The ‘talent war’: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing

Forget the old combative talk, we should now be trying to develop
co-operative recruiting relationships

Winning the people wars. The battle for human capital. Fighting the brain

Read through any HR magazine, scan the business section of any bookshop,
visit the website of any management consultancy and you are sure to find yet
another reference to what McKinsey & Co dubbed the "War for Talent"
in its 1997 report of the same name.

This metaphor has served a useful purpose by galvanising corporate thinking
in response to growing skills shortages. But by defining that challenge in
terms of conflict, it has done so at a high cost.

A war suggests a clearly defined enemy. It presupposes a measurable and
stable terrain with disputed but identifiable borders. It evokes
command-and-control organisations with set rules of engagement. It is based on
the logic of "either/or", a win-lose game over finite territory.

Such polarised thinking has limited relevance to a world where the old
hierarchies, organisational models and industry boundaries are giving way to
uncertainty, complexity, permeability and indeterminacy. Mechanistic
organisations with their clear edges and formal lines of authority are giving
way to web-like organisations which draw power from the interactivity of
elements within formless operational and industry environments.

This world is competitive. But it is characterised by collaboration between
organisations concerned to ensure their prosperous survival in the face of
change. Hull’s social services department, for example, has developed a
partnership with local universities, colleges and the voluntary sector to
create and sustain a pool of social workers that can take up posts when they
become vacant. This has prevented time-to-fill delays of up to six months.

Co-operative recruiting relationships, as management thinker Peter Cappelli
says in his book New Deal at Work, have been around since the 1950s when
companies in the US aircraft industry "lent" entire teams to
competitors which won government contracts. This allowed the lending company to
avoid layoffs and gave it a stake in the development of its people. More
recently, AT&T launched the Talent Alliance of about 30 organisations which
market talented individuals to other alliance members rather than lay them off.

All of which runs counter to the logic of the war metaphor – a linguistic
construct that blinds us to the web of relationships that links competitors,
suppliers, candidates and the broader employment market. This can result in
recruitment tactics that serve little long-term purpose. Take the Metropolitan
Police, which is poaching officers from regional forces by offering additional
benefits worth £6,000 – but weakening the wider policing framework.

And that is the problem with the war mentality: it creates turf disputes,
encourages short-term- ism and promotes corporate raiding. Recruitment problem?
Don’t worry – just steal nurses from Malaysia, programmers from India, teachers
from Australia.

Move beyond the war metaphor and in place of aggressive short-term tactics,
we can build relationships with prospective candidates using the Internet and
traditional media. We can invest in the schools, colleges and universities that
will provide talent. We can open up fertile recruitment fields inhabited by older
workers, the retired, asylum seekers and others.

Make no mistake: there is a real recruitment crisis and competition will
continue to shape the landscape. But so will co-operation, collaboration,
partnership and the impact of evolving business models driven by globalisation
and technologies. Organisations trapped in the war metaphor simply mistake a
small segment of the strategic whole as the entire strategic landscape.

The persistence of the metaphor points to the failure of organisations to
grasp the changes. And until they respond to these changes they will continue
to pursue flawed recruitment and retention strategies.

It is time to change the metaphor.

By Shaun D’Arcy a partner at Lighthouse Communications, a full-service
recruitment advertising and communications

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