Baby dressed in professional office attire crying at her deskWe understand your frustration–your talent management system has an identity crisis…

Many businesses have identified the ‘talent management system’ as a way to improve their bottom line. This is sound reasoning; typically based on evidence from predictive research studies using high quality tools in an aligned system. However, ‘talent management systems’ are facing an identity crisis. Few have any connection to the research that defines their value to business outcomes.

The typical large scale talent management system purchased today lacks any predictive quality; instead, it will provide an ineffective ignorant technology solution that focuses on processes rather than outcomes. It lacks the research-based content, metrics, predictive models and user reports necessary to provide value—rather than pure costs—to employers. Along with a lack of quality, system flexibility has suffered as a function of the increasing size of systems and business mergers of cross-functional providers, to the point that talent management needs are increasingly usurped by accounting system decisions.

Users of large systems also face soaring costs of setup, licenses, training, and the ever present “embedded consultant” whose primary mission is to sell more services to the employer. And, perhaps the most pressing issues for users today are data breaches enabled by the inherent security limitations of large systems designed to store massive amounts of user data at the highest profit margin possible for the platform provider.

These issues undermine the utility of talent management systems and are the result of an identity crisis. By considering what is core to effective talent management and what is peripheral, perhaps we will begin to re-establish the identity and value of the systems.

The Core of Talent Management

Talent management programs have undergone major disruptions of processes over the past 20 years through the application of new technologies, globalization of work, and economic uncertainties; however, their core functionality is as stable as it was in 1912 when Dr. Hugo Münsterberg, father of work psychology in the US, wrote that there are four fundamentals to address when improving the efficiency of work:

  1. The Job: Describing the important aspects of a job in a standardized manner.
  2. The Person: Identifying the personal characteristics of workers who are successful in a job and using these characteristics to fit workers to jobs where they have the highest potential for success.
  3. Performance of a person in a job: Measuring, directing and developing the performance of a worker in a job.
  4. The setting in which the job and the person co-occur: Creating an organizational culture for success.

Today, these four fundamentals are codified by the EEOC in the Uniform Guidelines (1979) as: a) job analysis, b) selection testing, c) performance appraisal, and, d) the work environment. Given the number of disruptions that have occurred over the past 100 years in most areas of our lives, it is both reassuring and useful that these four basics continue to define work.

This fact is reassuring, because continuity in how we define the productive areas of our lives is important for sustaining mental health and our basic social fabric. It is useful, because it gives projects a stable structure for program evaluation and improvement based on jobs, people, performance and setting—regardless of technology or format.

The structure of work is analogous to the structure of a bridge spanning a river. Regardless of the type of flooring, railings, or other options that make bridges appear unique; the basic structures all follow the principles of engineering that make a bridge a stable platform tied to solid ground. Evaluation and improvement of bridges, like talent management programs, can therefore depend on solid structures that have not changed, nor do we anticipate their future change, rather than on changing, unpredictable features.

Core versus Periphery Structure

Over the past 20 years, our research teams have depended on the stable structure of work as we evaluated over 200 talent management systems from a variety of organizations. During this time, the core of talent management remained stable, that is, there was no ground breaking research that revised the relationships between jobs, people, and performance; however, peripheral elements changed at a dramatic rate. Changes in assessment modalities, rating formats, rater characteristics, management by objectives, cascading goals, SMART goals, 360 feedback, competency ratings, informal feedback and a plethora of new technology options all occurred in the past 20 years. In the case of rating formats, so many changes have been suggested and explored that leading researchers called for a moratorium.

These peripheral changes have caused confusion for talent management users. Primarily, the changes distracted users from focusing on the core structure of work. Many of the changes were well intentioned, but misguided by professionals working outside their realm of expertise. They did not know, or perhaps care, about the importance of core structure integrity to the successful development, use and evaluation of talent management systems. Successful marketing by talent management vendors of “new” approaches compounded the problem of improving the system while maintaining the core.

As we have evaluated talent management systems over the past few years, the issues described above became apparent. Our team used empirical research results from across users and settings to identify approaches that would provide the best talent management systems possible by maintaining and enhancing the core structure with research based, value added solutions.

For example, we found that social networking is more than window dressing; it is technology that enhances the quality of the talent management process and outcomes while maintaining core structure for rational reasons, (e.g., timely and consistent feedback, personal accountability, transparency, rich media, integrated LMS, access to mentors). Likewise, providing users access to online interactive reporting has little impact on core structure, but it has direct effects on interpretation and use of feedback by system users. Overall, we found that the core structure of talent management systems could be maintained while adding enhancements that:

  • increased user trust in the system,
  • increased access and usability,
  • increased employee engagement,
  • improved talent management conversations,
  • improved documentation, and most importantly,
  • improved workforce performance.

These improvements can be made to enhance the core of any talent management system.

Impact of Values on Talent Management Systems

Using my bridge analogy–in addition to the structure and of equal importance to quality, the purpose of a bridge is based on the values of the stakeholders. Some bridges are built to enhance community and commerce; others are built to support wars. All bridges may share a common structure, but each reflects the values of the builders.

The same can be said of talent management systems. Each system reflects the values of the builders. Some are intended to benefit the lives of employees, others are intended to benefit the earnings of shareholders, and some are designed to impact outcomes external to the organization. Regardless, research and experience tell us that effective talent management systems are pinned to the values of the organization. We believe that the best approach to a talent management system will be provided by a partner who fully understands the core structure of a successful program and shares the mission, vision and values of the organization. This is not a common situation in the market place, but if it were, there would be less of an identify crisis for talent management systems.