Talent management – are you asking the right questions?

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‘Talent management’ has been a hot topic for over a decade, with many HR leaders and business executives rating it as their top people issue. Over the years it has been widely debated by HR practitioners and academics alike. Yet rather than achieving a common understanding we have gained layers of complexity, leaving many organisations struggling with where to begin their journey.

Generally, organisations recognise that they need to do more about developing their people. For most this is to ensure they have the right people with the appropriate skills and behaviours to fill prospective posts and prepare for future challenges. There is no universal way of achieving this, but there are guiding principles that can be extracted from the practical experiences and insights of organisations across sectors that have claimed, in part, to have ‘done’ talent management.

In my research with Wendy Hirsh for the Institute for Employment Studies, in which we discussed talent management with 23 organisations, we found that four fundamental steps are considered to shape the design and implementation of talent management approaches: 

1. Definition: what do we mean by talent management?

Organisations must consider who their target audience is in respect to talent management. Some take an exclusive approach of accelerated skill development for ‘high potential’ employees, whereas others send a very clear message that ‘everyone has talent’, emphasising an inclusive approach. Interestingly, those organisations that believe they adopt the latter definition often implement management development programmes without realising, thereby sending a very elite message to the rest of the workforce. It is imperative that the first step in the talent journey agrees a talent management definition that is accurately tailored to the business needs. 

2. Focus: what jobs and staff groups will talent management concentrate on?

Businesses are continuing to rely heavily on internal talent identification to fill vacancies and succession plan. In the past this was because of spending constraints, but now it is widely accepted that aligned talent practices have a clear performance link and are recognised as an indicator of organisational capability and business success. There is growing interest in identifying pipelines to minimise the skills gap for senior specialists and skilled professional roles, particularly as many are business-critical. Talent programmes focusing on senior leaders are commonplace, however, further attention should be given to how a specialist or technical skill element can be incorporated into these programmes where relevant.

3. Process: how will talent management be done in practice?

Creating transparent processes that include the use of appropriate tools to identify and develop talent demonstrates credible talent practices. Relying on existing off-the-shelf tools such as the 9-box grid can often result in rigid processes that often carry little meaning to the organisation. If adopting this tool, it should be used with tailored criteria and paired with open and honest talent conversations. In addition, offering specific skill development and/or access to career experiences through secondments to other areas will help to further knowledge, enhance individual skill set and share learning. Embedding new processes may take some time and will be influenced by business size, sector and culture.

4. Action: what are the practical outcomes of successful talent management?

Essentially, the aim of talent management for organisations is to deploy staff to fill vacancies, facilitate career moves and improve organisational capability. An effective talent management approach will meet all three of these aims whilst retaining the best people in leadership and professional roles. The ability to track what happens to those individuals who are identified as ‘high potential’ is needed within organisations to demonstrate the talent management-performance link. Many organisations fail to do this tracking accurately and robustly. This can ultimately have a negative impact on how these individuals are developed in the future.

Each step of the talent management journey is not taken in isolation. Key decisions and priorities are influenced by context-specific factors, moving this four-step approach from a ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’ model of talent management. If this approach is to have real relevance and value then the following must be considered:

  • Talent management cannot be defined without considering the business drivers as they provide a strategic link.
  • Talent management should aim to mitigate business risks, and in doing so will sharpen our focus on what job groups and people are critical for business success.
  • Designing appropriate processes will require an organisation with the capability to implement and sustain these processes. 
  • Taking action to develop and deploy talented people relies on organisations assessing the impact through accurate measurement. 

In essence, effective talent management is simply about considering the real business need, what skilled people will be required to meet this need, how we will address skills gaps and how we will know this has made a positive business impact. It is not time bound and should not be rushed if it is to have a meaningful impact at an organisational level. 

Some critiques of talent management would say it is a management fad, however could it be that those holding such opinions are merely implementing ‘best practice’ rather than considering what would ‘best fit’ their business needs? To demonstrate how the selected talent practices are adding real business value HR must analyse, report and integrate workforce data with other measures. This will ensure board level buy-in, a critical success factor for talent management.

My research is fully outlined in a report published by the Institute for Employment Studies, Talent Management: A Four-Step Approach, with an executive summary of the research free to download.

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# Sameer Kumar 2015-01-24 11:21
Thank you so much for this information. I mostly write or work harder in the evening, by then am more focus and i have less destruction. These days organizations wage a new war for talent and companies conducting interview anywhere, anytime, saving the time and cost spent in scheduling and travel.
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