Talent management – for the many or just the few?

Dr Wendy Hirsh, co-author of Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, the Leadership Foundation’s latest research publication, challenges higher education to consider the development of staff in the same way they would the learning growth of students.

Working on talent management with many organisations, their managers and staff, I often encounter unease and even hostility to the possibility that some development opportunities might be offered to some people but not others. So is talent management for the many or the few or can it be both?

If we unpick this issue from the business perspective first, we see that the ideas of business needs and business risk are very central to what organisations in a range of sectors mean by the term talent management. Talent management is absolutely not about giving employees all the development they would like, but about prioritising business investment in development where it will make the most difference to business effectiveness – and decrease business risk. Therefore it must be central to an organisation’s strategy.

However, often in universities, the human resources and talent management strategy (if it exists) sits alongside the core priorities and can become disconnected. This blog draws from new case study research commissioned by the Leadership Foundation to learn about talent management as practiced in other sectors. A key issue for universities like other organisations is whether to focus development resource on the many or the few.  For example, does a university need to invest in senior leadership, mid-career academics and professionals or helping younger researchers gain the skills and exposure to get their feet on the funding ladder? The answer to this question will always be a mix, but it is unavoidable that the decision will be informed by budgets and capacity if nothing else.

The public sector in the UK has traditionally been very good at investing in those just starting out on their careers and those near the top. This can leave the “middle” neglected. The more successful businesses, for example leading technology and professional services firms recognise the importance of prioritising and developing the capacity of the “middle” by redesigning roles, changing work and skill mix and business practices. The message here is this kind of development is not just about courses but about giving well established staff access to new experiences, extending and expanding roles, such as being involved directly in leading change, albeit supported by  informal coaching, mentoring or perhaps learning sets to practice new approaches. We suggest universities might usefully re-examine the capability of their experienced teachers, researchers and professionals, assess the skills gap and unfulfilled potential and use institutional wide talent management strategies as an enabler for success in an increasingly competitive environment.

We also see some talent management priorities arising from labour market shortages in what companies often call ‘operationally critical’ jobs or workforce groups. For example, some universities find it difficult to fill technician roles when long-serving staff retire or find clinical-academics in areas like medicine when higher salaries can be earned outside the academy. These are national, not institutional problems. Pharmaceutical companies adjusted their training pipelines for technician roles many years ago to accommodate both graduate and vocational routes and to raise skill levels to respond to increasingly complex lab techniques and equipment. Such issues could be addressed by universities sectorally or regionally as well as individually.

The second set of business decisions about priorities is trickier. Will we develop everyone in a particular workforce group to the same skill level or will we sometimes select individuals for more stretching development activities? The trend here in other sectors is clearly to aim for a both/and answer to this question. For example, companies are re-investing in first line manager training for all such managers, because good management is so central to the performance, engagement, development and retention of the people they manage. However, on top of this universal development, a talent management approach may also be trying to spot first line managers who want to progress their careers and have the ability to do a bigger or more complex management job. Depending on the context, a university may be wanting to invest in people already thinking about becoming a Head of Department, or looking a bit earlier for individuals who simply want to grow and are interested in exploring their leadership potential. Such individuals may be offered more stretching developmental opportunities to help them progress their careers and also to test their career preferences. The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programmes and Athena SWAN does something of this kind for women in academia. So taking a business view, different kinds of development investment may address both the many and the few.

Of course, if organisations try and spot potential for career progression, they need to be very careful to avoid managers just developing their favourites or perpetuating inequalities of gender, race and so on. This is why talent management does have to be inclusive and include relevant definitions of potential for different kinds of jobs or levels in the organisation, test and challenge the views of individual managers and integrate talent management with real time tracking of diversity and inclusion data.

Moving from the organisational to the individual perspective, the idea of a Personal Development Plan is long established. However, other sectors are trying to move this away from being just about courses and to make it individually tailored and genuinely personal – that is related to the strengths and needs of each person and their situation. So we would not expect PDPs to give the same development to everyone doing the same job. PDPs are also being modified to include career-related development as well as development to improve performance in the current job. Talent management explicitly includes talking to individuals about their career aspirations and interests. There is little point developing someone towards being a Head of Department if this is simply not something they want to do or if they show no sign of the people skills required to do it successfully.

In essence talent management brings together these two perspectives and has to be “everyone’s business” and not just human resources “baby”. It needs to focus development where it is needed by the business and where it matches the aspirations and abilities of individuals. When it works well it’s a win-win for the “many” in the organisation and also for the “few” at the level of the individual. But to go down this route, we have to get used to the idea that not everyone needs to learn the same things at the same time in the same way. The best universities aspire to attend to the individual needs and interests of their students – supporting those who needs extra help and challenging those who can go further. Why would they wish to do less for their staff?

Dr Wendy Hirsh is an employment researcher and consultant specialising in career development, talent management, succession planning and workforce planning. Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, was co-written with Elaine Tyler, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies.

Download the report here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/hirsh5.8

Academic freedom: autonomy in higher education


Astana, capital city of Kazakhstan

Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Leadership Foundation reflects on the successful Kazakhstan Leadership Development Programme and the importance of autonomy in higher education. 

February 14 2017 was a momentous day for higher education in the Republic of Kazakhstan. For the first time, 12 of the county’s higher education institutions were given some degree of autonomy. The government approved new regulations that allowed those high-performing universities to manage their own affairs in a number of crucial ways, from admissions policies and developing degree programmes, content and assessment to defining academic job roles, qualifications and salaries.

Autonomy in higher education is usually understood to mean “academic freedom”, with universities enjoying freedom of discovery, inquiry and the teaching and learning of their students. Higher education leaders in the UK, which is renowned for its institutional autonomy, would no doubt be horrified at the very notion that any of the functions newly acquired by their Kazakh counterparts might be controlled by government.  In the UK, qualifications have long been managed from within the sector itself and research funding policy follows the Haldane Principle which separates government (and potentially politically) driven research agendas from funds distributed by the UK research councils for “general research”.

Its autonomy is something the UK higher education sector protects fiercely. The Higher Education and Research Bill – which became an Act in April 2017 – was firmly challenged for encroaching too far into the autonomy of the sector. There was particular concern that the new Office for Students, under the direction of the secretary of state, would assume responsibility for quality and standards from current sector-led arrangements, and even (in early drafts) allowing the secretary of state to direct courses of study. This power was removed in subsequent amendments to the bill in order to protect institutions’ freedom to teach whatever courses of study they wish.

But, while it is clear why institutions themselves will want to promote autonomy, is it really the best approach for the education system as a whole? The evidence suggests it is. A key message in a 2010 report for the European Commission was that basic autonomy and flexibility with regard to staffing policy, financial autonomy and selecting their “academic community” is a hallmark of the most efficient education systems. The report also highlights adequate levels of public and private resourcing, the capacity to meet supply and demand, and attract and retain qualified staff as the enablers or the “right conditions”. This combination of “basic autonomy” and “right conditions” helps tertiary education sectors contribute to the educational attainment and research productivity of their countries. In the UK, universities generate more than £73bn a year for the British economy, contribute nearly 3% of UK GDP, and support more than 750,000 jobs. Relative to the country’s size it has the most efficient research system in the G8 and is second overall only to the United States in terms of research publications.

For the past three years the Leadership Foundation has worked with the Kazakhstan education ministries and higher education institutions in their quest for university autonomy. The Kazakh approach was to provide the leadership development and capability building upfront and then to enact autonomy legislation when capacity had been demonstrably built to operate in this different way.

Our programme focused on the leadership of higher education research, learning and teaching, and entrepreneurial and adaptive universities – helping to enable universities to function more effectively as autonomous entities and within sound governance frameworks, building the capacity for accountability through developing appropriate relationships with the Kazakhstan Ministry of Education and Science and various stakeholders.

The desire of countries to shift to greater autonomy in their higher education systems is a common strand in the leadership development work we have undertaken in more than 30 countries in recent years.  However, a key challenge for a number of countries is that, while they aspire to modernise their higher education sectors, existing regulatory and legal frameworks are not set up to support growth and innovation. It is a challenge to ensure that any ambition for change is aligned with national structures and legal systems because if they don’t develop hand-in-hand, this tension can stop development in its tracks.

In the UK, a combination of competition and autonomy, as well as priority research and development agendas with funding pots, has driven growth and excellence. These in turn have been supported by robust in-sector regulatory checks and balances: quality assurance, the Research Excellence Framework, financial health reports.

At the heart of this is both sector and institutional autonomy – and as universities operate in an increasingly globalised market place, levels and types of autonomy, and how these contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of tertiary education systems, have never been more important.

Since 2007 the European University Association has been undertaking a Europe-wide Autonomy Survey and developed an Autonomy Scorecard in 2011. The Scorecard focuses on four broad dimensions to benchmark the autonomy of European countries’ systems: organisational, financial, staffing and academic. Organisational autonomy relates to the selection criteria and procedures for institution heads, oversight of the appointment of external governors, and the capacity for an institution to decide on its own academic/organisational structures. Staffing covers recruitment procedures; salaries; dismissal and promotion processes. Financial autonomy looks at the types of public funding; ownership over estates; borrowing money and holding surpluses; and the mechanisms for tuition fee and student funding. And, finally, academic autonomy relates to quality assurance, student numbers, design and delivery of degree programmes and admissions procedures.

From these measures alone – even before adding in each country’s unique internal and geopolitical environments and “starting point” in their higher education development journey – it’s clear how complex and varied sectors can be in their range of autonomy across the dimensions.

We’ve seen how Kazakhstan has taken steps to align legal frameworks with institutional capacity building. We hope and trust its reforms will be a success and that, over time, Kazakhstan’s objective of autonomy can be extended to a wider pool of universities.

About the Kazakhstan Leadership Development Programme
Click here to read our international case study on the programme supporting the ongoing education reform in Kazakhstan

About the Leadership Foundation’s International work
We provide a range of programmes, interventions, relationship building and networking activities to the global market. We are uniquely placed as the only higher education specific leadership, governance and management development provider in the world. To get a small snapshot of our wide-reaching services, click here