The title of this post comes from a reply to a tweet I once posted:

Does anyone have a better word for ‘talent’? Does business really think it’s a big issue? Is there some other ‘thing’ we should be noticing?

My friend @nevilledunn replied with this:

talent seems like a ‘4 letter’ word for U! Seems 2 me you need a sentence. “those dudes with ability to do what you need done.”

His reply captures the essence of my frustration with the word ‘talent’ and the phrase ‘A war for Talent’ (and there are many variables of this phrase floating around on the web). The phrase as far as I can tell gained popularity through the McKinsey marketing effort highlighting the shortage of Gen X in the developed world (1st world, Northern Hemisphere and whatever other insufficient term you have to describe that part of the world) demographic problem of a smaller group of people sitting under the Baby Boomer bubble. From a succession point of view this may result in not enough people (purely numbers, forget qualification and skill) available to replace retiring Boomers. I say ‘may result’ because nobody, as far as I can tell, knows if technology (broadly speaking and including options like outsourcing and off-shoring) is able to fill the void?

In the developing world (Southern Hemisphere, 3rd world) there is a completely different challenge. This part of the world has a far larger younger set of people coming through. Far larger than Baby Boomers. In this context there’s a frustration at the bottom of the demographic pyramid because of the lack of space available higher up in organisation.

Putting both pieces of the world map together, from a global perspective, we’re not fighting a ‘war for talent’, we have a global skills and numbers shortage. The one part of the world is looking for numbers, and the other part of the world is looking for skills.

This backdrop suggests that a more accurate phrase may be a ‘war for a shortage of scarce skills and numbers of people’.

Talent in my opinion is not a helpful word to use to describe the problem. It has severe short-comings:

  • It’s more associated with the arts and sport than with business (do a Google search as a simple exercise to illustrate my point)
  • Companies have been looking for talent since the beginning of time (there’s nothing new about looking for the best people to fill a position)
  • Talent in a business context is often defined using a matrix of ‘performance’ and ‘potential’. This makes is at least 50% subjective. We’re still desperately trying to accurately measure ‘performance’ in business, and now we add the completely undefinable filter of ‘potential’
  • In some organisations it’s used to broadly to describe human beings (all encompassing) in others it’s used to speak of the ‘outliers’ (care of Malcolm Gladwell). And in some organisations they’re both used causing immense confusion as to what’s being spoken about.
  • I’ve worked with large organisations and with some very clever people where in a room of 35 people the participants suggest that 1% of the group is talented all the way through to 100%. How can that be? How can that be helpful in creating a development context for people where people from a particular team have a completely different view of who is talented in their team?

As I’ve investigated the ‘stuff’ that sits behind this new business focus (talent), my own observation is that the real issue lies somewhere in the pain being felt by the combination of a changing work environment and a changing worker. Using this as a starting point to describe the challenge business is facing seems like a far more accurate view of what’s really going on.

  • The deal/contract of ‘security for loyalty’ disappeared in the 1990’s with the focus on efficiency driven by a larger demand for share-holder wealth. Companies today no longer have a lever to pull, to ensure their people give their lives to the organisation. They can’t guarantee security, and therefore, you’re not going to promise loyalty.
  • Gen X (call them what you will) have several knee-jerk reactions to the ‘negative/unhelpful’ behaviour they observed in their parents (Boomers), and are correcting these apparent flaws in their own lives. More focus on themselves and their family. A healthier and more integrated approach to where and how they allocate their time in their worlds.
  • A significantly different style and approach to communication, having been influenced by e-mail, FaceBook and now Twitter. This has also led, generally speaking, to a lack of inter-personal relational skill being developed within Gen X and Gen Y when compared to Boomers.
  • A worldview that suggests that personal security is found in a wide collection of different careers and not by going deep and focussing on only one career in one industry in one company. Their resumes/CV’s look more like portfolio’s.
  • Organisations that are perfecting internal systems and processes, and hiring a work force made up of a younger set who want more autonomy, creativity and latitude to explore out-the-box options.

Still I think scarce-skills and talent (call it what you will, but please define it properly) make up just one component of the challenge at hand. I think that what we’re dealing with is a ‘war of two wisdoms’.

Baby Boomers, through their own particular shared world-view, developed a set of wisdom that has taken the world to where it is today. Their wisdom is out there. It’s on display. We can see where it worked well, and we can see where it worked horribly. Gen X are maneuvering themselves to ‘take over’ in the next decade. They will bring their own wisdom, based on their world-view. Wisdom doesn’t equal truth or what’s right. It’s simply a way of behaving based on how you see the world. As our world view changes so will our wisdom (hopefully)

What’s needed in business is not for us to put all of our energy into solving the talent / scare skills challenge. I think our time would be better spent getting our minds around these two wisdoms:

  • The Wisdom that got us here
  • The Wisdom that will take us forward

If this is not done successfully, we run the risk of the next set of leaders throwing the previous/current wisdom out, lock stock and barrel. The challenge is to integrate what is good and useful from the ‘wisdom that got us here’ and to interrogate and explore the ‘wisdom that will take us forward’.

Surely we’ve learned at least this from history….  As one generation takes over from another (it can be societies, or invading countries) the worst thing you can do is allow the arrogance of your wisdom to completely displace the helpful wisdom of the previous ‘regime’? And equally dangerous is for the current set of leaders to not invite and welcome a new way of looking at the world, thereby creating a situation of unnecessary conflict. Because once you’re gone they’re going to do what they wanted to from the beginning anyway.

A War of Two Wisdoms and Talent Reboot

If you’d like to engage TomorrowToday around their two strategic inputs designed to assist companies to re-think how they approach the challenge of talent, ‘A War of Two Wisdoms‘ or ‘The Talent Reboot’, please contact Barrie Bramley in South Africa, or Dean van Leeuwen in the UK

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