A recent McKinsey report highlighted that CEO´s have the “talent leadership pipeline” on the very top of their strategy; however, they also state a significant lack of qualified people to fill the relevant positions. For instance, within the Danish robotics industry, they could employ 600 talents if the “right” people were actually available. Likewise, in the enterprise we represent, the question on the agenda is: “do we have the right people, in the right place, at the right time—both now and in the future.” Hence, the “why” of talent management is often agreed and there seems to be common understanding that having talented people is a competitive advantage in many industries. However, the answers to “how we cultivate talent” or “what is talent” are far more complicated when you really dig into the potential answers.

How We Understand and Interpret the words “Talent Influences the Way We Operate Around it”

Developing a clear definition of talent has turned out to be a difficult task for researchers. Despite 1800 articles published on talent development in 2018 within sport, no universal definition has been established; highlighting that working within the field of talent is multifaceted and complex. Let us briefly look to the origin of the term and how we can understand it.

The term talent was used first in the bible (Adamsen, 2016) where, the parable can be summarized to: a “lord” gives three servants respectively 5, 2 and 1 talent each. Hereafter, two of the servants decide to invest the talent. Few years after they doubled the amount of talent, the third servant, though, had kept his talent and dug it into the ground. The lord praised the two first for their use of the talents, but punished the third servant, took his talent, and dismissed him for further service. The most widespread interpretation of this story is, that talent is a gift meant to be used (in this parable invested by the servants).

However, there might be another side of the coin. Why did the lord silently expect servants to invest their talents and take a risk? How would the story had been told, if the two first came back with nothing, or less than they initially had? If we only interpretate the story so that talent is up to the individual to grow and realize, we put all responsibility on the individual. And research shows us that this is not a sound method. Instead, we should perceive talent management as a social affair, where we focus on the relationship between the lord, the servants and the context.

Talent Management is a Social Affair

Overall, we can divide research in talent management within three overarching positions.The first is the biological perspective and the idea that talent is primarily innate and something you are born with and from this position we need to learn how to identify talent. Secondly, a psychological position states that talent is primarily malleable and therefore we need to focus on training (amount and type). This position has often been related to with the 10.000-hour rule. Finally, though, within the last decade the ecological or talent environment position has received plenty of attention. From this position we acknowledge both the biological and psychological position but emphasize that no one develops in a vacuum and this position brings new perspectives on the table. For example, it considers that both the talent´s work-sphere and private-sphere influences development and retention. It deems vital that learning activities must be seen in relation to the context in which it is targeted to optimize transfer. Finally, from this approach key roles around the talents are important, yet even more so are the relationship and alignment between such roles. For example, if a manager and a team leader are not on the same page regarding expectations and requirements, the talented employee will find herself in the middle pulled from opposite directions.

“Developing a clear definition of talent has turned out to be a difficult task for researchers. No universal definition has been established, highlighting that working within the field of talent is multifaceted and complex”

In taking a talent environment approach you need to redirect focus from the individual talent to the context in which the talents develop. Research shows that the individuals’ performance and growth highly depend on the environment around them. In analyzing 1052 “star” stock analysts, Groysberg and colleagues found that 46 percent of the star performers did poorly in the year after they left one company as their performance plummeted by 20 percent and did not climb back to old levels even five years later (Groysberg et al., 2004). The researchers explain this by noting that just 30 percent of a star´s performance stems from individual capabilities whereas 70 percent of their performance can be linked to the organization’s resources such as reputation, leadership, training, and team chemistry (Groysbjerg et al., 2004).

Our call for new models of learning

Research suggests that in organizations, up to 75 percent of learning is informal (Noe, Clarke & Klein 2014, learning in the Twenty-First-Century Workplace) and that the most effective learning takes place outside of structured programs or courses. Hence, we learn mainly from our experiences on the job or in other words our daily environment. This is sometimes referred to as the 70:20:10 frameworks. In many organizations we tend to separate learning from working by sending talents on programs where they need to develop. This creates the problem that the training industry has tried to mitigate for decades, namely, how do we transfer learning back into the workplace. This transfer is often difficult and the impact on performance is limited. According to Harvard Business Review article (Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It – October 2016) the authors state that “if the system does not change, it will set people up to fail.” In other words, we need to focus on the organizational systems or environments to attract, develop, motivate and retain talents.

Summing Up: What Questions Do We Need to Inquire if to Move the World of Talent Management?

Let us finalize this call for action with the following reflections for talent managers:

● To what extent do we send people away when they need to learn?

● Do we focus more on developing the individual talent more than cultivating talent development environments where we believe in everyone’s potential?

● Where in our organization and environment, are we already successful and can we use learning outcomes across our organization?

● Ask yourself or an employee: Try to recall situations within the last 6 months where you really learned something relevant for your job. Did that happen 1) when you attended a course? 2) in your daily worklife? And 3) alone or together with colleagues or others?

● What talent practices are in place to foster a learning environment or culture in your organization?