Can you systematise talent idiosyncrasies?

Submission preparations for the preeminent management and organisational studies academic conference – Academy of Management Annual Meeting – is always an excellent opportunity to pause and reflect.  This year thoughts turn to vendor and academic developments about the intersection between technology and talent management because I need to choose an aspect of this relationship to talk more about in such a rigorous and informed academic setting.

One of this years’ contributions focuses on the question in the post title: Can you systematise talent idiosyncrasies?  This thought-provoking question endeavours to highlight the inherent tension in using vendor-designed information technologies (such as stand-alone and HR modules of larger enterprise systems – think SAP SuccessFactors, Oracle, workday etc) in talent management.

The subtitle, if there were one, would be The (potentially contradictory) relationship between HR technologies and talent management.

Tension arises because, for future leader and talent identification processes, technology provides a framework to consistently and systematically evaluate “what” is talent.

Such technology provides organisations with the capabilities and workflow processes used to evaluate individual and group performance and potential according to a predefined set of defining characteristics (skills and capabilities, personal attributes, experiences etc). In particular:

  • Workforce differentiation whereby those top performing individuals are permitted entry into the (internal) talent pool, arises from the processes and algorithms pre-configured into the material properties of the technology.
  • Algorithms (including the coding, sorting, filtering and ranking) give organisations, line managers and HR managers, a set of step-by-step instructions and “best practice” processes as a core component of an integrated “talent management system”.
  • These workflow processes represent the “how” of talent identification thus permitting the systematic and consistent processes which technology vendors advocate, as do many talent management scholars – but not me!

I don’t because there’s always a but, and here it is: but the use of technology to systematise talent identification frames “talent” as a universal and static concept.

Technology takes a picture – a snapshot at one point of time in line with a one-size-fits-all understanding of “what” (the characteristics) and the “how” (the process) of talent. Technology establishes boundaries around what is talent and what talent is not. These boundaries are fixed, and in practice, not easily permeable – and could well prove to be arbitrary rather than purposive.

If they accept vendor rhetoric about the ability to easily purchase talent management best practices, organisations may, by default, devolve agency to the technology vendor to decide – via their off-the-shelf and vanilla software packages – what talent should look like and how talented individuals are identified.  This means that there is potential for the vendor, rather than the organisation, to be the one who sets criteria for talent evaluation and determination.  So ask yourself:

Do you know what’s inside the technology or what algorithms and talent recipes drive talent decisions? Do you question what’s inside the technology “black-box”?

A systematic one-best-way may be a rigid approach that limits the ability to acknowledge characteristics outside of those of the predefined parameters built into the technology and manifests a narrow, rather than a holistic perspective of talent management. If talent pool membership results from looking, acting and performing the same as others that are already card-carrying talent subjects, then doesn’t this raise practical questions about the role and value of technology in identifying talent?

And – as with any IT solution – merely using vendor-designed technology may be cheaper and easier than designing and enacting a bespoke system, but it will always be money down the drain if it is a bad fit for your organisation and your strategy.  The chances are that your word-processing needs won’t be that different from millions of others using off-the-shelf software, but are your talent management needs like that?

Never forget that talent is a complex phenomenon, and the most talented may be just that person who doesn’t fit the box.  Will an off-the-shelf system improve your chances of recognising an individual when they don’t fit neatly into the box?

Decision-makers may be much better server by asserting that talent is a fluid, adaptable concept, influenced by context, thereby encouraging talent identification processes that prioritise and reward diversity. Think of the profound difference between just taking a photo of a person, and taking a video – which includes sound, interactions and additional contextual information.

I’m not arguing that technology should not, or does not, play a pivotal role in identifying future leaders and talent. Rather, that …

… much more consideration is due to whether technologically-enabled processes represent the start, the middle, or the end of talent identification. So ask, where does technology best add value, to really facilitate talent management that meets your objectives, rather than emplacing the objectives already decided by someone else, somewhere else and making you dance to that tune.

Highlighting these points of contention encourages senior executives and HR managers alike to engage in deep and deliberate reflection about the rhetoric, research and reality of employing technologically-enabled practices, and the extent to which organisations can (and should) systematise talent idiosyncracies.

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