Moving to a more fluid definition of talent

(This post was originally featured in a 2015 White Paper jointly produced by HR Zone and Cornerstone On Demand titled ‘Talent 2020 – What is the Future Talent Landscape’. You can download it here and read further contributions from Rob Briner, Mervyn Dinnen and Dr Tom Calvard)

Moving to a more fluid definition of talent

As someone who relies on improvisation in my work, and someone who practices meditation, I enjoy going with the flow, and trying to be in the moment. The idea of trying to see five years into the future for any reason, let alone what that might mean for talent at work, is a challenge for me. Nevertheless, here are a few thoughts about what talent could mean for an enlightened organisation in five years’ time, and some things that need to shift in order to make talent the dynamic, wider opportunity it should be.

Talent bubble

I find the notion of talent as some exclusive club into which only a few can pass, quite abhorrent. When I worked for BT I declined a request to join the talent community, because it felt like a secretive, invitation only club, into which you were quietly drawn, rather than something everyone knew about and could take advantage of when needed.

Everyone has something to offer, and I prefer to think of talent as an all-encompassing notion which we use to encourage everyone to bring their best, and be the best they can. It’s a fluid concept, my talents may be particularly useful for a given time, and for a given set of requirements. I’d like to see the idea of talent as something highly permeable through which anyone can move through, to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

A shift – from employee to freelancer

According to a 2014 report published by the ONS, self-employment in the UK is at its highest level since records began. There are 4.6 million people working for themselves, with the proportion of the total workforce self-employed at 15% compared with 13% in 2008, and as few as 8.7% in 1975.

This shift looks set to increase, with some predicting the number of people in a freelance role could be as high as 50% by 2020. I think what this means is that the bubble in which talent currently operates will burst. The idea of a ring fenced, private club for talent within an organisation will no longer be practical as organisations increasingly look outward to freelance workers to help them deliver. How willing will these organisations be to invest in talent that they don’t ‘own’?

I invest frequently in my own ‘talent development’. In the past 12 months I’ve spent time and money with The Improvisation Academy developing my improvisational skills. I’m investing time and money through the CIPD to learn more about Organisational Design and I’m investing in improving my artistic skills.

Currently I fund these activities directly from my freelance income, and I’m wondering if maybe, my freelance arrangements should be tweaked so that clients who invest in my talents can see that part of their fees is a direct investment in me, and therefore the service I give them?

The same ONS report which confirms the current levels of 15% self-employment in the UK also reveals that income from self-employment has fallen by 22% since 2008/09. There could be all sorts of reasons for this – and maybe, just maybe, if the buyer could see that the freelancer was committing to his or her ongoing development, this fall could start to become a rise.

A shift – from being trained to learning to learn

Within organisations I’m observing a move towards a more self-determined approach to learning and development, albeit currently at quite a slow rate. Technology is a clear enabler for this, and by 2020, I think this will offer a challenge to people in traditional organisational talent communities, for whom membership often means access to an enhanced training programme.

For some – the idea of co-creating and co-owning this facet of talent development will be very exciting, yet there’s a degree of arrogance that comes with admission to the club, and an expectation that learning and development will be done for you. People with that mentality may see this shift as a cheapening of the talent experience, and I’d argue they are not the kind of people you will be looking for in future.

A move to more self-determined learning should make talent communities more open, and make it easier to connect with relevant talent at relevant times, personally and professionally, organisationally and individually.

Clarity in the hiring process

There is already a need for greater clarity in the hiring process, specifically around making sure the role description is tangible, and matches the needs of the employer – regardless of whether this is for a permanent hire or not. I think recruitment agencies need to work much more closely and robustly with their customers – not only in making job descriptions fit the role better, but being generally more responsive and accountable too. A failure to achieve this will mean that talent increasingly bypasses the recruitment industry and goes direct.

Change : By Degrees

If you work in HR and recruitment you’d be hard pressed not to have seen the news this week, in which publisher Penguin Random House (PRH) has confirmed that job applicants will no longer be required to have a university degree. PRH aren’t the first big firm to confirm this small and significant change in policy, but building on the success of their ‘The Scheme’ project, this feels like the first time the idea is getting mainstream exposure beyond the sometimes inward looking world of HR. Good stuff.

So what?

Lowering barriers to entry where it’s practical to do so is an important thing. I know because I don’t have a degree – I fell through the cracks of the formal education system in my late teens and and when Mum died shortly before I turned 19, I really lost any motivation to learn for a while. I subsequently struggled at times because people judged me on the length of the list of my qualifications. It’s an easy thing to measure.

I was also aware of this during my 12.5 years at BT – people using ‘you haven’t got a degree’ as a reason for not offering a job in my direction, despite the fact that I never did a job in BT which required one! I persisted and worked hard and eventually got to, and probably beyond where I wanted to. Yet too much effort was expended by me on navigating this ‘you haven’t got a degree’ barrier – when what I should have been doing, was the work itself. I hope that makes sense!

I’m fortunate. Along the way I rediscovered my love for learning and also my love for applying it too. I invest heavily in my own learning and development, I don’t regret not studying for a degree, and it’s good to see that finally – more people are getting to grips with the fact that not every role requires one. This is positive news, and I believe that what this small step does is afford these organisations which are willing to broaden their horizons, even more wonderful choices in future. It will be interesting to look back in a few years time and see what changes in the demographics of work emerge and stick as a result of this growing change in practice.

Specifically Vague

The importance of cultural fit in recruitment

Google the words ‘hiring for cultural fit’ and you’ll be overwhelmed with results, about 1.18 million of them last time I checked. Recruiters and HR people talk about this stuff, a lot. I appreciate the desire to hire people who will ‘fit in around here’, and at the same time, the world of work needs its dissenting voices too, unless it is to become a whirlpool like hellhole of groupthink.

For cultural fit to have relevance, there needs to be clarity about the culture people are being hired to fit into. I stumbled upon this job vacancy yesterday, please take a minute to have a read through it…

“This is a great opportunity to partner with a demanding corporate audience of around 200 within an international head office environment. It’s a busy generalist role by nature, a key theme of it being the building of close relationships across a range of Directors and providing them with guidance and coaching through the full range of cyclical HR processes and in managing the subtleties of a range of performance and ER issues and any change agendas.

Candidates should possess really solid generalist HR experience developed within a sophisticated corporate environment where HR is used to partnering the business in an evolved HR model, ideally with exposure to matrix business structures. Above all you should possess the gravitas, maturity and resilience to work effectively with demanding senior business stakeholders, combined with a proactive and pragmatic approach that ensures effective, commercial on time delivery.”

Impressive huh? Demanding, international, close relationships, guidance, cyclical HR, change agendas, solid, sophisticated, matrix business structures, gravitas, maturity, resilience, demanding (again), proactive, pragmatic.

This job advert says everything and nothing. It is meaningfully meaningless, specifically vague, and people will be applying for this role. I posted the advert text onto Facebook yesterday; here are some of the excellent comments I received:

It means that once you accept the job they can make you do anything they want. It’s fuzzy logic.

It would read like the role is to dig the directors out of the hole they keep on digging…

1915. Please join us in the trenches. It is a complete clusterfuck over here. We require someone to run messages to and from the incompetents. You will need experience acting as a human shield and serving as cannon fodder.

And companies wonder why they have people issues when this is the best they can do.

I’m not a huge fan of wasting people’s time – yet I am tempted to craft an application for the role which reflects back all the specifically vague buzzword junk contained in the job advert. If I do – I will let you know the outcome. In the meantime, if you are fortunate to be involved in the hiring process, please, do better than this. Unless the cultural fit you are looking for is total befuddlement, in which case, pour yourself a fresh cup of gravitas and get proactively pragmatic.