Talent management in unpredictable times: how do HR & Talent professionals adapt?

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Kiddy & Partners

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Traditional approaches to talent management and development assume a relatively stable operating environment; we forecast future talent needs in relation to the skills or competencies that will be required to deliver the business strategy. So, what do we do when it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead?

The ability for any HRD to predict future resource needs is incredibly challenging due to the high level of uncertainty brought about by the rapid pace of change – previously driven by technological advances but now a disabling global health crisis. As futurists and horizon scanning experts well know, no-one can predict the future, and this is particularly true in the current climate. This highlights a limitation with traditional HR strategy.  Responding directly to the strategic direction of the business, HR strategy seeks to mobilise the necessary human capital to deliver against the one desired future expressed in that strategy. But whilst strategies can be changed overnight in response to external events and other unforeseen change needs, the lag for turning the human capital ship around is much deeper.  So, what are the alternatives?  

The case for a more dynamic HR strategy

Acknowledging that the future will inevitably differ from the one we envisage, futurists have long used scenario planning to prepare for a small number of likely possibilities, recognising that reality will be somewhere in between. In HR terms this means spreading your bets; optimising talent planning by preparing for a small number of likely futures.  You then ask yourself what percentage of your current talent has the requisite skills to succeed in those likely scenarios?  How big an ask would it be to mobilise your human resources to succeed in each potential future? To what extent does the potential currently exist internally? 

As articulated by John Boudreau, Professor of Management Organization at the University of Southern California, ‘Options will often trump predictions’[1].  Attempts at long-range predictions also persist in succession planning, whereby individuals are identified years in advance to take on the most crucial leadership roles in an organisation. As emphasised by Cappelli and Tavis, “[the world often fails to cooperate with those plans, though.  Companies routinely find that by the time senior leadership positions open up, their needs have changed.”[2]  Yet, approaches to human resource planning and development remain relatively unchanged.  In fact, in contrast to the reality of rapidly changing business environments, only 8% of organisations in recent Kiddy & Partners research described their talent identification and management process as very dynamic.  

The importance of people data

One thing the Covid-19 crisis has revealed in terms of strategic human resource management is the essential role of people data in organisational agility.  From determining who needs to be furloughed to reallocating human capital to fill critical resource gaps, the organisations that were able to pivot quickly were those equipped with robust assessment data on who they’ve got and where; their core capabilities, development areas, and perhaps most importantly, their potential and ability to adapt.  Armed with these data, organisations were able to respond rapidly and efficiently when it mattered most.  Others found themselves on the back foot, hastily trying to determine the capabilities of those available and map these against critical roles, with any gaps in HR insight painfully exposed in the process.

As thoughts turn to transitioning to the new normal, remember that when it comes to people decisions, data is your best friend.  Robust assessment data around the capabilities and future potential of your leaders and critical talent will enable you to deliver the clarity of insight and swift decision-making your business needs right now, and no doubt, in future (whatever it may hold).

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[1] Boudreau (2014). What to Do When You Can’t Predict Your Talent Needs. Harvard Business Review, September 26, 2014, 

[2] Cappelli & Tavis (2018). The new rules of talent management. Harvard Business Review, March–April 2018 Issue,

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