In theory, talent management is a very simple proposition. An organisation recruits the best talent available, develops that talent over time and dismisses those individuals who no longer have the abilities needed for the challenges and opportunities that the organisation faces.
But as with any seemingly simple proposition, there are issues. I'd like to focus on two in particular that are ultimately related in that they have exploration as a common theme. The first concerns exploring the known and the second the unknown.
Many leading organisations have operations, offices, suppliers and clients across the world. Common sense suggests that ambitious managers would wish to develop their knowledge by stepping up to this global challenge. However, the findings of recent research by the Chartered Management Institute and Ashridge on talent management indicate that many managers are reluctant to take on international assignments.
A study conducted in 2006 by Elisabeth Marx and Heidrick & Struggles looked at FTSE-100 chief executives. Marx notes that whereas in 1996 only 42% of CEOs had completed an overseas assignment, by 2005 some 79% had. This may sound like tremendous progress but there is a caveat. By 2005, 28% of the CEOs of the FTSE-100 were not British and so had de facto international experience. This leaves only 51% of British bosses with international experience. Marx concludes that 'moving abroad means moving ahead'. Time to dust off that passport?
It is not only an understanding of the immediate corporate environment that is enhanced by moving abroad. It's also the acquisition of different approaches, which can lead to a command of best practice or, even better, to a new insight that combines the best of several points of view. The experience is even stronger when it's combined with different languages so that one can really understand the environment. From my own experience, I know that speaking to Germans in German, to the Dutch in Dutch or to the Quebecois in French makes a big difference. I'd love to be able to speak Mandarin, as I've found that handing phone numbers to taxi drivers in Beijing is a bit of an adventure. Using interpreters, too, is a disconnecting experience.
I mentioned a second factor: the unknown - specifically, the future - which, I admit, is my personal hobby. Prediction is notoriously difficult but I honestly think we'll live in different worlds in 20 years from now in terms of the talent that will be needed. We will still have debates on work/life balance and the value of being posted abroad. But the conversation will be expanded by the existence of fully fledged virtual worlds.
Two of these, Second Life and World of Warcraft, may be overhyped at the moment but they are harbingers of things to come. There are already, by recent estimates, 150,000 people earning their living in these worlds, selling virtual goods or collecting Linden dollars or gold coins, which are sold on eBay for real dollars, euros and pounds, allowing other players who purchase this money to upgrade their avatars.
Presently, an enormous project is taking place in Beijing called the Beijing Cyber Recreation Project. Nine virtual universes are being built to coincide with the opening of the Beijing Olympics that will allow millions of people to simultaneously work, shop and play in a virtual world. In physical terms, a 100sq km site is being built to house the servers and suppliers, including banks, logistics companies and virtual advertising companies. People will get up in the morning and decide what their avatar should wear at work that day - while they sit at their screens in pyjamas.
Even more far-fetched from today's perspective will be what develops in human-machine interaction. We are already putting computer chips in our pets to track them and keep healthcare records. In the drive for utopian goals of improvement or dystopian fears about control, it will not be long before children are chipped.
If one is positive - and I hope that most of us are - chips will allow within-body storage of databases: police with built-in photo files of wanted criminals that automatically make matches, for instance. Knowledge will be something that can, in large part, be embedded.
So what, then, is talent management for the future? For individuals at all levels, we need to explore the world around us much more. Curiosity, ambition and thoughtfulness are called for - and this sense of curiosity needs to extend right through to the disenfranchised members of society. A new realm of exploration needs to be taken into account. Technology is on the verge of a total breakthrough: by most estimates, it is 15 to 20 years away, thus in most of our lifetimes. When, as well as questions about being posted 'abroad', studies start to ask about a manager's experience in being posted 'virtually', we will be realistic about the talent that we'll need.
An executive summary of the talent management research, published by the Chartered Management Institute and Ashridge, is available to download at www.managers.org.uk/talent
CV - Kai Peters is chief executive of Ashridge Business School. He has lived in Canada, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, working for IBM and VW, as well as for universities. He likes to write and to experiment with technology.