The Soul of Talent Management

In our daily work, we often forget that management is a tool, not an end in itself, and so we miss the reality of what it is we are managing. In the case of “talent,” we want to support the growth of people, and to this end management can be at odds with the needs of talent.

The goal of talent management is to find good people to hire, motivate them to join us and give the best of themselves, and support them in seeing their strengths and weaknesses and developing themselves in the time they spend with us. From the organizational side, it wants to understand the needs of the managers looking for talent, bring the right people together for the right functions, and enable the succession process which ensures that the best people will succeed the current managers in steering the fate of the company.

Management systems can do none of this by themselves, only people can. There is no replacement for personal contact and interaction, where experience and insight enable us to exercise good judgment about who we can and want to work with. Many companies have understood that they are in the “people business.” But very few seem to have grasped what it means to live with people as people, not functions, on a professional basis.

As always, grasping the soul of something is complex. At a first level, talent management is about relationship abilities.

At a talk over coffee this week, a friend who does global talent management and I reflected on some of the leaders she supports. What I enjoyed from the start was the absence of manager-speak. The way she talks about people is based in complex perceptions about, e.g. their ability to connect with their staffs (or not), how they are able to see interrelationships and relate details to big pictures (or not), and of combinations of great skills with breathtaking blindspots and how those go together in personalities with a history she knows and reflects upon as the context of her understanding. Her complex understanding lets her describe developmental paths that the personalities behind the functions could take to realize their potential, and the ways she could provide the environment and the resources they would need. If I were in their place, I would feel seen und supported in ways the management systems by their very nature cannot do.

When we focus on people like this, solutions are often quite simple. Difficult is managing the emergence of insight into the nature of the problem. How many talent management teams devote their time to emergent insight into the potential of their people?

At a second level, understanding the essence of a task takes a philosophical bent of mind. Thinking, as one of my philosophy teachers used to say, has little to do with logic and much more with the presuppositions which inform our reasoning. For example, if we believe that business is about making money, and people are but resources to be used to that end, then we can spare ourselves the effort of talent management from the start and reduce HR to the transactional processes of contracts and compensation. In a shareholder value environment, talent management is a waste of time. It is much more efficient to focus on performance through outcomes than to invest heart and soul into developing people.

But if the company embodies a philosophy of customer intimacy, great and innovative product development, or service to customers and society, not to mention the internal success factors of creating value through knowledge or design, talent management will be the company’s most important success factor (incidentally creating more shareholder value obliquely than the direct approach).

The contrast between these two philosophical world-views could not be more fundamental. In a rip-roaring blogpost on the consequences of the transactional model of management for employee engagement, James Altucher (@jaltucher) explains to the downtrodden and disengaged masses of workers 10 Reasons Why You Have to Quit Your Job This Year (e.g. reason 3: Corporations don’t like you). I suspect that one of the reasons many corporations with a shareholder value philosophy still survive in the face of the way they manage their talent down to its lowest possible denominator (viz. Dilbert), is that their people haven’t yet grasped the more dignified alternatives. Had they enjoyed a talent manager like my friend, they would have had no choice but to leave, which is another serious argument for not investing in talent management worthy of the name for classical corporations. It just creates a mismatch between people’s expectations and company vision which harms the bottom line.

A third level is strategic and concerns how we understand work. In “Race Against the Machine,” economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that one of the root causes of unemployment is not a slowdown in the pace of innovation, but quite the opposite. Technological innovation is accelerating, so that tasks can increasingly be automated which only a short time ago were considered to belong to an inviolably human domain. Google is bringing the driverless car close to the breakthrough point for production and public use; Philips is insourcing shaver assembly to Holland, not to flee rising costs in China and produce jobs at home, but because robots have reached the point where they can do fine mechanical assembly without many people; and the Singularity Hub reports on Philip M. Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School who has over 100,000 books to his name and 700,000 books listed to his company at Amazon.com, each written in about 20 minutes by a robot (a computer system which can write technical books, and whose cousins are working on doing novels). Automation is reaching the sphere of literary production!

In a video post on the book, Rethinking Race against the Machine, John Hagel recognizes how automation makes many jobs vulnerable to elimination, but questions the framing of the fact as a technical challenge. The strategy of corporations has been to define work in ways which make it a perfect target for outsourcing and automation, by striving to define standardized, highly scripted work. But in the current environment of uncertainty, where black swans define our reality more than stability, such work provides little value and is in fact best done by machines. Hagel calls on managers to innovate our institutions and work practices to allow us to race with the machine, rather than compete with it. By inventing work which deals with complexity, our human capacity for pattern recognition and creativity once again comes into its own, and the machine can support us rather than replace us. The lazy dependence of companies and managers on the mechanical paradigm of work is creating a world in which work is an increasingly rare commodity–a paradoxical situation in a world crying out for innovative solutions to complex and systemic problems whose implementation will give everyone more than enough to do.

It is in such an environment of human and complexity-centred innovation that talent management, in the deeper sense of profound interest in the development of human beings to deal with complex problems, comes into its own.

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