The End Of Talent Management as We Know It?

January 5, 2016

The End Of Talent Management as We Know It?

"The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be." — Paul Valery, 1937

If we were able to fast forward from last year's end to next year's, what might be the most significant trends that would have really mattered for organizational and human resources management in the years 2016 and beyond? Could we identify the true signals of change that have gained in strength in the course of the last 365 days and, by the end of the decade—by the year 2020—what will have edged out other priorities in the new organizational thinking? Will there be one common denominator that will have created a meaningful shift and propelled the forward momentum that would have changed the way business thinks about its people and organizes its cultures for the next generation's workplace?

To me, the turn of the year looks more and more like the beginning of the end of talent management as we know it. Talent management has historically evolved in the end of the last century as an answer to the set of questions organizations posed to create efficiencies in identifying, recruiting, retaining, developing, and promoting their top performers. The code word for talent management was "differentiation."  It has remained the one preferred way (the "best practice") organizations determined their people's needs for at least the last three decades. In 2015, it became more and more clear that business requirements have significantly shifted, but that the talent management processes we have built and perfected over the years have remained static.

Most of us are familiar with Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years. Why is it then that our organizational solutions including but not exclusive of talent management have a linear change pattern and rather follow the Newtonian Laws of Gravity—that is, that they have remained mostly unchanged (though constantly tweaked and perfected) for the last few decades?

Breakthroughs in New Science + New Technology + New Mindsets combined have created a supercharged platform for the transformation of traditional employment toward the next generation work arrangements and alternative organizational structures. By the year 2020, "talent management" will likely look very different from what we know it as today. It will no longer be about the elitist concept of "talent" that focuses on "chasing the stars." It may no longer even be about "top-down management" at all. Further, it may no much longer be about the traditional "employment" as we know it now. It will be most likely be called something else.

It is to neuroscience that we now turn trying to understand the full implications of standard organizational practices such as learning, performance management, diversity and inclusion and broader areas of human motivation, goal orientation, and achievement.

The New Science: Neuroscience

In 2008, Daniel Pink pointedly identified the gap between "what science knows and what business does." Spurred by Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and his widely promoted TED talks and keynotes on the topic of motivation and performance, we have seen an acceleration of the adoption of scientific insights into business and business's ability to absorb breakthroughs in applied research into new business practices.

Take neuroscience that emerged on the business radar right around 2008. It was in 2008, that David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz launched an applied discipline of neuroleadership and founded what now is Neuroleadership Institute whose espoused mission is to inform business practice through neuroscientific insights. From the clinical discipline concerned with deep exploration of the human brain, it also has now become a go-to authority on deep sources of motivation, achievement, and human socialization. It is to neuroscience that we now turn trying to understand the full implications of standard organizational practices such as learning, performance management, diversity and inclusion and broader areas of human motivation, goal orientation, and achievement.

By the end of 2015, a significant body of neuro-knowledge had been accumulated contributing to the acceleration of the redesign of key talent management practices, such as performance management systems, deepening our understanding of diversity and inclusion, leadership development, learning and rewards, and, ultimately, influencing how we design work spaces. Recruitment, rewards, and high potential identification and development are next, ready for revision with the neuroscientific insights as key inputs. Influential as it is, neuroscience is now only one of the strong contributing scientific factors taking on a prominent role in reconfiguring the workplace

New Technology: Artificial Intelligence

On December 15, 2015, IBM inaugurated its first and largest Artificial Intelligence Center in Munich, Germany, thus marking the breakthrough year in development of Internet of Things (IoT) and the new milestone in the evolution of intelligent data and everything associated with it, including our understanding of what talent management might look like in the workplace of the future.  

In the same month, the Financial Times and McKinsey Book of the Year Award went to Martin Ford, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur working in artificial intelligence for his prescient work Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future which describes the imminent dominance of automation and the threat it represents to human employment.

The idea of jobs going away is not new. At the end of the 20th century, it was still about the flat world of globalization, outsourcing, and offshoring manual jobs and first generation robotization in agriculture and manufacturing. Machines, yes, but only for those unskilled jobs that could be accomplished with preprogrammed machines. Twenty years later, the robots are learning how to learn on their own, reprogram themselves, and are beginning to replace hard earned white color jobs such as radiologists, lawyers, doctors, software engineers, journalists, and military personnel.

How do you prepare for the economy in which humans will no longer be able to compete with machines? Ford quotes the cofounder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: "Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient. It's meant to completely obviate them." With the way technology is evolving, there is no doubt that the dystopian world of full unemployment may not be such a distant future. How do you deal with the succession system where human jobs will be replaced by the robots that do not require vacations or breaks and whose engagement levels are a programmed constant. The new challenge for the talent professional is to construct a work environment that accommodates both people and machines.

How do you prepare for the economy in which humans will no longer be able to compete with machines?

With such major disruptions looming on the time horizon, a new mindset is emerging that is not about an innate "high potential" that needs to be identified and activated at the right time and in the right circumstances of employment.

The New Mindset: Purpose

One can argue that purpose is emerging as the most important differentiator in today's new talent economy. 

In October 2015, Imperative, a New York based B-start up, released its first annual Purpose Oriented Workforce Index. Imperative and its founders are committed to defining purpose at work and tripling purposeful workforce in the economy

Purpose is a trait not a state and people carry it with them from job to job. Purpose is a constant; it is the core of who we are. Purpose is the next generation core value that represents a breakaway alternative to the traditional notion of engagement. It does not come from the outside, from the employer. Purpose is an innate characteristic, and it cannot be dialed up or dialed down as the engagement levels can. Purpose challenges the elitism of current talent management, and it could replace the concept of high potential with the idea that transcends the situational quality of "hi-po" identification. Purpose is attainable, sustainable, and must be broadly cultivated as a source of organizational vitality.

Purpose expands beyond enterprise and includes all workers—internal, external, contractors, free lancers, and volunteers. Purpose is generation-neutral and translates across industries, and it is not exclusive to the elite cohort of senior executives as the outgoing concept of high potential is.  

What's Next?

As we are now on the countdown to the year 2020, it is no longer the question of whether talent management (or HR on the grander scale) needs to change, but rather how fast and how radical the change will be happening in most organizations. Contingent on the changes in the nature of work is the question of HR's relevance and our ability to adapt and transform so that we lead the transformation, not just keep up with the pace of the business.

As these external trends accelerate the legitimate question on the table will be one of the fate of TM and ultimately the future of HR. What will we all be doing as the function transforms itself beyond 2016?

We can say with confidence that there will be fewer of us supporting work inside and outside of organizations. Those of us standing tall will be clearer on our purpose fully versed in science and comfortable with technology.

Until we make the break in the years leading to 2020, a lot will need to be done to align ourselves with the business that is no longer what it used to be.

To remind ourselves of the past and the necessity of making a break with it, I leave you with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which remains a perfect guide for us today: "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

The Authors: 

Anna Tavis, Ph.D., is a senior organizational consultant and executive coach with an extensive global practice in business, academia, and consulting. Anna's corporate career spans a broad variety of industries, including financial services, technology, manufacturing. and pharmaceutical firms. Most recently, her consulting practice expanded in the nonprofit sector. She has held senior leadership positions with Motorola, Nokia, United Technologies, AIG, and BBH. She is the founder of GlobalLabPlus ( and serves as an adjunct instructor at New York University. She is also Perspectives Editor for the People + Strategy journal. Anna an be reached at or on Twitter @annatavis.