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More Musings from the Bersin Show

April 16, 2009

Yesterday, I shared some initial thoughts from the Bersin show.  As I was driving home from the airport last night, I decided there were a couple of other things worth saying.

First, why am I so annoyed at ths continuing focus on talent managament?  To me, it feels like a massive lost opportunity.  Think for a moment about all the time, energy, effort etc… that organizations willingly expend on talent programs and formal learning initiatives.  We’re literally spending billions of dollars to identify, promote, and develop talent in the org.  We identify top performers, we identify high potentials, we develop curriculum, we create exclusionary leadership development programs.  Yet, on the learning side, we know from research that 80% of the knowledge and skills people use everyday on the job comes from informal and social learning, not from the formal stuff we have made.

I wonder the extent to which the same or worse is true on this formal talent management programs.  According to Rob Cross:

  • The average leader can personally identify fewer than 50% of the top performers on their team.
  • 66% of the key contributors in any given company are not identified as such in Talent Management programs.
  • Often the most critical “connectors” or information channels in an organization are the folks at the lowest level of the org, including administrative folks and secretaries, because our organizational networks are too silo’ed, too fragmented, and too hierarchical.
  • It’s not unusual for a very small percentage of workers to drive a disproportionately high amount of revenue.  Most of the time, management can only identify a small subset of these “super-performers.”
  • In some cases, up to 20% of managers deemed “top performers” within talent management programs actually provided almost no value to their peers when the company assessed “go to” people for collaboration.

These are some bad-ass scary stats.  Just as there is shadow learning economy in most organizations that goes un-managed and un-reported, so too is there an organizational black market on talent that exists outside formal talent management programs, basically running the company through the white spaces in the typical org chart.  If the informal learning to formal learning ratio is 80/20, I bet informal talent to formal talent management is 95/5 in terms of the impact on work.  And again, we spend all of our money on formal.

In my last post, I was a bit harsh on Josh.  Let me be clear about a couple of things on this front.  I was tough because I care.  Josh has a kick-ass team.  I’ve know Chris Howard for years and he’s never failed to impress me.  I’ve known David Mallon for just under a year and I’ve said publicly that he wrote perhaps the most insightful piece on workplace community technology I’ve seen yet by any vendor including Jeremiah Owyang and Charlene Li, both of whom have been covering social media for far longer.  I don’t know Leigh Levensalar as well, but the one session I saw of her suggested real depth.  Anyway, I could go on and on – my point is that it’s a big team and it’s smart team.

While I understand why Bersin and company have been pushing talent management for the last few years (it’s what the market wants to hear), I think they need to lead the charge in defining new directions.  It’s a hard thing to do, believe me I know.  Last year, we decided to go full bore at social learning, and we got some serious pushback from clients.  But we said in essence, “Look, we know we’re right and someday you will thank us for this.  In the meantime, be mad if you want, but this is what we’re doing.”  Fast forward just 12 months and now every one of clients is not only on-board, many of them want to know why we didn’t do more.

My point?  Sometimes the best thing you can do to serve your customers is serve them a wake-up call by telling them the truths they may not want to hear.  Does it cause some short-term relationship pain?  Hell ya.  But if you really love and respect your customers, then you take the risk and accept the possible consequences because it’s the right thing to do.  In our case, it paid off big time.  I think it would in Bersin’s case as well.  They are known, they are respected, they have a great list of clients.  It’s time for some tough love.

Two more points and then I’ll move off this topic:  while I mostly bitched and moaned in yesterday’s post, there were some really great things at this event and I don’t want those to be overshadowed by frustration over the talent management thing.  The Learning Leaders panel was on it’s own worth the price of the whole conference.  Sun and Boeing in particular were killer.  Sun was doing stuff with YouTube like sharing including channels, ratings, reviews etc…  and Boeing discussed a very effective blended program they created.  In each case, the business need was very different and as a result, the solutions were like on opposite ends of the spectrum.  But they were both the right solutions for the problem.  This session really showed how instructional design and learning / talent development should be done.  In short, it was inspiring.  Easily the best session I’ve attended in maybe 10 years of conferences.

Bersin and crew also did a great job in providing a lot of small and big opportunities for networking throughout the day.  And in every session, they provided ample time for Q&A and audience feedback.  They also encouraged participants to use Twitter to connect and to share, a strategy which unfortunately was hampered a bit by the technology skills of the audience.  Overall though, Bersin did a good job of being inclusive and providing opportunties for real social learning and networking in between the spaces of the formal sessions which of course is a major reason to go to any show.

So take the good with the bad.  The bad is that HR folks are still focused on the wrong stuff and conferences like these are a reflection on that.  The good is that Bersin and team ran a great conference and have the skill and brains to help this industry make the necessary transition to a more collaborative, more empowered sort of talent “management.”  Here’s hoping they do.


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