New IES research shows talent management evolving to meet fresh challenges

Newsletter articles

20 Jul 2017

HR Insight Issue 24

Wendy HirshDr Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate

Fresh in-depth case-study research by IES for The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education shows how organisations at the leading edge of talent management are adjusting their priorities and evolving their practices to align with ever-shifting business challenges.

The organisations sharing their thinking and practice with IES for this research were Rolls-Royce; PwC; Standard Life; the Cabinet Office; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Plan International; the British Council; and Infineum.

The Leadership Foundation commissioned the study to help higher education institutions (HEIs) learn from experience in other sectors. Professor Fiona Ross, the Leadership Foundation's director of research, explained: "Universities are only as good as their people, therefore finding, keeping and developing the right talent for the right roles is crucial for success and sustainability. Our report by IES examines these issues from the perspective of other sectors. We hope the case studies and best practice on talent management and succession planning will be a useful resource for higher education line managers and human resource experts in an increasingly competitive environment."

The study found that employers across a range of sectors wholeheartedly adopt a best-fit approach to talent management, as opposed to simply lifting and copying so-called best practice from elsewhere. So they start with the people issues that the business needs to address and align everything they do with that business context. They still pay close attention to talent pipelines and succession planning for executive and leading specialist roles and for some critical operational roles lower down the organisation.

However, there is increasing emphasis on sustaining active skill and career development for broader core professional groups. Professional expertise is hard to recruit in many occupations and sectors, and experienced professional employees are often targeted by other employers. These people are the backbone of expertise in the business, and they need to keep up-to-date and flexible to take businesses forward. We see a strong emphasis, for example, on the continuous development of the engineering workforce in Rolls-Royce, and finance professionals and consultants in PwC. The Civil Service is also strengthening professionalism in a range of occupations, alongside its well-established approaches to attracting and developing future leaders.

ChameleonManagement development remains high on the agenda but especially strengthening the skills of all first line managers for their crucial role in engaging and developing others. With an ageing workforce in many UK businesses and occupations, bringing in the right kinds of young people for the future in a wide range of occupations is now a much more explicit aspect of talent management. It is increasingly linked with creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce and organisational culture, to bring fresh thinking to business challenges. Recruitment, development and promotion practices are being used to challenge stereotypes more strongly and shift diversity at senior levels more rapidly.

Alongside this research for the Leadership Foundation, IES has also had an exciting opportunity to explore talent management and related topics in a series of four workshops run this year by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). UCEA represents the interests and views of UK HEIs as employers. The four well-attended and lively workshops addressed workforce planning under uncertainty; succession planning; attracting and retaining talent; and data analytics. All these aspects of people management are concerned with addressing changing business needs and using evidence to inform decisions about people.

Helen Fairfoul, Chief Executive of UCEA said "The expertise of Wendy Hirsh and Peter Reilly across the range of HR practice, together with their understanding of the higher education sector, makes them ideal partners for UCEA. We are delighted to have worked with them in this last year to develop a new suite of programmes designed to help and support HR staff in our HE institutions in meeting really pertinent workforce challenges."

The workshops included the practical application of scenario planning, for example, in relation to how their institutional strategies for both students and staff may need to respond to Brexit. Academia is a very global business and employs significant numbers of non-UK EU nationals. The workshop on succession planning addressed some of the most difficult jobs to fill, for example, heads of department – a demanding role for which academics have not, in the past, felt well prepared. HEIs are also facing shortages of technicians who provide crucial support for both teaching and research, often requiring specialised skills. Many technicians are retiring, without an adequate pipeline to replace them.

The capability of line managers at all levels to identify and develop staff with potential to progress was another hot topic at the talent management event. HEIs still have some way to go in moving to a more tailored, experiential approach to development, especially in mid-career. Data analytics, the subject of the final workshop, can offer many opportunities in universities to go beyond conventional HR dashboards and understand the connections between employee information (both factual and attitudinal), student data, and organisational outcomes.

In conclusion, HEIs operate in very competitive national and international markets for students, staff, and research funding. The old image of an ivory tower feels very far indeed from what IES has experienced in these recent projects with the higher education sector. Talent management – as elsewhere – is central to organisational survival and success.

Read Talent Management: learning across sectors, by Wendy Hirsh and Elaine Tyler, at

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