Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rescuing Talent Management from War and Drought

Talent. Savour the word. It's a word that straightens backs in HR and gets business excited. And gets both worried that they don't have enough of it. 

It all started with 'The War for Talent', a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey and made famous in a book by the same name, written by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod. 

So, what do they really mean by talent? Well, now we go in murky waters. The book does not explicitly define talent. At one point, the book uses a 'definition' which was famously used to define obscenity. "you  know it when you see it." Later, talent is defined as a combination of things which tick all the right boxes for an organization - strategic mind, 'leadership ability' (which itself is vague), ability to attract other talented people (which compounds the problem by adding a new layer of vagueness) and so on...

Saved by the Billing Machines

Some things are too good to be left to pass away unnoticed. Enthusiastic support by consultants led to a multiplicity of definitions, some talking about the power of the top performers to transform the organization while some taking a workforce-based approach, defining all employees as talent pool, thereby converting HR into Talent Management. Today, the field is deliciously open, where both definitions coexist. Talent, depending on the context, therefore, may be the top 5% of your employees in terms of potential and/or performance, your leaders (hopefully, there is a huge overlap in the two categories mentioned) or your universal set of employees. You just have to know which witch is which.

Have we lost to jargon?

Given this illustrious background, it would be easy to assume that talent management is another term we shall hopefully grow out of. But TM has had a positive impact on organizations in three ways:

1. Going beyond KRAs, KPIs and numbers:
Before TM entered the scene, it was not easy to have a conversation with CEOs about creating systems to identify and nurture leaders, primarily because such discussions were drowned out in the din of sales and performance numbers. While there were many techniques available to groom leaders, it was TM that gave a framework on which a generally accepted understanding of the importance of leadership was created. 

2. Sheep which follow v/s goats which need to be led:
TM helped, admittedly to a small extent, to push forth the realization that people bring a dimension of their personalities to work and more importantly, this dimension can have a big impact on the organization. Before TM, the context of organization-employee relations was defined more by welfare, fair wages and remuneration, hierarchy-led growth and 'human capital'. TM talked of the disproportionate impact that star employees can create for the organization. Using systems which force-fitted them in the context of seniority and equality rather than equity was seen to be dangerous.

3. Talent is fungible and loyal to itself:
TM helped created a vital link between the external situation and internal requirements. It brought home the clear message that people who are capable of changing the fortunes of an organization are in short supply and worryingly for organizations, are not bound by industry, country or job loyalty. Talent does what it must.

Great. So we are sorted.

Not really. There are still some issues that TM needs to confront. Here are three:

1.The metaphor that isn't:
I argue that the framing of TM issues still leaves a lot to be desired. Let us look at three terms: 'War' for talent. 'Drought' of talent. Talent 'acquisition'.
In my opinion, these terms tend to frame the concept of talent in a biased way. Talent is seen to be an asset that needs to be captured, because it is scarce. Like oil, perhaps. This is a linear view and can be quite incorrect. Human beings have a capacity to learn, unlearn and adapt. To give an accounting analogy, the current view of talent is that talent is an asset comparable to machinery or Capital Goods, that tend to depreciate over time (or have a clearly calculable and linear initial book value, rate of depreciation and 'scrap value'). People tend to behave differently, especially in situations where they are nurtured. They tend to be like Goodwill, an asset which tends to appreciate over time and whose increase in value cannot be determined through a linear formula, but can vary due to a variety of forces.

2. The lag that doesn't go:
Most TM systems tend to sit beside, or on top of, conventional HR systems of performance appraisal, role-based compensation and near-linear career paths. Very few HR Departments are able to take bold decisions and re-imagine HR systems from the ground up, which put the appreciation of abilities of the individuals as the core of their design. For example, coaching and mentoring can be a non-negotiable part of performance management. Career paths can be customised and supported for individual employees. Today, there are tools available that enable HR and line managers to manage such systems. But it takes a brave HR department, and a wise Top Management, to appreciate and create this.

3. The end result that isn't:
Most TM practitioners (yes, they are a thing. Yes, I am one of them) will admit to a feeling of disappointment at the end of a TM assignment. Quite often, the benefits of TM are not at all visible. When the mandate is to recognize top talent, TM practitioners end up giving a list of top talent based on various assessments. When TM systems, such as talent 'acquisition', need to be set up, TM practitioners integrate competencies into the recruitment process (that is what talent acquisition means) and present a competency-based hiring solution to the top management. I argue that that isn't the end result: end-to-end talent based systems tend to only exist on delicious-looking Powerpoint slides and are rarely implemented. this could be due to a variety of reasons, but in the end, the failure is seen to be that of HR and the TM practitioner. A painfully frank talk is required, before getting into a TM solution.Can the organization afford a TM approach, given the attention it requires? I am not even talking of things like sensitization of managers here. Does the organization have the basic time and willingness to make TM a vital component of their organizational process? What benefits does the organization see from the TM process? What are the reasons to go for TM? :  Is it driven by a desire to keep up with the latest buzzword (even though TM is not exactly new)? Is there an investor who needs to be impressed? These are the wrong sort of reasons to go in for a TM initiative and it tends to show in the final outcome of the initiative. Also, and very few consultants will tell you this, there are perfectly good ways in which organizations can succeed with conventional HR systems as well.

In sum, talent management has evolved its own set of definitions and today is accepted as an important part of the new organization. However, Talent Management needs a rescue act from itself, as it exists today. A clear boundary of what it can and cannot do and what it should and shouldn't do, is critical before embarking upon Talent Management interventions.

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