As a Sociology student I have always been fascinated by Robert Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage. It illustrates how small initial advantages in trained capacity, structural location and available resources create increments of advantage that, over a period of time, widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
More recently reading Malcolm Gladwell in his outstandingly clever book “Outliers”, the impact of the Matthew effect finally hit home. Early decisions about who is good and who is not good separates the “talented” from the “untalented” and over time, exposure to superior experiences builds an almost insurmountable advantage over others.
This is exactly how many talent programmes work in the corporate environment as well. Assessment centres, line manager recommendations, identification by senior business leaders are some of the traditional ways in which talent is identified within organisations. Over time, investments in talent development widens the gap over others and quite rapidly, this gulf becomes considerable.
But what happens to the vast majority in organisations who have not been identified as “talent”? Do organisations reach out to these people and provide them opportunities to realise their full potential? Can these people make a difference to the organisations they work for? These were the questions I have asked myself and the more I questioned, the more I became unsure if the time tested approaches to talent management were really future proof.
I could see this working in sport where the rules of the game remained largely unchanged. But even here something fundamental could alter the basic profile for success at the game. The introduction of artificial turf in field hockey fundamentally changed the nature of the game. It made it faster and quicker and very rapidly changed the criteria for successful players. Those clubs not able to afford artificial grass struggled to perform even though they had the most talented, rigorously identified and committed players.
Such fundamental changes are quite regular in the corporate world. Within the last decade, innovations in technology, changes in retailing, increased access to broadband, social media and the immediacy of always online combined with the economic challenges of recessions, and banking crisis have quite profoundly changed the world of business. Yet in many organisations, traditional approaches to talent identification continue unchanged.
Clearly there is no one mantra for the identification of talent. Each business will need to tailor its playing ground and within that define the success criteria for its talent. But one thing is clear – today’s talent may not be talent for tomorrow.