Talent Management 2.0: An affordable route to a high-performance organization

Instead of engaging in the expensive and not-always-successful war for talent, this author suggests that organizations can develop an inexpensive approach that can achieve improved results by taking people as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. He calls the approach performance support, and readers will learn how to provide it in this article.

There are many options for transforming organizational performance, but general initiatives such as corporate restructuring are time-consuming, expensive and disruptive. By the time they are implemented, requirements may have changed. Are there quicker and more affordable alternatives?

In seeking to create a high-performance organization many boards and senior executives have embraced “talent management.”  Is it just another management fad? Will talent management go the way of other fashions as new preoccupations emerge, or will it endure and have a significant impact on the future performance of organizations?

This article summarizes the results of a five-year investigation into the relative merits of different ways of improving corporate performance. It introduces an approach to talent management that is particularly cost-effective, can deliver multiple objectives simultaneously, and benefit both people and organizations.


Does talent management work?

Many adoptions of talent management have focused on ‘high fliers’ and “tomorrow’s leaders.” They involve an investment today for future benefit. Boards have endeavoured to reconcile a continuing desire to build talent and capabilities over the longer term with the need for short- term savings and current viability. 

The evidence and experience examined suggests that many approaches to talent management are costly and doomed to disappoint. Over three quarters of practitioners participating in a poll during the study thought talent management is not delivering. About one half thought that opportunities are being missed.

More encouragingly, a practical and more affordable way of quickly achieving multiple corporate objectives is being overlooked. This is set out in the investigation’s report, Talent Management 2 (Colin Coulson-Thomas, Talent Management 2: A quicker and more cost effective route to the high performance organisation, Policy Publications, 2012).


Recruit or build talent

Should one recruit for a job? Or, should one select people thought to have “potential” and build jobs around them as situations and circumstances change? The latter seems attractive, particularly in dynamic environments. However, is this approach affordable for sufficient people and roles across an organization? Could building talent and supporting job roles be more cost effective?

With Talent Management 2 the focus shifts from people to particular jobs and the requirements for succeeding in them. The emphasis is on several things: assessing the roles and tasks that will be required; identifying steps in work processes that have the greatest impacts; and ensuring that people in these jobs are enabled to excel by providing them with appropriate performance support.

Finding better people can be problematic. Recruiting and inducting new members of staff can take time and be expensive in comparison with changes of support to enable more to be achieved from an existing team. This is especially true for those who are open to taking advice, prepared to learn from their peers, and willing to adopt superior practices.


The question of affordability

Some approaches to talent management are unaffordable. Organizations engage in bidding wars to recruit the best people. Efforts to attract particular skill sets can push up wage and salary costs. It may be better to concentrate on understanding critical success factors and capturing and sharing what top performers do differently, particularly when a quick solution is required.

The change in emphasis required and the use of performance support justify the coining of the term Talent Management 2. Talent wars can be costly, distracting and involve collateral damage. As I point out in Winning Companies; Winning People (Colin Coulson-Thomas, Winning Companies; Winning People, Making it easy for average performers to adopt winning behaviours, Policy Publications, 2007) performance support makes it easier for average people to understand complex issues and excel at difficult tasks.

Capturing and sharing what high performers do differently can greatly benefit the ordinary person. The approach also increases the beneficial impact that superstars who excel in key tasks can have on organizations, creating a larger return on their talents.


Coping with uncertainty

Many organizations endeavour to identify future leaders. This can require considerable commitment and effort. Talent Management 2 does not preclude identification of leadership potential, but it enables a wider range of people to build upon and complement natural strengths. It can also liberate and be quickly adopted.

Views on top talent can be overtaken by changing priorities and external events. Like organizational structures, policies and technologies, they can quickly date. Hence, there is a requirement for more flexible ways of enabling affordable people to confront and handle tricky and unfamiliar situations, as, when and wherever they arise. In essence, this is what Talent Management 2 and performance support are about.


Talent pools as conspicuous waste

Some talent pools of “high fliers” appear expensive when the cost of fast tracking is taken into account. Are today’s recruits more committed, entrepreneurial and creative than the people one could work with at the time specific needs arise? Will they be more effective than those who might be able to do what is required with appropriate support? Going into the market as needs arise may be cheaper than creating roles for people just to give them a “development experience.”

An examination of the performance of Wall Street analysts by Boris Groysberg in 2010 (Boris Groysberg, Chasing Stars, the myth of talent and the portability of performance, Princeton University Press, 2010) suggests that individuals identified as highly talented may not necessarily perform at the same high levels when lured elsewhere by higher salaries. Setting out to buy high performance can be expensive if a star in one context is less effective in another. It may be cheaper to work with the people one has and put the right support environment in place to create a high-performance team.

The cost of endeavouring to develop talent can be daunting, especially for smaller enterprises, when ‘traditional’ approaches are used. In comparison, the entry ‘price’ to Talent Management 2 – and implementing a solution for an extensive and scattered workgroup that addresses a critical problem for an organization – can be around the cost of recruiting and paying the first year’s salary of one new hire.


The challenge and opportunity of exceptional people

Talented people can be costly to recruit and difficult to manage and retain. Colleagues might feel threatened by them. They may appear to be prima donnas, obsessed with building their CVs and personal careers, or become bored and discontented when given tasks they feel are beneath them. Giving special treatment to some can alienate others. However, such reactions can change when Talent Management 2 is adopted and a wider contribution is recognised.

Clever people represent a challenge and an opportunity for organisations. They need to be appropriately managed to realise their full potential. Talent Management 2 recognises those who excel at particular activities. Performance support can enable them to push the envelope and help others to emulate what they do differently.

While some qualities that people have might be transferable, an exceptional talent in one area may be only average in another. Achieving objectives often depends on the skills that are employed in particular jobs, especially front-line jobs that have a disproportionate impact on customers and priority areas for improvement.

In short, large amounts can be spent on expensive people who are not engaged, effectively used, or appropriately supported. Sometimes, when talented people hit their stride they get headhunted or move to another body. Another organization reaps the benefits of one’s selection, recruitment and development processes.

While ‘traditional’ practices can increase churn within a labour market, the focus of Talent Management 2 on helping and developing existing workgroups can aid retention. People may be reluctant to move when without the support to which they have become accustomed, it would be more difficult to learn, develop and do a job.


Clever person, ineffective approach

An individual who shines in one context may struggle in another. Even superstars can be deficient in certain areas. With Talent Management 2, the focus on particular jobs and tasks makes it easier to identify high performers. At the same time, the support provided can incorporate critical success factors and the superior ways of high achieving peers.

The author’s investigations of critical success factors for key corporate activities have found talented people with outstanding qualifications tackling tasks in a losing way, while others with fewer credentials undertake similar tasks in a more effective way. Success often depends upon whether or not, and to what extent, critical success factors are in place and work is done in a “winning way.”

This finding is particularly stark in competitive bidding (Colin Coulson-Thomas, Carol Kennedy, and Matthew O’Connor, Winning New Business, the critical success factors, Policy Publications, 2003). In some sectors, a significant proportion of new business derives from competitive bidding. Success in submitting winning bids can determine whether or not a company survives as a main contractor. Adopting identified critical success factors, for example by using performance support to help bid teams, can have a significant impact on organizational prospects.


The focus of talent management

Talent management tends to focus on recruitment, development, planning and succession activities. The performance of key workgroups sometimes suffers when experienced experts are replaced by younger people who are multi-skilled. Capturing and sharing the superior approaches of high performers who have learned better ways of doing things can address this problem.

Hitherto, responsibilities for different aspects of the talent management process have often been split between service functions and line management. Performance support can help ensure that talents, competences, qualities and potential are relevant and applied to key tasks and what an organization is setting out to do.

Talent managers hope that fast tracked people will stay long enough to repay the substantial investment in their development. However, in the future there may be less need for ‘overhead’ roles at senior level. Fewer managers may be required when front-line staff can be supported and monitored by other means.

Talent management 2 looks beyond high fliers and is especially relevant to front-line support. It integrates learning and working. While tactical and local applications can quickly generate significant returns, a joined- up and more strategic approach is required to obtain its full potential.

As development initiatives fail to engage, many organizations do not reap the benefits of learning from people who excel in certain areas. Can one build a high-performance organization and deliver multiple objectives with existing people – average people who do not cost an arm and a leg to recruit and retain – and a current corporate culture?


A better alternative

Organizations require an affordable approach that can achieve improved results by taking people as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. Can this be done in such a way that beneficial and quantifiable impacts can be obtained within a few months? Could applications be self-funding within a single financial year?

The Talent Management 2 report (Colin Coulson-Thomas, Talent Management 2: A quicker and more cost effective route to the high performance organisation, Policy Publications, 2012) sets out an alternative paradigm that can bridge a gulf between aspiration and achievement. Early evidence from pioneer adopters of performance support suggests that it represents a more focused, relatively quick and cost effective way of securing large returns on investment and simultaneously achieving multiple objectives. It can engage people and meet a talent-on-demand requirement.

The approach brings together various elements, from helping people to understand complex areas and making it easier for them to do difficult jobs, to a cost-effective mechanism for providing performance support on a 24/7 basis to people wherever they may be. It has been shown to be relevant to entrepreneurial ventures as well as global corporations in different sectors. It is also applicable to public bodies and can contribute to creating flexible, adaptable and high performance organizations.

Pioneer adopters of performance support are building critical success factors into the processes for key activities and adopting cost-effective ways of helping people emulate the superior ways of high performing superstars. Workgroup productivity and corporate performance can be boosted to deliver success for organizations and satisfaction for individuals.


Impacts and implications

Providing better support can enable more to be achieved by fewer and less costly staff. People can be enabled to handle more complex cases. They feel more confident and in control. By making it easier for staff to do difficult jobs, performance support reduces absences due to stress as well as the requirements for overtime and additional help.

Incorporating critical success factors and best practices from elsewhere enables access to external talent. The results of crowd sourcing and social networking can be quickly shared across a community in a usable form. Performance support should engage and support conversations and relationships. It complements collaborative approaches and can embrace business partners and user communities.

Talent management 2 unashamedly addresses the development and deployment of talent at the point at which work is done in order to increase value, performance and compliance, and reduce cost, risk and stress. It also addresses certain problems of current approaches. For example, one should be better equipped to benefit from higher performers and ensure their legacy continues should they wish to leave.

In place of an investment in acquiring talent and potential for an unknown future, there is a focus on boosting the performance of today’s key workgroups and quickly delivering multiple benefits for both people and organizations. Doing this in a cost-effective, flexible and sustainable way, and ensuring people stay current and employ good practices, may be the most reliable guarantee of continuing relevance and vitality. Instead of hoping for the best, one takes steps to be the best.


Responsible innovation

Some directors are reluctant to let go, while others are concerned about possible consequences. Traditional talent management involves risks, such as whether people will fit in and shine in a particular context, or be retained long enough to yield a return on their recruitment, induction and fast-track development.

Corporate structures, initiatives and practices are preventing people from achieving their full potential. In 1997 in The Future of the Organisation (Colin Coulson-Thomas, The Future of the Organisation, Achieving Excellence Through Business Transformation, Kogan Page, 1997) I called for essential freedoms that could liberate people. With built-in controls, performance management ensures compliance and enables customized responses and responsible innovation.

Bringing in exceptional people – even if they are affordable – can create a host of problems if they are not properly managed. Paying for talented people may make little sense for organizations that cannot harness, capture or share what they do differently.

The dangers of current and unaffordable approaches to talent management can be avoided. Performance support enables relevant capabilities to be built as and when required. It can incorporate critical success factors for excelling in key roles and quickly deliver multiple benefits for people and organizations.