Talent, talent everywhere, but just what does it mean?


Thirty years ago when somebody mentioned the word “talent” we thought about people showcasing their singing, dancing, stand-up comedy or acrobatic skills in a holiday resort competition or on early TV talent shows like the UK’s “Opportunity Knocks”.  But all that has changed in recent years and talent now seems to be everywhere, but it has left me wondering: what does “talent” mean to us?

Today I think there are several definitions and we’re getting them all confused.

The TV definition is best illustrated today by shows like “Britain’s Got Talent”.  Each year thousands of people apply for the programme, convinced they have it in abundance and we are entertained by the search for a future star, plucked from obscurity by a panel of celebrities and propelled to stardom for the duration of the competition before often disappearing again.  But more often than not the show highlights the unsuccessful wannabes and provides entertainment from the cringe-worthy moments and their reactions to the judges’ rejections. From the thousands that apply just a few reach the final stages when the transmission goes Live! and voting is handed over to the viewing public for a glitzy showdown.  As far as the public is concerned, many believe they have talent.

Business however, disagrees.  The “War on/for talent” has been around for many years – that increasingly difficult search for critical, highly desirable skills.  Gaps in education and graduates’ study choices were cited as the causes of science, engineering and modern languages skills shortages and too many students opting for so-called softer, less useful subjects.  Organisations started to realise they already had talented employees, but then started to worry about losing them as the economy faltered, creating Talent Management processes to identify and invest in “top talent” and High Potentials.  The 9-box grid became increasingly popular within Talent Review processes to measure performance and competences were used to identify potential as the search to identify those who had the je ne sais quoi over and above the rest intensified.

As the baby boomers started to retire, Generation X moved into middle age and the Millennials burst onto the job market with higher expectations and a greater familiarity with technology, organisations have grappled with how to adapt their hiring and development strategies to attract a new, more demanding generation of talent.  One reaction seems to have been the shift from “recruitment” to “talent acquisition”, suggesting talent is out there after all and we just need to find it.   (And by the way, is a “Talent Specialist” a recruiter, somebody skilled in development or both?)  The post-crisis era seems to have moved the War for Talent into a new era as dozens of candidates apply for a role and companies continue to struggle to find the stand-out candidate, or we don’t wait for them to apply, we go and find them and entice them to a new future.  At the same time we have started to ask ourselves if we should still identify High Potentials.  Is it just a paper-based exercise and does it actually deliver anything?  Is a values-based approach better than a competency-based structure in talent management?

I sense we are only part-way through this debate and when we say “talent” we furrow our brows and ask, “what is that exactly?”.  Right now, the most important things we should do are identify what “talent” means within individual organisations – is it something everybody has in their own way or it is a collective term for a small group of people?  We should acknowledge that talent is subjective – what is desirable in one organisation or at one period in time is undesirable in another organisation or when times change.  Identifying talent isn’t enough – we have to invest in developing, challenging and rewarding individuals.

If that doesn’t work, we can always go back to learning to sing, perfecting a somersault without breaking a limb or training our pet dog to walk on two legs.