OK, so we know that either inherently, or as practised, or both, pretty much everything HR has relied upon for managing talent in recent decades turns out to be ineffective, misleading and in some cases, damaging. We also know about the sunk cost trap in decision-making – sticking with something that doesn’t work, because you have already invested so much into it, financially and emotionally. So should we simply junk all the performance appraisal systems, competency frameworks, nine box (or 16 box) grids and other paraphernalia HR has accumulated?

That, I suggest, is once more the wrong answer to the wrong question. The right question is: How can we use some or most of this stuff to create the kind of developmental dialogues that create a dynamic, self-driven talent wave effect? And the right answer is to be critically creative in how we adapt and adopt processes for talent and performance management.

Take performance appraisals, for example. A new book by Australian Tim Baker does a pretty thorough demolition job on the basic assumptions and practice of the yearly appraisal. In its place, he proposes a series of five conversations, spread out across the year, each one looking at a different contextual factor affecting performance. These are the work climate (including team morale and job satisfaction), the individual’s strengths and talents, opportunities for growth, learning and development planning, and innovation and continuous improvement (how the employee and the manager can work towards improving efficiency and effectiveness of the business). Baker is not proposing getting rid of performance feedback – he is simply trying to create an environment where it can be more continuous, more honest, and more recognizant of contributory factors (such as the boss himself or herself) and still retain an element of pragmatic structure.

Similarly, while the nine-box grid is near to valueless as a means of making decisions about people’s promotability, the basic elements can be used to stimulate constructive developmental and career dialogue. The keys to using it effectively are that:

  • The employee is involved actively in the process
  • They select, in consultation with their boss, whose 360 feedback they would value
  • They are helped to establish where on the matrix others see them
  • There are no boxes  — just arrows from where they are perceived to be now, to where they want to be. (It can be helpful for the thickness of the arrows to indicate relevant commitment to these transitions as developmental goals.)
  • The conversation is not about where they are but about the journey they want to undertake

The impact here is to turn a secretive, judgemental instrument into an open developmental one.

So what can HR do to replace the grid as a means of identifying talent? Again, wrong question! A better question is what can HR do to help talent identify itself? And here there are lots and lots of practical solutions, including, shadow boards, wider use of project teams , encouraging contributions to intranet dialogues aimed at resolving difficult business issues, creating internal Facebook-like personal sites on the corporate intranet, and practical support to help employees better understand and link who they are and what they value with what they want to achieve in their careers.

And what about competency frameworks? As practised, they reduce the reservoir of talent, undermine diversity and focus attention on the past rather than the future. The relevant question here is not What generic competencies can we identify and try to measure?  Answering that question leads to the misguided belief that the information provides a sound basis for making judgements about readiness for promotion. It is How can we capture the evolving competencies required for each key job role in a way that will facilitate people in developing their potential?  This recognises that what’s required in many of the most critical job roles will not be the same in the medium term and it creates the opportunity to involve the employee in the analysis of “what good looks like now and tomorrow” – making the competency framework both relevant to them and owned by them. If judgements are needed about readiness for promotion, then these can more accurately be made by observing learning in the role, against the background of an integrated personal development plan and business development plan. In short, the competency approach can be made to wok by ensuring it becomes personal, flexible and something done with the employee, rather than to them.

One of the benefits of reassessing the role of “HR bling” is that it frees up HR time to do more important things. In one public sector organization, recently, for example, we discussed the role of diversity measures – in particular, what was changing in the proportion of women and men at each level of the hierarchy. Here the cathartic question was: How does this data actually help you bring about change? It didn’t – it simply told them whether the problem was getting better or worse. A better approach was to identify and measure significant enablers of change. For example, if top management identified quarterly the project teams that had most potential for reputation building, it was quite simple to measure the proportion of men and women in these teams, and the proportion that were led by women. This was data that could more readily lead to direct, positive intervention at the point where decisions were made about project team composition.

So, no, it’s not essential to throw away everything and start again. But it is important to re-examine talent management processes and work out what genuinely does and doesn’t add value. Some useful questions to that end include:

  • What do we really need to control and what would be better to enable?
  • What information do we really need, to release people’s potential?
  • What can HR do to enable talented people take greater charge of their careers, to recognise opportunities and to seize them?
  • If we think a process works, how do we assess the robust of the evidence? (Or are we only seeing the evidence we want to?)
  • And, most important of all: Are we asking the right questions?


© David Clutterbuck, 2013

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