Talent management - for the many or just the few?

Blog posts

18 Jul 2017

Wendy HirshDr Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate, Institute for Employment Studies

Working on talent management with many organisations, their managers and staff, I often encounter unease and even hostility to the possibility that some development opportunities might be offered to some people but not others. So is talent management for the many or the few or can it be both?

We have recently conducted in-depth case study research across sectors for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Universities are keen to learn from what other organisations are doing in the public, private and third sectors. This research highlighted some interesting shifts in thinking on the 'many versus few' issue.

If we unpick this issue from the business perspective first, we see that the ideas of business needs and business risk are central to what organisations mean by the term talent management, and apply to organisations in any sector and of any size. Talent management is absolutely not about giving employees all the development they would like, but about prioritising business investment in development where it will make the most difference to business effectiveness – and decrease business risk. It must therefore be strongly aligned to business strategy, and a key component of employment strategy.

Addressing this issue of priority-setting in employee development, means tackling two rather different kinds of decisions. The first decision is about which broad groups of staff to invest in and that is certainly not new or usually contentious. For example, does an organisation need to invest in senior leadership, mid-career professionals, or younger entrants to the business? The answer to this question will always be a mix, but it is a question that needs to be addressed and is always influenced by business priorities and where resourcing is more difficult.

The public sector in the UK has traditionally been very good at investing in those just starting out on their careers and those near the top. This can leave the 'middle' of the organisation – experienced mid-career staff – somewhat neglected. Leading technology companies and professional services firms are recognising the importance of prioritising and developing the capacity of the 'middle' as business needs change. Experienced staff may need new skills, but their jobs also often need redesigning to reflect new priorities and to remove or re-engineer tasks that do not add value or should be done another way.

Developing employees in mid-career is not mostly about courses, but about giving them access to new experiences to extend their skills. For example, they can be involved directly in leading change, perhaps supported by informal coaching, mentoring or perhaps learning sets.

We also see some talent management priorities arising from labour market shortages in what companies often call 'operationally critical' jobs or workforce groups. These may not be senior roles in grade or pay terms but are nonetheless crucial to delivering the business and may be a skill shortage group.

The second set of decisions about development priorities is trickier. Will we develop everyone in a particular workforce group to the same skill level or will we sometimes select particular individuals for more stretching development activities, not offered to everyone in that group? The trend here across diverse sectors is clearly to aim for a both/and answer to this question. For example, organisations are re-investing in first line manager training for all such managers, because good management is so central to the performance, engagement, development and retention of the people they manage. However, on top of this universal development, a talent management approach may also aim to spot first line managers who want to progress their careers and have the ability to do a bigger or more complex management job. Depending on the context, this type of talent intervention can be at a range of levels or career stages. Those selected as possible successors or members of talent pools may be offered more stretching developmental opportunities to help them progress their careers and also to test their career preferences. Approaches to give support to under-represented groups – for example women with senior leadership potential – can be woven into this type of talent management.

So taking a business view, different kinds of development investment may address both the many and the few in any given workforce group.

Of course, if organisations try and spot potential for career progression, they need to be very careful to avoid managers just developing their favourites or perpetuating inequalities of gender, race and so on. This is why talent management has to take place against definitions of potential that are relevant to the different kinds of jobs or levels in the organisation; test and challenge the views of individual managers; and integrate talent management with real time tracking of diversity and inclusion data. 

So far, this blog has looked at talent management from an organisational perspective. But this has to join up with how development is planned and experienced by individuals. For example, the idea of a Personal Development Plan (PDP) is long established. However, talent management trends support moving this away from being just about courses and towards making the PDP genuinely personal, ie tailored to the strengths and needs of each person and to their situation. So we would not expect PDPs to give the same development to everyone doing the same job. PDPs are also being modified to include career-related development as well as development to improve performance in the current job. Talent management explicitly includes talking to individuals about their career aspirations and interests. There is little point developing someone towards being a middle manager, for example, if this is simply not something they want to do or if they show no sign of the people skills required to do it successfully.

In essence, talent management brings together these two perspectives – the organisational and the individual - focusing development where it is needed by the business and where it is a good fit to the aspirations and abilities of individuals. Seeing opportunities to develop people in ways that also help the organisation has to be part of a wider culture and mindset throughout the organisation – not owned by HR or seen as a set of HR procedures. When it works well, it benefits both the organisation and its employees. It requires investment in development both for the 'many' and for the 'few.' But to go down this route, we have to get used to the idea that not everyone needs to learn the same things at the same time in the same way.

Read the research

The recent IES research has been published by Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Talent Management: Learning across sectors

The full report is available free to download for Leadership Foundation members, and can be purchased by non-members via the website.

A summary of the report can be downloaded by registering on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education website.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.