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The UK must rethink its approach to nurturing talent in order to adapt to the global economy

The UK faces a huge challenge because of the globalisation of value and talent. It has to move away from its 'Fortress Britain' mentality quickly - it can no longer dwell on its previous successes and we must rethink what we mean by talent and revise our models of business success on a global scale. If not, the UK runs the risk of being overtaken by economies such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) that are already making considerable headway in understanding the changing nature of talent and value.

A report by Tomorrow's Company, produced with the Government's Talent and Enterprise Taskforce, entitled A New Talent Agenda for the UK, says that to combat this risk we need to look not just at ourselves for the answers, but to the very companies from those BRIC economies - to relearn the way we approach the management and nurturing of the people who are at the heart of driving successful businesses.

Of the emerging BRIC economies, India's rise in the last decade has been meteoric. Its businesses have been quick to adapt to the needs of a global economy and what this means for talent and people management. Anand Mahindra, one of India's most respected business leaders and MD of the Mahindra Group, was speaking at the HRD Network Conference in Mumbai recently and argued that "the Indian model of HR today is driven by a confluence of three factors that make it very different:  purpose, people and pride".

There is something all too familiar with words of this kind in the context of HR and the people agenda, and with familiarity there is a sense of cliché if not of breeding contempt.  But Mahindra's quote does no justice to his true meaning without being read alongside his use of the metaphor of "building a cathedral".

"There is the story of three men who were engaged in the humble task of cutting up slabs of rock. A passerby asked each one of them what they were doing. ‘I am breaking up rocks,' said the first one. ‘I am building a wall,' said the second. The third man looked up at the heavens and said: ‘I am building a cathedral.'"

What is relevant to UK HR directors is whether they get the true implications of this parable for today's global marketplace. We argue that our challenge in the UK is that we don't have a sense of ‘the cathedral' that we are seeking to build - one that, as in India, aligns and creates a sense of common purpose for people, communities, business and the nation as a whole.

In a business context in which ‘purpose' is all too often limited to shareholder value creation but rarely embraces or relates to broader society, much less the environment, this creates a two-fold problem.  As Mahindra reflects: "It's very rare for an Indian CEO or manager to express their aspirations in terms of increasing profits or bottom line."

First, from the perspective of motivation and ensuring people see the broad purpose behind their work, as expressed by the cathedral parable; and second, from a point of view of understanding how the work of an individual, for a company, fits into a global marketplace.

So what can we do? Relating this to talent it is clear that our common focus on high potentials and the few people at the top of a business is misconceived. We must recognise the importance of skills, but see this is only part of the whole. Talent is latent, diverse and multifaceted, and must be inspired, engaged and harnessed. From this perspective, a compelling sense of purpose is vital to release the talent we have as individuals and as a nation.

The role of HR is then to provide both glue and bridge - between that overall sense of purpose and what it means day to day; helping to create those ‘water cooler' moments that frame the stories told about the business; building a clear line of sight between the individual and the organisation of which they are part; and creating a living culture.

Relating this to a global perspective is the second critical dimension. We believe passionately that UK businesses need to develop ‘a talent for being global'. That means understanding the role the UK can play in a global economy, recognising the skills that are available here but also understanding that they can best be harnessed in this new context of talent, and to do this means setting UK talent in the context of talent globally.

Organisations must not only think of top talent, but talent from all around - all around the geography or country in which they operate and on a global scale and across multiple dimensions of people's talents. Without this perspective, simply adopting the new practices and techniques of global talent management, important though these are, will be of limited effectiveness.

The UK can, and must, have a great future. There are great examples of UK-based companies with a talent for being global, but that must become the norm. The old saying, ‘people are our greatest asset', is a phrase that mustn't be used as merely an assertion of faith - but an assertion of fact. 

We can only create value through people if we inspire them as a nation as well as through the organisation for which they work. And to do this, HR has a vital part to play - one that should critically define the role of the HR director of the future.

Tony Manwaring is chief executive of Tomorrow's Company