The Tip of a Talent Iceberg…

Last week’s issue of the Economist had a special report on the future of jobs, in particular the changing nature of work and the paradoxical mismatch between rising unemployment and unfilled demand for skilled workers.

It is an interesting series of articles – there’s a lot to mull over there – but one thing which caught my eye was what they described as “an intensifying war for talent” – employers competing with each other for high skilled workers.

I have always found the description of workers as “talent” curious; it makes me uncomfortable. How many employers would seek out untalented staff? The large bank where I used to work had a bit of its HR department designated “talent management”, focussing on the “top” 1,000 to 2,000 employers (about 1.5% of the total workforce). This cadre of managers had large resources spend on their training and development – I can’t remember the figures, but the budget for development of the “top” 5% was something like the amount spent on the remaining 95% of staff – those that weren’t talent, that is.

Did I mention that this was in a bank? You may guess where this is going…

Definitions of those that constituted “talent” were difficult to come by and sometime contradictory (part of the reason why those in “talent management” sometimes talked about the top 1,000, sometimes the top 5%).

Focussing so much on the top 5% created an elite; indeed, within the top 5% there were various sub-divisions, creating a strict hierarchy, each level receiving different development opportunities (so everyone knew what level they were, and it was apparent to those outside, too). Selection for the various programmes was assessed on performance and competences – so those on the various programmes were pretty similar and ticked the same boxes – and fitted (rather than questioned) the company’s model.

I understand an organisation doing what it can to identify, recruit and retain the people in the organisation it is counting on to succeed; the trouble is what this says about the organisation – its culture and values. The bank was effectively saying that it didn’t believe 95% of its employees were worth much (reflected in its remuneration policy, too). The way to gain status in the firm was to be part of the elite – largely white and male. It created a very macho culture at senior levels.

And we all know where that led [PDF].


2 thoughts on “The Tip of a Talent Iceberg…

  1. Dan Sutton

    I guess some organisations might make a decision that some workers were unable to affect the overall outcome for the organisation for good or for ill or they might chose to focus their attention on those workers whose efforts had a multiplier effect and such organisations may or may not prosper through the wisdom of that policy but this does sound a little like sweeties for the good boys (but then maybe not).

    Tangentially on the success or otherwise of this policy for the bank you are thinking of (or indeed any bank) I still think there is a significant difference of opinion between what the general population think / thought banks were for and what bankers think they are for. I would argue that the banks as organisations were very very successful at what I think bankers think banks are for.

    I think talent in the context of the Economist article is shorthand for those workers with hard / expensive to acquire skills that the hiring firm can’t or won’t grow from within.


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