Adaptation Research Suggests Talent Management Strategies Are an Unsustainable Obsession

Chief Financial Officers told to challenge HR colleagues in the boardroom.

Peterborough, United Kingdom, June 20, 2011 --( Fashionable obsessions such as talent management are doomed to disappoint according to Adaptation chairman Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas, speaking at “CFO Top International” in Düsseldorf, Germany. He encouraged Chief Financial Officers to challenge HR and other colleagues who jump aboard expensive bandwagons that cannot deliver.

According to Coulson-Thomas, “One should not follow the herd and adopt a new approach just because it sounds good, appears trendy, and lots of high status suppliers champion it. Talent management and transformation are good examples of where hype can lead to expensive, time consuming and frustrating journeys that lead to dead ends or quicksand, when much better, cheaper and proven alternatives exist.”

The professor investigates practical ways of quickly boosting corporate performance and achieving various beneficial outcomes for people and organisations at a price that can be afforded. Adaptation research has involved a three year comparison of data sets covering key corporate activities in over 2,000 companies and over 400 professional firms, and an examination of what certain alternative approaches deliver.

Coulson-Thomas finds, “Talent management is often adopted for noble reasons, but without thinking through the practicalities and implications. Its aspirations sound good. Across Europe people in talent management roles, struggle to recruit what is termed 'top talent.' Many get into bidding wars. So called 'top talent' can be expensive to hire and difficult to manage and retain. Do too much of it and you break the bank and get an organisation of misfits.”

Adaptation investigations of activities critical for corporate success reveal that many widely adopted approaches such as talent management are fundamentally flawed. Coulson-Thomas explains: “Among the people surveyed there are few in the top quartile of achievement, often less than one in twenty. Those who excel in one area can be hopeless in another, while even top quartile superstars are only very effective at less than half of the critical success factors identified in a set of studies concerned with winning business.”

Coulson-Thomas points out, “Compared with other football teams Manchester City has deep pockets. However just buying the world’s eleven most expensive footballers would not create the best possible team. A top goalie might not be the most energetic winger. Some, such as an attacking mid field player, might excel in more than one area of the pitch, but in general particular strengths are needed for each team role."

The Adaptation chairman adds “Most football teams also work with what they have. They develop talent through academies. Companies are businesses rather than indulgences. A cost effective approach is to build the talent people need to do jobs that contribute directly to key corporate goals. This can be done by providing 24/7 support to make it easier for them to excel at difficult jobs, by adopting proven approaches of high performers.”

Coulson-Thomas’ analysis also suggests, “General competences and training can miss what is important for excelling at a particular job, while focusing development on what annual assessments suggest people are not good at, or not interested in, is a costly indulgence. A much greater return on investment can often be obtained by making people even better at the things that interest them and which they do well.”

Deficiencies are revealed in other areas. “To transform performance people adopt general, expensive, time consuming and disruptive approaches such as corporate wide restructuring, motivational drives or culture change programmes that often fail to deliver. Yet a quick and focused approach such as changing the support provided to key workgroups can yield multiple benefits and deliver large returns on investment. Regularly updated support can ensure people stay current and remain vital, while the results of reorganisations and recruitment drives can be overtaken by events.”

Many boards fail to adequately question proposed corporate initiatives. Coulson-Thomas argues: “If accountants are to become business advisers, and CFOs are to make a more rounded contribution in boardrooms they must learn to challenge HR and other colleagues. If they probe and add value in terms of better outcomes, CFOs could assume wider responsibilities for commercial activities and corporate services.”

In relation to HR Coulson-Thomas feels, “Many HR practitioners use talent management to grab the CEO’s attention and secure a more strategic role. They must now deliver. Looking beyond the heady experience of being a 'flavour of the month,' many need to change direction. To be a key member of the boardroom team they must avoid affordability traps and demonstrate quick improvements of multiple objectives.”

Colin Coulson-Thomas was speaking on “creating and leading high performance organisations” at a CFO Top International gathering held in the Conference Centre of Henkel AG in Düsseldorf, Germany. The event was organised by Financial Media and sessions were introduced by Katrien Braeckmans Editor-in-Chief of CFO Magazine.

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas, Adaptation chairman and author of Winning Companies; Winning People and a forthcoming report on the future of talent management is an international consultant who has helped over 100 boards to improve board and corporate performance. He is a qualified accountant (FCA, FCCA), an HR professional (FCIP), and an experienced process vision holder of complex transformation programme. He can be contacted via Adaptation and Reports covering his investigations are available from

Adaptation Ltd
Colin Coulson-Thomas