What the Space Race is illuminating about the shifting boundaries of Talent

To date, ‘talent’ is a human-based phenomenon.

Whether humans are individuals, skills and positions or pivotal roles and positions, or everyone, the talking about talent in organisations is solely about humans.

High performing or high potential humans; valuable skills and capabilities are embedded within individuals, and we fill pivotal roles and positions with, you guessed it, humans.

Talent is about humans. Talent resides in individual humans.

Humans can reach their unrealised potential. Humans perform their talent. Humans take centre stage.

Automated technologies, however, are transforming our understanding of what talent is and is not. Digitalised talent management – the use of information technologies in organising and managing the (human) workforce – emphasises the complex interrelationship between technology and talent management. The digitalisation helps manage workforces and shape business processes. Digital innovations result in new approaches to designing jobs, tasks and careers. Inversely talent availability influences which technologies are selected and utilised. Neither technology nor talent is useful in their own right. Digital and talent management strategies must be ‘married at first sight’.  

Consideration of the Space Race and the intentional differences in talent management strategies, however, illuminates the potential for a changing of the guard and a shifting of the boundaries of talent.

Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic emphasise human talent. Virgin Galactic’s achievement was a ‘fully crewed spaceflight’. Two human pilots controlled the space mission. Human pilots manned the mission. Human pilots were responsible for launch processes and releasing the ‘spaceship from mothership’. Human pilots welcomed passengers ‘to space’ and controlled the spacecraft while the ‘astronauts’ experienced zero gravity and breathtaking views of Earth. The pilot advised passengers to ‘please return to their seats and strap in for re-entry’ and then ‘glides the spaceship to a smooth landing…’.  Humans collaborated with various technologies. Success, however, was a human endeavour.

Compare this with Jeff Bezo’s and Blue Origins approach to their ‘first human flight’. The Blue Origin space mission placed automated technologies at the forefront of taking citizens to space. The New Shepard spacecraft, while boasting a window seat for all passengers, is fully autonomous. No human pilots are onboard. Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin are adopting an automated technology rather than a human-first approach.  

We may be experiencing a fundamental change that involves transitioning from valuing humans to valuing automated technologies whereby the rhetoric of ‘people, are an organisation’s greatest asset’ is replaced by ideals of technology, software or automation being the most valuable.   

The Space Race illustrates an increasing reliance on automated technologies and potentially foreshadows a shifting of the boundaries of talent with automated technologies the primary decision-maker.

Outside of the Space-Race, digitalisation is no longer modelled solely as a control variable, a mechanism for controlling relationships between managers and employees. Certain technologies are enablers whereby technology assists with task completion. Automated technologies may play a collaborators (part of the team) role. Increasingly automated technologies are or as s subject – the primary decision-maker. The later technology-as-a-subject perspective involves making decisions automatically without human intervention and potentially doing so in ways that humans cannot understand.

A future that includes the possibility that technology adopts the role of decision-maker and can enact decisions without human intervention represents a significant change and can fundamentally shift talent management.

Significantly, increasing digitalisation and automation asks organisations to design talent systems that recognise that ‘talent’ can simultaneously refer to humans and automated technologies.

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