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How the C-suite can address the talent crisis in digital innovation

As digital skills become harder to find, CIOs, CMOs and CFOs will need to change their talent approach to enable digital innovation. 

In brief

  • As employees look for more than just a paycheck, organizations must focus on creating a purposeful value proposition to secure bright and innovative talent.
  • Identifying a mission that resonates with current and future employees will require collaboration from the C-suite. 

Conversations about digital innovation have the potential to focus on the furthest realms of the possible. Today, as technologies like metaverse and virtual reality spark a new revolution in how businesses interact with their customers, the big ideas are overshadowed by thorny practical questions: Who in the organization understands how this works and can make it a reality? How can we secure the talent we need to scale up?

In recent research from Ernst & Young LLP, which collated the views of 600 senior-level marketing, technology and finance executives worldwide, respondents say that digital skills are increasingly hard to find. As they face attrition and change, they are struggling to find the people with the needed skills to enable digital innovation across the enterprise.

In turn, holding on to star performers has become a foremost strategy priority for the C-suite. In this environment, how can the business suite reform its approach to digital talent? Who is the best person to own digital skills, which capabilities can business leaders champion and pool, and how will digital innovation revitalize employee satisfaction?

Engaging talent with digital skills

Sixty-seven percent of respondents to our survey say they have seen a rise in attrition among employees with data and digital skills since the disruption of the COVID-19 era began. Overall, talent is seen as the greatest barrier to digital innovation after regulation.

Barriers to digital innovation
Of respondents say they have seen a rise in attrition among employees with data and digital skills since the disruption of the COVID-19 era began

Which role is best positioned to help ensure the company has the right digital skills? Forty percent say this currently is the responsibility of the chief technology officer (CTO), but otherwise it’s broken down across the chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO) and chief finance officer (CFO).  Although digital talent has inevitably been associated with the CTO in the past, it could be that broader, CEO-level ownership is now required instead.

Gaining and retaining talent is not just about skills and wages; it’s also a purpose issue. Organizations need to make a compelling value proposition that keeps employees engaged.

Creating a purposeful value proposition to attract employees, including those with data and digital skills, require a collaborative approach recruitment between departments as well as greater collaboration between members of the C-suite.

In-demand skills for digital talent

Respondents say data science is the most challenging skill overall to recruit (57%). The challenge isn’t restricted to technical skills, however. The second and third hardest skills to fill are teamworking (55%) and creativity (54%) respectively.

Recruitment challenges
Of respondents say data science is the most challenging skill to recruit.

Half of our respondents say they are focusing, to a great extent, on upskilling, while the same proportion are focusing on recruiting. Do they need to favor one approach over the other and, if so, how do they decide?

Emily Ketchen, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Intelligent Devices Group at Lenovo, explains that a mixture of three elements is required. “You pull out the employees who are great inside the organization, you hire the ones who set the bar high and can role-model, and you take care of the great talent that you have,” Ketchen says. “These are three strategies that we deploy on an ongoing basis.”

As well as nurturing and upskilling talent within the organization, recruitment is essential for bringing in fresh approaches and perspectives. Functions need to work together to pool talent and experience, support the ongoing development of their people and acquire skills needed by the business.

“There are new leadership skills that will be needed around inspiration, resiliency and also transformation,” says Libby Hacker, EY Americas People Advisory Services Finance Leader, Ernst & Young LLP. “Transformation needs to be a competency, a capability that people have because transformation is happening all the time.”

Transformation needs to be a competency, a capability that people have because transformation is happening all the time.

Uneven distribution in skillsets across functions

The Ernst & Young LLP research reveals differences across functions, pointing to organizational inefficiencies in sharing talent. The technology function finds it hardest to secure soft skills, with 64% in this function saying these are difficult to source, compared with 44% from the more traditionally people-centric marketing discipline. Correspondingly, marketing’s greatest talent challenge is in finding data science skills.

As roles in technology and marketing evolve and intertwine, a broader range of skills is required from employees in both functions, which may make recruitment even more challenging. Where the technology function needs more employees with soft skills, such as good communication and critical thinking, marketing is increasingly becoming a data-led profession and the chief marketing officer (CMO), a data leader.

Nuno Leal, Senior Manager, Technology, Media and Telecommunications, Ernst & Young LLP, explains why hiring directly from tech companies for marketing roles can be problematic. “You don't need to pay more than tech companies do, but you need to be competitive enough and bring that talent from companies that are completely ahead of the game in terms of advertisement and media and marketing,” Leal says.

When looking to hire people with data science and technology skills, companies need to work to ensure that their marketing and technology functions appear forward-thinking and ahead of their competitors.

This may involve the C-suite developing their own skills and capabilities to help ensure they have the knowledge to recruit the right people. Digital skills need to move from just being CTO-focused and run deeper throughout the entire C-suite.

Digital skills need to move from just being CTO-focused and run deeper throughout the entire C-suite.

“I see some changes around how some of these offices are named, CTO, CIO, CISO,” says Liz Mann, EY Americas Life Sciences and Health Cybersecurity Leader. “You’re starting to see the emergence of digital trust officers, of a heightened acknowledgement of the strategic value of digital trust.”

“We’re pulling cybersecurity and digital out of the back office, out of the basement, out of the data center into the executive suite and into the boardroom where everyone has a seat at the table, imagining what value we can drive with technology to activate strategy,” Mann says.

Retaining talent through investments in digital innovation

Sixty percent of respondents say their investment in digital innovation has exceeded expectations when it comes to improving employee retention. If a company with market-leading digital experiences for customers can attract talent, internal technology is vital in retaining that talent.

“In the face of the Great Resignation, you need great technology for great retention,” says Emily Ketchen, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Intelligent Devices Group at Lenovo, “If you’ve got great tools, it’s seamless. Everything works every single day and removes friction. So, leaders should be thinking about how to ameliorate that employee technology experience to drive a better employee experience.”

Optimized digital experiences for employees are vital across all functions. Members of the C-suite can help ensure that the tools are available for tasks to be conducted seamlessly, especially as hybrid working looks set to continue indefinitely in sections of the economy. As well as increasing employee satisfaction, this will improve efficiencies and position the company as an attractive place to work.


In an era when employees are looking for something more meaningful, upskilling and seamless digital experiences help businesses retain existing talent. To attract new talent, businesses can focus on creating a purposeful value proposition, which means identifying a mission that resonates with current and future employees and aspires to something bigger than the day-to-day workings of the company.  

Setting a true, overarching purpose will require collaboration from all members of the C-suite, but its long-term impact will be to secure the brightest and most innovative minds.

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