July 17, 2008 — Vol. 1, Issue 6
Message from the Academy Director
Talent Management 101
There has been a lot of talk over the past decade about talent management. What does it mean? What are its implications for a project-based organization like NASA?
A skeptic might ask if there is any difference between talent management and human resources. Is talent management just a buzz phrase used to resell old wine in a new bottle? The term itself came to the general business world from the entertainment industry, where actors, musicians, dancers, and other performers have long been referred to as "the talent." Has the business world adopted talent management simply because it wants to be like Hollywood?
Not quite. First, it's useful to think about the origins of the old paradigm. Human resources emerged during the first half of the 20th century as mass production techniques and the scientific approach to management ("Taylorism") revolutionized industry. The implication was that people were resources, just like steel and coal: they could be acquired, fired, and moved as senior management deemed necessary.
Talent management offers a more precise way of describing knowledge workers. The key to understanding talent in a business context is that 1) it resides in individuals, and 2) the talents of those individuals are employed in the context of teams. This is as true for NASA as for any Hollywood studio. Just as no individual has ever single-handedly built and launched a spacecraft, no individual has ever made a Hollywood studio film. These are always team efforts.
So how does talent management apply to NASA? As technology, globalization, and system requirements drive us toward ever-greater complexity, there is an increasing worldwide demand for professionals who are highly skilled in the integration of complex systems. These skills cannot be taught in a training course or even a graduate program; they are the result of experience acquired on the job. This means the talent pool of successful, experienced practitioners is limited.
Since demand for these skills is high in a global economy, talent is an international commodity that does not sit still. A skilled knowledge worker may have opportunities in Dubai, Shanghai, and Seattle. Talent also crosses sectors more fluidly than ever before: people hopscotch between government and the private sector in search of the best opportunities for growth.
Talent management is a shared responsibility. In a project-based environment, both project leaders and senior leaders have to address the needs of knowledge workers in order to compete in the global battle for talent. As I mentioned in my last column
, the Academy's research has found that NASA master practitioners gain expertise through the 4 As: ability, attitude, assignments, and alliances. There are several things an organization can do to facilitate growth in the 4 A's. First, it should offer a clear focus on career development. Where a project is the unit of work, jobs come and go; the career is the ultimate path. Second, career development should be firmly rooted in competency enhancement. Every Academy activity, from a training course to a coaching session, is designed to strengthen at least one project management or systems engineering competency. Third, it should create and encourage professional networking opportunities. The Academy sponsors events like the PM Challenge and the Masters Forums to bring together people from all ten NASA centers as well as from industry and academia to learn and share. A knowledge worker's network is an organizational asset.
Talent management is not just the old wine of human resources in a new bottle. It's a critical component of success in an age of highly complex projects. Organizations that ignore it will be left behind.