Talent Management: Talent is not a “Someone” it’s a Delivery Vehicle


Today’s post is inspired by a 14 March Vancouver Sun article titled “Retail jobs evaporate as shoppers adjust to self-service”, by Alan Semuels, page C4. the article prompted me to reflect on what is talent in talent management anyway? I want to examine this from a unique perspective. When I say unique I am only claiming so from how I have been thinking about talent so far.

The article examines how retail like service organizations are automating critical aspects of their service/product delivery systems. A major area of shift is the move to automated self-checkout service that are now finding in grocery stores, Home Depot, and the like. The next area is apparently gong to be in fuel service stations where no staff are required.

What the article also touches on that I find most interesting is the social policy consequences of such trends. The loss of comparatively low skill and low paying jobs. This is a huge implication and I would argue that we should be very clear about the implications.

What are the social implications?

  • Loss of employment opportunities for those with limited work skills and experience. How do people with marginal skills make themselves self supporting?
  • The relationship of distinct service attributes as a competitive advantage. You really only become a pure market place where people come to pick stuff up.
  • The notion of brand for organizations – what is it you do that makes you unique from the competition if you all adopt a similar delivery model? And how will this uniqueness be profitable? What needs are going to be met? How and where do you setup your physical footprints?
  • The whole issue of minimum wage rates when there is trend to eradicate these roles out of the system. This will result in the longer run to the significant reduction of minimum wage roles impacting the wind” of those who propose continuous elevation of these rates. Why? Retail is traditionally a “tight margin business” and the increase in cost for labour has noticeable impacts on these operations. Now they are seeing additional ways of operating that takes this cost factor almost out of the equation. How will interested stakeholders react?
  • The whole issue of how people get into workplaces and develop effective workalike skills. Knowing how to work is an experientially derived competency. Can other institutions begin to effectively pick up the slack? And why would they?
  • The whole issue of why we shop that includes the benefit of socialization opportunities will be further eroded.
  • The impact of adoption rates on complimentary technologies such as customers purchasing smart phones.
  • The whole issue of talent management becomes more visibly centred around how do we bring knowledge, skill, judgement and wisdom into our operating model? Where do we use automation? Where do we use people directly? Where do we use other parties talent? And, the list of key questions go on.

Am I being alarmist? No, I don’t think so. Will it happen overnight? No, but the better question is what will prompt its rapid deployment? Here is where other stakeholders come into play. If their activities drive the cost of lower level talent to rise in an uncompetitive way (hint: its always about ratios, comparative advantages, etc.) then adoption rates will rise accordingly.

So, as a retail like service entity, where do you want to be five years from now? Now that the means to fundamentally change the economics of being in your business is now at hand, do yo lead, follow, stay on the sidelines?  I believe all three options can work, depending upon your fundamental strategy.

So let’s look at the concept of talent management (TM) again:

  • Conventional thinking: attracting, retaining and effectively deploying your people.
  • My slant: Effectively accessing and using talent as and when you need it.

Realistically, which notion of TM is more in tune with the discussion above? It’s not the conventional notion.

Yet, I think there is value in being critical with the notion I have been advocating (this is the “still learning” piece here). I have always viewed talent as the means to bring knowledge, skill, judgement and wisdom to the party. I have also always advocated that through the notion of system permeability we can see opportunities to cast our access to talent supply net in a broader manner. What the article is suggesting is the customer becomes even more involved with service delivery as well as the suppliers. As retail service organizations move towards total automation of their business delivery of products and services to customers you get what you want and need with minimal – no customer and supplier interaction. How are we going to like that?

Many of us prefer doing business that way already. My wife and I are i our 60s and really prefer doing as much as we can online. We do not enjoy lineups at stores. We do not enjoy finding parking. We aren’t impressed with the calibre of knowledge that most sales clerks/associates have (so are learning to get our questions answered elsewhere). We mostly don’t appreciate the waste of our time. Are we typical? I don’t know (it really doesn’t matter either). Our interest in adopting new technology is a direct reflection of wanting to pay the least for the most value at the least personal effort.

Historically, people have used public markets to meet their needs (food, durable goods, clothing, etc.). markets are where you go to get stuff. Along with that, a side benefit is the opportunity to socialize. There were few alternatives for keeping up with what was going on. Of course as industrial societies developed and large urban centres became common. The notion of public markets evolved too. However, in retail, shops in a mall or along  street corridor are still  reminiscent of the “stalls” in older public markets.

The role of talent in all this was to enable the connection between supplier and retail purchaser. The way we established our businesses to participate in this (sometimes long) supply delivery chain resulted in the creation of roles and subsequent talent requirements. So talent is about delivery, hence it is a pure organizing form. It is about organizing knowledge, skills, judgement and wisdom in the most effective and efficient method possible. The wrinkle is that at some point or other talent shows up in the cranium and body of a person. How we organize our general operating model dictates where these person centric presences will be found. In the automated dispensary machines. the person physical form of talent is purely behind the scene (i.e. the vending machine supply, maintenance, and design/manufacturing) and in front of the scene (the customer pushing buttons, paying, and taking away the good(s).

The person centric talent roles in this scenario are higher tech than in “sans” vending machine like retail environment. It is the presence of the vending machine that removes lower tech and skilled talent roles.

We have seen the incredible increase in talent productivity in many areas where the ability to make significant productivity gains through capital investment have been possible and practical. However, retail service like businesses have had more limited and specific areas to effectively benefit from capital investments. Now it looks like this is beginning to change.

So after this long journey, I believe TM officers, to be truly  useful, will now have to become more proficient at understanding how to assess moving the boundary between person centric forms of talent to other forms to the benefit of the organization. By benefit I not only mean this in the typical financial dimensions, but also in terms of the customer experience dimensions as well. How does the fully automated fuel supply organization want to enable a specific customer experience? Is the firm even aware of what that should look like?

Part of the answer for providing a desired, profitable, and intentional customer experience is to know where person centric forms of talent are critical to enabling it. Up to now, for retail service like organizations the choices have been more limited.

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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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