Start with a better question to create a better talent management system – The Talent Management Cloud
(Note: See the attached PPT for a summary of this idea and to use as a discussion starter in your organization).
Context for this hack and story: Before I elaborate on the problem, here are the three experiences that came together to help me see this problem and the solution more clearly.
- Leaders and HR professionals want to create great workplaces: As an organization development professional, I work with a lot of leaders and HR professionals and I know that most deeply care about the health of their workplace and whether their employees find it satisfying. Although a relatively new term, I am convinced that “talent management” was born from love and a motivation to combat barriers getting in the way of building great workplaces.
- Researchers have given us a lot to think about in the field of talent management: I have noticed that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interesting peer-reviewed studies published in the last five years on topics related to retention, turnover, succession, and employee satisfaction.
- Most people know that the reasons employees stay or go and whether they grow or stagnate are complex and numerous. For the last couple of years, I have been conducting an exercise during leadership training sessions that supports this assertion. I draw a long line on a large white board and ask participants to imagine that this line represents the employee life cycle from interest in employment to retirement or termination. Then I ask the entire class to walk up to the board and to write what most affects whether employees stay or go or are able to develop. Once they get started, the reasons begin to fly onto the board and when done number in the dozens. The board looks like a swarm (or cloud) of what most impacts retention and development. Interestingly, these training participants list many of the same impacts that we see being explored by researchers.
These three observations are important because I think they frame the initial problem very well – which is the apparent disconnect between the first point and the second two. As leaders and HR professionals we want talent management systems that build great workplaces but fewer of us are using what our experiences and researchers are telling us to make our systems more robust. Why is this?
The problem and the solution is systemic:
Let’s zoom out of the nitty gritty for a moment and look at the system from some distance. Taking a systems view of talent management is not new – heck, it is hard not to do. The notion of linking together efforts that improve retention and development is inherently systemic. But being systemic does not necessarily make for a robust system.
With a nod to Edward Lorenz and chaos theory, we know that starting points make a big difference to how a system behaves and evolves. Social systems have chaotic tendencies and are highly sensitive to preceding conditions and actions. Imagine the CEO who, during an otherwise amazing speech, inadvertently says something that offends one or more employees. Employees begin murmuring during the speech, continue in the days and hours afterward, the water-cooler chatter awaken seeds of discontent, and then crescendos with a full blown collapse of the workplace vibe and culture. His comment becomes the butterfly flap that causes a tsunami of doubt and disassociation.
How does this example relate to talent management? You’ve likely heard the saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” What if talent management - as a function and potential organizational contributor – is our hammer? How we start, on what we focus, and how we define the system launches our trajectories and defines the scope possibilities for that system. The way we define talent management creates the context from which we will find problems, solutions, and measure our success.
What are the intentions of talent management? Organizations create their own definitions, but most share two fundamental goals. They want to improve the odds that employees will stay rather than go (retention). And they want employees to grow and move forward, rather than fall backwards or out of relevancy (development and succession). The bottom line intention of most talent management systems, then, is to create the conditions that make employees want to stay and that help them grow.
If you Google talent management, attend conferences where talent management is discussed, read the latest books about talent management, and scan recent research about talent management systems, you will likely come to the following conclusion about how most talent management systems are defined. Talent management is a sub-set of the HR function. Each organization might choose a different mix of HR discipline that fit into their talent management system, but most include recruiting, onboarding, engagement, performance management, development, and succession. The talent management system, in most cases, is a sub-system of HR and is owned by the HR team.
Before I get metaphorically pelted with tomatoes from my HR colleagues, let me acknowledge that talent management is often a critical part of the overall strategic plan and therefore owned, overall, by the senior leadership team, not just HR. This broader ownership is often ceremonial at best because the system is designed and set up to be a part of HR.
But let’s get back to the original problem statement that our talent management systems may not serve our intentions. One of the greatest risks we run when using the HR sub-system approach to talent management is becoming process bound – the process limits or gets in the way of focusing and performance.
Design makes a difference: How does this happen? How are talent management systems designed? The design starts with a question. Which question we ask makes a difference.
- Instead of saying: “Our intent is to create the conditions that make employees want to stay and help them grow, so let’s bring together, measure, and improve the functions of HR that most directly impact retention and development.”
- Why wouldn’t we ask: “Our intent is to create the conditions that make employees want to stay and help them grow. What most impacts why our employees stay or go, and develop and grow? What would a system look like that focused on these impacts?”
Do you see the difference between these two approaches? If you only look within the world of HR (hammer), your solutions will all look like HR programs (nails).
To illustrate my point about how the talent management system should not be contained within the HR sub-system of functions, here is a partial list of potential impacts to retention and development. A scan of the recent research and our own experiences can tell us a lot about what most impacts whether employees stay or go, and develop and grow. Here is a smattering of examples (see the reference section for these sources):
Affects of change (Feldman, 2007)
Benefits (Feldman, 2007)
Coaching and feedback (Rivenbark, 2005)
Commitment to change (Cunningham, 2006)
Compensation (Walsh, 2007)
Contribution (Admundson, 2007)
Creativity (Mayfield, 2008)
Emotional Intelligence (Dries, 2007)
Employee well being (Wright, 2007)
Flexible work arrangements (Heilmann, 2010)
Formal and informal connections, linkages (Harman, 2007)
Human capital investment (the employee’s) (Feldman, 2007)
Individual identification (Ashforth, 2008)
Induction to the culture (Lee, 2010)
Industry growth (Fledmon, 2007)
Innovation (Admundson, 2007)
Job challenge (Walsh, 2007)
Job complexity (Tracey, 2008)
Job content (Tracey, 2008)
Job fit (Dawley, 2010)
Job fits with other aspects of life (Harman, 2007)
Job rotation (Heilmann, 2010)
Job satisfaction (Wright, 2007)
Job strain (Harris, 2008, McAdam, 2006)
Macroeconomic conditions (Feldmon, 2007)
Organization fit (Scroggins, 2007)
Organization identification (Ashforth, 2008)
Organizational visibility (Heilmann, 2010)
Personal fit and social capital (Lee, 2010)
Position power (Kelly, 1998)
Predictability of time demands (Feldman, 2007)
Professional respect (Harris, 2008)
Recognition (Admundson, 2007)
Recruitment process (Heilmann, 2010)
Relationships with customers (Borzaga, 2006, Ball, 2009))
Responsibility (Admundson, 2007)
Self-efficacy (Ballout, 2009)
Senior manager actions (Heilmann, 2010)
Social comparisons (Eddleston, 2009)
Social support (Feldman, 2007)
Socialization tactics (Allen, 2006, Lee, 2010)
Supervisor leadership skills (Heilmann, 2010)
Support from supervisors (Harris, 2008, Dawley, 2010)
Transfer of knowledge (Heilmann, 2010)
Trust in top leadership (Rivenbark, 2005)
Unexpected or shocking events (Harman, 2007)
Work load (Tracey, 2008)
Work-life alignment (Parkes, 2008)
Work-life balance (Feldman, 2007)
This is not an exhaustive list of potential impacts and we could add dozens more to it. If you scan the list you will see items that would be addressed by the HR sub-set model of talent management and many that would not. For example, some people leave their jobs because they don’t like working for their boss. We could conclude that this concern would be covered in the development bucket of talent management. The reason that our workplaces have bosses for whom people don’t like to work, however, is more likely a result of poor accountability standards and practices. There are companies with world-class training programs who have jerk managers working for them. And there are organizations with fewer bad bosses who rely less on formal training. Here’s another example. There have been several studies that linked organizational changes (coping or strain) to turnover tendencies and skills growth. Very few talent management systems incorporate organizational change systems and practices. A few other impacts that do not fall under the HR sub-set framework include workload, trust in leadership, socialization, creativity, challenge, and complexity.
The bottom-line: Factors that impact whether employees stay or go, and develop and grow include those currently addressed by HR sub-set models of talent management and many that these models do not take into account.
If you have read this far, you might be wondering:
- Can or should the talent management system consider all these diverse reasons why employees stay or go, and develop and grow?
- As long as someone, somewhere, in the organization is concerned with these impacts does the talent management system need to be all encompassing?
- And if you are an HR professional, you might be thinking: I can only own what I can impact and measure, right?
- What about individual differences? Don’t we all have our own list of reasons why we stay or go, develop and grow? In fact, our reasons change over our career, right?
These are the right questions to be asking and here is one more. Just because it’s more messy and complex to look at the whole system of potential impacts, should we adopt a narrow talent management model that might fail to cultivate the practices and environment that most engages our employees’ heart and minds?
Before I share the details of the Talent Management Cloud, here are a few underlying assumptions.
- Premise #1: The talent management system is bigger than we think and realize (and even if we define it narrowly, it is still a large system operating in the background).
- Premise #2: Each employee has a unique value proposition and the underlying assumptions and conditions change throughout their career (e.g. economy, industry, life stage, interests, past successes, opportunities, organization culture).
- Premise #3: Because the system is bigger than we might think and is ever changing, the greatest risk to our talent management systems is that they become too narrow and process bound.
- Premise #4: We can best design and improve the talent management system through emergence, not reductionism.
- Emergence: Patterns emerge, arise out of, many simple interconnected parts.
- Reductionism: We can explain and understand complex systems by looking at their parts.
- Premise #5: Although a broad, holistic model of talent management might seem harder to define and manage, using this approach will offer simpler ways to affect positive changes.
Solution: Instead of the HR sub-set model of talent management, here is a flexible and emergent design called the Talent Management Cloud.
The Talent Management Cloud
Definition: The term “cloud,” as used here, means a collection of particles.
The Talent Management Cloud (TMC) is an evolving repository of practices, beliefs or frames (all called “pieces”) that impact whether employees stay or go and how they develop and grow. The cloud is a place from which pieces are pulled into a picture and plan for improving talent management. Each piece includes several levels of information including a title phrase, description, definition of success, interdependencies (how one piece affects another) and cultivating habits. The TMC contains dozens of pieces.
Each piece tells a part of a story.
Here is a bit more about the overall idea.
TMC – Enterprise: On the enterprise or divisional level, the TMC is used to create rolling two-year talent management plans. Using employee survey data, pulse checks, HR data, organizational performance measures, manager input, employee feedback, and environmental scans, the senior team selects a small number of pieces that represent the practices, beliefs and frames that are most impacting why THEIR employees stay or go, develop and grow.
• They create strategic and operating plans to build on their strengths and reduce issues related to these pieces.
• Ownership is assigned to individual projects, measures, and initiatives, but the senior team retains overall ownership of the system and its performance.
• Training plans and talent assessments are aligned to support the selected pieces.
• The plan is updated at least yearly, and is a rolling plan for 2-3 years out. Pieces change as needed, but many will likely remain for several planning cycles.
• If supervisory leadership or support are seen as talent management barriers, a high priority should be put on solving this issue quickly because if employees don’t feel comfortable working for their managers, they will not likely stay and grow (all roads lead to Rome).
TMC – Individual: At least quarterly, individuals discuss their development plans with their managers. They go to the TMC and identify pieces that will best help them stay and grow, and any potential issues that might make them stall or go. This exploration gets turned into a rolling development plan.
How the Talent Management Cloud works:
Let’s dig a bit deeper now into how the TMC is set up and used and how it changes workplace practices and outcomes. Specifically:
- How to build the cloud and system.
- How it is used and who owns system elements.
- What it looks like in practice. How it changes leadership, management and human resources. What individuals experience as a result of the TMC.
- How it remains relevant.
Cloud Formations – Creating Your Cloud
Perfection is not the goal, here. The TMC can and should be continually tuned so that it is a good representation of the most important impacts that your employees are experiencing or considering regarding whether they stay or go, and develop or stagnate.
1. You likely already have a lot of the information you need to determine the pieces that make up your cloud. To start, ask the following questions:
- What are our employee engagement surveys telling us about what employees most value about the work environment and areas of dissatisfaction?
- What might our turnover patterns tell us about why employees leave?
- What reputation does our leadership and management team have in the organization? What are the indications or signs within the organization that might tell us this?
- What feedback have we received from employees that might tell us more about why they stay or go, and grow or stagnate?
- What’s going on in the environment (market, economy, region, professions, internal/external brand changes) that is affecting how people define career success?
- Here is what research is telling us about why employees stay or go, grow or stagnate. Which of these impacts would be near the top of the list for our organization? To assemble this information (you can start with my reference list), periodically review relevant publications (like the Journal of Management and Journal of Applied Social Psychology) and search under the “Scholar” Google tab, narrowing your search by year since publication (I use “since 2006”). Sage Publications is also a great place to search for recent studies (http://www.sagepub.com).
- Here are the reasons employees in other organizations rank their workplaces as best. Which of these conditions do we think our employees value and which do we provide? (Select information from national, regional, or industry specific “Best of” awards, here are a few links to get you started)
- Search “best places to work” then your city/industry
- Based on our responses to these questions what do we think belongs in the TMC? Create a top 10-15 list with some indication of whether each impact is currently a source of strength or concern. Here’s an example list:
- Rate of change – positive to a point, then negative, hard to cope
- Innovation – employees love being a part of creating something new
- Management relationships – currently a mixed bag
- Our market leadership – it is important to employees that we are considered world class
- Work load – this is a negative for many
- Culture embeddedness and fit – employees who feel like insiders do well, those that don’t, struggle
- Compensation – currently a mixed bag, some concerns about market competitiveness
- Technology – currently a source of frustration for many
- Opportunities for growth – a huge plus for many, but our career paths many not serve whole employee segments, not flexible enough
- Trust in and visibility with senior leadership – strength
Gather a small group of leaders together and ask these questions. You will know more than you realize and will find a lot of agreement. Notice any patterns that emerge from these discussions as they may be fundamental or underlying impacts related to several pieces (for example, strong relationships might be an undercurrent). This initial process can be roughed out in a 3-4 hour meeting if you send the questions and links out ahead of time. Remember, you do not need to quibble over the list yet as this is a first cut and you will fine tune the pieces in your TMC regularly.
2. Validate your initial list by sharing it with others and seeking feedback.
3. Build out the cloud. As I mentioned above, each piece within your cloud should be explained so that leaders, managers, human resources professionals, and employees know how to build and reinforce strengths, solve problems, and remove barriers. The TMC is not just a list of what most impacts retention and development, it offers a useful reference that will help you align practices and initiatives and improve your talent management system. For each piece within your draft TMC, describe:
- Title phrase - The 10-second elevator “what” statement.
- Behavioral description – What does it look or feel like from the employees’ perspectives?
- Definition of success – What is your goal relative to this impact that would either give you competitive edge or reduce/eliminate the negative impact it is having on retention and development?
- Interdependencies – What is the relationship between this impact and others? For example, innovation and change are very related. If people are struggling to cope with change but say they value innovation, you might want to understand what it is about change that is stressful or undesirable and the aspects of their daily work that enliven their ability to innovate.
- Cultivating habits – What are the habits and practices related to this impact that we should practice to build our strengths and remove barriers? For example, let’s consider the impact of management. Research shows (our experiences, too) that many of us stay or go because of how we feel about our managers. We know the habits that pull employees in (transparency, connection, likeability, removing barriers/advocacy, positive coaching, etc) and those that drive many away (micromanagement, poor communication, clashes in style, lack of support, etc).
The result of these initial steps is a cloud of well-articulated pieces that answers the questions, “What do we think most impacts retention and development success in this organization?” And, “How do these impacts show up?” A great tool! It might seem like a lot of work to create, but I am going to make the case for doing it.
- You need to do this for anything you want to see show up in your workplace. Posters on the wall and bound strategic plans reside on the surface. To go from ideas to practices and performance, you need to get to the level of defining and managing actions, beliefs, and interconnectedness.
- The conversations and work that leads up to this point will continue to help clarify and shape the cloud and build useable knowledge for how to improve your talent management system.
Once you have the cloud formed, it is time to use it to create a nimble talent management system.
Cloud to System – Creating your TMC System
The TMC is a repository that you will then use to strengthen your systems. You will throw your cloud into your implementation system to align your intentions with practices and measures. Your implementation system (or systemic engine) includes systemic elements like:
- Decision making practices.
- Roles and structures.
- Performance management.
- Management and leadership practices.
- Defacto processes.
- Communication channels (including the back channel).
- Measures and analysis.
- Change management.
When you want to turn intentions into performance, you will have it show up and be supported by many of these elements. For example, if management is a big impact listed in your cloud and is currently not a competitive strength, you might ask how roles, structures, performance management, communication, and other systemic elements might need to be realigned to best support the desired brand of management.
Let’s assume that talent management is a major strategy within your organization’s plan. To go from cloud to system, do the following:
- Share the contents of your cloud with a group of leaders.
- Describe the implementation system (see attached slides for a visual).
- Facilitate a design discussion where you look at how cloud elements show up in the implementation system and what ought to be realigned. As with your cloud formation exercise, look for patterns that emerge from or connect several systemic elements. For example, role designs affect many systemic elements like culture, decision practices, communication practices, structures, and measures. The way in which your systemic elements are defined and decided might also have emergent properties. I worked with a Fortune 50 company whose systemic elements rose from a tightly controlled and time-honored belief set (which became a systemic element in and of itself). Unfortunately, this same belief set was a barrier to retention and growth of younger professionals.
- Integrate cloud impacts into existing systems as appropriate. For example, how should the pieces in your cloud affect or change how you conduct your succession planning or talent assessment processes? How ought the cloud pieces affect how managers are hired, trained, and evaluated? How does your cloud pieces impact other strategies in your organizational plan?
- Select a focused list of opportunities, initiatives, or projects that have the greatest potential for improving retention and growth. Use good organizational alignment, change management, and project management skills to plan, implement, and measure these initiatives.
- Create a talent management dashboard. Select a few measures that will tell you the most about how you are doing improving the TMC system. For example, you might track:
- Change resilience.
- Managerial trust and reputation.
- Feelings of progress.
- Socialization or embeddedness.
- Job challenge.
Utilize your existing measurement practices where possible (for example, by adding a few questions to your employee engagement survey) or create new ways of defining and determining success. Resist the urge to select measures based on comfort or ease – measuring something harder to pin down like managerial reputation might be the most important assessment you make!
Cloud to System – Individual Development Planning
The TMC can be used to improve your individual development planning processes. Let’s again, compare two questions:
- Typical development planning questions include: What are your career goals and how do you want to grow over the next year? How can you improve your performance and contribution to the team?
- TMC addition: In addition to asking these questions, ask about their retention and growth impacts. What’s most important to you? How do you define career success and how would you like to build on your strengths and talents in the coming year? What changes would increase your satisfaction at work? What habits or new skills might support the contributions you want to make? What are the barriers that most frustrate you and what ideas do you have for how they might be eliminated or reduced?
If you added these questions to the individual development planning process and asked managers and employees to discuss and review then quarterly, imagine what could come from these discussions! In addition, the information from each individual could be rolled up to better inform and reshape the cloud.
Roles and Resources
The talent management system, whether you are using the TMC design or other, ought to be owned by the leadership team. If it remains within the HR department, the risk of the hammer/nail problem is too great.
To help make the creation and use of the TMC a success, you will need to have someone shepherding the process. Depending on your size and needs, this might be a full or partial appointment. I believe this person/people needs to report directly to the leadership team (or matrixed) regarding talent management work.
As objective as we might like to think HR professionals are, when it comes to talent management, it might be hard for them to represent the function with a healthy detachment (passion for the outcome, but detached from particular goals or outcomes). This is not a knock of HR (I consider myself HR), their roles are not designed to be objective or detached. For this reason, talent management team members should report to the senior leader team, as a matrixed individual/group. For practical purposes and as a way to test out this idea, you might try making one of your training and OD professionals a ½ time TMC facilitator, with a matrixed reporting structure back to the senior team.
The function of talent management is to:
- Populate and maintain the Talent Management Cloud.
- Stay current on best practices and pieces that ought to be added to the TMC.
- Facilitate senior leadership team planning and ownership processes related to talent management (guide the work I have just described above).
- Partner with functional or cross-functional teams to facilitate talent management initiatives (read facilitate, not own).
- Coach and mentor individuals and managers to help them create inspiring and effective development plans.
- Measure and report talent management system effectiveness. Be the keeper of the dashboard.
For organizations that currently have HR own the talent management system, you (HR) can make the case for changing the ownership dynamic by suggesting that a separate, but still connected by matrix, program facilitator would help ensure that the organization focus on the most important talent management work (because it WILL cut across many functions, not just HR). Like having checks and balances in accounting and safety operations, having someone answer to the leadership team on the whole system will make it more robust and responsive.
The Vision – What’s on the Horizon When You Use the TMC?
Imagine what it will feel like to create and use the Talent Management Cloud. First, you will be uncovering and discussing what’s really impacting retention and growth. For leaders and HR professionals, these discussions will feel relevant and useful. And when you make decisions about the changes that you will make to better align the TCM system, it will feel satisfying because these changes will likely make a difference.
For employees, living among the TMC should feel connecting. HR sub-set talent management systems often lack alignment and employees don’t feel as though the efforts relate to those things that they care about. And because the system acknowledges that individual priorities and needs change throughout their career, individuals will have an opportunity to be more proactive in their efforts to succeed in their current organization.
The strength of the Talent Management Cloud is that it can be easily maintained to represent the most important impacts to retention and employee growth and succession. Talent management systems should help you retain and grow talent. The practices and strategies that will best support this goal change, and so too should your system.
To quote the legendary Edgar Schein from his book Organizational Psychology, “Man is not only complex, but also highly variable; he has many motives which are arranged in some sort of hierarchy of importance to him, but this hierarchy is subject to change from time to time and situation to situation; furthermore, motives interact and combine into complex motive patterns.” Schein goes on to say that, “As empirical evidence mounts, it is becoming apparent that the frame of reference and value system which will help the manager most in utilizing people effectively is that of science and systems theory.”
The Talent Management Cloud is an emergent systemic approach to building workplaces where employees want to stay and grow. It is a highly imperfect and varying system that has the potential to revolutionize your ability to retain and develop talent.
The TMC system addresses the needs of the whole organization while acknowledging that what individuals value, and what they seek and need from their work changes throughout their career.
To create buy in: Start collecting and considering information about what is most impacting why employees stay or go, and develop or grow in your organization.
To try it out: Put together a rough initial collection of pieces in your Talent Management Cloud. Make the initial selection of the pieces that will most impact whether people stay or go, develop or grow. Create and launch a pilot plan focused on these pieces (no fanfare about a "new" talent management system needed).
Catalyze a great conversation! Share the aspects of this idea that you think might be most helpful in your workplace.
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