At the Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenas makes the case against centralizing dedicated talent management teams within the HR function, pointing to two factors that he sees as reasons why these teams often don’t get the desired results:
The first is that the advent of talent management as a stand-alone specialty has led to overly complicated talent processes that are difficult to understand, at best, and confusing to managers, at worst. Anytime a function becomes a “profession,” with an association, conferences, certification, and the like, it starts formalizing its own language, which only insiders really understand. Just last year, for example, the Association for Talent Development, a professional society for talent development people, published a research study that proposed 15 core functions for talent development and 24 secondary functions that might be important for some organizations. Even if talent management professionals themselves could remember and implement all of these functions, it’s almost certain that managers would find them more confusing than useful.
The second problem is that the rise of a central function makes it too easy for managers to forgo their personal accountability for acquiring and developing the right talent for their business. In all too many companies, how managers handle talent has no impact on their personal rating or compensation. All they need to do is fill out review forms, go to meetings, and assume that HR will make sure that the people issues are addressed. And then, if things don’t work out, they blame HR — despite the fact that they’re in a much better position to assess and develop their own people.
A third problem is the potential for discord within the HR function itself.
Within HR, each sub-function becomes siloed, and handoffs across the sub-functions become inefficient and hard to manage. So this isn’t just a problem for managers (like the first one mentioned above), but for HR as well. Mylestone found a solution to this problem by having its HR department conduct “HR Responsibility Negotiation Forums” that improve communication and coordination across the function by allowing everyone to negotiate responsibilities. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read our full case study on Mylestone’s approach.)
Additionally, very few talent challenges or initiatives are “just” recruiting challenges or “just” compensation challenges: The vast majority of them require a more integrated response. In addition to improving visibility and coordination the way Mylestone did, we’ve also seen organizations like Qantas choose to make a structural change, collapsing talent management sub-groups into a more flexible project pool, allowing more custom support for line challenges, as well as more holistic development for their talent professionals. (Corporate Leadership Council members can check out that case study here.)
The other missing link in this article is how a good HR function can enable stronger manager–employee relationships. Since Ashkenas does HR consulting, presumably he’s not trashing the concept of talent management altogether, but the way he writes the article, he almost seems to be. Really, what he’s saying is that managers cannot abdicate accountability for managing talent, but they should not try to “go it alone.” On the other hand, it’s hard for managers to work in an effective partnership or coalition with HR if talent management support isn’t built with the customer/end user (which is to say, the manager) in mind. So the lesson to be learned from these failures is not necessarily to take talent management away from HR, but rather to improve HR’s ability to collaborate internally and with managers throughout the organization.