Talk about talent management – just for the elite?

Debate rages within both academia and industry about whether organisations should apply talent management policies and practices to all employees, or only a small proportion of their workforce. Much of the debate centres on the extent to which talent management differs from more traditional human resource management.  A central area of contention between stakeholders is about which is more effective: an inclusive, “all of the workforce” approach, or an exclusive, “for elite employees” approach.

From where I sit, the real question is: which approach better enables organisations to realise operational, strategic, and financial benefits of talent management?  So my short answer is:

Even if identifying elite employees helps particular employer, workforce differentiation for the sake of it is neither valuable nor strategic.  That’s because talent management is for a purpose, and should evidence that purpose rather than being arbitrary and unexplained.

So let’s unpack the talk about “who” organisations should allocate resources to.

Assertions that organisations can only realise strategic ambitions by allocating additional resources to just a few valuable employees – hence undertake workforce differentiation – trivialise and directly critique opposing perspectives that advocate the equal allocation of financial and developmental opportunities. The later warrants discussion within the walls of organisations, simply because all employees are inherently valuable (otherwise why hire them?) and that employees excluded from the talent pool may feel left out.

The complication is that talent management being for elite employees, done well shows benefits that far outweigh the costs.  So talent management for elite employees makes sense because …

  • Workforce differentiation and the disproportionate allocation of resources to more talented and valuable employees is a core-differentiating factor between talent management and more traditional human resource management. If you are treating all of your employees the same, then perhaps you are undertaking classical learning and development, rather than talent development.
  • While all employees are required for operational processes and outcomes, only some employees with particular capacity (elite employees), or those in pivotal positions, facilitate the pursuit and realisation of strategic goals and ambitions. Dr Mark Huselid, Distinguished Professor of Workforce Analytics, usefully articulated the key during “Addressing HR Analytics Challenges” (August 2017).  He put it that: “All jobs are important, but not all roles are strategic … focus on wealth creating roles.”
  • More productive organisations need to invest in those resources, in this instance people-based resources, that generate more substantial returns. Selective, or “elite”, talent management concentrates on those employees who have exceptional, above-average abilities, and who can apply those capabilities to achieve outstanding performance. Perhaps it helps if you reflect on the saying ‘biggest bang for your buck’ within the context of investing in (elite) employees.
  • It’s hard to argue with senior executives and Boards of Directors that equal allocation of resources to employees warrants an investment. These stakeholders are interested in how to optimise resource allocation. Remember – commercial ventures are not created equal, and each dollar does not generate the same returns.
  • Corporate discourses frequently note that organisations need to ‘recruit and retain the best talent’. The focus on elite employees allows organisations to adopt numerous strategies, to identify which valuable individuals who are a source of competitive advantage and who, where that is the goal, should be the subject of retention efforts.  Never forget, we are talking about what they can add in a commercial setting, not a measure of their worth as a human being!!!

Talent management is one part – but by no means the only part – of being an employer that is attractive to individuals. Don’t forget that a few talented individuals are a very long way from being a high-performing team, and that team will need a variety of individuals in a range of roles.

So let’s revisit the opening fine print – that differentiation for the sake of differentiation is neither valuable nor strategic.

  • In short: allocating resources to establish talent identification processes must be strategically-aligned and financially-viable.
  • In more detail: If the resources allocated to establishing a  framework for  defining high priority characteristics, and then carrying out processes of talent identification in light of those characteristics, together outweigh the potential financial benefits, then the talk about elite employees should be rather short. There may be as much value found in agreeing that talking about elite employees and unequal allocation of resources just does not warrant HR, line manager nor senior executive attention.

So, yes, talent management should focus on elite employees, but please don’t pass arbitrary judgments on the perceived value of individual employees.  And stay tuned for the white paper I’m working on to case study some examples that will delve into these ideas more.

PS: If you were uncomfortable with the use of the term “elite” in this post, then stay tuned for a forthcoming post on – Does use of the term “elite” trouble you?

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