The power of data, demographics, diversity and disruptive technology

The annual PAI HR conference 2019 provided us with fascinating insights and trends in attracting, developing and retaining talent in the public sector.

From my conversations with delegates, I know that the conference also provided a great opportunity for learning and reflection and the conversations continued on after the event…

The rapidly changing talent landscape, fuelled by advances in disruptive technology and demographic forces, was a core theme of our 2019 conference. The impact of these forces, from a talent management perspective, is aptly illustrated in the following quote:

‘CEOs and HR leaders worried about the viability of their talent strategy may be excused an occasional sleepless night. After all, there’s a closetful of bogeymen to pick from, as disruptive technologies such as digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence combine with demographic forces to continue transforming the nature of work, how it gets done, and by whom. The resulting job displacement could be massive – think Industrial Revolution massive – affecting as many as 800 million people globally by 2030 and requiring up to 375 million of them to switch occupational categories and learn new skills’.

(McConnell, M and Schaninger, B (2019): ‘Are we long or short on talent?’, McKinsey Quarterly)

Against this challenging background, our expert speakers outlined trends insights and solutions to improve how we acquire, develop and retain talent in the public sector. Many topics were explored including recruitment and selection, learning and development, employee wellbeing and engagement. It was interesting to observe that the insights and solutions focused on four themes – data, demographics, diversity and disruptive technology.

Shirley Comerford, CEO of the Public Appointments Service provided a comprehensive and insightful overview of the impact of demographic change on talent acquisition in the public sector. Shirley emphasised the critical importance of diversity and inclusion and she highlighted innovative changes that the PAS are implementing and developing to embed diversity in talent acquisition.

Alison McIntyre, Senior Consultant with Deloitte Consulting provided us with fascinating insights into the future world of work, and the ways in which disruptive technology will fundamentally alter how work is done and who does it. She also talked abut the importance of understanding demographic changes in the talent market and the need for greater social enterprise, in line with key HR trends in the public sector.

Siobhan Gaffey (head of OneLearning) and Cathy Barron from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform presented ‘the story so far’ in developing talent in the civil service. Siobhan provided very useful insights into the establishment and development of One Learning (the new civil service L&D Centre). Cathy outlined key developments and achievements in relation to the Civil Service Senior Leadership Talent Development Programme.

Patricia Murray, an organisational psychologist with the Health and Safety Authority presented an insightful analysis into wellbeing, which is critical to talent development and retention. She presented the findings of the 2018 HSA/ESRI report on job stress and working conditions. She emphasised the need to extend data capture including a greater focus on qualitative data for ‘usable insights’.

Dave Barry, CEO of Connexion drew together many themes from the conference in the final presentation. He started with a thought provoking statement ‘ by 2035, HR Ops will be a robot’. Dave highlighted the importance of connecting culture, strategy and people to bring talent management to the next level – through high engagement cultures, operational excellence and people-centric leadership.

Following the presentations, we had a very interesting Q&A session. Delegates’ questions focused on the challenges of advancing diversity, for example for women and for marginalised groups. The challenge for HR practitioners in responding to changing forms of work was explored, and the need for employment law/contracts to reflect these changes.

In drawing together the conference themes, I talked about the importance of an inclusive approach to talent management throughout the employee life cycle. This is captured in the diagram below which illustrates the depth and breadth of the talent management cycle.

The feedback from our pre-conference survey revealed interesting data. A high number of respondents undertake engagement surveys and many have employee engagement strategies. It was interesting to note that diversity and inclusion were not rated highly as other talent management priorities such as employee engagement. While it was a small survey, I think that the focus on diversity in our conference might inspire people to look more closely at this fundamental part of talent management, and the connections between diversity and employee engagement. I commented at the conference that we need to continue to improve equality (treating people the same) and diversity (treating people differently), for example in how we recruit and select employees. My hope is that rapidly changing demographic forces will move us towards to the next level – inclusion.

‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance’ (Verna Myers)


Sile O’Donnell is a HR consultant, Training Associate with PAI and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Trinity College Dublin. She has over 26 years experience of designing and delivering best practice HR programmes and policies across the public sector. She is currently working with a number of large public sector organisations in designing and implementing talent management strategies with a particular focus on workforce planning, recruitment, wellbeing, equality and diversity. She was Director of HR in the Eastern Regional Health Authority for five years and an Assistant National Director of HR in the HSE for five years.