Monday, 9 June 2014

Talent ain't what it used to be

I don’t routinely watch ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent but caught the end of this year’s Final on Saturday having switched on ahead of England’s World Cup warm up match with Honduras. As it turned out, the Simon Cowell franchise show was more entertaining than the weather interrupted goalless draw in Miami, though what struck me most was just how old fashioned the basic format was. To all intents and purposes BGT is Opportunity Knocks with chirpy Geordie duo Ant and Dec instead of Hughie Green, plus Botox, a bit more cleavage and audience telephone voting rather than the once famed ‘clapometer’.  Also interesting was the underlying assumption of the show  that ‘talent’ is a plentiful resource that exists throughout the land and simply waiting to be tapped. This notion of a ‘talent pool’ is nowadays widespread throughout society, shared by politicians and business people as well as those in entertainment and sport, yet it differs from how we thought about talent in the past and raises some intriguing issues.

Traditionally, talent referred to a person’s innate ability at performing a given task or tasks.  A talent might be used for personal profit or the common good but – as, for example, espoused in the New Testament ‘parable of the talents’ - there was a clear moral imperative to use it wisely. Every person was deemed to have some talent or other. Some talents were fairly widely spread throughout the populous, others relatively rare. Exceptional talent might bring fame and fortune though it was not necessarily marketable (we’ve all heard of Pavarotti, the planet’s greatest yodeller is less well known). However, it was generally accepted that while a talent could be honed it could not be acquired. Each individual had a well of aptitude from which to draw. All the individual could do was identify their particular talents, develop them and make the most of them – ideally with a helping hand from parents, teachers, and employers. But attempts to conjure up silk purses from sows’ ears were generally seen as futile.

However, this traditional concept has gradually been diluted by a growing tendency to confuse the availability of talent with the supply of acquired skills. When government ministers and business leaders talk of ‘unlocking talent’ they more often than not mean providing people with education and training that offers a qualification as a route to a job or better pay. In some cases this can indeed help develop and validate people’s innate aptitudes. There is undoubtedly a waste of potential in our society, especially amongst the most disadvantaged young people who deserve greater opportunity to show what they’re capable of. But increasing skill acquisition is not the same as giving vent to genuine talent. Public policy and business practice can raise the supply of useable skills and, if effective, add to the flow of observable talent into the market – it can’t easily, if at all, boost the underlying reservoir of talent. 

Ironically, the more we try to unlock talent in this rather crude way the harder it becomes to identify and properly manage talent.  As more people acquire academic or vocational qualifications the proportion whose acquired skill fits a genuine natural aptitude tends to fall. One can detect this from the observation that the pay gap between higher and lower earners is getting wider within skilled occupations as well as between occupations. This might to some extent be explained by the superior soft skill (itself usually a personality trait) some people display in their jobs but it also suggests that people whose acquired skills are most attuned to their aptitude enjoy a wage premium (particularly in economies such as the UK and the United States where pay rates are more likely to be matched to individual performance). But in a labour market awash with qualifications the genuinely talented are becoming harder to pinpoint by means of a simple scan of those with a given formal skill set – which is why recruiters and managers are eager to develop more acutely attuned talent spotting antennae.  

Organisations must take care, however, that in the rush to share in the understandable vogue for talent acquisition and talent management they don’t fall into a related trap. A common error is to simply attach the talent label to existing recruitment and development practice. At best this treats talent as if synonymous with skill and at worst merely uses talent management as a sexier alternative to people management. This may be good for book sales – count the number of bog standard HR publications in the past decade with talent in the title to add a bit a gloss – but ultimately causes confusion. The successful organisation, by contrast, will be that which knows what genuine talent is and what it isn’t and is able to identify pearls of talent within the increasing mediocrity of formal skill.

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