There’s lots of buzz about talent inside and outside HR; on what it is and what it isn’t and also how to identify, attract, recruit, develop and retain it. Just about everything and nothing.
Surprisingly this gives the impression that the notion of talent is unique, and as such, recognized and accepted by all. Yet the reality is quite to the contrary. If we ask a dozen people for their definition of talent, we will probably get a dozen different answers—in some cases even markedly different.
The definition that each person comes up with for talent is strongly shaped by personal values. For instance, if I value effort, my definition of talent includes making all the effort one can. The fact that nearly everyone has their own definition of talent explains why the scenarios depicted are so diverse. For some, everyone has talent. For others, talent is scarce. For mediators, both sides are right: everyone has talent but not for everything.
This degree of subjectivity does little to help—if at all—to achieve the goals described above, i.e. to identify, attract, recruit, develop and retain talent. We need a better working definition to understand how talent can help us achieve this.
Under the right conditions, talent translates into results. Almost everyone would agree with this statement. So, one of the key questions would be: what does achieving results depend on today?
Bauman says we live in liquid times or, more popularly nowadays, in a VUCA environment (acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Changing and Ambiguous). So, personal interpretations aside, it is clear that we need a new kind of talent that fits in with these liquid times. In other words, we need liquid talent.
Liquid talent is characterized by possessing two essential qualities in abundance for the reality in which we live: adaptability and versatility.
Adaptability as a new value is about being experts in unlearning; that is to say, to be able to systematically leave behind everything that reality has been rendering obsolete. And yet, adaptability also implies being able to face and overcome the daily challenge of learning on the job in a knowledge environment. It isn’t easy to juggle this with the pace of change alongside the workload and the volumes of information we work with.
Traditionally talent was split into two groups: generalists and specialists. As I once heard: those who knew next to nothing about almost everything and those who knew almost everything about next to nothing. Just like the breakthrough that came about when the specialists came onto the scene, now we need a different kind of talent: the "versatilists" or "T-shaped persons".
A versatilist or a T-shaped person is a professional who masters a specific subject or skill (the vertical bar of “T”). At the same time this talent also possesses a sufficiently broad knowledge base of a range of complementary additional subjects or skills (the horizontal bar of “T”) together with a great capacity for empathy which allows him to work collaboratively with ease.
Another advantage offered by such T-shaped skilled people is that they find it comparatively easier to adapt to the new needs that are emerging in the organization because they can develop any generalist skills with far less extra effort than any specialist would be able to.
As if this weren’t enough, T-shaped persons are able to perform better than traditional profiles as they master more subject matters and generally can rally more resources available to them to achieve their target outcomes.
Nevertheless there are cases in which generalists and specialists are still good choices. The adaptability and versatility of T-shaped skilled people will mean that there will be a growing demand for such talent to empower the capacity for innovation within organizations.
So mark my words. There is new talent emerging that brings together the best of specialists and generalists. This is fluid, versatile and adaptable talent. It's already here, and its tag comes with a single letter.