Look at the history of any business and you will see organisations beset by challenges, which at particular points in time, demand extraordinary focus and attention. In the early 1990’s, ‘diversity’ was the one such focus area that took centre stage. At the turn of the century we were busy with ‘innovation’ and, as we head towards 2010, most certainly from a people perspective, it’s the so-called ‘war for talent’.

McKinsey’s first mooted the idea in a demographic report that it had compiled in the USA. The company warned of a growing global shortage of skills in certain key positions. When you’re fighting to find scarce skills, you might as well get the best people out there.

Coupled with a lean and highly competitive business environment, the focus on talent has uncovered some very interesting implications for business growth, sustainability and development.

Shorter Life Cycles
Most businesses are designed around the idea that a large contingent of people will stay for an extended period of time before moving on. It’s not uncommon to meet people in their fifties who have spent their entire working career in one company. On the other end of the age spectrum, it’s not uncommon to meet a twenty-something individual who has worked in two or three different companies, in multiple industries.

The worldview paradigm-shift that has accompanied this change has been the value of loyalty versus movement. Twenty to thirty years ago loyalty was seen as a valuable characteristic. “Get a job in a big company, start at the bottom and work your way toward the top”, was advice worth following from the wise ‘grey-beards’ who surrounded us.

Today’s younger people view loyalty as a risk. As companies merge, are acquired, outsourced and moved offshore, there is little certainty that the role you are currently in will not become redundant in the near future. This would likely leave you without a job or working for a company you didn’t choose. In this environment a broad skills base keeps you agile and able to move when an opportunity presents itself. The new mantra of today’s younger work force is ‘no shorter than three, no longer than five’, when it comes to the tenure within a company and spent in one position.

Who would you employ? A 50 year old with 27 years work experience in one company, or a 32 year old with 12 different jobs in four different industries? Your answer is possibly indicative of your own worldview.

Succession Planning
In an environment of shorter life cycles, succession planning is becoming more strategic than it’s ever been. For every level in the organisation there is a growing risk that key people will leave more regularly, and the pool you’re working from to replace those leaving is a moving target as they increasingly exit outwards and not upwards.

Today’s younger workforce is not looking vertically for their next career move. They’re looking horizontally. They’re relying on a carefully chosen and networked group of peer professionals to find them their next job, and this network is not necessarily within the business they’re currently working in.

The growth of business orientated social network sites like Linked-In (www.linkedin.com) is facilitating these transactions. Their CV’s are not only available 24/7 but their progress and development pro-actively promoted with little effort from the individual concerned. Their network is always up-to-date on where they are, what they’re doing and any movements they make.

The book ‘Built to Last’ (Collins and Poras) suggested that promoting from within was far more effective, within their sample of lasting businesses, as a strategy for succession. I worked with a company who had followed this strategy. For the most part the results had been very good and worked for them for many years. However, four years ago they started to notice an alarming trend. Those they had their eye on for promotion internally were starting to leave. They were being left with a future leadership pool of people they had hoped would eventually leave.

Depth vs. Breadth
In many industries depth of knowledge forms a critical component of employee value within an organisation. Engineers, lawyers, accountants, to mention a few, rely on key employees having depth of knowledge to handle complex problems that arrive from time to time.
If one accepts that depth is the combination of many varying cumulative experiences amassed over time, then it is easy to see how the development of depth of knowledge is at risk in today’s environment. Today’s younger worker is not staying for the time required to rack up the varying experiences required.

Whatever the number an organisation is reliant upon to make up their group of employees with depth of knowledge, one can be fairly certain that this number is going to be increasingly difficult to attain in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, today’s younger worker perceives breadth and not depth to be their most valuable asset in the current business environment. The progress of which has been assisted by business schools offering a multitude of short-courses, enabling professionals to up-skill, upgrade and prepare them for any industry they choose to enter.

The challenge for organisations must surely be to work with their own learning and development departments and business schools to master the development of depth. Time is continually being reduced in this equation and so we need to discover fresh ways to increase the number of experiences people are exposed to, within a learning and development environment.

A Glass Ceiling
The challenge of succession and depth isn’t just for organisations. Today’s younger worker should answer two pertinent questions that have an impact on his own advancement. Will her shorter movement cycles and her breadth-focused development count against her at a certain point in her career? When organisations are looking to make key appointments, will they be looking for someone with depth and stability in terms of movement, or will they choose someone with less depth and more breadth who has worked in many companies and/or industries? The jury is out as we watch this experiment unfold – the results of which could be the litmus test … or not.

Retiring Baby Boomers
The talent debate is often centred on today’s younger workforce. The older workforce is seen as a hindrance to development with their ‘conservative’ and ‘when we’ perspectives and mindsets. But this older workforce is a key component to the talent debate. They will live longer and be healthier than their parents ever were and consequently don’t feel the need to retire. Unfortunately for some of them, they also cannot afford to retire. Of course in a world of scarce skills the question that begs answering is, can we afford to allow this demographic to exit the workforce?

Surely we need to invest in finding new ways to harness the enormous amount of experience and skill they have and maintain it within our organisations? Certainly one can understand the need to move people on in order to allow fresh thinking to have a voice, but does the model have to continue to mean that moving on is the same as moving out? There must be opportunity to assist this key talent pool to stay within the organisation to add meaningful value in new positions we may even need to invent.

Talent Management v Shortage of Skills
I’m not certain that the addition of the term ‘talent’ has been helpful in framing the challenge of a skills shortage. Certainly it’s brought a fresh and much needed focus to the value of people within an organisation. People like Tom Peters speak of talent as simply being a new word to describe the human beings in your organisation, with no performance criteria attached. This could be the most useful definition I have come across.

I do think this preoccupation with talent has created some confusion and taken our eye off the ball. I fear that in focussing on talent we’re not adequately addressing the skills shortage problem we’re faced with. A talent strategy and a scarce skill strategy are not one and the same thing. If you need a chemical engineer, you’re looking for a person with a scarce skill. When you find a chemical engineer it doesn’t mean you have a talented one. He or she may be the least valuable chemical engineer on the planet, but in order to achieve your objective you need to have one, talented or not.

In my experience the talent issue is more about trying to integrate a younger workforce which is, in so many ways, very different from the current leadership and management in the organisation. The pain of attracting, retaining and getting the best out of a young work force, has more of its roots in a worldview and value difference, than it does in superior performance – which the word ‘talent’ so often alludes to.

I’d like to suggest that it will be more useful for organisations to invest more energy and resource into a strategy to solve their scarce skill problem, while they’re working on integrating today’s younger workforce.

Barrie Bramley is a founding partner of TomorrowToday.biz and works in its ‘future of work’ research team.