Talent Management: Is talent the only sustainable competitive advantage?

A common mantra is that talent is the only sustainable competitive advantage that organizations have in today’s global environment.

Do you agree with this?

I don’t, unless there is a lot of implicit hidden meaning in several of the terms and concepts above. but rather than just “read in” what authors/speakers intended mean I prefer to be explicit where it matters for clarity sake.

Regarding talent and its place in contributing to a sustainable competitive advantage, here is what I am more comfortable in expressing:

Great strategy executed with the contributions of exemplary access and use of talent is a sustainable competitive advantage.

Yes this is a mouthful, but it highlights some critical context regarding competitive advantage. Let’s explore some of these:

  • Great strategy provides the market place positioning lever. Externally it advantageously differentiates a firm from the competition and in the eyes of customers. Internally it provides the macro-system context for effective and efficient use of scarce resources (including talent). So so or just okay strategy will likely not provide a “sustaining” advantage. And, yes it takes talent to do this.
  • Execution embodies the notion that vision without implementation is a “pipe dream”. And, yes it takes talent to do this.
  • Exemplary access and use of talent builds on the critical resource subset of execution. Other forms of inputs also have to be handled well. And, yes this takes talent to do this.

Isn’t there irony here? Isn’t all about talent then?

No, because having great talent gets you very little. Talent isn’t about possession. It is about getting your hands on it (in an appropriate fashion) and making really good use of it.

I would argue that attracting and retaining talent is as about as competitive as having good inventory on the shelves. There is some value there but it often provides little advantage.

Let’s consider an example: sports.

There have been numerous cases where a team with “so so” talent has prevailed repeatedly over another “star ladened” one. Why? Because, the so so talent has been better utilized.

I would go so far as to say that no organization has an untoward advantage or disadvantage regarding its readily available talent. Yes there may be specific comparative differences, but as the sport example above suggests, comparative differences may not bestow unsurmountable advantages/disadvantages. I would be inclined to think that if someone expresses frustration over the lack of “good people” in their organization: “I wonder how well your are taking advantage of the talent you have now?” My own experience is those that bemoan the most have the most opportunity to use what they have better.

Just to set the record straight, I am aware of those businesses where their competitive advantage are only the people they have (e.g., science and professional based organizations) in that they do not have any other significant “assets” to draw upon. However, unless well used these too in time will not succeed.

Readers of this BLOG are aware that I have a fanaticism about role performance being the key to levering talent performance.

Those who would say the conventional “talent is the sustaining competitive advantage” statement, may offer up that they really mean the things that are outlined above. My issue is that in this day and age, people (who often don’t have the time or inclination to “think about it”), will easily be mislead by a statement that overtly focuses on “possession” as the key to business success.

So even if my expression on how talent contributes to sustainable competitive advantage is a mouthful – it makes clear under what circumstances talent can contribute to a sustainable competitive advantage.

Words and phrases have “real meaning” what we say makes some things explicit and the rest implicit or invisible. The problem with implicit meaning is it can be truly invisible to the reader or listener.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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