Friday, February 26, 2010

Book review: Strategy-Driven Talent Management

A thought-provoking collection of essays and ideas; but it won't solve all our problems.

The value of a book lies as much with the reader as it does with the content. A book about advanced programming does little good to the person who has problems turning a computer on. A collection of cooking recipes is largely useless to someone who exclusively uses a microwave.

The same is true about business and HR books. Depending upon who you are and where you're at in life, some books may help you, some may be beyond your reach. Such is the case with SIOP's latest entry into its Professional Practice series, Strategy-Driven Talent Management: A Leadership Imperative, edited by Bob Silzer and Ben Dowell.

The book (tome, actually, at nearly 900 pages) is full of thought-provoking pieces from a variety of authors, including some familiar faces such as John Boudreau and Allan Church. There are academics present, but the majority of authors are practitioners in private sector organizations, such as Aon, Ingersoll Rand, HP, Sara Lee, Merck, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The book is roughly broken up by major topic area, although the distinction can be hard to maintain. There are chapters on recruitment, executive onboarding, engagement, measurement, and global issues. There's even a 40-page annotated bibliography. But the editors do an admirable job of keeping the topics all related to the broad field of talent management (TM), which they define as, "an integrated set of processes, programs, and cultural norms in an organization designed and implemented to attract, develop, deploy, and retain talent to achieve strategic objectives and meet future business needs" (p. 18).

The book is described as a "comprehensive [collection of] state-of-the-art ideas, best practices, and guidance." It shines on the first two but failed me on the last, although not for lack of trying. The problem is the book is so long, full of so many ideas and case studies, that it's very easy to get lost and not come away with any clear guidance based on the consensus of authors. To some extent this is endemic in any collection of works by separate authors, but it's clearly a collection of "what you might do" rather than a solid prescription for "how to", although some authors do a better job than others.

Another problem is that many authors seem to presume that current TM practices are sub-optimized because they aren't linked to business strategy and results. This may be true if the process is based on non-validated assumptions, but as long as there is a link between job success and specific practices, we're already there. We just haven't made a particularly good link between job success and organizational success, which may explain the attraction to concepts like competencies (mentioned many times in the book).

But my main problem, and this goes for the book as well as the field, is that it treats the concept of talent management as a logical process to be managed. Somewhere in the transition from HR to TM, we lost the H--human. Talent management (and HR) is messy because it involves people. It's political. It changes every day. And you're dealing with emotions, not lines of code. The real challenge--which is discussed but to my mind not driven home--is how to get the talent mindset into the organizational DNA.

There is value to thinking broadly and philosophically about the topic. It helps us plan. But what people really need are concrete suggestions for establishing a self-sustaining high-performance system. In order to do this, we must address the fundamentals (the basic needs of Maslow's hierarchy, if you will), such as:

- HR must learn "the business" and stay close to their customers
- Supervisors must be selected and trained with their talent management role at the forefront
- Success in HR must be defined and measured. It must be communicated, understood, and valued
- Sustained attention to HR success and significant resources must be expended by both HR and line managers

The book does a passable job of presenting these, but you may have to dig for them. The bigger problem is that there seems to be an assumption that what keeps organizations from having a top-notch TM system is a lack of understanding, either of the organizational strategy or best practices in TM, rather than the very real daily troubles that organizations experience, such as:

- Supervisors that hire people they know/like rather than the most qualified person
- People placed into HR with little or no background, interest, or passion for it
- Insufficient resources devoted to TM/HR
- HR managers who are just that--managers--rather than real HR leaders (Avedon and Scholes present a great assessment in Chapter 2 that helps separate these)

Until organizations have these types of "minor"--but real--flaws ironed out, all the charts and good intentions in the world will have very little impact.

Finally, I was also disappointed that there wasn't more in here about evidence-based TM and HR (which may say more about the field than the authors/editors, who acknowledge this lack in Chapter 22). The field desperately needs more research to tie the hard science of assessment with the more anecdotal/consultant practices such as recruiting, retention, and performance management. This will require significantly more research using methods beyond surveys in order to show what works and what doesn't. There are some ties to good research in here, but the hole is significant.

To summarize, the book contains a lot to like, particularly for individuals already schooled in this area looking to optimize their shop, or for graduate students seeking to understand the big picture. But for most HR practitioners (and, I would expect, executives), this book is akin to a collection of recipes for advanced Italian cooking--fabulous for those used to making their own pasta, but beyond the reach of those struggling to make their own sauce.

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