Thursday, 28 February 2008

Talent managers reminding us of 3 cardinal rules of management

CIPD conference on talent management in London, Tuesday 26 February, 2008

I volunteered to blog the CIPD conference on talent management in London on Tuesday and I may have bitten off more than I can chew! The conference was well organized and smoothly run. CIPD lined up a full day for us, with NINE case studies on talent management and an opening on the general pattern of talent management by Paul Turner of Aschroft International Business School. Jon Ingham, the owner of this blog, who is kindly donating me some airtime, ably chaired.

Nine case studies on talent management are hard to describe succinctly. Once I tried, I came back to the same point that we drum into students' heads. There are no answers in management, only questions. Ours is not a profession in which we can tick boxes! We start every day armed only with general principles and attend mindfully and acutely to the people around us as the day unfolds.

So! In the spirit of blogging. I have made a list!

1. What HR decisions are being made and how can we support those decisions?

Chris Parkinson, who was presenting the case study from American Express, quoted an approach I hadn't seen before. Boudreau & Ramstad define HR management as


any business decision which HR impacts and

any business decision that impacts on HR.

We are staff, not line. We coach line managers to make more rigorous decisions, but we don't make decisions for them. We can't anyway. When you have organizations with 400 000 employees, such as Tesco, and about 1 HR person per 100, what counts are processes that help people do the right thing.


Speaker after speaker pointed out our proclivity to make things complicated! It's fruitless complaining that people don't use our systems. A good system is so simple that no one notices they are "doing" HR. The acid test of a system is whether life becomes more, rather than less, complicated when we take the system away!


We also want our systems to be associated clearly with success. Can we say in one sentence why the line is making their decision, what they hope to gain, and what would be the difference between a good and a bad outcome? Is the outcome under their control? Are we helping them understand what is, and is not, under their control? Do they make better, quicker and more confident decisions as a result? Including the decision, "no decision", when that is the most appropriate.

Adding value

And in the days of good IT (aren't we lucky), are we using the data on millions of HR decisions made by our peers in the line, to inform decision making at higher levels? Do decisions about individuals inform decisions about business units? Do decisions about business units inform decisions about strategic units? And so on and so on.

Are we extracting data, looking at patterns, and feeding them back into the question-asking process? Tesco's look at who they have available and the jobs employees want to do 3 to 5 years ahead. Cambridge County Council look at unusual patterns and go back down into the divisions to ask: is our job structure working for our people?

2. What business conditions are important to our business?

Know the situation, know the circumstances

Standard Chartered Bank, a leading bank in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, like American Express, is 150 years old. That's very old for a company. They are fortunate their line of business remains relatively unchanged and they are able to integrate change incrementally.

Most of us live in a more turbulent world. G4S, the massive security firm with 525 000 employees worldwide, is 'resisting commoditization'. In other words, they are looking to capture greater value from each transaction. They are slowly changing their business model, and their talent management provides the bedrock for that process: good execution at every level, and the right numbers of people available to conceptualize what needs to be done, when and how.

LogicaCMG, in IT, are making similar changes via greater customer service. The Legal Services Commission is facing contraction, while trying to enhance its pool of employees willing to adopt a career leading the organization. Cambridge County Council is looking ahead to a time when they will manage the delivery of services rather than deliver the services themselves.

Prof Turner used the phrase: look above the parapet. Talent management, like all management, requires clear thinking about our firms, which we do on an ongoing basis along with other managers. First, we are managers, and then we are HR specialists - in that order.

Value leadership

This reminds me of the David Whyte poem: "This is not the age of information, this is not the age of information . . . This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand." (Loaves and Fishes, in River Flow, p. 358).

How close are we to the pulse of our organizations? How clear are we about what is important?

Try asking yourself each morning as you awake. What is the greatest concern the people in this organization have today?

And in the evening as your retire: how did their concerns change during the day, and what prompted the change?

After a month, will we see the impact of our systems more clearly?

3. Am I getting better at orchestrating?

The third basic point about business is that good systems aren't imitable. They are specific and peculiar, local and historical. We can't copy each other. What is right for you now is not right for me today, tomorrow or yesterday.

So why do we attend conferences then? We can learn from case studies and ask better questions in our firms. We can learn many ways of doing the same thing so we have many ways to chose from. And from that luxurious place, we can pull together a working model that suits our firm in the time and in place we find ourselves. Stevan Rolls gave a good example of using 2.0-like networking within Deloittes to 'roll out' an HR initiative.

The big firms also allow each business unit considerable latitude. Both G4S and Siemens noted that business units who pay attention to talent management, do better. The point is to get each unit to adjust appropriately to their conditions, while we are clear about the overall principles and tools that we have in common.

The speakers did a huge job giving us a whistle stop tour of massive talent management programs. What we gained though is mainly their example as role models.

  • They are close to their business. And they are accepted within their business as knowledgeable managers.
  • They are managers. They manage processes to help other people to act, in this case line managers.
  • And their systems are tools, not ends in themselves. They put in what managers need and find useful, and ruthlessly strip away what is not helpful.

They do as much work focusing people on what is important, as they do pushing paper and running IT systems.


I enjoyed the meeting. It was well run. Though the quantity of data was a little overwhelming, it is reassuring to see the depth and breadth of talent management.

It must have been reassuring to the younger people in the audience, too. I would like to involve them more in mapping out the talent systems in organizations and thinking ahead to how they will influence and lead our organizations as they take command of this new century.

Jon did a straw poll and only 20% of the room felt engaged in business policy. It would be interesting to flag up the smallest, easiest ways that people have found to come close to their business during 2008! Maybe a rapid pitch session. Stand up, speak up, and sit down. How I got close to my business this year!

Thanks so much to all the speakers, to the CIPD, and to Jon for the chance to guest post!


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