Talent Management in the Wake of Bloody Monday

Is the term "talent" suddenly on the outs in today's turbulent times?

Some think so, arguing that the whole concept of talent will become a lot less fashionable in the brutal 2009 environment even while chillingly detached terms like "reduced headcount" make a comeback (Kellaway, 2008).

But it won't really be that stark or simple, suggests i4cp research. Managing talent may, in fact, become more of an imperative in 2009.

Yes, it's true that these are historic times. An incredible 2.6 million jobs evaporated in the U.S. last year, the greatest job loss since World War II (Aversa, 2009). And this week started with what CNNMoney labeled "Bloody Monday," as over 71,000 jobs were cut on that day alone (Pepitone, 2009).

Nonetheless, even amid what is fast becoming a glut in the U.S. labor market, concerns about retaining talent are not going away. i4cp's recent 2009 Forecast Survey showed that about half of large companies (those with 10,000 or more employees) say that in 2009 "keeping talent" will be a challenge for them to a high or very high extent.

And that is, of course, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg because talent management goes far beyond retention, especially in a period of labor gluts. Talent management is, as the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) has noted, "a holistic approach to optimizing human capital," one which "enables an organization to drive short- and long-term results by building culture, engagement, capability and capacity through integrated talent acquisition, development, and deployment processes that are aligned to business goals."

That's a widely accepted definition, according to a major survey conducted by i4cp on behalf of ASTD. Four out of five respondents to the Talent Management 2008 Survey, which included 518 HR and learning professionals, agreed with that definition to a high or very high extent.

So, talent management is about much more than the old "war for talent." It's about enabling employees to reach their true work potential, a goal that's more important than ever. i4cp's new Productivity Expectations Survey shows that, among companies that expect to raise their productivity over the next six month, two of the top three reasons for this rise will be "greater efforts/engagement among employees" and "more effective workforce management." And both of these, of course, fit neatly under the umbrella of talent management.

"We could not stay in business without extensive use of talent management," declared one business professional who responded to the Talent Management 2008 Survey. Many other participants echoed similar opinions. But when it comes to talent management programming, there's still much room for improvement. In fact, only one in five firms told the research team that, to a high or very high extent, they managed talent effectively (i4cp, 2008).

So, given the dismal state of the economy, how does an organization acknowledge the layoffs of thousands of workers and then turn to their own workforces and convince them to stay on board, engage them, and manage their efforts effectively?

Take a Holistic, Integrated Approach

First, it's necessary to take an integrated approach. "Integrated talent management shifts HR from a disparate set of specialized functions to a coordinated and interdependent series of connected activities," explains HR consultancy PageUp People (2008), adding that "it is integration that multiplies the value to the business."

The business professionals who participated in the Talent Management Survey 2008 agreed. "Without an integrated talent management model in place," lamented one respondent, "we tend to retain low-quality talent and lose high-quality talent, ultimately hurting the organization." Another commented, "It's a daunting task to develop the talent management approach in an integrated and interactive way. [It's] tempting to just develop one strategy at a time, but that actually delays the overall effectiveness."

Daunting is a good description for an approach that can involve coordinating and interweaving components as diverse as performance management, learning, workforce planning, recruitment, retention, rewards, and compensation. The survey found just 19% of respondents confirmed that they integrated talent management components to a high or very high extent.

Tame the Hobgoblin of Inconsistency

Good talent management also means establishing greater consistency, which is part of the integration process. These unsettling economic times are frightening for managers and employees alike. When the ground feels like quicksand, strategies that give workers a sense of continuity and organizational endurance are sorely needed. Managing the workforce consistently across multiple functions helps improve employment branding and emphasizes the seriousness of management.

Consistency doesn't come all at once. It requires a continuous improvement mindset, and most business professionals know it. Eight out of 10 respondents said their organizations should "continuously improve the quality of talent management" to a high or very high extent, but just 28% said their organizations currently do so. Such gaps between what-we-do and what-we-should-do suggest that there's still a huge need to get better at managing talent.

Be Patient and Focus on Results

Will the economic downturn sabotage talent management efforts? No, but it could make things harder. One respondent to the talent management survey, which was conducted in mid-2008, noted, "It is difficult to maintain momentum in the face of falling profits."

But patience is required for success. "Talent management takes time to bear fruit," observed another respondent, underscoring the hard work and tenacity required in navigating challenging times.

The long-term outlook for talent management seems fairly bright. The vast majority (83%) of respondents to the study said that their organizations' emphasis on talent would be increasing over the next three years.

So, yes, there will be setbacks in some cases. But managers can take heart from these words from another study participant: "Keep it simple and real. Focus on results and successes." These feel like words of wisdom in both good times and bad.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

  • Aversa, J. (2009, January 10). US suffers its worst job losses since WWII. Associated Press.
  • Institute for Corporate Productivity. (2008). ASTD/i4cp Talent Management Study. Unpublished data. Retrieved from i4cp.com
  • Kellaway, L. (2008). The World in 2009, p. 139.
  • PageUp People (2008, February 26). Integrated talent management. Retrieved from pageuppeople.com
  • Pepitone, J. (2009, January 27). Bloody Monday: Over 71,400 jobs lost. CNNMoney.com
Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.