Tailored talent management better than 'best practice' approach

Research has found a 'best-fit' talent management strategy tailored to individual organisations' needs is most beneficial


How organisations develop their own approach to talent management is the central theme of research conducted by Wendy Hirsh and Elaine Tyler of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) on behalf of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The higher education sector is keen to learn from organisations at the leading edge of talent management in other sectors, especially with regard to how they adjust their priorities and evolve their practices to align with ever-shifting business challenges. This article shows how a ‘best-fit’ approach to talent management addresses such challenges in terms of strategy, practices and the capability to implement talent management effectively.

In-depth case-based research was conducted with Rolls-Royce; PwC; Standard Life; the Cabinet Office; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Plan International (an international NGO); the British Council; and Infineum (a specialist chemicals manufacturer). Interviews were conducted with line managers and business leaders, as well as with HR directors and talent management specialists.

What’s new

HR is powerfully attracted to so-called ‘best-practice’ policies or procedures that are assumed to work effectively in any organisation. It somehow feels safer to adopt a practice when it's used by big-name companies, sold by large consultancies, or built into off-the-shelf IT systems.

Talent management, being a newish and ill-defined area for HR, has been especially prone to the copying of someone’s not-so-brilliant idea. The nine-box grid for classifying employees according to their performance and potential has been seen by some as more or less the only talent management tool. Identifying different groups within the workforce suited to different kinds of action may be useful for managers in their planning. But individual employees are not overly enthusiastic about being put in a box (Yarnall and Lucy, 2015), and managers are seldom clear what to do with this grid once they have put people’s names in the boxes.

From the early days of talent management researchers have suggested that a ‘best-fit' approach would be more appropriate than a ‘best-practice’ one (Lubitsh et al, 2007). Now case-based research by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, shows major employing organisations in varied sectors strongly backing this same message (Hirsh and Tyler, 2017). Talent management should not be seen as a standard set of procedures; it needs to fit its organisational context. So what does it really mean for an organisation to adopt a best-fit approach to talent management? What does it need to fit with and what differences does this approach lead to in practice?

The model shows three broad elements of effective talent management, each of which should be considered when developing a best-fit approach.

Key findings

Strategy and focus?

The first and most obvious aspect of fit is identifying the issues talent management needs to address and, therefore, where in the workforce attention and investment will be focused.

Talent management does not have a single, widely-accepted definition, but generally addresses future business needs and resourcing risks. It usually brings together the recruitment, development and, to some extent, deployment of people. When it comes to workforce development it is more concerned with career development than skilling people for the jobs they are already doing.

These broad themes leave plenty of choice in strategy and focus. For example, you might say that talent management should seek to develop the potential of every single employee. Although many organisations say this is what they mean by talent management, in practice it is very rare for all employees to get the individualised career support to make this a reality. Standard performance management (training for the current job and the ability to apply for vacancies) doesn't really add up to a strategy of consciously developing the potential of every employee.

At the other end of the spectrum talent management has quite often been a very exclusive affair – identifying so-called ‘high-potential’ employees and accelerating their development towards the very top of the organisation. The IES research shows organisations now mixing and matching areas of focus in line with several sets of business needs.

For example, the Civil Service is still extremely interested in the pipelines of people for its most senior leadership roles. But now many fast-stream graduate entrants are trained in a specific professional area as well as gaining more generic leadership capabilities. This is because the needs of the Civil Service have changed and professional skills have become much more important.

In science and technology companies the IES now sees at least three main areas of focus for talent management: succession for senior leadership, for world-class experts, and the broader skills and career development of their larger populations of core professionals. This broader third area of focus is driven by the importance of the professional workforce to business delivery and the need to keep all professionals flexible and able to meet new challenges, changing their jobs where necessary.

Interest in future professional talent can extend back into the education system in fields such as science and technology (STEM subjects) where skills shortages often impede early-career recruitment and where employers want to encourage more young people to study those subjects at school, university and through apprenticeships.

While clarifying strategy and focus it is also worth choosing a consistent language for talking about talent management. Talking about people as ‘talent’ – and by extension some as ‘not talent’ – is pretty odd. Even the phrase ‘talent management’ begs explanation or translation outside the HR function. Some organisations, perhaps wisely, talk in terms of potential or succession planning for particular types of role, coupled with career development and linked to workforce planning.

Diversity and inclusion

The drive for increased diversity, especially at senior levels, has been influencing talent management for quite a while. But this is now extending beyond gender, ethnicity and other familiar dimensions to socio-economic background and demography. This is partly a response to external criticism, but also stems from a rather general assumption that a more diverse workforce may be better able to respond to changing business needs and come up with fresh ideas. Creating an inclusive culture has become an important part of attracting, retaining and developing a more varied workforce.

Standard Life has been recruiting some school leavers with virtually no qualifications to counteract its ageing workforce, bring digital aptitudes and also provide opportunities for less-advantaged young people. PwC pays attention to how people from different backgrounds are deployed on projects so that the opportunities to shine – and therefore get promoted – are not inadvertently restricted to people with the same backgrounds as those currently at the top of the organisation.

Processes and practices

In a best-fit approach talent management often leads to modification of people management practices already in place. For example, recruitment criteria may be angled towards future needs not just current job descriptions. Leadership development may address the preparation of those with the interest and ability to progress further, as well as attending to the learning needs of those already in post. This preparation often includes exposure to work experiences relevant to the possible career transition.

Many organisations now advocate ‘career conversations’, but too often try to squeeze these into existing performance reviews and fail to give managers any training in career coaching. The British Council, with staff in varied occupations spread across the world, has a career framework to explain broad career options to its employees and trains HR professionals and volunteers from the workforce as career coaches.

Among the additional processes used in talent management, the concept of a talent or succession forum can be adjusted to fit the structure and needs of an organisation. It can help managers work together to link recruitment and development to workforce planning, and ensure that actions are monitored and their impact tracked, including in terms of diversity.

From research to reality

The IES research shows each organisation to be on its own talent journey, choosing its priorities and evolving its approaches as needs unfold. It is especially important to know which groups of managers are responsible for talent management at different levels in the business – and who in HR supports them. We also need to fit what we ask managers to do to their levels of sophistication and experience in people management. This varies very significantly between organisations. HR often prioritises its own desire for data collection over giving managers simple explanations of how to think about spotting potential, how they can talk to employees about their career interests and opportunities, and how they can give employees practical development support.

As one HR director put it: “People are frightened of having a career conversation… but at the end of the day it’s just about having a conversation with another human being.”

Talent management has to fit the organisational context in which it is operating. Some processes and frameworks are helpful. But they should not eclipse the essentially human nature of spotting and developing the potential in other people within the business context.

Wendy Hirsh is principal associate of the Institute for Employment Studies, fellow of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling, and a visiting professor at Kingston University and the University of Derby