Future Talent Management

22 09 2010

In theory, talent management is a very simple proposition. An organisation recruits the best talent available, develops that talent over time and dismisses those individuals who no longer have the abilities needed for the challenges and opportunities that the organisation faces.

 As with any seemingly simple proposition, there are some challenges. I’d like to focus on two in particular which are ultimately related in that they both have exploration as a common theme. The first concerns exploring the known and the second the unknown.

 Organisations are global with operations, offices, supplier and clients spread all across the world. Common sense would suggest that ambitious managers would wish to develop both their knowledge and their know-how by stepping up to this global challenge. The findings of recent CMI Ashridge research on Talent Management, however, indicate that many managers are reluctant to take on international assignments.

 An older study conducted in 2006 by Elisabeth Marx and Heidrick & Struggles did not look at managers in general but at FTSE 100 CEOs specifically. She notes that while in 1996, only 42% of CEOs had completed an overseas assignment, by 2005, 79% had. While this may sound like tremendous progress, there is a glossed over caveat which only appears later in the study. By 2005, 28% of the CEOs of the FTSE 100 were not British and thus have de facto international experience. This leaves only 51% of British FTSE 100 CEOs with international experience. Given that Marx concludes that “moving abroad means moving ahead”, isn’t it time to dust off that passport?

 It is not only an understanding of the immediate corporate environment which is fostered by moving abroad. It is also the acquisition of different ways of seeing things and of different approaches which can lead to the acquisition of best practice or, even better, of a new insight which combines the best of multiple viewpoints. The experience is even stronger when it is combined with different languages so that one can really understand the environment. From my own experience, I know that speaking to Germans in German, to the Dutch in Dutch or to the Quebecois in French makes a big difference. I’d love to be able to speak Mandarin as I’ve found that handing phone numbers to taxi drivers in Beijing is an adventure and having interpreters a rather disconnecting experience.

 I mentioned a second unknown and I’ll admit that this one is my personal hobby and yes, I do know that prediction is notoriously difficult, especially when it concerns the future.

 When I think about the talent that will be necessary not for tomorrow or for the next day but for 20 years from now, I honestly think that we will live in different worlds. We’ll still have the debate on work life balance and on whether one is posted abroad. That conversation, however, will be expanded by the existence of fully-fledged virtual worlds. Two, Second Life and World of Warcraft, are probably overhyped at the moment, but they are harbingers of things to come.

 Even more far-fetched from today’s perspective will be what develops in human-machine interaction. We are already putting computer chips in our pets to track them and keep health care records. Driven either by utopian goals of improvement or dystopian fears about control, it will not be long before children are chipped. If one is positive, and I hope that most of us are, chips will allow within body storage of databases: policemen with built in photo databases of wanted criminals which automatically make matches or stellar A Level results when it comes to remembering the order of the Wives of Henry VIII come to mind. Knowledge will be something that can, in large part, be embedded.

 So what is Talent Management for the future? For individuals at all levels, we need to explore the present world much more. Curiosity, ambition and thoughfulness are called for and I hope that we can find a way to create this sense of curiosity right through to the disenfranchised members of society. Moreover, a new realm of exploration needs to be taken into account. Technology is on the verge of a total breakthrough, by most estimates it is fifteen to twenty years away, thus in most of our lifetimes. When, in addition to questions about being posted “abroad”, studies start to ask about manager’s experience in being posted “virtually”, we’ll be realistic about the talent we need for the future.