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Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (2012) 50, 421–438

doi:10.1111/j.1744-7941.2012.00037.x

Do you see what I see? The role of technology in talent identification Sharna Wiblen University of Sydney Business School, Australia Kristine Dery University of Sydney Business School, Australia David Grant University of Sydney Business School, Australia

This paper applies a social constructivist lens to understand more about the ways in which technology shapes our understanding of talent management, in particular the processes of talent identification. Specifically, it examines similarities and differences in the identification of talent across a range of business units at a large professional services firm. The findings show that while objective evaluations of talent based on data and information were possible using talent-related technology, managers had subjective and widely different understandings of what constituted talent at the organisation and how to go about identifying it. These different understandings, based on organisational context, personal attitudes, behaviours and past experiences, determined the ways in which the technology and the information it yielded was used. We conclude that the full potential of the talent-related technology and the talent identification processes were unrealised. We discuss the implications of these findings for HR and the management of talent more generally. Keywords: human resources, information technology, social construction of technology, talent identification, talent management

Key points 1 A critical challenge for management is to create practices that support the identification of talent in ways that achieve the best possible outcomes for the organisation. 2 Depending on organisational context and the technological acumen of the manager, the use of technology to provide access to accurate data, metrics and analytical tools varies widely in the identification of talent. 3 Talent analytics, metrics and technology are capabilities that HR practitioners need to develop in order to enhance their strategic contribution to the organisation.

The ‘war for talent’, talent shortages and changes in other demographic patterns has encouraged organisations to take a more strategic approach to the management of talent. Indeed, Correspondence: Ms Sharna Wiblen, Research Associate, Work and Organisational Studies, University of Sydney Business School, Room 203, Institute Building H03, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; e-mail: [email protected] Accepted for publication 6 February 2012. © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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the importance now attached to managing talent is underscored by the results of a recent survey of executives from 109 different countries published by the Boston Consulting Group and the World Federation of People Management Associations. The study found that identifying, attracting, and retaining talent is now considered to be the most significant challenge for HR (Strack et al. 2010, 4). In order to effectively manage talent, management first needs to be able to identify the skills and personal characteristics that are valued in the context of their organisation and industry. There is, however, a scarcity of research investigating the ways in which organisations go about achieving this which is somewhat surprising given that talent management is identified by HR professionals as being critical to organisational performance and one of their major challenges. Furthermore, even though there have been significant developments in HR technology that suggest that there are new ways ‘to organise a firm’s entire HR function’ (Laumer, Eckhardt and Weitzel 2010, 241), the implications of these new technologies for talent management have received little attention. In this paper we explore the role that technology plays in one aspect of talent management: talent identification. In doing so, we address two key research questions. First, we seek to understand how organisations identify talent and, second, we explore the role of technology in the talent identification process. The opening section of the paper reviews the emerging talent management literature with a specific focus on technology and talent identification. Next we outline our research design and method of analysis. In the following section we draw on data from interviews with 42 managers from a large Australian professional services firm in order to show how the organisation goes about identifying talent and the role of technology in this process. We analyse the data using a social constructivist lens and find that this process is not as analytical and scientific as the capabilities of the technology might imply. Rather, management’s use of the technology and their interpretation of the information it provides is shown to be influenced by subjective human judgments about what constitutes talent and how it can be identified. We conclude with a discussion of these findings and their implications for HR and the management of talent. The importance of talent and talent management The use of the term ‘talent management’ gained momentum and popularity in the late 1990s at a time when significant changes were taking place in labour market conditions. These changes were highlighted in a McKinsey & Co. 1998 study (Chambers et al. 1998) that drew widespread attention to the rising demand for talent-intensive skills and suggested that it was already outpacing supply in several industries and markets. At the same time, scholars such as Stahl et al. (2007) were arguing that in response to this change ‘talent management’ was, by the late 1990s, synonymous with human capital management and suggested it should inform and influence organisational strategy. Gaining insights into the current and future challenges of the HR profession, a survey of more than 5500 executives from 109 countries found that ‘most industries and countries 422

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will experience a widening talent gap, notably for high skilled positions and for the next generation of middle and senior leaders’ (Strack et al. 2010, 4). Further examination of these results, by country, found that ‘managing talent’ was ranked by the vast majority as important (Strack et al. 2010, 9). Despite the prevalence of such discourses, national responses to recent economic events have differed. In contrast to other parts of the world which sought to downsize their investments in human resources in response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the salience of the war for talent in Australia has shown no sign of abating. Reports examining Australia’s national talent context (see Hays 2011; Wilson 2010) predict that skills shortages, at all organisational levels, will continue to challenge management such that ‘the ability to overcome skills shortages and secure top talent will be critical to business success’ (Hays 2011, 2). Overall, the ability for Australian organisations to identify their ‘best people’ or ‘talent’ thus continues to be a significant challenge and the processes and tools deployed are fervently debated. Although the term ‘talent’ is used frequently, our knowledge and understanding of what it means to individuals and organisations is limited. Collings and Mellahi believe that ‘the topic of talent management remains underdeveloped’ (2009, 304). Lewis and Heckman have observed that ‘a review of the literature focused on talent management reveals a disturbing lack of clarity regarding the definition, scope and overall goals of talent management’ (2006, 139). A further study by McDonnell et al. (2010) confirms this multiplicity of views about what constitutes talent within organisations. In an attempt to provide some clarity around what constitutes talent management we propose the following three conceptual categories. The first recognises individuals as talent and involves the identification of individuals who are believed to be high performers (see Blass 2007; CIPD 2008; Snell 2008). Beechler and Woodward found that this was the preferred approach to identifying talent at the majority of organisations participating in their study. These organisations sought to identify ‘stars’ or their top 10–20% of performers, leading them to describe their overall approach to talent management as displaying an ‘obsessive and exclusive top talent focus’ (2009, 283). The second category views talent in terms of particular skills and capabilities identified and evaluated by the organisation as being critical to their operations and strategic direction. This category can include individuals and cohorts of employees such as knowledge workers, professional services staff and/ or technical experts (April and Jappie 2008; Blass 2007; CIPD 2006b; Lah 2009) who are seen to possess attributes and skills considered valuable for the organisation and hard to replace (CIPD 2006b). The third category considers talent in the form of particular functions, or as Boudreau refers to them, ‘pivotal roles’ (Boudreau 2003, 21). This category involves the identification of resources and roles that are deemed critical to the strategic success of the organisation. To identify such functions, organisations need to undertake systematic analysis of their business (Wiblen, Grant and Dery 2010). In sum, organisations and their HR functions need to be aware of what individuals, skills and capabilities or roles they consider talent in order to then undertake talent identification. The drive to manage talent more effectively has been accompanied by an increased emphasis on talent metrics as advocated by Boudreau and Ramstad (see 2005a, 2005b). This © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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has fuelled the call for talent identification practices to be consistent (Busine and Watt 2005) and to involve multiple sponsors (not just HR practitioners) at all levels of the organisation – from the CEO to line management (Beechler and Woodward 2009; Stahl et al. 2007). Iles, Chuai and Preece (2010) and Stainton (2005) posit that all individuals should go through the same talent identification process. Supporting practitioner views suggest that the future of talent management will rest upon the extent to which it is based upon clear criteria, processes and procedures, robust and focused metrics, coupled with hard conversations (Wilson 2010). Furthermore, Collings and Mellahi, in an effort to define and enhance the theoretical underpinnings of strategic talent management, suggest that the critical foundation for a strategic talent management system is the ‘systematic identification’ of key positions within an organisation (2009, 304). These researchers propose that only through the systematic identification and subsequent management of talent will organisations be able to achieve improved performance and sustained competitive advantage. Despite the positive discourses promoted by talent management advocates, it is important to acknowledge the concerns of others regarding exclusive driven approaches to talent identification and management. For example, Gladwell is highly critical of ‘differentiated and affirmation’ (2002, 29) approaches to talent identification where employees are divided into hierarchical categories (such as A, B and C employees) and rewarded accordingly. Others believe that the application of the word ‘talent’, as well as exclusion from talent pools, may be demotivating for those employees who are not selected to take part in talent management programs (CIPD 2006b). An exclusive focus on high potentials and top performers can also damage the morale of the rest of the organisation, cause resentment among peers (Blass and April 2008; Patel 2002) and, as a consequence, harm its overall performance (Guthridge, Komm and Lawson 2008) or potentially lead to its eventual demise (Gladwell 2002). Furthermore, and aside from McDonnell et al.’s (2010) observation that organisations identify and develop talent via informal and ad hoc means rather than through the systematic and consistent application of any policy or procedures, we still know very little about the ways in which organisations define and identify talent (Iles, Chuai and Preece 2010). Talent management and technology The array of technology available to organisations and their HR functions continues to expand and advance in sophistication (Davenport, Harris and Shapiro 2010; Snell 2008), leading to those such as Frank and Taylor arguing that: ‘as technology infiltrates nearly every facet of the workplace, implications for talent management may be profound’ (2004, 39). Bassi and McMurrer share similar views and argue that through the use of human capital tools, organisations and HR can ‘start gauging how well people are managed and developed throughout an organisation’ (2007, 2). They advise organisations to use technology to facilitate the management of employees like other more traditional financial and physical assets because ‘manag[ing] human capital by instinct and intuition becomes not only inadequate but reckless’ (2007, 9). More recent research focusing on talent management and technology has found that HR cannot continue to ‘confine employee data to its silo’ 424

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(Davenport, Harris and Shapiro 2010, 57) but rather enterprise systems are required to gather, analyse and distribute talent metrics throughout the organisation for widespread use by management. Davenport et al. describe technology as critical to mastering talent metrics and summarise the functionality required with the acronym Delta: ‘access to high quality data, enterprise orientation, analytical leadership, strategic targets, and analysts’ (2010, 57). In sum, a number of compelling reasons as to why organisations should use technology in talent identification have been identified. These include the capacity of technology to: • identify talent in a consistent manner across the organisation (Stahl et al. 2007); • identify employees that organisations want to develop and retain (Lah 2009); • forecast supply and demand for current and future talent pools (Hewitt’s Human Capital Consulting and Human Capital Institute 2008); • establish a unified and accessible talent database (Snell 2008); • improve decision-making (Lengnick-Hall and Moritz 2003) by providing and producing information that can establish linkages between human capital assets and the performance of the business; • produce dynamic, real-time metrics, analytics and data about an organisation’s human capital assets and hence ‘talent’ (Williams 2009). Despite considerable growth in the availability and perceived use of technology there is still very little research that examines the role that technology plays in talent management and more specifically talent identification. Although several studies and articles address this phenomenon indirectly (see CIPD 2005, 2006a; Wolfe, Wright and Smart 2006), such research tends to discuss the role and importance of HR technology more generally and comprises largely quantitative studies. While these studies are able to highlight trends and quantify the number of organisations that may use technology for talent management, they provide little explanation or understandings around how the systems are being used in organisations and the role that they play in talent identification. A number of different forms of technology can be used to assist in the management of talent and these are referred to in a number of ways including: electronic human resource management (e-HRM), human resource information systems (HRIS) (see Wiblen, Grant and Dery 2010; Williams 2009), enterprise resource planning systems (ERP), information systems and social media. Acknowledging that organisations might choose to use one or a combination of these for the purposes of talent identification, our study refers to HR technologies in a generic sense focusing on technological capabilities rather than specific systems. We believe that this approach is appropriate given the currently limited understanding of the value of technology to talent management. Research design and data analysis We adopted a social constructivist approach to the design of our study, drawing in particular on the social construction of technology (SCOT) literature in order to help us better analyse and interpret our empirical data. Such an approach was highly appropriate given the range of © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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perspectives about what constitutes talent, the complexity of approaches to talent identification and the need to understand how key actors interact with technology in the context of talent identification. Furthermore, the SCOT approach was found to be especially helpful in that it challenges the idea that technologies and technological artefacts have a pre-given and fixed meaning. Therefore the opinions of interviewees can only be understood in the context of individuals and groups comprehending, interpreting, using and engaging with the technologies (Dery, Hall and Wailes 2006), while also being mindful of the organisational, industry or national context (Martin 2009). In this respect it is important not only to gather the views and experiences of employees at any organisation that is the subject of a study, but also to observe and gather material that provides further insights into the behaviours and beliefs of the organisation itself. Thus, our research design reflects the need to gather and observe a wide range of publicly available material and artefacts during the research process so as to provide a deeper understanding of organisational context. We undertook an exploratory case study of a professional services firm (hereon referred to as PSF) which centred around two research questions: Research question 1: How does the organisation (PSF) identify talent? Research question 2: What role does technology play in the talent identification process? A case study approach is well suited to the study of complex organisational processes and practices (Allan and Skinner 1991; Berg 2009; Hartley 2000) and was thus considered appropriate for a study of talent identification where processes were likely to be complex, involve multiple actors and be highly influenced by organisational context. Specifically, it enabled us to systematically gather a wide range of data which was important to understanding how talent identification occurred at PSF. We selected a professional services firm for several reasons. First, we believed that knowledge-intensive organisations, where the capabilities of employees are critical to its success, would be committed to the identification and management of talent. Second, the knowledge economy is predicted to increase in importance (Wilson 2010) and, as such, there is an ongoing commitment to talent management in the professional services industry. Third, knowledge-based professional services firms are more inclined to be intensive internet and technology users (McDonnell et al. 2010) and thus are more likely to use technology for talent identification. Fourth, we share the assumptions of McDonnell et al. (2010) that knowledge-intensive organisations, such as professional services firms, are potentially more likely to have formalised talent management practices. In order to familiarise ourselves with PSF and enhance our understanding of its approach to the identification of talent, we obtained secondary data from a range of sources. These included internal reports, internal and external presentations, company websites, and media commentary. Our primary data comprised 42 semi-structured interviews with managers who were identified as playing a role in the identification of talent. The first round of interviews was conducted with members of the HR function. Given the 426

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emergent nature of our research, additional interviewees were then selected as a consequence of reviewing our initial insights and on the basis of their involvement in the management and identification of talent. Our interviewee selection approach led us to also interview non-HR managers including business unit managers and senior executives. The majority of those interviewed were from the HR function (30 out of 42) and it became apparent that HR managers played an important role in talent identification. Interviewees were first asked to reflect upon what they thought constituted talent and the organisation’s management of talent more generally. Then, drawing on their personal experiences, they were asked to provide insights into the process of talent identification within their business unit or PSF. If interviewees did not discuss talent identification voluntarily, additional probing questions were asked. Interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes and were conducted over a two-year period (July 2009–11). This interview data was then transcribed, reviewed by the authors and analysed (Lawler 1998). Analysis of our data comprised three main stages and was facilitated through the use of NVivo 8 together with manual coding. In the first stage we read and catalogued our data according to genre (e.g. interviews, internal presentations, website, organisational reports, etc.) and by actor (national HR manager, business unit HR manager or business unit manager) (Orlikowski and Yates 1994; Yates and Orlikowski 2002). In the second stage, the data and other sources of text were subjected to a detailed and systematic examination and interpretation using content analysis (Berg 2009). This process involved coding at two levels. At the first level, we applied a lexicon of terms that emanated from the data itself and which related to talent and talent identification. It was during this process that the constructs of ‘subjectivity’ (the identification of talent based on subjective criteria) and ‘seeing’ (the identification of talent through observed activities and behaviour) were revealed. While subjectivity reflected the intuitive ‘gut feel’ of managers based on conversations and debates, ‘seeing’ was a more specific construct reflecting the managers’ perceptions based on observing employees at work. At the second level we applied a priori constructs (Eisenhardt 1989) which were grounded in the existing literature. For example, we identified statements that related to defining talent, the practice of talent management, talent identification and technology. The key themes that emerged from this stage of analysis were explored, discarded and further refined (Miles and Huberman 1994). For instance, we were able to discard general discussions of talent management and further refine those which dealt with talent identification. In the third stage, we undertook a process of axial coding (Strauss and Corbin 1998). This involved the systematic and iterative analysis of our coded and ordered data seeking to identify relationships and patterns (Eisenhardt 1989). Here we were able to establish a holistic understanding of the talent identification process and the extent to which technology plays a role. Findings: talent identification at PSF PSF had over 5000 employees located in offices around Australia and in a number of business units focused on different client offerings. Consequently PSF employees were © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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categorised as either fulfilling organisational (referred to as ‘national’) or ‘business unit’ roles. Members of the HR function were subjected to similar categorisations with separation into one of three functional areas: ‘recruitment’, ‘national’ and ‘business unit’. More specifically, ‘recruitment’ members were responsible for the recruitment and selection of employees; ‘national’ HR were responsible for centralised human resource and talent functions; and ‘business unit’ were responsible for human resource and talent services for a specific division of the organisation. Despite functional separation, all of the interviewees appeared committed to the organisation’s focus on talent management and understood the potential value of people to PSF’s strategic goals. Such value was verified by several of our interviewees with one business unit HR manager stating: Professional services is a very different dynamic when it comes to talent management. Your traditional organisations may have a product or whatever it is, but our product is our people so that does put a significant emphasis around that as well.

Recognising that future growth could not be achieved without the recruitment and retention of talent, interviewees talked explicitly about the organisation’s ‘People Space’ program, the internal brand established by PSF to generate a clear focus and commitment to talent management. As part of senior management’s commitment to talent management there had been a significant investment in an enterprise system that had the functionality to support activities in this area. Oracle’s enterprise system PeopleSoft had been implemented with the promise that it could offer ‘best-in-class integrated talent management’ with ‘integrated talent processes and data’ (Oracle 2011). The functionality of this system centred upon current and future workforce and recruitment planning, and several administrative HR activities, such as leave management, hiring and induction of new hires. All managers interviewed had access to the technology, and it was used to varying extents across the organisation as different managers interacted with the technology and its capabilities. Managers also had access to separate performance management software, provided by SuccessFactors, which was designed to ‘identify your best workers’ (SuccessFactors 2012). Managers were required to use SuccessFactors for performance management, particularly in relation to the organisation-wide requirement to rank top performers. Discretion was applied to the number of employees who were ranked, with some business units ranking their top 10% while others ranked up to 50%. Each of the business units had the potential to allocate and track areas for talent development, as well as generate reports regarding turnover. Despite the stated commitment to talent, a number of challenges were experienced during the process of identifying talent. The organisation did not have a firm-wide approach to talent identification, and hence the responsibility for the identification of talent was left with the individual HR managers and the senior members within each business unit. The lack of consistent guidelines, criteria or methods to direct this process meant that each of the different business units were left to self-determine whether it was particular individuals, particular skills and capabilities, or roles that were to be deemed as important. 428

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Thus the perceived role of technology varied. The majority of both HR and business unit managers sought to identify talent based on subjective evaluations facilitated through conversations and observations, rather than using the objective metrics potentially provided by PeopleSoft or SuccessFactors. One HR manager explained that there were two schools of thought about talent management at PSF. The first, but less popular, focused on the use of metrics and technology and was based on a conscious desire to conduct talent management and HR management activities in a structured manner through the use of technology. By contrast, the second and more dominant perspective sought to avoid overengineering and gave more currency to subjectivity and the ability to ‘see’ talent. It was this second school of thought which appeared to have greater salience in the organisation. We explore these two contrasting approaches further in the next two sections. The role of technology Our first finding was that despite PSF providing both HR and business units with processes and technology to facilitate the identification of talent, the use, and perceived role of the technology varied across the organisation. This was confirmed by the majority of our interviewees, whether fulfilling a human resources or business unit role. For example, one national HR manager observed that while there was a technology tool available to managers to assist with the identification of talent, there were ‘probably 100 different variations on how it is being applied’. Overall, managers expressed reservations about the use of the technology and favoured more subjective evaluations of talent. Despite these concerns, two business units did report using the available technology and believed that it was able to minimise the influence of subjectivity and the units were able to be more transparent about their talent identification processes. One business unit, which was sales focused and provided client services on a consulting basis, had an established definition of talent and a well-articulated process for talent identification that had been in place for six years. In order to evaluate an employee’s performance and potential, this business unit would apply a series of predefined ‘SuccessFactors’ based on technical expertise, marketable skills (that could be sold to clients), management capabilities, capacity to be an inspiring leader, ability to generate revenue, client satisfaction and behaviours consistent with their culture. The resultant evaluation was then translated, through the technology into talent management metrics. Both the HR and business unit manager believed that the technology made it possible for such metrics to be gathered, managed and analysed. These technologically enabled processes made it possible for employees to be ranked and evaluated as talent with transparency and objectivity. While both financial and people management metrics were gathered, it was accepted that it was not possible to be identified as talent without meeting the financial criteria. The HR manager in the second business unit, which provided a financial advisory service for clients, recognised that the creation and management of financial metrics for their clients had encouraged them to generate individual performance metrics and associated talent management reports. Employees within this business unit were not only considered to be comfortable with the translation of people-related activities into metrics, but © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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insisted upon it. Metrics were gathered and analysed based on a range of financial measures (utilisation, revenue, budget, etc.) together with people-based metrics (employee engagement, women in leadership roles, job performance feedback from clients, partners and directors, performance review compliance rates, management of staff, team diversity, and behaviours consistent with their culture). Again, as with the client services unit, while people metrics were gathered, it was recognised that financial performance metrics carried the most weight. Other interviewees in this business unit used technology in a manner that enabled them to rank employees based on metrics, and then use this information to make projections about the future potential of employees for promotion into particular roles. These employees were in effect then being identified as talent. The value of the technology was to ensure that employees were evaluated in a consistent and rational manner and those longitudinal records of performance could be maintained and accessed electronically. When asked to reflect upon how this process worked, the HR manager said: So we use that as a talent identification [tool]. Essentially it ranks people because you get five points for each criteria and out of that, you get a total of 25 and then you can pretty much draw a line under whatever percentage you want to particularly focus on and identify as top talent.

However, while some interviewees could see the possible potential for technology to be used in talent identification, they believed it to have a limited role. One of the hurdles to technology adoption appeared to be the lack of a consistent firm-wide definition of ‘talent’ and thus the consistent application of standard criteria when seeking to identify talent was considered to be problematic. The second reason centred upon the inability for the application of the technology to be objective and value free as the data itself was often subjective and the results generated also required interpretation. A third, and perhaps more compelling reason, was based on the desire to stay away from the identification of talent clones. In other words, interviewees wanted to be able to recognise diversity in individuals and believed that relying solely on metrics to evaluate an employee’s performance and/or potential could result in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to talent. Table 1 provides examples of interviewee comments on the role of technology in talent identification. The role of subjectivity and ‘seeing’ Our second finding was that decisions about whether an employee was considered to be talent were more commonly based on subjective evaluations. Many interviewees commented that they were able to ‘see’ talent. That is, business unit managers, in combination with their HR managers, could accurately evaluate whether someone was deemed as talent by observing their activities and behaviour. The role of ‘seeing’ talent was at times combined with more objective and formally measured techniques, often generated by the technology. The extent to which subjectivity and ‘seeing’ played a role in identifying talent varied across PSF but was a consistent theme across our interviews. For example, members of the HR function, whether fulfilling a national or business unit role, explicitly referred to subjectivity as both the preferred and adopted method for talent identification. Similar 430

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Table 1

The role of technology in talent identification

Role of technology

Quotes

To provide a technological solution that is used organisation-wide and which promotes accuracy and consistency re: talent management

The organisation does provide a technology tool, system and process about how we should identify talent, but the use of this system and process differs across the organisation. We have an organisation consistent performance management/ review system which is provided by SuccessFactors.

To enable consistent performance evaluation and ranking of employees in relation to talent

... enables the consistent evaluation of performance and potential of all employees across the organisation. We use technology to evaluate and then rank employees. We are seeking to identify 30% of individuals as talent. We use a performance management tool, facilitated through a technology platform, to evaluate all employees within the business. The results generated by this tool enable employees to be ranked. Top ranking employees are considered as talent. This system is used to score individuals with a mark out of 25 and then rank individuals. A certain percentage is then identified as top talent. This percentage changes according to the demands and needs of the business.

To generate HR metrics regarding talent

The technology enables us to ‘have a boatload of metrics’ about an individual’s performance.

Actor Business unit HR manager

National HR manager

National HR manager Business unit manager Business unit HR manager

Business unit HR manager

Business unit HR manager

Italic denotes interviewees’ quotes.

views were consistently expressed by the business unit managers we interviewed within the organisation. Although the CEO and senior management team were committed to the use of technology for talent management activities, several of the HR managers described the CEO as one who valued the proven abilities of managers to ‘see’ talent: [The CEO] has a view that any partner should be able to identify talent like that [and she clicks her fingers]. As in they can just see it. They just know it. (Business unit HR manager) I expect my leaders in each of the individual businesses to tell you who the talent is ... (National HR manager) We can identify what are some of the characteristics but he is very conscious his partners should know who the talented people are ... (Business unit HR manager) © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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The importance of having the ability to ‘see’ talent was a consistent and prominent theme that emerged from our interview data. This finding suggests that interviewees assumed that talent was a construct that could be observed and hence the identification of talented employees could be achieved through observing talent in action. Furthermore, there was an expectation that existing managers would have a set of competencies that enabled them to see, observe and identify talented individuals based on their own personal experiences. Those people that have risen to the top have tended to have an intrinsic insight into what it takes to get there so they are able to see these traits or behaviours or abilities in others. So they tend to overlay their own experience when they are actually identifying who we think are in the upper echelons of potential. (Business unit HR manager)

Many of our interviewees commented that the identification of talent via subjective means was facilitated through conversations and debates. For example, HR managers described how they encouraged, organised and conducted meetings involving themselves and business unit leaders to identify which employees were believed to be talent. As a first step these HR managers would require their respective business unit leaders to devise a list of employees whom they personally believed could be considered as talent. This list was generated by seeing and observing employees as they conducted their daily business activities. The second step involved bringing the business unit leaders together to discuss and debate the employees named on their lists. The ability to discuss and debate talent was valued by the organisation as it enabled a multiplicity of views to be expressed about the performance and potential of an employee. Further value was derived from the ability to constantly redefine and update the requisite skills and capabilities and meaning of ‘talent’ in response to changes in the business environment. This process minimised the propensity to generate ‘clones’ and adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to talent identification. The benefit of this approach was presented in direct contrast to the use of technology, where interviewees raised concerns around the potential for an employee’s performance and potential to be decided by one individual – the user of the technology. By deploying a more discursive process, a more rounded evaluation of an employee was thought to prevail as per the quotes in Table 2.

Discussions and conclusions The aim of this research was twofold. First, we wanted to explore the way in which talent was identified. Second, we wanted to examine the role of technology in this process. The findings from our case study suggest a wide variation in the use of technology in the talent identification process, with most of the decisions about who was talent being based on a variety of subjective opinions that were generated through conversation and debate. While on the one hand the organisation provided all business units and managers with access to both PeopleSoft and SuccessFactors to assist with the more objective evaluation of an employee’s performance and potential, on the other, the majority of managers (including 432

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Table 2

The role of subjectivity in talent identification

Role of subjectivity Subjectivity is an important part of talent identification.

Talent can be identified through ‘seeing’.

A multiplicity of views and debate is important to identifying talent.

Quotes Talent identification is subjective. ... there is a lot of subjectivity, a lot of autonomy of the different leaders and who they feel talent is. ... the process of identifying, the gut feel piece comes in, the process isn’t robust.. CEO believes that any partner should be able to identify talent like that. As in they can see it. They just know it. Partners should be able to evaluate talent through observation. People within the business should be open to seeing talented people. ... that by the end of today you will be able to see the top 10% and the stella talent. Talent is identified through conversations between HR and partners at business unit levels. Talent identification still affected by subjective conversations between partners and HR. Talent identification is not random but it’s more of a they say let’s get together at a table and talk about the individuals in the service line and yeah talent, no not talent and that sort of thing. But it still comes back to having a discussion ... having a discussion by the people, with the right people, who expert in people who can then identify who those people are. So really I would not say that we have the best but we have got them talking about talent and we have got them thinking about what that looks like.

Source Business unit HR manager National recruiting manager National HR manager Business unit HR manager Business unit HR manager Business unit manager Business unit manager National HR manager Business unit HR manager National HR manager

Business unit HR manager

Business unit HR manager

Italic denotes interviewees’ quotes.

the CEO) and business units appeared to support a more subjective and complex process of ‘seeing’ talent. The talent identification processes at PSF were thus in stark contrast to those recommended by Busine and Watt who argue that ‘the identification process needs to be relatively simple, but must use consistent criteria across the organisation’ (2005, 231). Without such consistency, objective and transparent decisions about whom and what constitutes talent cannot be made. Overall, it appears that many HR and business unit managers at PSF © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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believed that intuition and gut-feeling were of more value in identifying talent than the more structured and analytical processes that were available using the technology. Managers therefore attributed little value to the more data-driven decision-making processes of talent identification available through SuccessFactors and, even where this technology was used, it was generally applied to the generation of employee rankings which could later be refuted by conversations and debates based on more subjective evaluations. Those instances where the technology did influence talent identification tended to be in business units where metrics were central to business processes and thus framed the dominant discourses. As discussed earlier in this paper, the social construction of technology (SCOT) lens enables us to identify a variety of perspectives about the role and use of technology. The SCOT lens is particularly valuable in this case as we examine the ways that individuals and groups comprehend, interpret, use and engage with the talent management technology (Dery, Hall and Wailes 2006). We suggest that the potential for the technology to provide consistency in the talent identification process is influenced by the organisational context as this shapes users’ expectations and behaviours. While the metrics available through the use of the technology provide a valuable reference to inform talent identification, their use typically forms one stage in a process that is largely dominated by subjective-based judgments on the parts of those involved in identifying talent. Mäkelä, Björkman and Ehrnrooth (2010) describe this as an online/offline two stage process, one that is susceptible to the biases of the cognition processes of the decision-makers. The decision-makers in the talent identification process are influenced by a range of factors that determine who they identify as being critical to adding value to their business. These are often self-serving (Mellahi and Collings 2010) and more aligned to the immediate needs of the business unit rather than a more systematic, corporate approach to talent identification. At the same time, groups within the organisation may have differing interpretations of the technology in terms of its importance and its capabilities and these may come to influence the way in which it is used (Dery, Hall and Wailes 2006; Strohmeier 2009; Thomas 1994). It would therefore seem that while organisations invest in the technology associated with more objective, systematic and consistent approaches to talent management, it has a limited role in delivering these desired outcomes. The talent identification processes in PSF were largely based on the more subjective processes of ‘seeing’ talent as managers responded to the discourse and behaviours of an organisation heavily influenced by a CEO who valued these attributes in the leadership team. Even when technology was used to apply greater objectivity and conformance to talent identification processes, these decisions were readily contested by the more ad hoc and subjective processes supported across the organisation. Thus the role of technology is contested and marginalised as decision-makers made both individual and collective sense of their environment. The study findings have significant implications for HR practitioners as they demonstrate that there are both opportunities and challenges associated with the use of technology in talent identification. Examining and understanding the talent identification process at PSF and the role that technology plays in this process led us to appreciate how the use and perceived role of technology was constructed and the extent to which this was influenced by 434

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the organisational context, as well as the attitudes, behaviours and experiences of the HR and business unit managers that we interviewed. Accordingly, organisations, as well as their HR practitioners, need to appreciate the diverse ways that employees and managers will likely apply the same technology. More specifically, there is a need to recognise that the manners in which managers interact with the technology can influence the role and value that they believe it has for undertaking talent management activities including talent identification. Although we found that the HR function did have an essential role to play in the identification of talent at PSF, we question whether their participation in this process could be considered as strategic. Given that our study found that the preferred method of talent identification was based on subjective evaluation, we also question whether members of the HR function had the knowledge and training necessary to exploit the potential of the technology to produce more informative and meaningful data. In our view, talent analytics, metrics and technology are key capabilities that organisations will require of HR practitioners in the future. It is these capabilities that members of the HR profession should seek to develop if they want to enhance their strategic contribution to talent identification. Furthermore, if the talent identification processes at PSF and potentially other organisations continue to be facilitated through conversation and debate, then the role of HR in this process cannot be assured, as the skill of ‘seeing’ could potentially be supplied by any manager. Our study points to a number of possible future avenues of research which have implications for how HR practitioners might think about, and go about identifying talent. One such avenue would address the argument put forward by Collings and Mellahi (2009) who believe that the systemic identification of talent can be a source of sustained competitive advantage and improved organisational performance. Our interviewees did not report that the lack of systematic talent identification across PSF, nor the limited use of technology, hindered performance, and as such, they neither contradicted nor affirmed this line of argument. Further research is therefore needed that specifically considers the relationship between different approaches to talent identification and organisational performance. In particular, what are needed are more studies that test the claims of those such as Boudreau and Ramstad (2005a). Such studies would demonstrate whether technology can generate performance metrics which are then used to identify talent and the potential benefits of that approach. The importance attributed to talent identification is likely to become even more significant as the competition for skilled employees increases. Managing talent in a manner which is not only beneficial, but also potentially a source of competitive advantage will require organisations to be proactive. In order to manage talent, organisations first need to define what they mean by this categorising of employees and future employees. Whether the categories are constructed in terms of individuals, skills and capabilities or roles, the ability to identify talent using accurate data and metrics would enable management to make more informed and effective decisions. While technology has a potential role in talent identification it is likely to be used to varying extents depending on the organisational context and the skills and experiences of the management team. The critical challenge for management © 2012 Australian Human Resources Institute

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would seem to be around creating practices that support these identification processes in ways that achieve the best possible outcomes for the organisation. Sharna Wiblen is a research associate at the University of Sydney Business School. Her current research interests focus upon the potential for technology, including human resource information systems, electronic human resource management and social media to inform and benefit talent management and human resource management. She is currently working on a doctorate exploring talent management in Australian organisations. Kristine Dery is a senior lecturer in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. Her current research examines the impact of mobile technology on the nature of work and individual work–life balance expectations as well as the alignment between human resources and information systems. Her work has been published in a range of management and IS journals. David Grant is professor of organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. His research interests include examining the impact of ICT-related changes on work and organisation in Australian workplaces. His work has been published in a range of management and organisation journals.

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