Total Talent Management: Chimera or Change? — Beeline Conference 2016 Dispatch

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The Beeline Conference included a session on total talent management (TTM), a much talked about topic these days. Given the topicality and allure of the concept to many in the contingent workforce management space, having such a session is a no-brainer (and it was a great session with lots of guided interaction aimed at determining what people thought about TTM).    

Now, full disclosure: I am not a TTM-denier--I’m more of TTM-skeptic. Though I came to the session with a bit of a bias and perhaps an air of cynicism, I was far from a final judgment, as I found my self asking: If TTM did exist, what might it actually be like?

So What Happened?

First came a lively discussion of philosophical proportions about whether machines (robots, drones, artificial intelligence) should be considered within the scope of TTM. Should they? There was a divergence of opinions, the Nays and Yays. (I was among the Yays).  

On the one hand, some folks argued that when we talk about talent, we are only talking about human beings (not AI-based Jeopardy contestants or wicked smart learning algorithms). One practitioner, who later seemed to manifest as a TTM denier, referred to this as the “humanistic viewpoint.”

Other folks took a different perspective. Aren’t we really just talking about an organization’s needs to get work done to ultimately satisfy customers and contribute to the bottom line? Don’t automatons get lots of work done for us and will do much more going forward?

So where do we draw the line? Perhaps the term “talent” is too restrictive and needs to be expanded to “capabilities and services” (whether of human beings or machines). But then we’re no longer talking Total “Talent” Management. Or are we?

The next part of the discussion focused on how organizations are or should be tackling TTM (whatever it might be) in order to make it happen in their businesses. This question led to some very interesting practitioner responses — some speculative, some based on more concrete analysis and thinking about the matter. The responses that were of most interest to me were of the more analytical variety coming from some practitioners who had been thinking about this in their organizations.

What these people were saying was that TTM made more sense if we thought about it within the context of specific functions within an organization versus some kind of epic total enterprise aspiration.  In other words, “local,” specific functions with budgets within the organization (e.g., marketing, IT, etc.) may also be the situs of TTM, where it could develop organically over time, with technology and processes following to support what the functional organizations figure out.  In fact, many functional organizations (marketing is a good example) are already very good total talent managers. One of the practitioners said that the next step is really providing better, more relevant and normalized data to functions pursuing their mini-TTMs.

What Came Next?

When it was all over, I first walked away in a confused, perplexed state. But shortly thereafter I realized I had gained some new insights about TTM.

First, I realized that the present name and concept of TTM doesn’t really matter. Like many things that take time to unfold, what often emerges is very different from the idea we may initially form. A good example, for those that recall: Back in the ‘80s, we started using the term “mobile phone” to refer to a particular unidimensional device. When digital cellular arrived, in the early ‘90s, some providers started to envision what they called “personal communication devices” (essentially, a device that could be used for voice communications anywhere because of a network of microsites). Fast-forward to today and the world of smartphones with internet, apps, cameras, music dispensers, GPS, CPUs and storage. The earlier concepts have been blown to bits. Correspondingly, when we try to think about TTM now, we assume that everything will remain the same 10–20 years from now. But that will definitely not be the case. The whole concept is going to change.

Today, we tend to assume that TTM is going to be an epic shift that occurs across an entire enterprise.  Systems will be changed and integrated, different processes and data will arise, HR and procurement will figure out how to merge and coexist. But what if it doesn’t happen that like? What if it happens in exactly the opposite way — that is achieved first by functional organizations across the enterprise that are followed by new supporting technology and processes, similar to how spreadsheets or electronic publishing did? In effect, what if the “whatever” emerges bottom-up, not top-down?

Now, when we talk about and try to understand TTM — something we all agree is a long-term phenomenon — we may have it all wrong (that is, if we can get wrong something that is so elusive and uncertain). We really need to step back and think about how much things will change in the next 10 years and what may come of this current concept that may — will — be obsolete.

Accordingly, we should be self-critical about our assumptions, which may be biased toward a "big program, managed-change" point of view that says: “Let’s figure it out and design and implement changes in technology and processes that will advance the whole enterprise organization into the TTM promised land.” As we explained above, this does not have to happen this way, and I suspect it won’t.

Finally, what about me? What do I think now? Well, I am still a TTM-skeptic and may have moved even closer to being an TTM-denier. At the same time, by picking apart the current concept of TTM, I am able to consider the open possibilities for what lies ahead — I’ve kind of transcended TTM, though it's nowhere near nirvana. I am at peace with this outcome, and I hope that others will make it here too.

Please follow Andrew Karpie on Twitter @andrewkarpie. Read more of our contingent workforce and services procurement coverage.

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