What's the evidence for... talent management?

In his second column examining the evidence behind HR fads, buzzwords and obsessions, Rob Briner puts talent management under the microscope.

'Talent management’ is just one of many super-slippery HR buzzwords that have wormed their way into our collective consciousness.

Back in 1997 the book The War for Talent burst onto the scene and traditional practices like workforce planning, recruitment, and retention strategies started to sound somewhat old-hat. Almost overnight it seemed that everything HR was doing was re-badged as ‘talent management’, including job titles. Goodbye HR director – hello head of talent.

Precisely because talent management is used to describe many different practices it is difficult to know what kind of evidence will help us understand whether it works. One way of approaching this is to think specifically about the evidence for what is (or is supposed to be) new or different about talent management. Its main distinguishing feature is an emphasis on the skills and abilities of a minority of individuals – or so-called ‘talented people’ – in determining organisational success.

As an aside, I’m quite uncomfortable with the whole ‘war for talent’ thing. Not because I believe everyone is equally ‘talented’ (whatever that means). Rather it’s because it feels elitist and divisive – separating out the supposedly super-smart wheat from the useless chaff, creating a sort of talent apartheid. 

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

The problem is not precisely specified, though it’s clearly around how organisations can out-perform competitors. What does seem to make it new and different as an approach is the claim that the most efficient way to become the winner is to make sure the best people are working for you, and not for your competitors. 

What is it?

The thinking behind this particular talent management approach is mind-numbingly simple. Talented people perform so much better than anyone else, so all you need to do to succeed is employ or develop the most talented people. But how do you do it? First, you need to attract the most talented people. Second, you have to make sure your own ‘stars’ don’t quit. Third, you need to find, develop and retain your potential talent so you have a nice talent pipeline.

Does it work?

The War for Talent version of talent management has been widely and heavily criticised by academics (such as Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton) and many HR practitioners and commentators. So deeply flawed are the assumptions and reasoning underlying talent management that even science writer Malcolm Gladwell noticed, and in 2002 he published a devastating critique ‘The Talent Myth’ in The New Yorker.

So what’s wrong with some of the thinking behind talent management? First, the idea that talent (or potential) can be readily identified in relatively complex jobs is plain wrong. A senior executive may have a splendid track record but how much of their apparent success can be attributed to their abilities? A junior manager may score brilliantly on every appraisal thrown at them, but how good is the evidence that those scores predict future performance? It’s hard to define or assess talent.

Second, the idea that the best organisations have the best people just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Success depends on a whole range of factors, not least having good systems, processes and co-ordination. Having talented individuals may help a little bit in some roles, but other things are likely to be much more important. In other words, we over-rate our ‘stars’ (another term I’m uncomfortable with).

Third, why do we need to recruit the most talented person? Isn’t a good enough person, well, good enough? In almost all performance domains, having more ability only makes a difference to performance up to a point. So why spend time recruiting or developing the most talented people?

It’s almost 20 years since The War for Talent was published – shaping and even defining the way we think about talent management today. Just in case you don’t know, it’s worth remembering the name of one organisation that fully bought into The War for Talent ideas: Enron.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath’s School of Management. He is also a founding member and a vice-chair of the academic board of the Center for Evidence-Based Management. Briner was ranked third Most Influential UK Thinker in the HR Most Influential list