Comment: The fallacy of talent

There are few subjects that attract bigger audiences to HR conferences than talent management. In many ways, the modern HR professional defines their reason for existence by the acquisition, development and retention of highly talented individuals – because that is why line managers principally value their services.

Line managers do not value HR colleagues because they act as the conscience of the organisation, operate a whistleblower helpline, investigate complaints about sexual harassment or seek to keep the company legally compliant. The HR department is principally there to devote time to what line managers do not have enough time to do. In the course of satisfying this need, HR can so readily cloud its role with mystifying jargon about “human capital”, and even “talentship”.

In steps the HR guru. At the heart of their “ground breaking insights” are a set of well – trodden rules of thumb dressed up in dignifying language and intended to make the “insights” more, rather than less, opaque. The conference attendee clings to each of the guru’s words trying to learn the nuggets of know – how that will give them the key to improve the human capital pool. But what they get is a greater sense of confusion through interstellar concepts and needless complexity. For instance, in one popular text in this field “Beyond HR: The New Science of Human Capital” the authors talk about how HR can generate worth for client groups by using the language of the group – marketing language for marketeers, finance language for accountants and production concepts for factory managers. But doing this does not add one iota of actual value to the process – other than making HR seem more in tune with their client’s world.

Underlying this resurgent interest in talent management is also a fear that in an increasingly competitive world the small pool of available talent will be drained away and companies stumble around with inferior talents. But here is where two other fallacies creep in. That the world relies on a small group of super-intelligent people who are in short supply and that this pool of high talent will always serve the interests of the company where it functions.

The ‘talent elite’ notion is backed up by a plethora of job evaluation techniques, intelligence testing and organisation charts that all dictate that merit gets to the top and (not coincidentally) so do the great bulk of material rewards. Seemingly objective phenomena labelled “talent” and the achievement of a hallowed place on the organisation chart all prop up the reward system and those already gaining advantage from this system would, of course, not have it otherwise. But one does not have to espouse a socialist ethic to challenge these self – perpetuating fallacies. Moreover, it has become all too evident from business failures that the most talent – rich organisations are not necessarilythe most stable or successful.

Another reason why the “small talent pool” concept is so difficult to accept is that it is reinforced by assumptions concerning academic achievement. If Masters and PhDs were the emblems of true talent, then academics would run private sector corporations. All of us know, however, that this would be a recipe for disaster. In just the same way that it is questionable why MBAs are so respected when if the University professor who taught them was any good at management they would surely be a  manager and not an academic. In many ways the study of business in academia is not just sometimes an irrelevance, but potentially a damaging irrelevance.

That is not to say that education per se is not a benefit to the economy. But what value it truly brings is more in the manner that it is regarded in countries such as South Korea – where 80% of the 20-35 generation now have tertiary education. In such a context, the possession of qualifications becomes a necessary, but not sufficient step to having a worthwhile job. Huge salary gaps are also not essential to achieve business success.

The gap between the boardroom and average worker in Scandinavian companies, for instance, is very narrow by western standards and in – in any case – progressive taxation systems narrow any gaps which exist. Rather than pay the national exchequer hard won wealth it would be of greater value for a company to spread it around the workforce in a more even way, or reinvest it in new technologies or management methods. But very few people on high salaries are going to espouse such a cause. For them a career has been measured in terms of securing high base salaries, big bonuses and a top hat pension. Why should this change? Even if it was in the interest of the company and its loyal shareholders?

So whatever the latest textbook or conference guru says, the measure of a business’s success is not in ornate conceptual systems that obscure the truth, but in widening the concept of talent to embrace all employees; in improving employee involvement and in making everyone a key and valued contributor – as well as an ambassador of the organisation.

Getting this message across to line managers is a tough challenge, but maybe it is not them, but weight of circumstance and persistence that will ultimately achieve the high ground. If “strategy” means anything in an HR context it will be as a servant to the greater good and putting a constant emphasis on issues such as legal compliance and enhancing key, future skills that will ultimately make all the difference


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