What do we mean when we talk about talent?

Talent – there’s so much talk about “talent”, but what is the meaning of talent?  What do individuals infer when using the term within the context of work?

Before reading further, let’s each reflect:

  • Do you use the term talent?
  • What do you mean when you use the term?
  • What’s your definition of talent?

Ok, here’s some bad news – there’s no one definition or meaning of talent. Talent is complex. There is no universally accepted single definition.

Within Western societies, “talent” is used as a generic term to describe an individual’s ability, accomplishments, aptitudes, brilliance, capacity, expertise, facility, flair, genius, ingenuity, knack, prowess, skill, strength (wow I’m exhausted listing only a few of the options). The Oxford Dictionary defines talent as a ‘natural aptitude or skill’.

With so many options, there is no right answer to the question “what do we mean when we talk about talent?” But there is value in highlighting what individuals can mean.

What can “talent” mean?

My scholarly research identifies four (4) primary ways to conceptualise talent (note that talent is a concept, it’s not a thing):

  1. Individuals – This meaning refers to valuable individuals as talent. Organisation’s invest in recruiting and retaining these individuals because they are of value to the pursuit and realisation of operational and/ or strategic aims. We tend to talk about a talented individual and frequently employ terms such as “high performer”, “high potential”, “HIPO”, stars”, “on the A Team” and “top talent”.
  2. Valued skills and capabilities – This meaning views talent in the context of particular skills and capabilities identified and evaluated as critical to operations, strategic directions and organisational performance. These skills and capabilities may be required to drive future growth or because they are hard to replace.
  3. Pivotal roles and positions – This approach consider talent as particular functions, roles and/or positions. Coined by Professor John Boudreau and Peter Ramstad and widely promoted through their Harvard Business Review article, the pivotal talent conceptualisation asks organisation’s to invest in retaining resources (people-based resources) that disproportionately contribute to operational, financial and strategic performance. This also applies to certain positions, whereby the position or the role is essential, regardless of the individual that fulfils this post.
  4. Everybody is talent – This approach asserts that the entire workforce is valuable and indicative of talent. An inclusive, everybody is talent meaning, prioritises equal access to talent management practices.

I offer these four conceptualisations just as a way to summarise the vast talk about talent – I’m definitely not asserting that they are mutually exclusive, or suggesting that  execs, HR managers, and organisational leaders should select one approach. I do, however, encourage various stakeholders to reflect on what the term means to them personally.

So again I ask, do you know what you mean when you talk about talent?

If you don’t, then today’s the day to think about what you mean when you use the term “talent”. Conversely if you (or your organisation) don’t use the term, do you know why?

Reflection is essential because personal perceptions about talent influence how we judge individuals within our respective organisations, but more on that in another post.

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