People, Systems|

Everyone knows what talent management means, right? Yet despite widely accepted common practice, most talent management approaches fall way short of the mark when it comes to improved strategy execution and organizational effectiveness.

When we talk about accomplishing business objectives and achieving strategic success, the talent that’s embodied in people plays a critical role: without the contributions of individuals, nothing would ever happen. Yet this traditional way of defining and focusing on talent leaves a gaping hole in what we need to know: there are other major components of work design that must be included to optimize organizational performance and achieve strategic success. No one is an island, and that applies in spades at work.

Individual performance depends on a lot more than individual competencies: it requires the right motivation and job design. And looking at performance one person or role at a time (traditional talent management) loses sight of how the organization design and culture, along with business and HR processes, combine together to produce the desired business results. That’s how the individual plus organizational aspects of talent come together to produce strategy execution and organizational effectiveness.

Where to start. There is so much work to be done improving talent processes, it can be hard to know where to start. Should we make our managers better coaches? Should we do a better job of matching developmental opportunities to people’s desired career plans? Should we find a way to better hold people accountable for their performance, with clear signals about the competencies they need to be successful? The answer to each of these questions and a dozen more on related people issues is “of course.” But the problem for HR is that everyone in both the business and HR has only so much time and energy to focus on making improvements. If we don’t focus our efforts on the issues that matter most for business success, we run a very high risk that our managers and leaders won’t be engaged in what we want them to do and, even worse, the business results could suffer, increasing the chances of cutbacks in budget dollars and wholescale de-emphasizing of talent development while people focus exclusively on righting the ship of business performance.

The solution I propose, based on years of working with companies to solve large organizational challenges, is to take a systems view of the role of talent in business success.

There are two parts to the systems view: what happens at the individual or role level and what happens at the group or organizational level.

Ask most people what “talent” means to them and the first – and only – thing that usually comes to mind is people. Talent of course is more than headcount. It’s how the work is done, and is often used interchangeably with labels like competencies and human capital.

Using the systems approach to expand the view of talent also has direct implications for talent development. If talent means more than just individual competencies or skills, then traditional talent development tools and programs won’t be sufficient for all aspects of talent at both the job level and the group level. So talent development has to include what’s traditionally covered, along with an added focus on what matters for developing talent at the organizational level. This added component means focusing on developing both individual and organizational capability at the same time.

I use individual capability as a stand-in for what someone brings to the table to get the job done: the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) that enable them to do the work they are responsible for. Organizational capability is similar but also quite distinct; it’s how the organization gets all the work done, across all roles and processes, but it is much more than just the sum of individual capabilities of the people. For example, innovation is one type of organizational capability. In order to have innovation, you need the building blocks provided by the competencies of roles like engineers, software programmers and/or scientific researchers. Yet organizational innovation is never accomplished solely through the individual contributions of people in those roles. We also need the right mix and alignment of organization design, culture and processes.

This fundamental difference between individual vs. organizational capability is what drives the contrast between the traditional view of talent and my focus. The problem with business as usual in the talent field is we are way too obsessed solely with people: who they are, what they bring to the table, how their careers evolve, and so on. What’s missing – in a huge way – is the alchemy that combines all those individual efforts and contributions so that the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. If we don’t take a look at the big picture, the systems view of talent, we are guaranteed to miss critical pieces of the puzzle that are essential for driving strategy execution and organizational effectiveness.

Conducting talent systems diagnostics. The traditional view of talent as individual skills or human capital is one of only six contributors to organizational performance; the other two at the individual level are motivation and job design. There are three additional important factors at the group level that are usually totally excluded from traditional views of the link between talent and business performance: organizational capability, organization design, and culture. In particular, the alignment among roles in contributing to performance often is as important if not more important than the individual role contributions.

One of the most impactful things that talent professionals can do to help the organization is co-leading systems diagnostics. A systems diagnostic determines the barriers to improved business performance, including the role of individual capability versus other contributors. With the diagnostic results in hand, comprehensive solutions can be implemented; those solutions often include elements of traditional talent management and development but also include a broader set of org changes and programs to improve alignment and performance at the group and organizational levels.

What emerges after doing a systems diagnostic is not always an individually-focused talent solution. The changes that need to occur usually involve a lot more, including potentially redesigning jobs and work processes, improving team collaboration, getting better cross-functional alignment, etc. Though the solutions usually involve much more than traditional individually-focused interventions, in each case there almost always is a clear and specific role for individual-focused talent management and development to play. It’s just that the talent solution cannot stand on its own with solely an individual focus. It has to be coordinated with a larger set of organizational changes for maximum impact.

The main reason why we have to look at group performance separately from role performance is because of the interdependencies among jobs. No person or job is an island: organizational performance only occurs when people in multiple different roles combine and align their actions to create the products and services customers are willing to buy. If we look at any role in isolation, we cannot know whether it is working in concert or in conflict with the other roles in the group. Essentially, we need to know whether the whole of the group’s output is greater than the sum of the individual jobs’ tasks. If not, then talent at the group level is not performing as it should.

This post is based on my book Strategic Analytics: Advancing Strategy Execution and Organizational Effectiveness and is drawn from my ATD at Work publication Measuring and Maximizing the Impact of Talent Development.

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