A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar organised by the Philosophy and Management association in Brussels. It was all about talent, and how the way artists work and manage their career can be a source of inspiration for talent management within business organisations. Pierre-Michel Menger, French philosopher and research director for the CNRS, presented some of his research in the sociology of work and art.
He first discerned two types of work:
- the ‘labour’ – an effort, constrained with a predictable outcome.
- the work as a discovery of oneself, the masterpiece of one’s life. In this type of work, success is more a derivative, not a predefined goal. It is unpredictable.
He argued that the latter type of work is influenced by philosophies from the 19th Century, emphasising the infinite depth of consciousness and the infinite possibilities open to us. Because of its unpredictability, it is a type of work that involves a lot of risks. The prestige and satisfaction someone gets from the realisation of a masterpiece is immense, but the risk to fail is in equal proportions. Artists face this risk in a hyper-competitive environment. Differences in revenue between artists is huge, the small number of successful artists take most of the resources and leave a small portion of revenue to the vast majority. If we look at just the financial situation of an artist, choosing such a career might look like a bad evaluation of the risks. But it does not take into account the non-monetary value of a potentially huge gratification, relative autonomy, and the diversity of the tasks involved in the job.
What influences the likelihood of becoming a successful artist (at least in the narrow sense of social recognition and monetary compensation) is not clear. There is something about being an artist that cannot be measured or put in an equation. It is not enough to study, work hard, and accumulate experiences. You need to have ‘talent’. The same applies to business. Sure, you can find people who are able to perform a task by looking at their past experiences. But how can you detect the collaborators who will go far beyond, surprise you and develop considerably within the company. How can you make sure to invest more in these people and less in the others? McKinsey invented a marketing term to describe the 10% of employees who will bring the most to the company: ‘talents’. Talent management is controversial and relates to the many meanings of the word ‘talent’. Pierre-Michel Menger proposed to define talents as people you cannot isolate using predefined criteria or by reading their CV. He argued that the only way to detect talents is to compare them to each other. This is why competitions and awards in the art world are so frequent. The members of the jury themselves do not know what they are looking for, and the outcome is unpredictable. It is after comparing the contestants that they can see who has a little something more, a higher potential. This is why we start to see more and more contests and game-like workshops in business (hack day for developers, unconferences, Dragon’s Den-style internal events), to detect talents that could not be screened using a formal HR equation.
This approach raises many ethical dilemmas.
- On one hand, I want people to judge me on rational criteria that I can understand and on which I can act. It is a system that protects all of us against arbitrary decisions and favouritism. On the other hand, I also want to be judged for who I am and for my talent, independently of any predefined list of criteria.
- Whatever your boss may say, it is reassuring to know that he/she does not judge you, but only your work and your performance. With the concept of ‘talent’, suddenly your boss wants to know what you do in your spare time and wants you to reveal yourself, so that he can detect the ‘talent’. It is a much more personal relation. It surely benefits some people, but not necessary everyone. The opposite leads to the same problem but the other way around. You might have a quality that you know could help your career, but an employer looking only at short term figures and performances might not realise it.
- Is it right to invest more in the 10% of ‘talents’ in your company instead of using that money to raise the general level of expertise of the team? To use an example from Pierre-Michel Menger, if a talented researcher wins an award for a paper he wrote, his reputation will get a boost. However, the paper he wrote is most likely based on data that ‘average’ workers have collected. Is this fair? On the other hand, if there is no incentive for researchers to excel and be noticed, people will stagnate and become unmotivated.
- Even small differences between people of the same level in a specific field, such as music composition, can generate disproportionate inequalities. If more is invested to a young ‘talent’ who is a little better than the other children of his class, he will quickly gain more experience and have more chances to explore his talent. He will then have a reputation, which will encourage people who do not have the time or knowledge in music composition to hire him instead of someone else, which will give him even more experience, and so on. The ‘talented’ person might truly be exceptional, but was it because of his initial tiny competitive advantage, or because of the community’s investment in him? Does it make a difference? Maybe humans are like bees and need an arbitrary hierarchy for their society to work.
How to resolve the dilemma depends on your vision of society. If you believe that there is a real opportunity for people from all backgrounds to display their talents, then selecting talents by comparing people to each other on non-measurable criteria is acceptable. If on the other hand, you perceive the world as being a constant exploitation of the masses by a few people in power, every privilege not based on measurable merit is a potential discrimination. Both extremes are false, the world needs both talented artists and hard workers. I believe that the key to resolve the dilemma is to offer multiple ways to succeed, in many different ways, with the help of many different groups of people. Diversity lowers the probability of generating systematic discrimination and enables many understandings of what talent really means.