Talent management and the downfall of a good idea

March 02, 2021

For quite some time now, talent management has been the pivotal element of modern human resource policy. No participants that attach importance to their image can avoid it. And yet, despite being mentioned a thousand times in dubious and fabulous articles, in books and on blogs, despite job titles such as talent manager, talent scout and talent expert, the basic idea seems to get lost.

Almost two decades after Helen Handfield-Jones, Ed Michaels and Beth Axelrod took off to change the world of human resource management, the first signs of resignation have become hard to ignore. But how did this happen? What turned a really good idea into a hollow apple that worms have been gnawing at for a long time? Surely, there are multiple reasons, but where is the core, or rather the root of all evil?

War for talents – the battle for specialists

It all began in a placid manner, when a new ‘war for talents’ started spreading in the mid-2000s. Some companies complained about experiencing difficulties in finding suited specialists for specific positions. Engineers turned into a rarity. Distant acquaintances began rumoring about engineers being wanted everywhere.

Gradually, the whispering turned louder, and suddenly it said ‘where are the engineers – we need more engineers!’ An initial hype formed. An initial fire kindled. Companies provided the fuel, and the press made a bolt for the good fodder. Mothers advised their children to embark on the career path of engineering: ‘It is a safe job – that is what they all keep saying.’ Then came the computer science jobs, then, again, the engineers; meanwhile, teachers and social education workers followed. And eventually, when everyone had lost track, there was a shortage of everything. As a result, nearly everyone had become a talent – even those with moderate talents. At first, both employees and students rejoiced at the news, after all, they were supposedly brilliant, supposedly in demand. But this would not last forever. Because if you were a talent, you were supposed to perform, supposed to deliver content – and what talent could resist that? Tensions arose, sweat was dripping off the foreheads of talents. Then came the first cases of burnout, certainly also caused by other reasons. Still, what was and is still going on is a battle of attrition – the problem: that what is being worn down, are people. Yes, the human resource. Often zealous and praised. Rarely looked after and protected. And whatever became of talent management – the good idea? Nearly seamlessly, it was integrated into human resources development. However, talent management dealt with human resources development only to a limited extent. The major difference lies in human resources development, with its wide reach, coming into touch with every employee – or at least that is what it should be doing. Talent management, on the other hand, aims at a smaller group of above-average talented individuals who are supposed to be brought into one of the few key positions. This results in both horizontal and vertical shift.

Human resources development – searching and finding talents

In contrast, human resources development deals with the further development of employees. For this reason, the limits of its task range are narrower and encompass a vast amount of stakeholders. For talent management, it is nearly vice versa: a very small group is addressed and guided with diverse tasks. The fact that this support does not always take place with the knowledge of the talents is irrelevant, what matters is the goal. But what exactly is goal-oriented guidance of talents, what is the foundation, what are the actual tasks of a talent manager? Here, a simple and resounding formula can be applied: ‘Talents need to be found, retained and developed for the right position.’

Now, the connection to human resources development becomes apparent. Even the single word ‘develop’ used in this context may have caused so much damage that an entire generation is uncertain whether or not they even want to be an actual talent. But let’s start with the beginning of our formula. ‘Talents need to be found’ – sounds like an easy task. Recruiters from all over the world will say: ‘Well, that is my daily business.’ The answer, however, is: ‘no, it is not’. How else can a majority of recruiters claim that they were looking for more talents, while talents only represent a small circle of people that could never provide enough work for everyone? We leave the response to the recruiters. To put it on the record – there are two ways to find talents: the external and the internal way. It is not uncommon that small as well as large companies forget one of these options and prefer to directly hand over the responsibility for single process steps to third parties. How and to what extent this allows reason to prevail is ignored. Too difficult seems to be the matter of finding talents, too vast the offer of ‘professional’ talent scouts.

Work on people

Once a talent has been found, the best bet is to retain them to the company. The fact that an above-average salary will not suffice for that, most have understood over the course of time (we are saying ‘most’ in the most optimistic way, since in practice this is often only applied superficially). But how do we retain talent if not with money? Well, that is a fundamental question that is actually rooted in a very profound background, because the question is about the ‘why?’.

Why do people do things if we do not entice them with money? Motivation theorists, listen up! No, we are not going to start explaining Malsow and his pyramid or Herzberg’s two-factor theory at this point, although some knowledge of it can never hurt. Instead, we want to talk about something elementary, namely human resources work – work on people. Theories and concepts may often provide good explanations for a large number of people, only in individual cases they usually have to push their limits. Because no theory, no hypothesis and no concept can completely penetrate the complexity of reality. However, since we are only dealing with individual cases in talent management, the focus, whether in a small or international company, is on working with people. That is why it is important to address each person separately and not pursue large-scale catalogs of measures. And on a side note: Should a talent fit seamlessly into ‘mass processing’, then we should question the status of the talent itself.

This brings us to the last part of our simplified formula – development. As mentioned earlier, this wording contributed significantly to the demise of talent management. The reason for this is the simple assumption that development equals development. However, you can find huge differences between the two, if you approach them with an open and willing mind. Whereas human resources development conveys a general, all-encompassing development of all employees aimed at maintaining their ability to do their jobs, the goal of talent management is entirely different. Here, development is focused on work that has not yet been acquired. Consequently, the emphasis is not on maintaining skills, but on acquiring new skills using existing potential. Although one can argue that this also occurs in human resources development, it is to a much lesser extent and with a much lower intensity.

Liberation from the vortex of doom

At the end of the day, talent management is not witchcraft. If handled correctly, it can add value for everyone involved. It is up to HR managers to decide whether it is really on the brink of demise. If they decide against it, however, they would have to begin to rediscover the original idea and pursue genuine talent management. And this is precisely where the task of human resources managers and executives lies! Above all, it is up to the human resources department to reclaim sovereignty over the topic from dubious human resources recruiters and put an end to the absurd image of talent management. No matter whether independently, or with the help of consultants or appropriate software solutions: The time has come to liberate talent management from the vortex of doom with goal-oriented measures!

Author: Andreas Puchinger

Image: © Prostock-Studio/istockphoto.com