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Data-dialogue balance: why it matters

Paul Lambert 
PA Consulting Group 
Talent Management magazine
1 March 2009

The issue

Talent management approaches can be criticised for falling into 2 possible traps. Either there is a lot of conversation, often dominated by HR, about staff development (without insightful data about skills gaps in the organisation) or there is an excess of processes and paperwork that are ill-suited to the fast pace of today's organisation. This article explores the "data / dialogue" balance where there is real, action orientated engagement with senior leadership and line management, supported by insightful data that shows how talent management will support the future plans and strategy of the organisation.

Why the data / dialogue balance is important

Talent management continues to be on the board agenda, in spite of the economic downturn. The chief reason for this is that so many organisations are reliant on the skills of their staff and wider workforce for delivery and competitive advantage. A recent study concluded that over 45% of people in the UK can now be described as "knowledge workers" where the main focus of their work is "thinking for a living". However, while many senior teams acknowledge its importance to business, getting the senior engagement and business focus that is central to the success of talent management initiatives is not easy. An essential for success is ensuring business leaders and managers are engaged in an on-going dialogue around a set of talent data that is aligned to business plans and ultimately, to business success.

The data / dialogue balance

The key to success in the data / dialogue balance is business engagement. In our experience, the business will always engage when presented with the "killer facts" around talent. For instance, in a recent client situation, we used data to show that due to the career plans of current staff and the mobility of other suitably qualified and skilled staff, one region of the country would have no skilled leaders to fill senior posts in the next 2 years. This was important enough for senior leaders to immediately engage with HR to devise a solution.

Align and map talent data to the roles and skills that are central to delivery of the business plan

The first step in achieving business engagement is to relate talent issues to the execution of business plans. We find a really helpful tool in doing this is the Strategy Map (Kaplan and Norton) that we use to link the business strategy to the key talent (capability) areas (such as project management) and the roles within these areas (e.g. project manager, programme manager, head of project office). For example, the IT strategy (to support the ultimate business strategy) relied heavily on the delivery of five major IT programmes, so project management was identified as a major area for talent development. A projects centre of expertise was set up to provide training in consistent project delivery as well as accreditation in PMI (project management qualification) and a succession plan for senior project management posts was put in place.

Create a core set of data around supply and demand of talent that enables business level dialogue and decision making

A second key to success is to ensure that talent data supports a business-led and HR facilitated discussion around both the supply and demand of talent. Most businesses can quickly get a view of the capability of their current staff but find it difficult to gain a view of what the key roles are in terms of organisational jobs, geographical spread and future importance to the business.

The right data for each organisation will be different but the key questions on the demand side are:

  • What are the key roles and skills for the current and future operation of this business? (not just for the leadership!)
  • When will new staff be needed in these roles (due to retirement, growth plans etc) and where (geographically and organisationally) will they be needed?

The key questions on the supply side are then:

  • What is the depth of talented individuals (in terms of current performance and future potential) that might fulfil these roles in the next 1, 2 and 5 years (so we have a talent pipeline)?
  • What factors will affect this supply? (e.g. mobility, geographical spread, retention issues).

Discuss talent from the most senior levels of the organisation and down – as part of the business planning and management processes

Once armed with talent data that is genuinely linked to business decision making, it is important that the links do not stop there. Talent decision making needs to be linked to business planning processes and start at the most senior levels in an organisation. Getting on the business agenda will mean drawing from the "killer facts" in your talent data analysis. For instance, in the global IT organisation mentioned earlier, it was demonstrated that over 50% of the project management roles (that were so critical to business delivery) were held by contractors who could leave with a month's notice.

It is important to identify a senior sponsor who will then chair / lead the talent related discussions at board and senior management-level planning meetings. This is really important because talent issues often cut across the whole organisation and can not be effectively managed by those who only represent a part of the business.

There are then two parts to the senior-level talent planning discussions:

  • Setting talent management principles and objectives – the initial discussions at a senior level need to identify; central talent principles and policy (such as transparency of opportunity or governance between business and HR), what talent will be managed (typically only critical roles and scarce skills for delivery of business plans), and how progress will be monitored.
  • Regular talent planning progress meetings – these need to be chaired by the senior business sponsor, have senior cross-business representation and be facilitated by HR. If they are to be effective, they need to happen regularly (e.g. quarterly) and involve a consistent dashboard of up to date talent information from across the business.


A final hurdle to overcome is avoiding the business pushing the "soft and fluffy stuff" on to HR or, alternatively, HR feeling the need to drive talent decisions. As the following quote illustrates, success happens when the business is pushing HR for more insightful data and support to drive and imbed decisions made in the talent planning progress meetings.

"We knew we had succeeded when the board members starting badgering us for talent data and support in addressing key people challenges"

Head of Organisational Capability, large government department

The role of HR is to ensure the data supports well-informed talent decisions which are then implemented effectively using the expertise of skilled HR practitioners. This creates ownership in the business but doesn't, as some HR managers worry, involve a loss of authority for HR because they are then consistently invited to the "top table" for their advice and guidance.

How do you execute this step effectively?

  1. Define a talent strategy – based on the objectives set by the business (this will ensure you maintain consistency and clear logic in the business driven decisions).
  2. Devolve local talent management decisions to local management groups with facilitation from local HR managers / HR business partners.
  3. Educate managers and HR (at all levels) in how the process works.

Getting it right – the data / dialogue balance

As we've examined in this article, talent management works when it is business led and facilitated by HR. The way to achieve this is to have a set of up to date and business relevant talent data that informs decision making in business planning forums and that involves HR as the talent management process facilitators and advisers.

Paul leads PA’s work in workforce talent management. His experience also includes change management, strategic workforce planning, workforce development and organisational design. Paul has led significant talent management assignments in a diverse range of settings such as Government departments, global IT organisations and a major engineering organisation.

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