Simon Terry

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Talent is not an Asset. Talent needs a Community

Reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work for insight into working out loud, I came across the concept of a scenius coined by Brian Eno.  The idea of a scenius is that great talents arise from scenes that foster them. Great talent arises from interactions in an ecology of talent.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work. – Brian Eno

There isn’t a War for Talent

Talent isn’t oil. We haven’t yet reached peak talent. There is plenty of untapped wells of talent left.

The concept of a War for Talent has motivated organisational HR departments and executives ever since a McKinsey Quarterly article coined the phrase in 1998. The article related to changing demographics of people entering the workforce that lasts to 2015.

McKinsey’s original war has almost run its race (& even been made more redundant by the forces of a changing economy). We might have arguments about new Wars for Talent now, but the competitive and hoarding nature of the concept has inspired managers ever since. Why wouldn’t you want to hoard the largest stock of talent? Why wouldn’t you want to win in the competition for a scarce resource?

The War for Talent also had another unintended consequence in organisations. Because acquisition was easy to measure, it focused organisations on the battle for talent external to the organisation. Internal talent was often inadvertently devalued in comparison to the battle to win new talent. Internal talent was rated on potential and regularly decimated. The focus on those rated high potential talent was retention. For the middle range there was little focus on deployment, development or growth in potential.

The scenius idea highlights why so many organisations that have pursued a stock oriented approach to talent have discovered that it fails to deliver.  Talent is not a stock to be possessed. It is a flow that grows through connection, purposeful work and community.

Talent needs a Community 

Organisations that have tried to hoard talented people generally find that their talent decays or departs quickly. The half-life of a stock hoarded talent is short. 

The surest way to lose talented people is to disconnect them from inspirations, deprive them of purpose and underemploy their skills and expertise. The hoarding mindset encouraged organisations to do exactly this. Organisations wanted to disconnect their talent from others who might poach them. They wanted to have more talent than they needed ‘just in case’ and sought to deploy talented people in roles that weren’t stretching them to have a pipeline of future talent ready.

In contrast, a community of talented people grows in number and skills. Talented people grow through the interactions in a scenius, their networks or other learning communities. They grow by reaching out to the example of others, by stretching the use of their skills and by learning against great challenges, not by sitting on a shelf waiting to be deployed.

Once you see the flow of network interactions within which talented people operate it becomes clearer that all the talent need not be inside your organisation. Organisations need to foster value in their talented people by purposefully networking your organisation.  

Organisations need to recognise that talent will be active participants in the flow of knowledge and learning experiences outside the organisation too. All employees should be encouraged to reach out into networks because it develops the talent of everyone in the organisation and gives your organisation greater access to the real strategic benefit of those networks.

Talents grow when they are deployed against challenges. Make sure your people have the opportunity to realise their potential in the flow of interactions around them. Give all your employees the chance to grow and leverage their talents in networks.


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