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Social Networking and Talent Management

February 19, 2009

One of the interesting things about user-generated content and the wisdom of crowds is the diversity of perspective that inevitabally follows.  A few days ago, Barry Libert, our Chairman of the Board and all around social media rockstar, wrote a blog post about MWH, a Colorado-based manufacturing company that was recently profiled in the Wall St. Journal.  The focus of the article was the business impact from MWH’s social network analysis (SNA) and subsequent social networking efforts.  Barry noted some of the key business outcomes from this effort in his post so I’m not going to rehash his astute observations.  Instead I want to focus on a couple of lightly referenced elements of the article that seem to hint at a much larger story.

Here is what caught my attention:

“Rob Cross, a University of Virginia management professor, says the [social network] maps help firms uncover work-force dynamics hidden by organizational charts and performance reviews. … He recently asked employees of about 20 companies to identify colleagues who have helped them perform better; about two-thirds of the names weren’t on the firms’ previous lists of top performers, Mr. Cross says.”

So unless I’m misreading this – across 20 different companies, social network analysis revealed experts that were not on the companies’ previous list of “top performers.”  This suggests two things:

  1. existing talent management strategies do a poor job in identifying all of the critical talent in an organization
  2. existing talent management strategies may be identifying “experts” who are not regarded as such by their colleagues

My logic may be wrong here, but I’m sort of struggling with the question of why only one third of the names on the list were already identified as “top performers”?  One option is that there were so many additional names mentioned during the SNA that even with 100% of the top performers making the list, they still only represented one third of the total count.  This goes to my first point — there is a much greater pool of talent driving organizational performance than management realizes.

The other possibility is that some significant number of “top performers” didn’t make the list at all.  This has even scarier implications because it suggests that we’re not only failing to identify critical expertise, we’re also inappropriately recognizing experts and leaders who are not regarded as such by their peers.  My guess is that the study reveals a little bit of both — there are a large number of folks who are known as experts by their peers, but not management, and there a number of “future leaders” who are not well-respected by their peers.

The first point noted above shouldn’t really be all that surprising.  In fact, if you read The Long Tail, you might fully expect this sort of result.  “Talent Management” and talent identification, as it’s currently practiced, relies on a scarce pool of resources to properly identify and promote talent within the organization.  Because of this, it is subject to the same rules and power laws that govern any system where you have limited “vetting” resources and relatively unlimited supplies.  The result inevitably is the identification of a relatively small pool of “shining stars” (the short head) and a nearly unlimited pool of everything or everyone else (the long tail).  This effect can be found in movie ticket sales, ice cream flavor popularity, blog traffic…  And talent management too.  The same base conditions that drive movie studios to “push” and promote certain movies drive managers to push and promote certain employees.

In today’s model, talent is typically identified by managers who have limited resources, especially time, to deeply evaluate every member of their teams.  Do managers typically interview and discuss each employee with all the other employees with whom they interact?  What about customers?  Suppliers?  The public?  The reality is that most managers are at best aware of just one dimension of an employee’s work — the stuff that rolls up, not the stuff that rolls to the side or down.  Further, in many cases , they don’t even really have adequate time to properly evaluate even the upwardly flowing work.  After all, talent management is not their main job, it’s really a side project and in most companies, it’s a side project that is episodic at best.

In the best case, the result is identification of only the absolute “best” work and workers, those that stand “head and shoulders” above their peers and are therefore easy to identify and promote.  In this case, really great people are promoted, but many “nearly great” people are ignored.  This thesis seems to be at least partially born out by the data noted by Mr. Cross given the large number of employees who were identified by peers but not by corporate leadership programs.

In the worst case scenario though, managers don’t even necessarily promote and identify talent by their work at all, but by a host of other factors.  Again, think back to movies — some movies are blockbusters because they are legitimately great; some are blockbusters because their prequals were great (for example Matrix III or any movie containing Jar Jar Binks); some are blockbusters because they fit a certain popular genre that is hot at the time (any Jean Claude Van Dame movie after BloodSport for instance); some are blockbusters because they are hyped to the point where they overcome their overall crappiness (like maybe The Kingdom of the Crystal Suck); and still others are blockbusters because there was just nothing else playing at that time that was any good (say like The Cable Guy).  Virtually everyone of these scenarios has an analog in talent identification or talent management, yet only the first example has anything to do with “real” value.

Then there is the whole issue of homophily.  The next time you have a chance to meet or see senior leaders within your organization, assess them physically for a few minutes.  Are they tall?  Attractive?  Thin?  For the vast majority of you, the answers will be yes, yes, and yes.  Why?  Are leaders just naturally tall, attractive, and thin?  Is it something about leadership that makes people tall, attractive, and thin?  Do short, fat, unattractive people naturally look to their more attractive colleagues for leadership?  These are complex questions to be sure, but one thing that research continually shows is that leaders promote and recognize employees who look like them.  It’s a natural human trait; pretty successful people assume other pretty people are successful and boom, you have a management full of Barbies and Kens.  All of this suggests that maybe traditional talent identification and management is a hell of a lot more flawed than maybe we’d like to admit.

So for me, at least, the MWH study and the work by Mr. Cross suggests another way forward.  What if, through SNA, and additional analysis of employee’s real contributions through tools like wikis, blogs, discussions, comments, file sharing, idea sharing as well as more standard measures of work output, we could create an unbiased, objective view of an employee’s work performance?  What if, instead of asking for the opinion of just one lone manager, who may themselves be a complete ass, we instead map actual connections and contributions between employees, and maybe external communication and collaboration with partners and supplies, and even customers.  Crazy?  Not really.  We’re getting pretty close with some our analytics tools and we’re making real progress toward this.  It’s time to reinvent talent management and talent identification as the collective, objective process it should have always been.  This Wall St. Journal article is just another proof point that should push us all in this direction.

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