The emptiness of talent
By Billy Adamsen*https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137508652
No matter where we look in our society, we talk about talent, we see talents in the media and in talent shows, and we hear about them in school, at our workplaces, and at sports games. It seems clear that talent has become integral to contemporary culture, and to our modern way of understanding what it is that generates social success and prosperity.
Long before this almost manic obsession with talent took hold of us, it was treated more seriously by business and sports consultants and by researchers from different disciplines, all of whom had come to realize that extraordinary, exceptional individuals – even more than a high level of competence overall – were a core organizational asset that could strengthen competitiveness and ensure progress. This naturally produced the idea that exceptional individuals share an underlying attribute, some personal trait or characteristic that is an important driver for social success, and for achieving both individual and group goals, both in business and in sports. In 2001, Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod published their book The War for Talent, whose rapid spread and increase in influence among business and sports consultants led to the emergence of a new discipline, and new methods and techniques, for identifying, recruiting, and developing the eponymous ‘talents’. This new discipline was called ‘talent management’. Later, although at a slower pace, talent management became the focus of a corresponding area of scientific research, although at first (and perhaps to this day) it was a sub-discipline of human resource management. Today, thousands of papers and books have been published on the topic, containing both empirical research on relevant topics and a variety of models for talent management that have been developed and improved over the years.
Despite this vast accumulation of knowledge about talent and the effective identification, recruitment, and development of talented individuals, the actual results of the associated management practices have varied widely in terms of changes in performance of individuals and competitiveness of organizations. Some researchers, such as Peter Cappelli, have demonstrated that the inadequacy of talent management methods leads to a massive failure in companies’ ability to accurately identify talented recruits: “Failure in talent management is a source of pain for executives in modern organizations. Over the past generation, talent management practices, especially in the United States, have by and large been dysfunctional, leading cooperation to lurch from surpluses of talent to shortfalls to surpluses and back again” (Cappelli, 2008.1). Other researcher such as Silzer and Dowel has in 2010 pointed out that every individual talent manager brings individual subjective biases to bear in their work, and that these biases could (in theory) lead to the observed inadequacy of talent management models, and the resulting inefficacy of management practices. In order to find a plausible explanation for this subjective bias in talent management, researchers have recently started to pay attention to the terminology and language of talent management as a possible cause. Lewis and Heckman did back in 2006 show how there is a lack of semantic clarity in the compound phrase ‘talent management’, and Caroline Tansley in 2011 demonstrated that even the meaning of the term ‘talent’ is blurry and hard to pin down. I have recently demonstrated in my book ‘Demystifying talent management – a critical approach to the realities of talent’ that both terms actually have become empty signifiers which indeed could provide us with a plausible explanation for the subjective bias in any talent management practice.
If we understand talent and talent management as an empty signifier and the language of talent management as semantic empty, which paradoxically doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a meaning but just that it has multiple meanings subjectively determined by the language user/ the talent manager/coach/scout, then it would be reasonable to suggest that the subjective bias in talent management has to do with the fact that we don’t know what a talent means and what it is in the actual world. And this is just so problematical, because not knowing what the term really means will turn any talent discussion, talent identification and talent recruitment into a question of subjectivity and belief in talent rather than objectivity and knowledge of talent. Or differently put – if you believe someone is a talent then he or she is actually a talent – despite the fact that we don’t know it (and that he or she can’t be talents because they don’t exist in the actual world). Can’t you see how wrong that is and what it leads to?
Adamsen, Billy (2016): Demystifying talent management – a critical approach to the realities of talent. (Palgrave Macmillan)
Cappelli, Peter (2008b): Talent management for the twenty first century, pp. 1–8. Harvard Business Review.
Lewis, Robert E. & Heckman, Robert J. (2006): Talent management – A critical view. Human Resource Management Review. Vol. 16, 139–154.
Michaels, Ed, Handfield-Jones, Helen & Axelrod, Beth (2001): The war for talent. Harvard Business School Publishing.
Silzer, R.F. & Dowell, B.E. (Eds.) (2010): Strategy driven talent management: A leadership imperative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tansley, Carole (2011): What do we mean by the term ‘talent’ in talent management? Industrial and Commercial Training. Vol. 43:5, 266–274.
|*Billy Adamsen is the author to the recently published book ‘Demystifying talent management – a critical approach to the realities of talent’ (2016.Palgrave Macmillan). He has published several books and papers on a variety of subjects including Sport management, talent management, Management, Cognition and Media, Politics and Media, Psychology of language and the effect of new media. In addition to his academic experience as an assistant professor at the Talent Lab, Zealand Institute of Business & Technology in Denmark, he has worked as a manager, director, advisor and scout for different national and international companies within business, politics and sports.|