The Global Market for Research and Development Talent

Talent is the lifeblood of competitiveness for growth-oriented enterprises, both small and large.  Over the last 20 years we have observed a trend towards a global market for highly skilled technical talent.  This trend was perhaps first popularized in Tom Friedman’s prophetic book “The World is Flat.”  It is now clear that business processes and technologies must support sourcing, evaluation, recruitment, and development of critical human resources on a global scale.

I noticed this tendency directly when I was assisting in the establishment of a Microsoft Research lab presence in Beijing China starting in about 2000.   Out of the gate, the lab had a significant advantage in research productivity in that research and engineering costs were substantially cheaper in Beijing than in Redmond Washington, USA.   Researchers in my research groups (I was Redmond Lab director at the time) would complain that the Beijing Microsoft researchers had a distinct advantage in that they could hire hordes of research assistants, interns and engineers to support their research agendas, while most resources in Redmond were either shared or subject to a budget review.  As quickly as 2005, when Friedman’s book was published, we had already noticed a reduction in this competitive advantage for the Asia lab.  In particular, we noticed that the market for graduating PhDs had become global.  We would see competition between our own labs in Redmond, Silicon Valley, and Cambridge UK for the same candidate, and an associated flattening of salary offers.

Of course these trends have continued and accelerated.   The fundamental driver has been the continued impact of information technology on communication, commerce, and production. Particularly as global communication has become more high-fidelity (e.g. collaboration platforms, video, machine translation, global digital marketplaces), it allows technologists worldwide to collaborate, communicate, and compete at regardless of location.  Coupled with economic development and improving standards of living, particularly throughout Asia and India, top researchers can choose to live and work throughout the world and not be disconnected from the ideas, trends, and technologies at the forefront. Indeed we noticed at Microsoft that young ambitious researchers were now eager to return to their homeland for personal and lifestyle reasons, without giving up anything as far as their research careers

What does this mean in the current environment for global enterprises?  Obviously, talent management and sourcing must have a global reach.  While the local businesses and universities may provide a plurality of candidates,  employees developed further afar can be just as skilled technically.   They can also provide cultural perspective and knowledge that is critical for companies with global reach.  This is relevant not only for the most senior research and technical leadership positions, but increasing important in such areas as cloud/SaaS development, big data analytics, user experience, and marketing/sales.

It is also apparent that global companies need to be well tied into the relevant startup and external innovation ecosystems in their industries.   As corporate R&D budgets have stagnated, mining external potential disruptors for talent, IP, or new business models is critical for survival.  Again looking locally is not sufficient, but being tied into the deal flow and progress of startups in such locales as Israel, India, China, and elsewhere is required.

Corporations considering projects and new initiatives need to assess and harness talent and expertise from three pillars on a global scale: 1) current employees and teams, 2) potential hires in their talent pipeline, and 3) external firms to be engaged as partners, subcontractors, M&A targets.  There needs to be reliable information regarding expertise, availability, and costs that is not siloed in foreign subsidiaries and divisions.   Assessments and knowledge of external resources, be it in individuals or firms, requires networks of relationships and outreach on a global scale.  There exist many emerging options for online education skill enhancement, fueled by innovation and disruption at such companies as Lynda (purchased by LinkedIn 2015), Udacity, Coursera and others. We will have more to say about the impact on online education and training in future briefings.

For many companies, mechanisms to gather, assess, and share global talent sourcing and development information do not exist. There need to be new processes and technologies employed to engage talent, broadly construed, for evolving businesses.  At the New Advisory Group, we can help you think through these changes, address development and management of a global network of expertise across universities, startups, employees, and contractors.  

Jack Breese at The New Advisory Group