Laura Clements

Mind the talent gap!

Posted by Laura Clements Apr 5, 2013

Managing talent is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge: an endless task that sometimes leaves you out in the cold.  As online recruiting and professional networking make talent more visible and poachable, it’s an ongoing challenge to fully engage and keep hold of our best people – especially those with leadership skills. Plus, intellectual capital is literally walking out the door as experienced staff reach retirement, but it’s hard to provide consistent learning and development for their successors when line managers still operate according to departmental silos.


I was interested to see how other companies tackle these issues, so I joined a 20 Minute Master Class webinar the other day, which promised to reveal the secrets of top performers in a European benchmarking study.  It was somewhat reassuring to note that while 9 out of 10 companies shared similar aspirations for improving talent management, employee engagement, learning application and productivity, only 2 out of 10 were actually doing so. In fact, high achievers were 7 times more likely to report improvement in these areas than their peers in the bottom quartile.


One consistent theme emerged: organisations that have invested a greater proportion of their L&D budget in technology (learning management systems, e-content, mobile devices and apps, video and social collaboration) are advancing faster than those that haven’t.


Of course, technology itself is not a panacea – it’s how it’s implemented and used to meet business objectives that counts. The webinar provided some useful advice on benchmarking our approach and the importance of measuring business outputs when evaluating the effectiveness of learning innovations.  You’d be surprised by how many companies have no idea how much or indeed whether these tools and technologies benefit their bottom line.


Anyway, I won’t give away too many spoilers – you can download the benchmarking report or watch the webinar on demand.  Suffice to say, I’m having a bit of a rethink on how we might be a bit more technically-minded when it comes to L&D. Social and mobile aren’t so much tools as ways of working, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to overcome some of my misplaced objections around productivity, just because my kids are permanently glued to their glowing screens. If our organisation needs to be more adaptable to change, I’d best lead by example. 

Until a few years ago, the word “talent” was used to describe a special natural ability or aptitude – typically applied to creative pursuits like painting, singing or acting.  Nowadays the word has been co-opted by the HR community as business speak.  But what strikes me is that if I were to ask half a dozen HR leaders what “talent” means, I would probably get as many different answers.


Some organisations use the word “talent” synonymously with “workforce”.  The trouble with that approach is that with finite resources, you can’t develop everyone. You have to prioritise your efforts somehow.  And there’s a risk that if you say everybody has talent, the word becomes meaningless.


Some define talent in terms of grade – an elite group made up of those already in the top positions within the company. Others are more inclusive, encompassing those with the potential to get to the top positions, based on their attributes or traits. But this might include anything from performance and technical or business skills to behavioural competencies, attitude or values. It’s not universally agreed whether talent is something people have or something people do. And the old adage that “what you can’t measure, you can’t manage” has never been truer with today’s emphasis on performance-metricised HR processes. 


Having a shared definition of talent within your organisation is absolutely crucial to your HR strategy, from recruitment to learning and development to succession planning. It’s also important as a prophylactic, because you may find yourself having to justify the basis of your segmentation to shareholders or disgruntled employees further down the line. 


Fundamentally, there are two reliable ways to define talent, depending on the nature of your business. The first is along the twin axes of performance and potential – those who score highly in both constitute your top talent.  However, if your business relies on professional skills, look at the market scarcity of people with those skillsets together with their organisational impact.  Those with the most sought-after skills who make the biggest difference to your performance constitute your talent. 


But defining talent is only the first step.  Next, you have to find it.  The people who will truly transform your business are relatively rare. Talented people also tend to be aware of their own worth and play the field effectively.  It’s likely that your competitors will have spotted them, too, so remember that talent is precious and you may have a fight on your hands to attract and retain talented people. And that’s an art form (and another blog) in itself!  

I remember 1997 as if it were yesterday.  So I can barely get my head around the fact that babies born in that year are now legally old enough to buy a lottery ticket, get married with parental consent and, oh yes, work full-time.


I joined a webinar on “The 2020 Workplace” the other day, the first in a series of 20-minute master classes for time-pressed HR leaders. It wasn’t the usual brand of futurology I had anticipated, but instead presented some real insights and pragmatic guidance as to how organisations can get the best from the current influx of so-called Millennials and prepare for the entrance of the next generation, born from 1997 onwards, into the workplace.


Some of the statistics didn’t surprise me – the attachment to mobile devices, social media and online collaboration among younger employees. However, one slide made me really sit forward: every day in the US alone, workers with 350,000+ years of experience are retired and replaced by workers with around 170,000 hours of experience. Keep that up, and in the next decade, there will be 1.25 billion fewer years of experience in the economy than today. The slide was aptly entitled “The billion year talent cliff” – and businesses over here are undoubtedly sleepwalking towards a similar fate.  The fact that Baby Boomers have been the biggest casualties of job losses throughout the recession compounds the issue.


But it would appear that there is still a chance to address the looming skills gap with appropriate knowledge transfer strategies.  What really encouraged me was that, apparently, the top demands that Millennials impose on their line managers today are (in order): assistance in navigating their career path, straight feedback, mentoring and coaching, and sponsorship for formal development – with flexible working surprisingly trailing in fifth.


Yes, Millennials are devotees of mobile and social technology.  But let’s work with that preference instead of against it through a misplaced concern that these tools are a drain on productivity or a threat to information security. I remember my old boss being similarly up in arms about email when that was first introduced into the company in the early 1990s. 

Organisations like mine owe it to our people and our business success to capitalise on the intergenerational nature of today’s workforce.  My key take-out from the webinar is that we need to develop scalable learning strategies – such as formal mentoring and reverse-mentoring initiatives – built on models of social collaboration. And who knows, maybe the youth of today can teach Baby Boomers like me a thing or two as well.