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a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t The ongoing confusion about the meaning of 'talent' within the world of work is hindering the establishment of widely accepted talent management theories and practices. The aim of this paper is to contribute to the literature on talent management by offering an in-depth review of the talent concept within the specific context of the world of work, and proposing a framework for its conceptualization. We group different theoretical approaches to talent into 'object' (i.e., talent as natural ability; talent as mastery; talent as commitment; talent as fit) versus 'subject' approaches (i.e., talent as all people; talent as some people) and identify dynamics existing within and between them, as well as implications for talent management theory and practice. Finally, we discuss different avenues for further research aimed at developing the talent—and consequently, the talent management—construct further.
What is the meaning of talentin the world of work?
Eva Gallardo-Gallardo
a,
, Nicky Dries
b
, Tomás F. González-Cruz
c
a
Department of Economics and Business Organization, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona, Spain
b
Research Centre for Organization Studies, Faculty of Business and Economics, KU Leuven, Belgium
c
Business Administration Department, Faculty of Economics, University of Valencia, Spain
article info abstract
The ongoing confusion about the meaning of talentwithin the world of work is hindering the
establishment of widely accepted talent management theories and practices. The aim of this
paper is to contribute to the literature on talent management by offering an in-depth review of
the talent concept within the specific contextof the world of work, and proposinga frameworkfor
its conceptualization.We group different theoretical approaches to talentinto object(i.e., talent
as natural ability; talent as mastery; talent as commitment; talent as fit) versus subject
approaches(i.e., talent as all people; talent as some people)and identify dynamics existing within
and between them,as well as implications for talent management theory and practice.Finally, we
discuss different avenues for further research aimed at developing the talentand consequently,
the talent managementconstruct further.
© 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords:
Talent
Talent management
High performers
High potentials
Workforce segmentation
1. Introduction
Ever since 1998, when a group of McKinsey consultants coined the expression war for talentand posited that a fundamental
belief in the importance of talent is needed to achieve organizational excellence (Michaels, Handfield-Jones, & Axelrod, 2001), talent
management (TM) has been an increasingly popular topic (Chuai, Preece, & Iles, 2008). In recent years, a notable increase in the
number of articles and books relating to TM is observed as it is seen more and more as a high-priority issue for organizations
worldwide (Iles, Preece, & Chuai, 2010). Proper talent management is considered a critical determinant of organizational success
(Beechler & Woodward, 2009; Iles, Chuai, & Preece, 2010), and imperative for the livelihood and sustainability of organizations
(Lawler, 2008).
In spite of its growing popularity and more than a decade of debate, however, the construct of TM suffers from conceptual
confusion in that there is a serious lack of clarity regarding its definition, scope and overall goals (Lewis & Heckman, 2006; Tansley
et al., 2007). The lack of theoretical foundations and conceptual development in the TM literature can be attributed in part to the
fact that most of the literature in this field is practitioner- or consultancy-based (Iles, Chuai, et al., 2010; Preece, Iles, & Chuai,
2011). This latter finding also accounts for the literature's focus on practices (the how) rather than on whois considered
talented and why.
An increasing number of authors (e.g., Garrow & Hirsh, 2008; Lewis & Heckman, 2006; Reilly, 2008; Tansley et al., 2007)
attribute the ambiguity inherent to the TM construct to the inadequate operationalization of the underlying construct talent.
Quite surprisingly, TM scholars are rarely precise about what exactly they mean by talent, probably because there are widely held
implicit theories about what talent is (Barab & Plucker, 2002). In fact, in many articles (e.g., Collings & Mellahi, 2009; O'Reilly &
Pfeffer, 2000) and books (e.g., Cappelli, 2008; Lawler, 2008) about TM, talent as an underlying construct is taken for granted and
thus not defined explicitly.
Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
Corresponding author at: Department of Economics and Business Organization, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona, Av. Diagonal, 690,
08034 Barcelona, Spain. Tel.: +34 93 4029040.
E-mail address: eva.gallardo@ub.edu (E. Gallardo-Gallardo).
1053-4822/$ see front matter © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2013.05.002
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Human Resource Management Review
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/humres
It appears that talent can mean whatever a business leader or writer wants it to mean, since everyone has his or her own idea
of what the construct does and does not encompass (Ulrich, 2011). In fact, many different definitions of talent can be found in the
academic human resource management (HRM) literature (see Table 1). In addition, in the HR practitioner literature we find a
great deal of organizationally specific definitions of talent, highly influenced by the type of industry or occupational field (Tansley
et al., 2007). As we will discuss throughout this paper, a number of important discussions arise from the wide variation found in
the literature about the meaning of talentdoes talent refers to people (subject) or to the characteristics of people (object)? Is
talent more about performance, potential, competence, or commitment? Is talent a natural ability or does it relates more to
mastery through practice? Is it better to take an inclusive or an exclusive approach to talent management?
The ongoing confusion about the meaning of talent is hindering the establishment of widely acknowledged TM theories and
practices, thus stalling scholarly advancement. In addition, the lack of construct clarity might lead to a lack of confidence in the
conclusions that can be drawn from the existing literature. Therefore, the aim of the current paper is to contribute to the theoretical
literature on TM by offering an in-depth review of the talent concept within the specific context of the world of work, and proposing a
framework for its conceptualization that organizes and dissects the different viewpoints found in the existing literature in a
straightforward manner. In order to accomplish this aim, we have carried out an in-depth review of the literature on talent and TM.
An online search was conducted across several databasesi.e., Science Direct, Business Source Complete, Emerald, and Google
Scholar. Talentand talent managementwere the keywords used. Although our focus was on scholarly peer-reviewed articles,
we also included some HR practitioner publications that are frequently cited in the academic literature. Ultimately, our review
included 170 peer-reviewed articles, 9 doctoral dissertations, 3 conference papers, 40 books, 6 working papers, and 20 HR
practitioner reports. We supplemented our review of the academic literature with a search into the linguistic origins of the term
talent, using 10 different reference books published by Oxford University Press (see further down).
In what follows, we first offer a discussion of the etymology of the term talentand its linguistic evolution over time, with the
purpose of shedding light on contemporary usage of the term in organizational settings. Subsequently, we discuss different
approaches to the conceptualization of talent within the world of work, organizing these within a basic framework (i.e., object
versus subject). We then move on to discuss the implications of these different approaches for talent management theory and
practice. We conclude this paper with avenues for future research, aimed at developing the talentand consequently, the talent
managementconstruct further.
Table 1
Different definitions of talent in the world of work.
Source Definition of talent
Gagné (2000) () superior mastery of systematically developed abilities or skills(p. 67)
Williams (2000) describe those people who do one or other of the following: regularly demonstrateexceptional ability and achievement either
over a rangeof activities and situations, orwithin a specializedand narrow field of expertise; consistentlyindicate high competence
in areas of activity that stronglysuggest transferable, comparableability in situationswhere they have yet to be tested and provedto
be highly effective, i.e. potential.(p. 35)
Buckingham and Vosburgh
(2001)
Talent should refer to a person's recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.(p. 21)
Jericó (2001) The implemented capacity of a committed professional or group of professionals that achieve superior results in a particular
environment and organization.(p. 428; translation ours)
Michaels et al. (2001) () the sum of a person's abilitieshis or her intrinsic gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgment, attitude,
character and drive. It also includes his or her ability to learn and grow.(p. xii)
Lewis and Heckman
(2006)
() is essentially a euphemism for people’” (p. 141)
Tansley, Harris, Stewart,
and Turner (2006)
Talent can be considered as a complex amalgam of employees' skills, knowledge, cognitive ability and potential. Employees'
values and work preferences are also of major importance.(p. 2)
Stahl et al. (2007) a select group of employees those that rank at the top in terms of capability and performance rather than the entire
workforce. (p. 4)
Tansley et al. (2007) Talent consists of those individuals who can make a difference to organizational performance, either through their immediate
contribution or in the longer-term by demonstrating the highest levels of potential.(p. 8)
Ulrich (2007) Talent equals competence [able to do the job] times commitment [willing to do the job] times contribution [finding meaning
and purpose in their work](p. 3)
Cheese, Thomas, and Craig
(2008)
Essentially, talent means the total of all the experience, knowledge, skills, and behaviours that a person has and brings to
work.(p. 46)
González-Cruz et al.
(2009)
A set of competencies that, being developed and applied, allow the person to perform a certain role in an excellent way.(p 22;
translation ours)
Silzer and Dowell (2010) () in some cases, the talentmight refer to the entire employee population.(p. 14)
Silzer and Dowell (2010) In groups talent can refer to a pool of employees who are exceptional in their skills and abilities either in a specific technical
area (such as software graphics skills) or a competency (such a consumer marketing talent), or a more general area (such as
general managers or high-potential talent). And in some cases, the talentmight refer to the entire employee population.(pp.
1314)
Silzer and Dowell (2010) An individual's skills and abilities (talents) and what the person is capable of doing or contributing to the organization.(p. 14)
Bethke-Langenegger
(2012)
we understand talent to be one of those worker who ensures the competitiveness and future of a company (as specialist or
leader) through his organisational/job specific qualification and knowledge, his social and methodical competencies, and his
characteristic attributes such as eager to learn or achievement oriented(p. 3)
Ulrich and Smallwood
(2012)
Talent = competence [knowledge, skills and values required for todays' and tomorrows' job; right skills, right place, right job,
right time] × commitment [willing to do the job] × contribution [finding meaning and purpose in their job](p. 60)
291E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
2. The etymological history of the term talent
The term talent is everywhere. One needs only to take a look at the headlines of newspapers, journals, and magazines, to see how
often the term is actually useda Google search reveals nearly six hundred million hits. Moreover, there is a growing number of
shows on television that showcase talent, such as Britain's Got Talentand its international counterparts (Pruis, 2011). In everyday
parlance, talent is typically associated with athletes (e.g. Olympians, exceptional coaches, extraordinary teams), musicians of
extraordinary ability, singerswith incredible voices, and gifted children. Asking for a clear definition, however, is likeopening a can of
worms(Honey, 2004, p. 11). As for talent in the work context, the situation is quite the same. One possible explanation for this
conceptual ambiguity is the history of the word talentconsidering the different meanings it has had throughout its over one
thousand years of existence.
The term talent in Old English (used up until 1149) was talente, which originated from the Latin term talentum (Knowles,
2005; Stevenson, 2010). The Latin term, in turn, originated from the Greek word tálanton [τάλαντον], which means balance,
weight, sum of money(Hoad, 1996). Originally, a talent denoted a unit of weight used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and
Romans (Cresswell, 2009). In Ancient Greece, one talent was the equivalent of 25.86 kg (Darwill, 2008; Howatson, 2011).
According to Howatson (2011), before proper coinage, Greek units of money carried the same name as units of weight since the
weights of precious metals (mostly silver, occasionally gold) were used to represent a sum of money (Howatson, 2011; Knowles,
2005). This is how, ultimately, a talentbecame a coin. One talent corresponded to 60 minas or 6000 drachmas (Howatson,
2011). This was an enormous amount of money at that time as 3.5 drachmas was the normal wage for a week's work (Darwill,
2008), and 50 minas (i.e., less than one talent) was seen as the amount one would pay for a very large housean ordinary
dwelling could be bought for three minas (Howatson, 2011). Hence, talents were exclusive; only rich people had them.
The Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament (25: 1430) attests to the value attributed to
talent. The parable talks about a wealthy man who, before going on a long journey, gives his three servants one, two, and five
talents respectivelybased on his perception of each of their abilitiesfor safekeeping. The servants who received five and
two talents both use their coins well, doubling their value through hard work and trading. The servant who was given only one
talent, howeverafraid to lose his coin and anger his masterburies his coin in the ground. After an extended absence, the
master returns, commending the two servants who doubled their talents as good and faithful (and rewarding them by letting
them keep their profits), whilst calling the servant who had buried his coin wicked and slothful,and ordering him to hand over
his one talent to the servant who has most. According to Tansley (2011), since the New English Bible translates the Greek word
talent into the word capital,thisparablecanbeseenasoneofthecausesforHRMscholarsusingthetermhuman capital as
synonymous to talent.
In the thirteenth century, talent was seen either as the feeling that makes a person want to do something (i.e., an inclination),
or the natural qualities of a person's character (i.e., a disposition). Similarly, in Old French talent was seen as will or desire.
Although Hoad (1996) considers this latter definition of talent obsolete, this type of operationalization highlights the behavioral
aspect of talent, which is becoming increasingly important again in today's business environmentas we will discuss in more
detail later.
In contrast, in the Late Middle Ages (i.e., the fifteenth and sixteenth century), talent came to mean a person's mental ability or
particular abilities, divinely entrusted to them for their personal use and improvement (Hoad, 1996; Knowles, 2005). This
meaning of talent was strongly influenced by Christian interpretations of the Parable of the Talents, which did not only stress the
innate nature of talent, but also the fact that it is a person's duty to use and improve the talents gifted to them by God. As Michaels
et al. (2001) assert, talent is a gift that must be cultivated, not left to languish(p. xiii). Since only few people were believed to be
divinely entrusted with specific talents, the Parable, as well, contributed to exclusive interpretations of the term talent. In this
interpretation lies the origin of talent being conceptualized as an inborn gift or natural aptitude (e.g., Gagné, 2000). A similar view
of talent was held throughout the seventeenth centuryi.e., talent as inborn aptitudes and skills possessed by special peoplebut
without referring to divinity (Knowles, 2005).
By the nineteenth century, according to Tansley (2011), talent was viewed as embodied in the talentedhence, a person of
talent and ability(p. 267). Here, we encounter for the first time a subjectapproach to talent (i.e., talent as people), rather than
an objectapproach, which conceptualizes talent as characteristics of people. Over the course of the twentieth century some new
terms arose. For instance, since the 1930s, talent scout(or spotter) is used to designate a person searching for new talent
(Cresswell, 2009). The emergence of this term might explain why up until today many people connect talent to sports or music.
Another use of the term talent can be situated in the 1940s among British servicemen, who quite commonly used the term local
Table 2
Definitions of talent in contemporary English dictionaries.
Dictionary First meaning Second meaning
Stevenson (2010),Stevenson and Lindberg (2010) Natural aptitude or skill People possessing talent [natural aptitude or skill]
Adrian-Vallance et al. (2009) A natural ability to do something well A person or people with a natural ability or skill
Barber (2004) Special aptitude or faculty A person possessing exceptional skill or ability;
people of talent or ability collectively
Deverson and Kennedy (2005) Special aptitude or faculty; high mental ability A person or persons of talent
292 E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
talentto refer to the good-looking people of a certain area (Cresswell, 2009). In modern British English, talent is still used (be it
informally) to refer to people regarded as sexually attractive. One might say that, even in this form, talent refers to the
segmentation of the population in havesand have-nots.
3. Approaches to talent in the world of work
When looking up talentin Contemporary English Dictionaries we see that in this day and age objectand subjectapproaches
to the conceptualization of talent coincide (see Table 2), which possibly contributes to the confusion about what talent is, exactly.
Taking into account the linguistic evolution of the term talent, described earlier, we infer that the original meaning of the term
talent refers to personal characteristics (talent as object). In English, as well as in other European languages, talent is typically
described as an innate ability that manifests in a particular field (Tansley, 2011). It is commonly understood as above-average
ability for a specific function or range or functions. Rather than corresponding to normalability, talent is considered a special
ability that makes the people who possess, develop, and use it rise out above the rest of their age peers in the specific area of their
talent (Gagné, 2000). Consequently, talent is often equated to excellent performance in a given performance domain.
The second meaning of talent found in contemporary English Dictionaries refers to a person or persons of talent (talent as
subject)i.e., people possessing special skills or abilities. In fact, it is very common to see job advertisements in which talent refers
to potential applicants (e.g., talent wanted). Likewise, managers frequently refer to their workforce as the talent of the
organization, so as to stress the fact that people are the organization's most important assets (Ashton & Morton, 2005). The
subject approach to talentwhich is historically newerthan the object approach (see also Tansley, 2011)currently coexists
with the object approach, also in the HRM literature. In what follows, we discuss the tensions between these two approaches to
the conceptualization of talent.
3.1. Object approachtalent as characteristics of people
Many peer-reviewed publications conceptualize talent as exceptional characteristics demonstrated by individual employees.
In Table 3, we provide an overview of the different terms commonly associated with the notion of talent-as-objectin the
academic literature.
Within the object approach to talent, we further distinguish between approaches that conceptualize talent as natural ability;
approaches operationalizing talent as the mastery of systematically developed skills; approaches that associate talent with
commitment and motivation; and approaches that stress the importance of fit between an individual's talent and the context
within which he or she works (i.e., in terms of organization and/or position).
3.1.1. Talent as natural ability
The nature-nurture debate is a longstanding one when it comes to individual differences, and it is pertinent to discussions
about talent as well (For a more in-depth discussion of the nature-nurture debate in talent management, see Meyers, van
Woerkom, & Dries, 2013-in this issue). Most HRM scholars and practitioners seem to believe that talent is innate, at least to some
extent. Hinrichs (1966), for instance, defines talent as a native ability: () a unique mix of innate intelligence or brain power,
plus a certain degree of creativity or the capacity to go beyond established stereotypes and provide innovative solutions to
problems in his everyday world, plus personal skills which make him effective in his relationships with his peers, his superiors,
and his subordinates(p. 11).
Conceptualizing talent as a natural ability has important repercussions for how talent can (and cannot) be managed.
Buckingham and Vosburgh (2001), for instance, assert that whilst skills and knowledge are relatively easyto teach, talent
pertains to characteristics much more enduring and unique. Therefore, according to these authors, talent is quasi-impossible to
learn or teach. Similarly, Davies and Davies (2010) conclude that, given its innate nature, talent cannot really be managedand
Table 3
Terms commonly associated with talent-as-objectin the literature.
Associated terms Sources
Ability Gagné (2000),Hinrichs (1966),Michaels et al. (2001),Silzer and Dowell (2010),Tansley et al. (2006),Williams (2000)
Capacity Jericó (2001)
Capability Stahl et al. (2007)
Commitment Ulrich (2007)
Competence/competency Bethke-Langenegger (2012),González-Cruz et al. (2009),Silzer and Dowell (2010),Ulrich (2007),Williams (2000)
Contribution Ulrich (2007)
Experience Cheese et al. (2008)
Knowledge Bethke-Langenegger (2012),Cheese et al. (2008),Michaels et al. (2001),Tansley et al. (2006)
Performance Stahl et al. (2007),Tansley et al. (2007)
Potential Tansley et al. (2006),Tansley et al. (2007),Williams (2000)
Patterns of thought, feeling
or behavior
Buckingham and Vosburgh (2001),Cheese et al. (2008)
Skills Cheese et al. (2008),Gagné (2000),Hinrichs (1966),Michaels et al. (2001),Silzer and Dowell (2010),Tansley et al. (2006)
293E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
suggest that organizations should focus on the enablement of talent instead. In spite of the important implications of the
nature-nurture debate in talent management, however, Silzer and Dowell (2010) claim that the distinction between innate and
malleable components of talent is seldom made in HR practicewhich tends to take a more pragmatic approach to managing
talent.
3.1.2. Talent as mastery
In contrast to the natural ability approach are conceptualizations of talent that focus on deliberate practice and learning from
experience. Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007), for instance, conclude from their research across a wide range of performance
domains (i.e., chess, medicine, auditing, programming, dance, and music) that talentwhich they operationalize as expert
performanceis nearly always made, not born. According to Pfeffer and Sutton (2006), in spite of all the myth, talent is always a
function of experience and effort. Although, clearly, not all people have the same amount of ultimate potential, there seems to be
some agreement in the literature on deliberate practice (e.g., Ericsson, 2006) and learning from experience (e.g., Briscoe & Hall,
1999) that at least 10,000 h of focused and deliberate practice are required for reaching talentedlevels of performance.
The mastery approach to talent also implies a need for evidence. According to Ericsson et al. (2007), talent should be
demonstrated by measurable, consistently superior performance(p. 117). De Haro (2010) states that if no evidence for
exceptional achievements is available, we are not talking about talent but about giftedness. Talent, then, refers to the mastery of
systematically developed gifts (Gagné, 2000). Here, we detect an overlap with the literature on competence (e.g., Boyatzis, 1982;
Spencer & Spencer, 1993). According to Gagné (2000), the difference between competence and talent is that competence
corresponds to levels of mastery ranging from minimally acceptable to well above averagei.e., below the threshold for talented
or expertbehavior, which he operationalizes as belonging to the top 10% of performers in a certain domain. The need for
behavioral evidence for talent is also witnessed in HR practice. In their study of the talent management programs of 13
organizations, Dries and Pepermans (2008) found that most of them were unwilling to label employees as talented before they
had two or three years of organizational experience, because they wanted to observe how people performed within the specific
setting of the organization first. A possible issue with this type of approach is that it defines talent by its outcomes, which can be
seen as creating a tautological problem (i.e., a conceptual loop; see Priem & Butler, 2001).
3.1.3. Talent as commitment
A third approach to talent focuses on commitment, operationalized both as commitment to one's work, and to one's
employing organization. In the former meaning, talent is conceptualized as something intrinsic to a person that directs focus,
attention, and dedication (Pruis, 2011). Nieto, Hernández-Maestro, and Muñoz-Gallego (2011), for instance, state that talent is
determined mainly by perseverance in that it implies the successful completion of projects that most others would abandon or
never even start. In addition, the talent construct is seen as being related to will, perseverance, motivation, interest, and passion
(e.g., Weiss & MacKay, 2009). In the second meaning, talent as commitment refers to employees' willingness to invest
discretionary energy into their organization's successthus aligning personal with organizational goals (e.g., Ulrich, 2007). As
Jericó (2001) posits, commitment implies not only giving one's best to the organization, but also functions as a barrier to leaving
the organization (i.e., as a negative predictor of turnover).
The conceptualization of talent as commitment is to be seen as a complementary, rather than a supplementary
approach to talent (i.e., in addition to the natural ability and/or mastery approach). In our review, there were no
publications stating that talent equals commitment. Rather, different elements of talent are seen as multiplicativee.g., talent =
competence × commitment × contribution”—such that high scores on one element (e.g., commitment) cannot compensate for low
scores on another (e.g., competence) (Ulrich & Smallwood, 2012).
3.1.4. Talent as t
Afinalobjectapproach to talent refers to the fit between an individual's talent and the context within which he or she works
i.e., the right place, the right position, and/or the right time. The fit approach is essential to the discussion of talent
management as it emphasizes the importance of context, implying that the meaning of talent is relative rather than absolute,
and subjective rather than objective (González-Cruz, Martínez-Fuentes, & Pardo-del-Val, 2009; Jericó, 2001). It is said that in a
given organizational setting, talent should be defined and operationalized in light of the organization's culture, environment
(i.e., industry, sector, labor market), and type of work (Pfeffer, 2001). The organizational context is critical since people can be
expected to perform above or below their normal level depending on their immediate environment, the leadership they receive,
and the team they work with (Iles, 2008). As Coulson-Thomas (2012) puts it, individuals who shine in on e context may struggle
in another(p. 431). Research on the transferability of star performance (e.g., Groysberg, McLean, & Nohria, 2006)has
demonstrated that talent, indeed, is not always transferable from one organizational context to anotherin some cases,
performance might even plummetwhen a so-called star performer changes organizations.
Fit plays a prominent role in the AMO (abilitymotivationopportunity) framework, which posits that in addition to skills and
motivation, employees also needopportunities to perform (Boselie, Dietz,& Boon, 2005). Therefore, talentis not just about the quality
of an individual's skill setit also depends on the quality of his or her job. In this respect, some authors in the talent management
literature stress the importance of matching people to positions (e.g., Collings & Mellahi, 2009). The allocation of the most talented
employeesto the positions of highest strategic value in the organization (i.e., Apositions) whilst placing good performers in support
positions (i.e., B positions) and eliminating bad performers is called the portfolio approach to workforce management (Becker,
Huselid, & Beatty, 2009). Approaches such as these advocate the identification of pivotal positions’—i.e., positions of above-average
294 E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
impact on organizational outcomesrather than the identification of talented individuals in se (e.g., Ashton & Morton, 2005;
Boudreau & Ramstad, 2005a, 2005b). Or as Boudreau and Ramstad (2004) put it, Rather than asking, who is our A talent?we should
ask, in which talent pools does A talent matter most?’” (p. 4).
3.2. Subject approachtalent as people
Within the subject approach, we find both inclusive (i.e., talent understood as all employees of an organization), and exclusive
approaches to talent (i.e., talent understood as an elite subset of an organization's population) (Iles, Preece, et al., 2010).
3.2.1. Inclusive subject approach: talent as all people
The inclusive approach to talent-as-subject sees the term talent as including everyone in the organization. According to this
approach, every employee has his or her own strengths and thus, can potentially create added value for the organization
(Buckingham & Vosburgh, 2001). In a study reported by Leigh (2009), almost half of the companies interviewed defined talent this
way. According to Peters (2006) there is no reason not to consider each employee as talented. Similarly, O'Reilly and Pfeffer (2000)
posit that organizational success stems from capturing the value of the entire workforce, not just a few superstars(p. 52). Despite
being quite vague, the inclusive approach to talent is commonly justified in the literature using the argument that in
knowledge-based economies companies cannot achieve profits (or succeed otherwise) without their people (Tulgan, 2002). In
today's business environment, it is mostly employeesi.e., not technology, not factories, not capitalthat are believed to create value
for organizations, in that they are now the main determinant of organizational performance (Crain, 2009).
Especially in the services industry, the whole business model is defined by and around the people employedand thus,
defining talent as the entire workforce is not such a far stretch. In companies such as luxury hotels, for instance, frontline and
behind-the-scenes employees play an equally important role in delivering the high-quality service expected of this type of
company (Boudreau & Ramstad, 2005b). Acknowledging the importance of context, Silzer and Dowell (2010) state that, in some
cases, talent might refer to the entire employee population(p. 14).
An inclusive definition of talent is typicallyfound in strength-based approaches to talent managementi.e., the art of recognizing
where each employee's areas of natural talent lie, and figuring out how to help each employee develop the job-specific skills and
knowledge to turn those talents into real performance”—rather than in gap-based approaches focused on the remediation of
development needs(i.e., weaknesses) (Buckingham & Vosburgh, 2001, p. 22). Inclusive, strength-based approaches to talent are
believed to benefit from what is called the Mark Effect’—i.e., by treating everyone in the organization as equals, a more pleasant,
collegial, and motivating work climate is created (Bothner, Podolny, & Smith, 2011). An inclusive approach guarantees an egalitarian
distribution of resources across all employees in an organization rather than a focus on a small subset of elite performers, this way
avoiding a drop in the morale of loyal employees who are not considered superstars(Groysberg, Nanda, & Nohria, 2004). Yost and
Chang (2009), for instance, argue that organizations should try to help all of their employees fulfill their fullest potential since
focusing investments (in terms of time, money, and energy) on only a few people, within a limited set of roles is a risky strategy
looking at projected labor market scarcities.
The main criticism of the inclusive subject approach to talent is that it makes differentiation between talent management and
strategic human resource management (SHRM) more difficult. If talent refers to the whole of the workforce, managing talent
simplyimplies proper workforce management and development of all the organization's people, which is not particularly helpful
in specifying how TM is different from SHRM (Garrow & Hirsh, 2008). In fact, according to this approach, TM is a collection of
typical HR processes such as recruitment, selection, development, training, performance appraisal, and retention (Iles, Chuai, et
al., 2010; Silzer & Dowell, 2010)although some authors might add that TM refers to doing them faster and/or better (Lewis &
Heckman, 2006). Lin (2006) argues that adopting an inclusive approach to TM might create unnecessarily high costs in terms of
HR investments. In that sense, the assumption of the strength-based approach creating a winwin for both individuals and
organizations may be flawed, in that gap-based and exclusive approaches to talent management are often the more cost-effective
and efficient solution (Collings & Mellahi, 2009).
3.2.2. Exclusive subject approach: talent as some people
In stark contrast to the inclusive approach to talent, the exclusive approach is based on the notion of segmentation of the
workforce, and understands talent as an elite subset of the organization's populationi.e. () those individuals who can make a
difference to organizational performance, either through their immediate contribution or in the longer-term by demonstrating
the highest levels of potential(Tansley et al., 2007, p. 8).
3.2.2.1. Talent as high performers. More often than not, the subject approach to talent equates the term talent to high performers
i.e., the best of class(Smart, 2005). Stahl et al. (2007), for instance, define talent as a select group of employees who rank
at the top in terms of capability and performance; Silzer and Dowell (2010) as a group of employees within an organization
who are exceptional in terms of skills and abilities either in a specific technical area, a specific competency, or a more general
area; and Williams (2000) as those people who demonstrate exceptional ability and achievement in an array of activities and
situations, or within a specialized field of expertise, on a regular basis. The threshold for being considered an exceptional
performer, across studies, seems to lie at belonging to the top 10% of age peers in one's specific area of expertise (e.g., Gagné,
2000; Ulrich & Smallwood, 2012). As mentioned earlier (in the discussion of A and B positions in the section on Talent as fit),
this category of employees is commonly referred to as Aplayers(e.g., Becker et al., 2009).
295E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
According to Smart (2005), high performers are the single most important driver of organizational performance, since
they contribute more, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, display more resourcefulness, take more initiative,
develop better business strategies, articulate their vision more passionately, implement change more effectively, deliver
higher-quality work, demonstrate greater teamwork, and find ways to get the job done in less time and at less cost(pp. 56).
Advocates of topgradingi.e., the practice of trying to fill 75% (and preferably 90%) of all positions in the organization with
high performersargue that the best way to outperform competitors is to hire top performers at all levels in the organization
(e.g., Michaels et al., 2001).
3.2.2.2. Talent as high potentials. Some authors operationalize talent as a select group of employees who demonstrate high levels of
potential. According to Silzer and Church (2009), potential can be defined as the modifiability of unobservable structures that
have not as yet become actual, or exist in possibility, capable of development in actuality () the possibility that individuals can
become something more than what they currently are () it implies further growth and development to reach some desired end
state () In work environments, potential is typically used to suggest that an individual has the qualities (e.g., characteristics,
motivation, skills, abilities, and experiences) to effectively perform and contribute in broader or different roles in the organization
at some point in the future(p. 379). High potential employees, then, are those employees believed to have the potential to
advance at a faster pace than their peers, whilst demonstrating different needs, motivations, and behaviors than regular
employees (Pepermans, Vloeberghs, & Perkisas, 2003). In practice, we find that the high potential label is often given based on
past performance data, which might be seen as a form of Halo biasi.e., the invalid generalization of certain personal
characteristics to other characteristics that might not be as highly correlated as they appear at first glance (e.g., Martin & Schmidt,
2010).
Either way, both the high performer and the high potential approach to talent imply exclusiveness. No matter how appealing
the inclusive approach to TM may soundi.e., TM should be aimed at developing all employees to the best of their abilities
(Buckingham & Vosburgh, 2001)more arguments are found in the literature in favor of the exclusive approach (Iles, Chuai, et al.,
2010). In fact, the exclusive approach is not only defended widely in the literature; it is also the most prevalent approach to talent
management found in HR practice (Ready, Conger, & Hill, 2010). Specifically, the exclusive approach to TM is said to benefit from
what is called the Matthew Effect’—i.e., the effect whereby the allocation of more resources to the better performers in the
organization leads to higher return on investment, since more resources are allocated there where more returns can be expected
(i.e., in improving the performance of the best-performing employees even further; Bothner et al., 2011). According to Netessine
and Yakubovich (2012), as long as employees' performances can be accurately evaluated and ranked, the fact that better workers
get better assignments and more privileges may in fact encourage low performers to quit or to do better, leading to a
higher-performing workforce overall. Similarly, Höglund (2012) argues that differential treatment of employees based on their
differential talents can create a continuous tournamentin which employees are motivated to develop and apply the skills and
qualities the organization requires.
The allocation of resources according to merit, sometimes referred to as winner-take-all, works particularly well in industries
populated by low-wage workers, such as restaurants, retail companies, and call centers. An individual employee's contribution to
organizational performance is not necessarily related to his or her position in the hierarchy, however. For instance, a lower-level
sales representative can be of pivotal importance to the profits of a retail company (Boudreau & Ramstad, 2005b).
The literature identifies a number of critiques on the exclusive approach, as well. First of all, evaluations of performance and
potential are usually not based on objective indicators alone, but rather reflect judgments made by top and line management
(Pepermans et al., 2003). Hence, the process of identifying talented employees is inherently subjective, and thus susceptible to
bias (Silzer & Church, 2010; Walker & LaRocco, 2002). Second, the assumption that talented employees are inherently different
from less talented employees might be flawed in that it fails to take into account the fact that Aplayersmight look like B
playersunder certain conditions and vice versa (Netessine & Yakubovich, 2012; Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006). Third, the assumption
that past performance predicts future performance, which often underlies the identification of talented employees, is a
controversial point (Martin & Schmidt, 2010). In addition, the causal relationship between performance levels before and after
being identified as a talent is distorted by the fact that identification, in itself, leads to increased support for performance
improvement (Walker & LaRocco, 2002). Fourth, identifying an elite subset of the organization as talents can lead to
self-fulfilling prophecies such as the Pygmalion effecti.e., the effect whereby expectations of performance (high or low)
determine actual performance (in a positive or negative way) in that they impact on motivation and self-esteem (e.g., McNatt,
2000). This raises questions as tothe validity and utility of identifying only a small number of employees as talented since Pygmalion
effects have the potential to be beneficial to all employeesalso mediocre performers (Eden, 1992). Fifth, labeling a small group of
employeesas talented has also been demonstratedto lead to negative effects as it can lead to increased sensitivity to feedback and fear
of failure among those identified as exceptionally promising(e.g., Kotlyar & Karakowsky, 2012). And sixth, allocating a large
proportion of the organization's resources to a small number of superstarsmight damage organizational morale, embittering loyal
employees and causing resentment among peers (DeLong & Vijayaraghavan, 2003). It is said that an overemphasis on individual
performance discourages personal development organization-wide, undermines teamwork as a result of the zero-sum reward
practices (i.e., practices whereby only some team members are rewarded, causing an overall negative or neutral effect whereby the
positive effects of somereceiving a reward do not outweigh the negative effects of most not receiving a reward), and runs the risk of
creating an atmosphere of destructive internal competition that retards learning and the spread of best practices across the
organization (Pfeffer, 2001; Walker & LaRocco, 2002).
296 E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
4. Discussion
Based on our in-depth historical review of the literature ontalent management, wecan only conclude that there is a fundamental
lack of consensus as to the meaning of talentin the world of work. Another conclusion is that the literature on talent management,
although diverse in terms of underlying concepts, is rather normative. In fact, the assumptions underlying the different approaches to
talent discussed in this paper are often soldas objective facts, even though little empirical evidence of their accuracy has been
provided byacademics and/or HR practitioners to date. With the aim of integrating the viewpoints found in the existing literature in a
straightforward manner, in Fig. 1 we offer a framework for conceptualizing talent within the world of work.
4.1. Implications for HR practice
As we have discussed throughout this paper, within the world of work talent is conceptualized in two broad waysi.e., talent
as object versus talent as subjectwhich can, in turn, be further subdivided (see Fig. 1). Within the object approach, talent is
conceptualized as exceptional abilities and attitudes demonstrated by an individual. It is important to note that the different
sub-approaches of the object approach identified in the present review (i.e., talent as natural ability, talent as mastery, talent as
commitment, and talent as fit) are to be seen as complementary, rather than supplementary. Commitment and fit, specificallyno
matter how highwill never be used as sole indicators of talent, but always as complimentary to measures of ability (Ulrich &
Smallwood, 2012).
As discussed earlier, organizations will not commonly distinguish between innate and acquired elements of talent, but rather,
focus on proven achievements in their assessments of talent (Silzer & Dowell, 2010). Pragmatists might even argue that the
nature-nurture debate comes down to semantics (Tansley, 2011). Implicit beliefs held by organizational decision makers about
the degree to which individual characteristics are fixed as opposed to malleable, have repeatedly been demonstrated to have a
very strong impact on their assessments of talent, however (Heslin, Latham, & Vandewalle, 2005). Therefore, it seems pivotal for
organizations to explicitly take a position as to the extent to which they want to focus their talent management efforts on talent
identification (i.e., buyingtalent), versus talent development (i.e., buildingtalent) (see also Meyers et al., 2013-in this issue).
Although the object approach to talent exhibits better fit with the etymological meaning of talent (Tansley, 2011), the subject
approach (i.e., talent as people) seems to be much more prevalent in organizational practice (Iles, Preece, et al., 2010). More
specifically, a talent management strategy grounded in workforce segmentation (Becker et al., 2009), based on the identification of
select pools of high performers and/or high potentials, seems to be the mostcommon approach (Dries & Pepermans, 2008). Although
many advocates can be found for a more inclusive, strength-based approach to talent management, as well (e.g., Buckingham &
Vosburgh, 2001), it remains unclear to what extent an inclusive approach to talent makes sense, considering that the term talent,
inherentlyconsidering its etymologyimplies above-average ability or performance (e.g. Gagné, 2000). As discussed in our review,
the inclusive and the exclusive subject approach to talent each both have their own merits and drawbacks. Which approach is better
talent as COMMITMENT
commitment to one’s position and to one’s employing organization
OBJECT approach
(talent as characteristics of people)
talent as NATURALABILITY
inborn, unique abilities that
lead to superior performance
talent as MASTERY
systematically developed
skills and knowledge that lead
to superior performance
INCLUSIVE
approach
talent as ALL EMPLOYEES of an
organization
EXCLUSIVE
approach
talent as HIGH PERFORMERS
talent as HIGH POTENTIALS
an elite subset of the organization’s
population
(i.e., the top 10 percent in terms of
performance or potential)
SUBJECT approach
(talent as people)
talent as FIT
being in the right organization, in the right position, at the right time
+
+
+
innate abilities, acquired skills, knowledge, competencies,and attitudes
that cause a person to achieve outstanding results in a particular context
+
Fig. 1. Framework for the conceptualization of talent within the world of work.
297E. Gallardo-Gallardo et al. / Human Resource Management Review 23 (2013) 290300
is likely to be determined by an organization's mission and culture (Garrow & Hirsh, 2008)see the examples of the luxury hotel
industry versus the call center industry, discussed earlier in this paper.
Importantly, we propose that the subject and the object approach to talent can inform each other in that the object approach
specifies which personal characteristics to look for in identifications of talent, whereas the subject approach provokes important
discussions about cut-offs and norms (e.g., Gagné, 2000; Ulrich & Smallwood, 2012).
4.2. Avenues for further research
One of the aims of the current paper was to offer specific suggestions for what we see as the most pressing topics for future
research on the topic of talent in the context of the workplace. Below, we discuss different avenues for future research aimed at
developing the talentand consequently, the talent managementconstruct further.
What the field needs first and foremost is more theory (Collings & Mellahi, 2009; Lewis & Heckman, 2006), both in the way of
in-depth literature reviews (that might borrow from a range of disciplinessee also Dries, 2013-in this issue) and conceptual
development. More theory development is a necessity if we ever want to come to a nomological network for talent, and
demonstrate once and for allthat talent is a construct in its own right that adds value over related constructs such as strengths
(e.g., Buckingham & Vosburgh, 2001), gifts (e.g., Gagné, 2000), ability (e.g., Michaels et al., 2001), and competence (e.g., Boyatzis,
1982; Spencer & Spencer, 1993). This, in turn, will help the field pinpoint the specific added value of talent management above and
beyond more established concepts such as SHRM, succession planning, and workforce differentiation (Chuai et al., 2008). Findings
from the literature might be complemented with findings from critical discourse analysis of interview data or HR practitioner
publications (Huang & Tansley, 2012), and by in-depth case studies (Preece et al., 2011). In addition to a nomological network, we
need process models describing the antecedents and outcomes of talent, both in the way of the actualemergence of talent and
the perceptionof talent by relevant others in the work setting (Silzer & Church, 2009).
A second avenue for further research is to examine differences in the conceptualization and implementation of talent
management. Differences might be examined at the organizational, departmental, sectoral, country, and/or cultural level, using
multilevel designs. In doing so, researchers would respond to calls for more evidence of how talent management is implemented
across different contexts (see also Thunnissen, Boselie, & Fruytier, 2013-in this issue), and which approaches are more prevalent.
Interviews with HR managers and CEOs complemented by organizational-level surveys across a range of contexts might help
unveil the organizational rationale underlying specific talent management decisions (Dries & Pepermans, 2008; Iles, Chuai, et al.,
2010). In addition, comparative research designs such as these will allow for a critical examination of the TM frameworks
dominating the existing literature, which is very US/UK-centric (Tansley, 2011).
Third, future research might aim to contribute to the discussion about the link between talent management and specific
employee- and organizational-level outcomes (see also Gelens, Dries, Hofmans, & Pepermans, 2013-in this issue). Although there
is a strong level of conviction in the literature that strategic talent management decisions predict important outcomes such as
organizational performance, productivity, profits, and market position (e.g., Ashton & Morton, 2005), empirical evidence of such
relationships is lacking (Boudreau & Ramstad, 2004, 2005a, 2005b). Multilevel research designs, possibly combined with pre- and
post-intervention measurement (e.g., in organizations implementing a change in their approach to talent) are well suited to
tackle this particular research gap, as are comparative case studies.
A fourth and final topic for further research is the reliability and validity of various approaches to the identification of talent in
organizational settings (Silzer & Church, 2009). Although HR practitioners look to the academic world for guidelines as to how to
validly assess talentespecially seeking evidence for the long-term predictive validity of different types of measureshardly any
empirical evidence can be found. The literature on the identification of gifted children (e.g., Gagné, 2000), as well as the literature
on personnel selection (e.g., Cappelli, 2009) offer interesting points of departure, however. In order to advance talent
management as an academic field of research, it seems imperative to explore what we can learn from other disciplines first,
before we attempt to reinvent the wheel(e.g., Höglund, 2012).
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... These changes have already started to approach us in a very dynamic manner, and managers have to adopt new roles as knowledge and information management is increasingly becoming a key responsibility. A knowledge worker already determines success, and his or her fast response, skills, and talent become the driving force in the age of Industry 4.0 [14][15][16][17]. ...
... Sustainability 2022,14, 8727 ...
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The Fourth Industrial Revolution is an objective result of technological progress, which will radically change the traditional ways of doing business. This will also contribute to radical changes in the human’s role in the labour market. Employees with high qualifications and developed social-behavioural skills will experience high demand in the labour market, and a consequence of this will be necessary transformations of the talent management concept. This study aims to demonstrate the need to change the talent management concept in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The conducted research is based on the analysis of statistical data regarding labour productivity in the economic system EC-27. Economic and mathematical modelling techniques have been used for the analysis of selected statistical indicators (places of convergence and divergence, places of growth, declining and side trend have been found). As a result of the studies performed, a method of calculating the original Index the lack of talents in the economic system. The results of the completed research demonstrate: on the one hand, on the market, there is a shortage of talent and a transformation of the labour market is required for organizational and technological reasons; on the other hand, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the accompanying transformation of economic processes create new requirements for human resources. In such conditions, the role of human capital development process management increases significantly, and the necessary transformation of the talent management concept is increasingly becoming a key element that directly determines the sustainable development of social and economic systems. The transition to this concept should proceed through modern technologies and digital solutions, pursuing the main goal, being to provide a continuous process of not only searching for talents but also creating talents by delivering knowledge and forming skills as required by technological progress.
... Within a review on talent definitions within the field of work, Gallardo-Gallardo et al. (2013) identified subject-(talent as an individual) or object-related (talent as ability) approaches to talent, predominantly innate (nature) or acquired (nurture) conceptualizations of talent, or approaches that focus more on the input (such as abilities and motivation) or output of talent (such as excellent performance and success). Inconsistent definitions and operationalizations of talent can also be found within sports scientific talent research as Baker et al. (2020) note in their extensive scoping review on talent research. ...
... Inconsistent definitions and operationalizations of talent can also be found within sports scientific talent research as Baker et al. (2020) note in their extensive scoping review on talent research. Within Table 1, we applied the proposed differentiation of Gallardo-Gallardo et al. (2013) to exemplary talent definitions from the sports scientific literature. It is important to note that definitions often exist on a continuum and this categorization is not to be seen as a clear dichotomy, but rather as one possible way to differentiate various conceptualizations of talent. ...
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Talent identification, selection, and development represent critical areas of inquiry for sport scientists as indicated in the large amount of research attention dedicated to these topics. However, talent researchers rarely explicitly discuss their underlying conceptual understanding of “talent”. Within this article, we approach the construct “talent” from the perspective of social constructivism. We consider talent as a social construction that is historically changing and contextually embedded. Organizations that act as “purchasers” of talent (sports clubs, youth squads, etc.) have to develop ideas about which athletes represent the best fit against the background of the performance conditions within the respective sport (in the sense of possessing the set of characteristics that is most promising for future success). The purpose of these organizational “talent” descriptions is to try to ensure that the person with the highest chance of being successful is promoted. However, multidimensionality, asynchronicity, and discontinuity of talent development make the prediction of sporting success extremely difficult. Talent development needs to be thought of as an iterative process that is highly individualized and idiosyncratic. To make a person fit to the expectations of an organization requires a high degree of flexibility, reflexivity, and, not least, patience from talent development programs. Using the example of athletic talent, we show that the principles of constructivism provide a useful terminological, theoretical, and methodological basis for the empirical analysis of the complex process of talent emergence and development. Methodologically, idiographic approaches are needed that explore the intrinsic dynamics of talent development pathways.
... /fpsyg. . There are two fundamentally different approaches to TM. Currently most common in both research and practice, the exclusive approach defines talent as rare, emphasizing that practices should be targeted toward a small, elite subset of the organization's employees (Gallardo-Gallardo et al., 2013;Makarem et al., 2019). This approach advocates control and quantification of employees' normative performance (Boudreau and Ramstad, 2005) and disproportionate conferment of organizational resources (e.g., development opportunities, job rotations, high status) to the designated talents. ...
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Chapter
The chapter builds on a conceptual and theoretical understanding of talent management. It documents the notions and essence of talent management in modern organizations, especially in modern knowledge-based organizations, and frames a theoretical framework for talent management at present. It explains the fundamental link between talent management and human capital theory and answers three featured questions: Why is talent management so crucial in 21st-century organizations? How can talent strategy be reinvented to support digitalization? What are the changing landscape and evolving concerns of talent management and their implications for knowledge organizations in the post-pandemic paradigm?
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Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle With the recognition of the strategic role of talent in organizations comes an interest in effectively fi nding, building, and leveraging talent. This has led to a huge talent industry that provides programs and services in talent recruiting, selection, development, assessment, compensation, and retention. Talent has become the lifeblood of organizations. It is often seen as a primary reason for organizational success and failure and the key source of competitive advantage. As organizations spend more time and resources on talent, interest in identifying and developing the needed talent inside the organization has been growing. For many organizations, this means trying to determine what talent already exists in the organization and which employees have the potential to be effective in larger roles.