The Marketing Rules Podcast in Writing: Matt Alder & Mervyn Dinnen

Matt Alder and Mervyn Dinnen join James Whitelock on this week’s podcast to discuss their writing process and the themes of their new book, ‘Digital Talent’.
“In a disrupted and technology-enabled world of work, HR professionals’ ability to attract, recruit and retain people with digital skills can be the difference between business success and failure.” This is how Matt and Mervyn describes ‘Digital Talent’.

The Episode Transcript:



Welcome back everybody to the marketing rules podcast, it’s my pleasure today to have two guests, two for the price of one, Mervyn Dinnen and Matt Older. Matt has been on the podcast several times now but Mervyn this is your first time on the podcast, so welcome.




Thank you! It’s an absolute pleasure to be here James.


Pleasure’s all mine. Matt it’s good to have you back, I think you’re the guest we’ve had back more times than anyone else now.



Matt Alder

Well there we go, I must be doing something right? It’s a pleasure to be back again.




Great! Today we’re gonna have a little check about your new book “digital talent,” which has just been released. I can see a lot of noise being made on the market about this and everybody seems to be raving about it. I must admit I haven’t had a chance to have a read of it myself. But, hopefully by the end of this podcast, you’ll have wet my appetite so I’m gonna go out and  line your pockets with a little bit of more money from Amazon. But I’ll tell you what, we have a lot of authors on here and usually it’s a solo sport. But the 2 of you working together really interests me and how you divide up the labour of working and writing on a book. So how do you write together? What’s the process that you go through when you’re writing it because this is your second book now?




It is yes.




So Matt, how is it that you work together.



Matt Alder

I think we’re very lucky to start with because we have a similar style of working, we have a similar style of writing. Sometimes it’s actually quite difficult if you read the book to know who’s written what. So that actually makes it easier for us because what we’ve done with both books is we’ve literally just divided up the chapters and said I’m writing chapter one, Mervyn’s writing chapter 2 whatever it might be. We’ll talk about the book, we’ll work out what it is that we think will be valuable to people. We do a lot of research and write research reports together outside of writing books. It’s also like what research have we done, what can we bring to the table. Then once we settle on a topic we then work out how that breaks down into a book, and then divide the chapters up, and write them individually. But then come together, review them, and discuss as we move forward with the process. Did I miss anything there Merv? Give us some more insight.




No, I don’t think so. With the original asynchronous workforce in that we’re remote, we’re hybrids and we don’t write at the same time. So I think that’s a useful validation for how it works. Matt’s right and we’ve probably both got slightly different but complementary interests. Matt is a lot stronger around tunnel acquisition, technology, whereas I spend a lot of my research writing and conference going more around the HR side employee experience, talent developer, talent management, internal mobility, those kind of areas. So it comes together quite well, we both agree effectively, what are the key parts of the narrative that we’re going to make and then it’s as Matt says, the chapters are effectively divided up. We will probably write most of a chapter and then let the other person have a read of it. What do they think? Are we going in the right direction? Are we going off on tangents? There’s a lot of that as well, but again, we’re friends, we’ve been doing this together for about eight years now so it’s an easy relationship in that respect.




It sounds very democratic is there not a natural leader between the two? I’m looking for some juicy gossip really, there must be some tension right.



Matt Alder

No, not tension so much, I think Mervyn summed it up well there. We have slightly different angles that we come from. Mervyn’s been working in recruitment for a very long time. But just in terms of the research we do, he does have that focus on talent management and learning development, employee experience and I have the focus on talent acquisition and technology. So we will defer to the other ones view, we ask for help when we need it. I suppose the biggest challenge with writing like that. You have to be very careful that you don’t repeat the same stuff throughout the book. I think there were a couple of points where Mervyn had written a beautiful several thousand words section, and I’d written a beautiful several thousand words section, and the other one had actually already written about that particular report or that particular topic. So that’s where the challenge is. The challenge of writing a second book is not necessarily of working together, but writing a second book is a big challenge. I think that we now understand what bands say when they talk about difficult second albums. When you write the first book you write down everything that you know, everything that you’ve ever known. Then you come to write a second book and you’re like oh right? What do we have to write about? So actually I think although it was very difficult; writing the second book was probably more rewarding because we had to go out and really work on it, really research it, really get to the bottom of the topic and find out what’s going on, speak to some really interesting people, pulling some really interesting research. Writing a second book is a challenge but I was gonna say it was more enjoyable, I’m not quite sure that’s the right word? But more satisfying at the end I think in terms of what we came up with.




It was a different experience as well because the first book we had planned out what we were going to say, how we were going to say it, the order we were going to say it. The writing pretty much followed that flow, whereas with the second book, we had started off planning much the same thing and we’d both written probably a couple of chapters and then obviously covid hit. Everything we were writing about was about to change and so that was needing to take a step back. And then recalibrate in fifteen months in, and what we don’t want to do is write the post-covid playbook because that’s going to date very quickly. What we do need to understand is what is happening now in the way we work, and how technology is responding to the various challenges and hybrid working and things like that. And what are the bits that clearly are going to impact the next 3 to 5 years and will become the norm. So what we’ve been doing over the last two years becomes business as usual. That was quite interesting and certainly I found myself going back to change a bit of the chapters I’ve already written. But also going off into a slightly different path. I suppose going back to one point that Matt said earlier on, we scope out at the beginning what the chapters are going to be. Roughly these chapters are going to be about this, this, this and this and for each one we will break that down into six, seven, eight, nine, ten little subsections of the things we’re going to cover. And so we’ve almost got that constant check with each other, because it’s a master document that we keep going in and out of. So we’ve got that check about are we going off on a tangent? Are we doing something different? Or are we both replicating the same thing? So I think it’s nothing we formally have to do, I think informally we’ve always got that kind of open eye onto that.




Was there a plan to write a second book? Was that always on the roadmap or was there pressure because of the success of the first one or from the publishers to write a segment? What was that situation?



Matt Alder

There wasn’t a plan to not write a second book if that makes sense. I think it was always a possibility. The first book was really successful, people really liked it. It opened up a lot of opportunities for us. Then a second book kind of became a bit of a no-brainer, but actually the thing that really drove it was the topic. Digital talent looking at digital transformation and digital skills and it’s something that we touched upon a little bit in the first book but really wanted to dive into in more detail. It’s just a great process writing a book. You find out so much, look at so much information. We asked the publisher what they thought and they said yes straight away. So it just fell into place, I don’t think there was a roadmap that says book year one, book year two. It just seemed like the natural and right thing to do.




Is it easier the second time round? Or is it harder? Or is it the same? How would you describe it, Mervyn?



Matt Alder
I think it’s different, I think it is more difficult because as I said you’ve already written down everything you know in the first book. However, you know what the process entails. You know what happens afterwards you know what happens when you release a book, the kind of things that people will want to talk about, you know that. Within our book, our book ends with a very clear summary and a very clear model that we can then go and talk about, to bring people value from the book. I think that the things that we learned doing the first book were incredibly useful and built on that in the second. What do you think Merv?




I would agree, I think that’s the first book as Matt said we wrote about what we knew and we had both tracked how things were changing. And what we call the talent journey, the journey from first finding out about an organisation to your alumni relationship. It was like 1 seamless journey underpinned by tech, it wasn’t a series of stages with beginning, middle and end. We knew how we wanted that to flow and each chapter was describing each stage along that process. There was a lot more external research because we both go to a lot of events. I’ve been to a lot of US conferences, we both go to HR tech, to unleash, and those big expos. Particularly the user conferences like influence greatness, work human, ultimate connections, those kind of events where you hear real client stories and you really get to dig in. So I think that we had a lot more to draw from. I think there were some of the bigger themes that we were tackling like leadership in the digital age, what does it mean? How can we help advise HR people, how to help their leaders? There were some meteor topics for us to do some research on and really try and get our heads around, such as how we could write about it, and how we could shape it as something which is useful and informative to the audience.




Was digital talent always going to be the second book or were there other areas that you were considering exploring, that you were saving for book 4 or something like that.



Matt Alder

No I think this was always a really strong idea because it just built the first book. Over the last couple of decades we’ve just seen this demand for digital talent and digital skills go through the roof, so it was an obvious thing for us to do, and what was really interesting was actually the pandemic made it even more obvious. So we were writing it and we kind of got to the pandemic and we realised that we were writing exactly the right book, because funnily enough a lot of the things that we’d already written about, actually happened during the pandemic so we had to take those out. Because it felt like, “this is gonna happen in the future, oh, it’s already happened”. So the pandemic really accelerated what we were writing about and made it the perfect choice for the thing. But this was always going to be the second book. It’s just a really logical follow on from the first and it really reflects what we’re seeing around the markets.




So there was never the idea of leaving the first book on a cliffhanger so it could lead into the second book?




Not exactly no, but you never know, maybe.The second book is not really finished on a cliffhanger, but I think between us we already have a few ideas for a third book should Kogan page wish us to write a third book.



Matt Alder

We’re not presupposing anything at this stage but we would like to write another one. So if you do like this one please, please let us know.




You need a trilogy right? 



Matt Alder

Well you know what that is actually the big thing. We were like we have to have a trilogy. We have to write another book with the word talent in it, so it’s an exception to talent digital, the talent trilogy. 




Yeah, the aim is up there with the lord of the rings. “Return of the king”, return of the talent is the third book. 




Well we look forward to that. That was gonna be my last question actually about the third book. Let’s talk about the book itself. Mervyn let’s give you a go because otherwise Matt’s gonna steal the limelight.





You podcasters. It’s like a private union isn’t it.




If only. Tell us about the themes of the book and what the book’s about and what we can expect when we’re going to read the book.




What’s the book about? It’s about the digital talent journey. So the first book was very much charted about how things were changing as I said earlier so I’ll try not repeat exactly the same thing I said earlier. But it’s how tech underpinned this seamless journey and we covered things in that book like performance management. How this was changing from rank and yank to ongoing conversations and how the town acquisition itself was changing. But this really recasts it for the digital age because this is 1 seamless intuitive happening. It’s not something that can be broken up. So you’ve got lots of different stakeholders, a bit like a relay race. You know I use an analogy in one of the earlier chapters about the talent cycle being like a relay race. And historically the batton keeps getting dropped. We hire somebody, the batton gets dropped because on boarding whose responsibility is it? But candidates expect applying for a job to be like subscribing to Netflix. As far as they’re concerned they’re doing this stuff online, they expect to know where they stand, they expect you to be taking it seriously, to be letting them know if there’s something wrong if they haven’t done something wrong, not just silence means we haven’t accepted your subscription for example. And so expectations have changed and I think that it intensifies the experience that people want. I think one of the important differences that I’ve seen over the past two, three, four years is this concept of experience, candidate experience and employee experience. It’s something historically companies would begin to see that’s something they did. “Oh, we create a great experience for our people”. But actually employee experience is what the employee experience is, and all the research particularly from those tech companies who are involved with recognition, well-being, shows that as far as the employee is concerned. Their employee experience is what they experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s nothing to do with what their manager thinks they are creating. It’s to do with how the employee experiences what the manager does. That makes a huge difference, we have a great recognition scheme in place. But then you see research where 40% say they’ve not had recognition for four months or something you know it’s the reality. For me it was very much the reality of how this happens. The fact that we have so much more data, so much more information, things like talent intelligence. We need to be able to use this in a way that really supports and enables our people. Because if they don’t feel supported, enabled, they don’t feel we’re on their side, they’re not developing. They’re going to move. Over 60% say in research that it’s easier to find a job in another company, than it is to change jobs in the one they’re in at the moment. Those are the kind areas that we’re tackling in this book. To discuss how do we make this better? 



Matt Alder

Absolutely. It’s also all about the backdrop to all of this, in terms of what’s driving it. So every single employer on the planet pretty much is having to undergo some kind of digital transformation. What was interesting about Covid is that we thought we were writing for a subset of employers. But during Covid we saw theaters and restaurants, and cinemas and companies that you’d never imagine would have to be an active part of the digital economy or communicate extensively digitally were having to do that. It’s something that affects every single business, and a lot of the backdrop is around the shifting skills. The fact that employers need different skills in their business and how do they do that? How do they attract people with those skills? How do they develop those skills? What are those skills? There’s points where we take a step out and reflect on some of the systemic issues in terms of education systems giving people the right skills. The huge role that diversity and inclusion plays in this as well. So the book covers a lot of ground with that sort of central digital talent journey, driving it forward, against this backdrop of skill shortages, and changing skills and digitally transforming businesses.




To give us a bit of a flavour of what we can again, of what we can expect when we get going. What are the chapter titles and things that we can expect?




Matt Alder

I can read them out? I’ll talk you through the flow of it. We start off by talking about digital skills and digital transformation and not just technical skills, but actually the fact that everyone needs digital skills within a business. We talk about talent acquisition, we talk about talent experience,talent management leadership. These are all the chapters that Mervyn wrote, so I’m just talking about his chapters. There’s a big chapter on diversity and inclusion. And then the book finishes by looking at work technology. How is technology helping with the digital talent journey? What can we see? What are the trends? And then we talk about what we call the new future of work. How are the trends that we’ve seen, growing during the pandemic and affect the way that work, works. Then in the conclusion we finish off by talking about this sense of total talent management, in terms of how companies need to borrow skills to get skills into their business, and really look very holistically at how they manage the different types of workforce that they might have.




So anyone listening if that hasn’t wet your appetite for going out to get the book I don’t know what’s going to? Without sounding too cheesy I assume the book is available at all good online retailers? And that very big one online retailer as well I assume.




Yes, you can certainly buy it from Amazon. Obviously it’s better for us if you buy it from Kogan page. A, we get slightly more from it and B, Kogan page are more likely to want us to write a third. I’m sure there are other places I’m afraid in southwest London, twice a week I go into my local waterstones bookshop and it’s still not stocked. I believe that most of the big bookshops you get in city centres, I think Kogan page, some of their books are there in the business section. I’ve not spotted it anywhere in a big bookshop yet, but I’m always hopeful. 




I’m sure it’s there. You know what guys it’s been an absolute pleasure talking me through your working process and the themes of the book. Obviously we will include all of your details in the show notes and links to where everybody can get their copy of the book. Matt it’s been a pleasure to have you on again. Mervyn it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on for the first time. Hopefully it won’t be the last, maybe for book three we’ll do this again? The return of the talent. Whatever we’re going to call it. But for now, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much guys. 



Matt Alder

Thank you.




Thank you James!


Listen to Matt and Mervyns episode here.

Connect with Matt here.

Connect with Mervyn here.

Connect with James here.

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