Arie De Geus, the former head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell, has been quoted as saying, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
If this statement is true, what is talent management’s responsibility in helping to bring about this core competency?
Talent management is typically focused on attracting, selecting, developing, and retaining talent. These are all worthy goals and important for organizational success. However, does talent management have responsibility for harnessing the expertise that exists within an organization and facilitating knowledge transfer among members to achieve even greater performance? I believe it does, and this new responsibility may be the strategy that talent management practitioners embrace in order to bring the strongest value to the organization.
Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, is a pivotal statement on characteristics of learning organizations, namely that they adopt and embrace systems thinking. At the simplest level, systems thinking (and theory) is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That is, we would never buy a washing machine based solely on which model has the fastest cycle time; we would also be interested in which model produces the cleanest clothes. Similarly, why should organizations be satisfied in knowing that they have attracted, developed, and retained top individuals? There should be collective metrics of success for measuring talent. After all, organizational performance results from the sum of the parts: the collective outcomes that teams, units, departments, and divisions achieve together.
In these times we are facing the loss of organizational wisdom – because of lay-offs, buy-outs, normal turnover, and baby boomer retirements. Organizations that had to make tough short-term staffing decisions will be suffering from long-term ramifications for years to come. I propose that talent management functions can help organizations design, develop, and implement knowledge management programs that help build and sustain learning organizations.
Knowledge management is focused on tapping into what individuals know and do so that this wisdom can be shared with others. The overarching goal is to elicit, spread, and grow organizational expertise and aptitude. However, at the core, every knowledge management program must begin with an understanding of knowledge, why it is important, and how to get inside the heads of the people who have it.
What an experienced person knows and does is often “hidden” to the rest of us. Exceptional employees rely on a rich database of experiences to fuel top performance. Experts excel at:
- Sizing up situations and determining the best action to take
- Knowing what information is critical in a situation and what can be ignored
- Identifying potential pitfalls and errors in planning and developing avoidance strategies
- Using mental short cuts to get the job done more efficiently and effectively
A key strategy for managing talent and building an agile learning organization is to harvest the wisdom of top individuals and teams. In the rest of this topic’s series, I will explore methods and ways for creating knowledge management programs. Organizations that discipline themselves to do so create the conditions for competitive advantage.