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Talent Development as a Catalyst

The new world of work and business requires a new approach to talent development. It means that we need to position learning at the centre of talent development.   In fact, talent development can be a powerful mechanism for innovation, business and socio-economic transformation. Conversely, a lack of talent development, or incorrect learning can be a major obstacle to innovation.

Given skills gaps in many sectors, and the South African economy at large, companies cannot afford to continue with outdated approaches to learning.  Furthermore, even if companies use learning effectively to drive profits, business performance may not be sustainable if the profit motive is the sole reason for learning. Talent development should become a national priority.  Thus, companies should consider the impact of talent development beyond their own self-interest, and focus on their whole industry and society at large. Hence, talent development can play a major role in socio-economic transformation.

Notwithstanding the lack of national approaches to talent development, pockets of excellence have emerged in several sectors of our economy.  Our financial and auditing sectors are world leaders.  They have managed to excel despite our dismal track record in mathematics as the foundation of these professions. Adult learning and proper talent development are key imperatives for driving innovation.

The reality is that learning takes place against the backdrop of the current socio-economic realities:

  • Increased levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment and under-employment;
  • High levels of corruption, fraud, unethical behaviour and poor governance;
  • Education and skills crisis impeding economic growth;
  • An exodus of professionals to Western and Middle-Eastern countries; and
  • Ineffective immigration regulations in many countries.

The need for change is intensified on a daily basis, so much so that many managers and talent management professionals are lagging behind. The workplace is different, technological development has accelerated, and even high level university programmes such as engineering become obsolete within a year or two after students have graduated.  Hence, the need for a stronger focus on innovation.

Whilst production and R&D departments are leaders in innovation, the question is to what extent does talent managers support innovation, or are we simply adapting after innovation has occurred. Talent development also needs to be more proactive in fostering creativity and innovation in organisations. Moreover, they need to play a pivotal role in institutionalising imagination as a corporate competence.

However, sometimes good intentions are eroded by new shortened strategic planning life cycles. In the past, business could plan for 10 years, then it came down to 5 years, and now it is almost impossible to plan beyond 18 to 24 months.  This shortened planning cycle requires a different mindset and different talent management professionals, who can enable their business to become more resilient and quicker implementers of innovation.  As Fast Company Magazine asserts: “How can you strategise for the future, when you can’t see beyond 18 months?”   The alternative to strategising is to take change as it comes and only deal with contingencies.

A group of talent management professionals recently brainstormed the following obstacles to learning at their organisations:

  • A lack of management buy-in to let people go to training;
  • Learning not linked to business strategy;
  • A poor learning culture;
  • A lack of skills transfer from the training room to the workplace (only 10-15%);
  • Inconsistencies in learning approaches and methodologies;
  • Gaps in learning priorities and professionalism; and an
  • Inability to demonstrate the business impact of learning.

The majority of participants admitted that talent development does not focus enough on innovation. Having said that, the key challenge to position talent development and learning as a catalyst for innovation remains to align learning to business objectives. There are three imperatives in this regard:

  • Demonstrating learning’s impact on strategy;
  • Identifying, defining and implementing strategy;
  • Getting executive-level buy-in.

The problem, however, is that learning staff spend only 20% of their time on aligning learning to business objectives (Chief Learning Officer magazine). In essence, the corporate learning landscape is characterised by a gap between strategy, process, culture, systems and learning interventions.
An organisation’s strategic framework sets the scene for talent development.  The business and talent development strategy should be clear and aligned. Next, all processes should be visible.  A learning culture is needed to optimise talent development, and you need good systems to drive and support learning, Lastly, all your talent development interventions should directly support the learning strategy.

Let me outline some practical guidelines for innovative talent development:

  • Unlearn or reconsider past theories and models;
  • A paradigm shift is needed from business partner to seeing the broader society;
  • Focus on innovation as new ways of thinking about learning and development;
  • Create flexibility in dealing with change;
  • Reconsider criteria for learning achievement;
  • Building a new learning culture based on innovation; and
  • Involve talent managers in business innovation

To conclude, we need to change our approach to learning if we want to position talent development as a catalyst for change and innovation. Getting the alignment and integration right between strategy, process, systems, culture and interventions remains a key challenge for talent managers.  Talent development must be aligned to business strategy and make a contribution to socio-economic transformation.  This imperative is of utmost importance in developing nations such as South Africa, but also in other emerging markets. Ultimately, we need a higher level of talent management professionalism to achieve this goal..

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