Skip to main content
main content, press tab to continue
Article | Beyond Data

Rewarding digital talent: How to shape a pay strategy to grow and thrive

Insights for turning risks into opportunities

By Michiel Klompen and Callum McRae | May 10, 2021

In the face of all the changes that have occurred over the last year, it is becoming increasingly evident that organizations which invest in integrating automation and digitization into their systems are going to have a significant advantage going forward over those which fail to do so. 
Beyond Data

Digital is the name of the game, and the current crisis has only served to emphasize this.

Digital transformation has become a necessity for survival and profitability in today’s market. Digitization focuses not only on enabling an organization with cutting-edge technology but also on having the right talent on board, especially those with critical digital skills (digital talent), to power the push towards innovation and success. Several studies demonstrate that digital transformation positively influences innovation and firm performance1.

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the scarcity of digital talent, but at the same time it has propagated the practice of remote working, which has led to a number of global companies considering hiring talent from much further afield than they would have previously. However, although the concept of remote working is now widely practised, many are still cautious and are carefully studying the pros and cons of hiring talent from a global pool, which makes it an essential HR topic to watch out for.

In this article, we outline some of the challenges that organizations are facing in terms of rewarding digital talent, and we also look at the practical considerations to overcome these.

Digital talent scarcity

Having the right talent with the right skills at the right time is key to ensuring that there are no delays in an organization’s digital transformation, sustainable profitability and survival. In order to achieve all this, HR must consider a number of factors: it’s not just about paying whatever is needed to secure talent, there is also a need to find the balance between upholding fair pay principles and optimizing costs, specifically the salary budget. In fact, the average global employee compensation expenditure is 19.7%2 of total business expenses – this means an organization must maximize the use of that budget to ensure that their workforce will help get them to where they want to be.

Globally, 9 out of 10 organizations face this challenge

For the last three years, attracting and retaining digital talent has been an escalating challenge for organizations. It is a challenge which is constantly evolving and growing in importance. Globally, 9 out of 10 organizations face this challenge, and it is not exclusive to technology organizations, but affects organizations across all industries and all regions.

Our Artificial Intelligence and Digital Talent Compensation Survey also shows a consistent growth in the proportion of digital talent in organizations. This indicates that, overall, organizations are seeing an increase in the number of employees fulfilling digital roles – through a buy and/or build approach – but also emphasizes that the challenge of attracting and retaining digital talent will stay around for a longer period. To keep up momentum, organizations must continue with their digital transformation journey if they wish to have what it takes to be a destination for in-demand digital talent.

Figure 1: Digital talent as percentage of total talent
Figure 1: Digital talent as percentage of total talent
Figure 1: This graph shows from 2018 to 2020 digital talent as a percentage across different industries has increased each year with it accelerating the most in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications industry.

Justifying the cost

Attracting and retaining digital talent can be expensive, making it critical to find value for money. COVID-19 has had a disruptive effect on the hiring practices of companies, specifically for roles which can be done remotely, such as many technology-focused roles. Companies are now less restricted by geography and can look for talent beyond the immediate locality of their offices, searching regionally or even globally for the best people.

In this age, digital talent is understandably the most sought-after in the global talent market, with virtually every organization looking to recruit the most skilled people. However, while this new, borderless approach to hiring opens up a far larger talent pool to prospective employers, there are some factors that organizations must consider first. In every country organizations face different costs, from salaries themselves to mandatory social contributions, tax and insurance costs. In the figure below, you can see the differences between countries, including and excluding social security and mandatory employer costs.

Figure 2: Cost comparison for digital talent across countries
Figure 2: Cross-country digital talent cost comparison against a US baseline (e.g. you can afford 9 employees in India for the same amount as 1 employee in the US)
Figure 2: Across countries as a comparison of total guaranteed compensation this shows that compared to the United States you can afford more people in digital talent in other countries around the world including Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, China, Brazil, Mexico and India. For every 1 employee in the United States an employer could employee 9 employees in India.

While it’s a good thing that organizations have more freedom on where to get their digital talent, it’s also important to have enough data and insights about people. This helps organizations to make an informed decision, ensuring that they will optimize their workforce and pay strategy and maximize their investment.

Focus on hot jobs and skills instead

When zooming in on the roles defined as digital talent, we see that there are a lot of similarities but also some differences when it comes to the core aspects. The differences are often linked to specific digital skills, which have a strong impact on defining what market-competitive pay looks like and often dictates the difficulty in attraction and retention.

For example, per our latest survey results, we see that digital project management roles tend to be one of the highest paying roles when compared across countries globally, along with cyber security and web, mobile and app development. All these crucial roles require highly specialized skills that are hard to find but are critical to enabling innovation and improving customer engagement.

Figure 3: Ranking of highest paid digital talent work areas per country
Figure 3: Ranking of highest paid digital talent work areas per country
Figure 3: This graph shows that across the world the digital project management roles are the highest paid roles in an organisation with cyber security coming second and digital marketing being the least expensive.

Shifting attention to the pay progression within functions, we can observe some interesting nuances in different markets. By looking more closely at the example below, we see that the relative pay progression for professionals in big data is mostly limited in the United States, although the pay levels tend to be the highest. In Brazil and China, on the other hand, we see that there are significantly higher pay increases between the stages of a career in big data.

Figure 4: Pay progression for big data professionals
Figure 4: Pay progression for big data professionals
Figure 4: This graphic shows that pay progression for big data professionals is greatest in the United States for entry level professionals whilst in Brazil it is the least.

Overcoming the main challenges

Organizations must pay for survival, but it is an outlay worth every penny, if done right. A differentiated rewards approach for critical digital talent – one that balances market competitiveness, fair pay principles and cost optimization – is a must-have to drive an organization’s success and to power through this lack of digital talent. Turning risk into opportunity involves a few key considerations:

  1. Value for money – Assess and understand the cost of digital talent, but also identify and understand how much value this employee group brings to your digital transformation journey and overall organization success.
  2. Optimal balance – Find the right balance between where you want to get the work done, what type of rewards package is competitive in that market and what motivates your digital talent.
  3. Common language – Skills are not only the currency of the digital economy, but also the language for careers, so ensure that your organizational structure is prepared to speak the right language. Think about your employees’ career experience and growth opportunities, leveraging learning and development programmes to enrich their skill set, but don’t forget that pay should follow potentially steep growth paths.
  4. Data-driven decision-making – Attract the best digital talent with a data-driven approach to total rewards. Identify the relevant reference market, use robust and quality market data and consider applying a focus on skills by using software such as SkillsVue.

The pandemic has increased many risks in businesses, but it has also unlocked opportunities for many organizations which haven’t yet started their digital transformation journey. Digital is the name of the game, and the current crisis has only served to emphasize this. Now is the time to roll up the sleeves and brave the risks, and we need to start by getting the right people on board.


1 Joseph K. Nwank IT Capability and Digital Transformation: A Firm Performance Perspective [Abstract]. In: IS Strategy, Governance and Sourcing; 2016;



Director, Digital Strategy & Innovation
email Email

Global Product Co-Lead, Tech, Media and Gaming Compensation Surveys
email Email

Related content tags, list of links Article Beyond Data Beyond Data
Contact us