Practising Talent Management: Processes of Judgment, Inclusion and Exclusion
Talent management is an organisational process aimed at maximising the benefit gained from the organisation’s workforce, mostly by assessing the future potential of senior organisational members to fill key positions based on their proportional contribution to the business. Despite the increasing prevalence of talent management, evidence is accumulating to indicate an extremely low success rate of just 20–25% in predicting high performers. While talent management continues to address a growing business need, a better understanding of the process may help to refine its practice. The underpinning assumptions of the practice of talent management are that organisations are systemic and linear, and that talent management must produce a single answer identifying what it means to be a ‘talent’ in any specific circumstance. As a profession, talent management also maintains a fantasy of control: the expectation that assessed individuals will indeed behave as anticipated, and that stated targets will remain unchanged. As a progressive and trending HR process, talent management’s close connection to organisational power relations and political dynamics is rarely acknowledged. The emotional toll on assessed senior executives, as well as potential ramifications for their colleagues, is also often overlooked, despite the significant implications for individual careers and broader inferences of inclusion–exclusion inherent in the process of talent selection. Talent management practitioners and scholars tend not to consider the impact on individuals of inaccurate assessments and mistaken decisions. As a talent manager practitioner who decrees the fate of individuals, such glaring oversights provoked in me an acute ethical anxiety that drove this research. This work offers a critical perspective on the practice of talent management – in particular, the process of judgment involved in the assessment of ‘high potentials’ and the potent dynamics of inclusion in/exclusion from the talent group. Having witnessed first-hand the inconsistency between apparently robust predictions (based on best practice) and subsequent outcomes, I began this research with strong feelings of ambivalence towards my practice of 25 years and my prospering business of 10 years. The critical perspective of the current study took shape within the research framework, which is based on the philosophy of pragmatism and the complex responsive process of relating that draws on it, as well as on process sociology and complexity sciences. The research methodology insists that scholars take their own direct experience seriously, collect their raw data through writing narratives, and then exercise reflection and reflexivity both as individuals and as part of the Doctor of Management (DMan) learning community. The narratives ‘translate experience so that it is meaningful to the reader’ (Cunliffe, 2010, p. 228). Applying this innovative approach not only to my research, but also to my professional practice, has led me to challenge the most fundamental assumptions of talent management. I now have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the process of judgment at its core, and have developed a new way to approach and implement this process within my work. This thesis culminates in three main arguments describing talent management from a new perspective, as well as redefining the role and degree of involvement of talent management consultants. First, the central process of judgment emerged not as an objective analysis communicated in a unidirectional, linear way from the assessor to the assessed, but rather as a relational and social process that involves shifting power relations and an inclusion–exclusion dynamic influenced by many unpredictable factors. Second, from the perspective of the research framework, the assessor can no longer be seen as an objective observer, but must be regarded as a participant who is simultaneously both involved and detached and who must rely on their practical judgment. Talent management’s traditional promise of future-oriented focus and reliable predictions is illusory, given that all participants are continuously merging their ongoing experiences to spontaneously co-create the future in unpredictable ways. . Understanding that the assessment process is not a simple numerical exercise (ranking individuals on various scales) and that no single truth can be obtained through an assessment process (since assessment results are co-created with all participants in the process) has eased my ethical concerns and enabled me to continue practising my profession with confidence, by taking a fresh viewpoint of what it is that I am doing. It is my hope that other talent management practitioners will find these insights useful and generalisable, and valid to their own practice – extrapolating from the local to the global.