Talent = Competence x Commitment x Contribution

What is talent management? For many, it has become a catch-all for anything related to human resource management (HRM). Professor Dirk Buyens feels it then risks being just old wine in new bottles. “I share the view that talent management is a specific part of HRM. Talent management is to HRM what marketing is to sales, and what finance is to accounting.” Buyens has an outspoken opinion on talent management and its challenges.

'Talent management is not about people'

Buyens: “Talent is competence times commitment times contribution. Competence and commitment are the inputs, i.e. what people bring to the table. Contribution is their output for the organisation, which you can measure. So I see talent management as the strategic component of HRM. It’s the process of strategically thinking about what talent you need, how to develop it, and how it will contribute to your activities. That said, it doesn’t refer to people as such. An organisation needs to deploy its talents and as it happens, there are people behind these talents. That’s quite a different approach: your core competencies – or core employees – are defined by your strategy, not by how good or bad people are at their jobs.”

'Talent management is not about everyone in the organisation'

Buyens: “I know this is a controversial point of view, but it logically follows from the fact that an organisation’s core competencies are determined by its strategy. Whether or not an individual is included in talent management efforts is not a matter of hierarchy either. Why wouldn’t Volvo Cars focus on its workers? Car assembly is a substantial part of its core business after all. Talent management should focus on key personnel, i.e. people who contribute directly to an organisation’s core business.”

'Employer branding is crucial to win the war for talent'

Just as marketing relies on branding to attract customers, employers likewise rely on branding to attract and retain the best talent. Successful organisations make sure they are one step ahead of the competition in attracting those talents that give them their competitive edge. Buyens: “Given the shortage of skilled labour, employer branding has become a critical tool to get the best people for the job. Clear communication about what you as a company stand for and what it’s like to work for you is the best guarantee to draw in talent that fits your culture.”

'Training and development should focus on potential and current performance'

The Nine Box is a tool that is increasingly being used in talent management. It plots people's current performance, on a horizontal axis, against their potential, on a vertical axis. The area between the two axes is divided into nine sections from low performance and low potential to high performance and high potential. Buyens: “When you plot each individual on this map, the result is a snapshot of your organisation or your team as a whole. It helps you analyse your strengths and weaknesses to plan ahead. Suppose your organisation currently performs well, but has no potential for growth… You’ll then need to hire strategically, i.e. attract people who are overqualified for today’s job but who will enable tomorrow’s growth.” Buyens stresses that this tool does not highlight shortcomings or areas for improvement in individuals: “It helps you to no longer think in terms of training and development for workers, middle management or more senior management, but to adapt training and development to potential and current performance.”

'We’ll need to shift from shallow generalists to serial masters'

The focus is on talent, but what does this mean for the individual employee? Buyens: “From the talent formula, it follows that people have to keep asking themselves where and how they can contribute. They must ensure they’re employable throughout their entire career. This requires what Lynda Gratton calls a shift from shallow generalist to serial master, the first of three shifts she describes in her latest book. In a globalised world, being a generalist no longer cuts it. It’s essential to differentiate yourself from the crowd, which you do by achieving mastery. And because you’ll have to adapt to a constantly changing job market, you’ll have to do this serially. So, companies have to find ways to train and coach people such that they fully develop themselves without getting stuck in a competence that may be in demand today but obsolete in future.” Buyens adds a word of caution: “Whilst employers can offer support, employees must realise that they, too, have a responsibility in all of this: they should take the driver’s seat.”

'No more early retirement at 55'

Buyens: “It’s economic common sense: there just aren’t enough employable people to allow others to retire at 55. Organisations realise that most of us will have to work longer and they’ve started efforts to maintain the learning potential of their people. There’s increased attention on self-management and coaching.”

Buyens and his team recently finalised a study supported by the European Social Fund. They investigated how companies can create a learning climate to stimulate lifelong learning and enhance employability. The study focused on organisations with workers who have little in the way of education, such as professional cleaning company Care. “These jobs are often physically demanding, so organisations are looking to redesign them to make sure people can stay employed as long as possible.”

'In an ideal world, everyone is talent'

Buyens: “One pitfall for employers is trying to include everyone in their talent management. As I said earlier, that’s not what talent management is about. In an ideal world, an organisation focuses on its core and outsources all non-core activities. For most companies, cleaners are not key personnel, but for a professional cleaning company like Care they are, and Care has every interest in thinking strategically about how to best employ its talent.”

'Diversity becomes a bottom-line business issue'

When asked about the challenges ahead, Buyens points to diversity: “Whilst there’s always room for improvement, we’ve made great progress in terms of gender diversity. Cultural diversity is still an issue, though. The migrant population is under-represented in the workforce and in higher education. There lies the challenge for both talent management and our education system. Without wanting to make a political statement, removing the barriers to inclusion is no longer a matter of social or moral duty, but one of economic necessity.” 

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