How good are companies today at talent management? Well, most are rather good at talent identification. A majority of large companies now have rigorous processes aimed at finding high-potential employees. Many also have specific talent pools where these identified employees are listed.
Fewer companies, however, seem to have made the same investments when it comes to talent development. Arguably, this is quite problematic if you want ROI from your talent management. Imagine an FC Barcelona junior soccer scout vacuuming the youth academy for promising kids, and then doing nothing else than listing them as part of a talent pool. Identification without consecutive training is, plainly, quite a waste of resources.
Further, when companies do offer talent development, it tends to be in the shape of talent programs. That is; a time-limited, structured initiative, where chosen talents are gathered as a group to do various developmental activities. Common elements include trainings, rotations, mentoring, and project work (Stahl et al., 2012).
These programs, when well-thought through, can work really well (see e.g. Khoreva & van Zalk, 2016; Björkman et al., 2013). Nonetheless, there are two important points to be made: First, these initiatives only target a fraction of a company’s talents. Talent programs seldom have more than 30-50 spots, even in the largest corporations. Imagine a company with 10,000 employees. That’s 0,5 percent who get to enjoy a program. Second, these programs usually last about a year. In order to grow high-potential people into complex roles, development will have to continue well beyond that time frame.
Both of the above points actually lead us up the same alley: No talent development strategy can function without a substantial focus on on-the-job training (OJT), both for ex-program participants and for all the other talents in the company. This concept was put into focus by the consultancy CCL already back in the 1990s, but all too often it has been misunderstood. OJT, importantly, does not equal “being at work”. It is not about passing time at the office.
What research shows is that in order for OJT to be effective, it needs to be fashioned to get you out of your comfort zone. In other words, the job must feed you challenges that demand something beyond your usual repertoire. And as we also know from research, this can be quite stressful if not coupled with an intensified supply of support. That is; an attentive manager or mentor is usually necessary for these stretch assignments to work properly.
There is also another argument for OJT: Skilled employees want it. A number of studies have shown that good OJT initiatives reduce turnover intentions, and that the mechanism for this is an increased sense of support from the organization (e.g. Paré & Tremblay, 2007; Pattie, Benson & Baruch, 2006). There is also a positive relationship between perceived training comprehensiveness and commitment (Benson, 2006; Ehrhardt et al., 2011; Georellis & Lange, 2007).
If OJT is both effective and desired by talents – why is it not used more? Research is rather silent on this issue, but a qualified guess is that the number one reason is time-pressured middle managers. Organizations could certainly consider taking part of the budget from exclusive talent programs to give these key actors a bit more time to plan and execute high-quality OJT. Chances are, their talent development and –retention will benefit highly from it.