Why best practice in talent management is failingTalent management as widely practicedis in danger of becoming part of the How to apply “best fit”problem rather than the solution tosustained organisational success. Best solutions for your businesspractice as a standardised prescription isnow holding back the diversity ofinnovative processes that different firmscan draw on to face their distinctivebusiness challenges.
When we get the trade offs wrong: an example of wrong headed thinkingTrade-offs are difficult. Because there is no obvious solution, they Culture of course is a key dynamic of future organisationalrequire us to weigh up the pros and cons of our options given our success.available resources, and the need to make decisions before ourcompetitors might out-smart us. But if we put our eggs only in this basket, without a recognition of the difficult dilemmas to address in thinking about strategy,It takes several rounds of hard thinking and debate to get to the point structure and the talent market place, we shouldn’t be toowhere we are clear about the best way to balance the strategic ideal surprised if our organisation falls by the way side.with informed choices about our organisational design, and the kindof culture we want to build. Only then can we finalise our talentmanagement game plan.For some there are short cuts. For Tom Peters, the formula issimple: “excellent companies create corporate cultures in which success flourishes.”This is an overwhelming game plan of culture out-trumps strategy.Get the culture right and strategy will look after itself.Rick Chapman summarises the position of one firm, Lanier, thatPeters extolled as excellent, an organisation that “lives, sleeps, eats,and breathes customers”. Lanier represents the kind of winningculture that “loves customers, loves its employees, and loves thecompany’s products”. “The only problem with all of this was that Lanier wasn’t an excellent company; it was a dead company, a shot-through- the-head dinosaur whose sluggish nervous system hadn’t yet gotten round to telling the rest of its body to lie down and die.” 25
Monitoring the radar screen of promising practiceHaving analysed the “white papers” and research reports of This is talent management as a constant scanning of:scores of best practice talent management publications, there isan overwhelming sense of how similar it all is. Best practice talent unusual organisations achieving remarkable outcomesmanagement is a remarkably standardised bundle of activity. rather than copy the approach of the “usual suspects” of best practice. This is to look at organisations in veryThere may be a good reason. It could be there is an established different sectors and industries to locate imaginative ideasformula that works. Any sensible talent management game plan about the working practices they have introduced that maytherefore is about the speed of adopting and implementing this be driving superior levels of organisational performance.standard set of practices. We are sceptical; the evidence basedoes not indicate that a strategy of best practice delivers superior emerging activity¹ that indicates ingenuity in exploringlevels of organisational performance. ways to optimise business performance through the willingness to abandon conventional thinking and take risksOur view is that we have ended up with this familiar package of and experiment with new processes.“best practice” because of the “me too” nature of the talentmanagement industry. We have believed the sales pitches of the interesting ideas that are bubbling their way through fromconventional vendors based on a routine but flawed research original research, informed peer debate to imaginativemethodology, attended the same conferences and seminars to pilots. The trick is to spot their relevance and application fordiscuss the conclusions of this research, and shared the same our business before our rivals.assumptions about what good talent management looks like. It’s alow risk approach, but not one that has driven significantinnovation.Despite the suggestion from the industry that we’re “going to talenthell in a handcart”, we disagree. (Or if we are, it is because wecontinue to accept the standard solution.) One of our objections tothe best practice talent management enterprise has been the wayits prescription has stifled genuine creativity about the differentstrategies and tactics that enhance individual, team and overallcorporate performance. 1. See for example, http://www.managementexchange.com/m-prize/entries/node/12597 26
Establishing an actionable game planWorking through the issues produces a talent management A clear consensus of what talent management means for ourgame plan that reflects the trade offs we think will optimise the organisationcurrent and future performance of people. Here we have to think This is clarity about the scope and focus of talent management. It isstrategically about those actions that might make an immediate also an understanding of how we want to position talent managementimpact vs. those that will build organisational versatility for the within our organisation, and the principles that will underpin ourlonger-term. proposed approach.This is talent management not as a high level schemata of a A map to get us from here to therebest practice framework, but the nuts and bolts of hard thinking This is an insight into what is in currently in place and can be built onand intensive stakeholder debate to provide: to make progress, what we will need to abandon as no longer relevant to our future, and what we will need to design and introduce. Our map should also incorporate a statement of future success, and the metrics that will indicate progress and evaluate impact. A plan that outlines specific priorities for the activities we see as critical to our approach to talent management This plan, to be credible, reflects the level of investment (time and resource) that needs to be made based on the gap between our current organisational readiness and our level of ambition. It also clarifies the sequence of activity to outline a sensible running order of activity based on the importance and urgency of the issues balanced with the “art of the possible”. Best practices are only best when they’re applied in a A set of accountabilities within our organisational calendar to connect the loop of business planning and performance and talent given context; what works for management, and that annual ritual of the succession plan for one company may not work in corporate governance. At one level, this is an overarching process map to outline the timing of the inputs and outputs of activity. At another. another level it pinpoints the commitments of “who does what and when” within an infrastructure of information flows and decision Guenter Stahl making. 28