Dirk Tussing

In almost all surveys about the priorities of Human Resources Management all over the world, Talent Management appears as number 1 or at least among the top three issues. Recently this was reported by the Boston Consultancy Group in their largescale European HRM study (see https://www.bcg.com/documents/file15033.pdf). Besides developing into a serious HRM practice, talent management is also an expanding field of research. See for instance the review by Thunissen, Boselie and Fruytier[1]. The conclusion of their review of talent management research was, however, that the field has not yet fully outgrown the infancy stage. Among other problems, it still lacks clear common concepts and definitions.

Meanwhile our European HRM colleagues describe talent management in their organizations as something between depressing and disastrous. So we may wonder, is talent management that difficult? Is talent perhaps resistant to management approaches? Or is talent management just another management hype, invented by HRM consultants who had to find a successor for competency management that had become obsolete, without defining what it really is or should be?

Cleaning up some troublesome misunderstandings that I frequently encounter in HRM practice might help.

First misunderstanding: Talent management is about the development of talents.

“Talent” in common parlance has several different meanings. We may think of talent as a skill or possibility to learn and to perform as an expert –  for instance to analyze, to lead, to write, sing or dance. Everybody has talents. If talent management regards these talents, it is no more or less than the selection, appraisal and development of our people – employees and others, with the purpose to make the most of their abilities. Nothing wrong with that. But effectively selecting and assessing your employees is challenging enough in its own rights. If we add high but unclear expectations about talent management, only disappointment will result.

Second misunderstanding: talent management is the development of our employees.

When considering talent management, we often think of a talent as a person with special skills and potential. Capabilities that may be valuable to our organizations and that wait to be exploited. To put it otherwise, talents may contribute to the strategic goals of the organization.

This concept of talent reflects an exclusive interpretation: given a specific organizational context, only some people are to be regarded as talents. They are the objects of talent management. Many HRM practitioners and some researchers consider this view as too limited. They favor a more inclusive approach: all employees are talents and talent management should include all of them. This may sound nice. But in this inclusive view, what distinguishes talent management from the selection, appraisal and development of our people, with the purpose to make the most of their abilities? Nothing wrong with that. But effectively selecting and assessing your employees is challenging enough in its own rights. If we add high but unclear expectations about talent management, only disappointment will result.  (Did this sound familiar? Congrats on your close reading: see the first misunderstanding.)

I will not discuss the also regrettable misunderstanding that talent management consists of computer programs or equals selection and development assessments. No self-respecting HRM professionals will hold these views, will they?

Another misunderstanding is that talent management is the sole responsibility of line management or, on the contrary, of the HRM department. Both views are true but incomplete: talent management cannot do without the joint and coordinated effort of line management and HRM.

I have to correct my discussion of the second misunderstanding in one respect. There are organizations where talent management may include (almost) all employees. Consider the professional service firms that operate on the highest professional level and use an up-or-out career policy: either you are a talent, or you have to leave. But these firms are relatively few.

In all other organizations, talent management should be exclusive: having the guts to make a distinction and to accept that differences between employees do exist. Some organizations understand this very well. They even succeed in conquering all kind of practical barriers, such as the competition between managers of business units to retain their own talents instead of letting them rotate between jobs. These firms may come close to the essence of talent management. Which is a difficult job, but still far from being rocket science, as long as we know what we’re talking about.

Maarten de Haas

[1] Thunissen, M, Boselie, P and Fruytier, B. A review of talent management: infancy or adolescence? The International Journal of Human Resources Management, 2013, 1744-1761