. The top three skills-related challenges facing HR leaders are: 1) they don’t know what skills gaps their employees have; 2) they are not effectively integrating learning into employee workflows and experiences; and 3) they cannot create skills development solutions fast enough to meet evolving skill needs.

It was precisely to solve this dilemma that Human Resources Online partnered with Workday to host Virtual CHRO Roundtable (Singapore edition), where eight respected HR leaders came together to demystify the skilling imperative.

The focus revolved around the three approaches of build, buy and borrow talent, in a bid to find the optimal solution that works in the short- as well as long-term.

In the riveting discussion, we identified several best practices on how to identify and cultivate skills that enable organisations to remain competitive, recover and thrive. Read on for the conversation excerpts.

Companies are adopting exciting practices under each of three skilling strategies

1. Build talent

Given the COVID situation, most companies are accelerating their talent strategy – however, building talent certainly requires time, effort and investment, and most of all, serious commitment.

Having said that, it is well-within the means for larger organisations to establish strong talent management frameworks for continuous talent building. However, smaller companies that are scaling rapidly often don’t have the luxury of buying ready-talent from the market, especially in niche areas like software engineering. The solution? To be more innovative in how to attract and retain talent. The focus can lean heavily on ‘building’, by attracting raw, young talent from universities, and investing in them to build soft skills such as resilience and adaptability.

While at first glance, this approach of grooming talent from scratch may seem counter-intuitive, it actually is a differentiator for talent among employers.

Another great way for companies, no matter their size, to build talent is to deploy the fourth ‘B’, i.e., the ‘bounce’ strategy, wherein talent can be deployed (or ‘bounced’) across various functions/business units to get enough exposure, akin to a job rotation programme.

Across the ecosystem, the most ground-up way of looking to build talent is when organisations work with institutes of higher learning to take responsibility and accountability for shaping future talent – be it through the curriculum, hands-on projects, or national skills frameworks. So not only do you build the organisation's own talent, but also the talent in the marketplace.

Notably, the ‘build’ strategy is as relevant as senior talent as it is for entry-level talent.

More often than not, senior leaders recruited externally don’t last because they don't fit in the culture. So with long-term considerations in mind, building senior talent internally is critical, as it gives the opportunity to not only equip them with the history and storytelling of the culture, but equally the domain expertise that comes with experience.

Certainly, the ‘build’ strategy is a great way to inculcate your organisation’s values, culture, and tone, through a sustained, long-term effort.

2. Buy talent

Buying talent is the optimum solution for companies that are looking to fill their talent gaps quickly, or in cases where specialised talent is not readily available (think, high-end engineering, data science, and the likes). This is often also the case in industries that are evolving rapidly in terms of their business model – the more a sector is disrupted or is able to adopt newer forms of technology, the more chances are that the ‘buy’ approach will be critical to filling those interim needs.

However, one of the long-term concerns about buying is that at some point, organisations will have no more talent to ‘buy’ because the prices (i.e. salaries) will keep going up, which will ultimately come back to hit hirers.

Thus, HR leaders take pains to point out that the intent behind the ‘buy’ approach is always to translate those specialist skills internally through a developmental programme that can enable skills transition in the long-term.

3. Borrow talent

Borrowing talent, often externally, refers to working with third-party providers and freelancers, leveraging fully on the gig economy construct.

Since this talent pool isn’t limited by geography, not only does this allow quick access to skills that aren’t locally available, but it can accelerate project delivery timelines significantly – in that, eg, having resources that aren't just based in APAC, but also in Europe and the US, can activate a follow-the-sun model so that the working day is much longer.

Apart from that, the obvious benefit lies in managing costs, in that companies don’t have to provide the full employee package.

Borrowing can also take place internally – companies are looking extensively at internal mobility of talent, especially short- to long-term assignments across regions to bring in specific resource capabilities, or in the cases of cross-functional projects, which have become more rampant than ever owing to the remote working phenomenon. This movement across functions is also becoming common in the form of secondments and talent exchange programmes across organisations, in what organisations deem as ‘borrowing partner talent’.

There’s another, equally interesting way to look at borrowing talent. Many times, organisations have high-potential talent they’re hoping to retain but lose out on the talent war to another employer. In such situations, companies can think of how one day this talent might return to the organisation – in a sense, the talent has been ‘borrowed’ by another employer for the time being. This long-drawn process of acquiring high-potentials back starts with a smooth exit experience, and continues through alumni sessions to keep the talent engaged.

Challenges HR teams are facing in implementing a skilling strategy 

1. Investment: Understandably, for most organisations, the priorities of where investment goes into the business, has historically been, and continues to be, towards operational efficiency, product development, and delivery to the customer.

2. Nurturing a new cohort of leaders: The pandemic-stricken era requires leaders who can not only enable staff to navigate the ambiguity of change, but also effectively address the stress and strain that high-pressure environments are creating on employees’ mental health.

3. Workforce mindset: Many organisations find themselves in a situation where people are very used to doing what they're doing, and very comfortable with the kind of roles they are in. Getting them to expand, do more with less, and stretch themselves is the challenge.

The role of technology in driving the new skills construct

Pei Woan Wong, Head of Solution (HCM), Asia, Workday, affirmed that skills are the new currency, and that leaders as well as employees have to constantly learn skills that may not currently be listed in their job description. “Employees will need to be guided in terms of knowing what skills they need currently, and potentially in the future as part of their career interests.”

She added: “Your workforce will need to be given a platform to learn, upskill and reskill. This is where technology will come into play as an enabler; a system that provides them with a dynamic skills ecosystem that allows self-learning and self-updating.”

This, she explained, will help organisations perform a skills inventory of the workforce, and compare that with what the business needs. “Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many people we have. What matters are the skills and the capabilities that we have.”

"Talent planning and skills inventory are capabilities that technology should provide us.”

As such, Jenny Choo, General Manager, Singapore & Malaysia, Workday, urged the entire talent ecosystem – employees, HR leaders, and the leadership – to advocate for a culture of learning and building talent.

“It comes down to the level of investment that we want to put in our people, the level of investment in technology, and the greater vision. To build a successful business is not just having the right employees, but also making sure that they are truly engaged and purposeful for the journey of what the business wants to achieve."


The consensus among all HR leaders is that buy, build, and borrow are all important strategies, and that no company can rely on just one.

What impacts each company’s balance is a set of factors such as:

  1. Maturity of the company’s talent management processes
  2. Local market availability of specialised talent for the sector
  3. Internal urgency for the talent requirements
  4. Situational time and cost pressures

At the end of the session, we all went home with the gratitude of having found a silver lining amidst the pandemic – organisations now truly understand that people are such a valuable commodity, and that despite all forms of cost management measures, investment does have to go into people no matter what. Wouldn’t you agree?

The virtual roundtable, held on 19 May 2021, was moderated by HRO’s Aditi Sharma Kalra and Jerene Ang, and supported by Pei Woan Wong, Head of Solution (HCM), Asia, Workday, as well as Jenny Choo, General Manager, Singapore & Malaysia, Workday.

Human Resources Online and Workday would like to thank the following HR leaders for being a valuable part of this discussion:

  1. Sally Evans, Chief People Officer, MyRepublic
  2. Dr Jaclyn Lee, CHRO, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
  3. Melissa Kee, CHRO, Kuok Singapore
  4. Yvonne Ee, CHRO, Mediacorp
  5. Bernadette Chan, Regional HR Director, Asia, VMLY&R
  6. Angelina Chua, First VP, Group HR / Group Data Protection Officer, Yeo's
  7. Kelly Chua, Global HR Director, Yokogawa
  8. Lucy Tan, CHRO, NatSteel

Photo / Virtual CHRO Roundtable with the eight HR leaders thanked above

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