Talent Management

In my dissertation research, I explored the different mechanisms of control at work within the corporate context.  I took advantage of my insider access as a corporate employee to describe and analyze varied of business practices and deconstruct them from an anthropological point of view.  I looked at everything from employee communications, to budgeting, to HR practices.  For a theoretical framework I used the work of Foucault.  Towards the end of his career, Foucault described a form of power he called ‘technologies of the self’, in which people self-manage because they have so internalized the forms of power that surround them.  In a corporate context like SAP employees often work remotely, and so to ensure their ongoing alignment with the corporate direction, it becomes even more critical that they have internalized the company values.

The title of my dissertation is Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work.  The denouement at the end of the book addresses the ways in which – by internalizing or consuming the corporate discourse – employees are at the same time consumed by their work, because the boundaries between what is good for the company and what is good for them becomes so blurred.   This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Human Resources (HR) practices.  I wrote about the ways in which the annual Performance Review is in itself really a performance, an opportunity to demonstrate alignment with corporate and organization direction, in the hopes of receiving recognition in the form of promotions, raises, and variable compensation (bonuses).

When I returned from maternity leave in the Fall of 2007, I learned from my management team that I had been named to SAP’s Top Talent program.  The Top Talent (TT) program recognizes 10% of employees for their contributions and also for their potential.  Our HR Business Partner presented us an overview of the Top Talent strategy which said (among other things) that the purpose of the program is to “Inspire organizational top talent to advance the future capability of the organization … [and] build capabilities of top talent to maximize their contributions and cultivate their growth.”  In other words, the program is designed to be mutually beneficial.

SAP’s Top Talent program is part of a larger Talent Management strategy for the company.  There is a focus on what the industry calls ‘talent acquisition and retention’.  There are a number of programs in place focused on ensuring retention of SAP’s best employees, including several different profit-sharing programs.  There is also now commitment to and tracking of filling open positions with named Top Talent resources.  SAP’s Top Talent program reports directly in to the Office of the CEO, further demonstrating its current priority by our most senior executives.  In addition to line-of-business programs like the one I attended in Paris (more on that shortly), the company provides a variety of educational and networking programs especially for its Top Talent, including the Fellowship program (six month intra-company transfers) and a Cascading Strategy workshop.  Through the workshop, TTs have the opportunity to learn about the corporate strategy and direction from the Corporate Consulting Group.  The full day session involves a presentation of SAP’s confidential strategy documents, and working sessions to offer feedback directly to members of the executive team on perceived challenges to achieving the strategy.  As a return on investment, TTs are asked to help spread the key messages from the session, and there were follow-on surveys to find out how many people were touched by the cascading of the messages from Top Talents.

In this post, I hope to deconstruct the Talent Management program and discourse.  However, because I am writing about my own experiences, I find it very challenging to separate myself from the very real experiences of managing my career.  In Consuming Work I talked about ‘the performance of commitment’, a termed coined by a researcher (Jaffe 1995) who was trying to do post-graduate work about the military while serving.  Because of the degree of commitment that her work and her success required, she was unable to effectively do both – it wasn’t until she left that she was really able to step back and reflect on her experiences.  I found that to be very true during the course of my doctoral program and perhaps even more true now, as I don’t have regular contact with anthropologists to help me retain that perspective.  So bear with me while I try to tell the story as a passionate, dedicated, successful employee … I’ll try to step back and reflect before the end of the post!

As 2008 year comes to a close and I begin work on my performance review, I’ve been thinking a lot about my accomplishments and what I want my career to look like over the next few years.  Last year was especially enjoyable because – in part due to my participation in the Top Talent program – I had a chance to participate in a number of strategic projects.  But I have been a Director for awhile, and I am definitely ready for new challenges and growth.  I am hoping that in the next few weeks, we’ll get the official word that we’re moving from the Sales line of business into the Operations area, where I can pursue the same topics, but on a cross-Board area basis.  I think that could keep me busy for another year or two!

I was told that my nomination was in part due to the work I had done to rapidly create and mobilize a multi-function team from the end of 2006 into 2007.  It was quite an honor to be recognized, and I was particularly excited for what it might mean in terms of future career growth.  I felt it was an even greater honor because of all the other really talented people I work with, and the fact that I had only worked ten months in 2007, having taken two months’ maternity leave in August & September.  As part of the program, I was flown to Paris in December 2007 to meet the management team for Business Operations, and to get to know the other Top Talents from our organization.  I was still on partial maternity leave at the time (and still nursing), so the trip was not without its challenges for me at a personal level.  Through the workshop I had a chance to meet or reconnect with the Vice Presidents in Business Operations, and to meet our line-of-business Chief Operating Officer, Martin R.  Over the course of the two days, we were asked to look at some of Operations toughest problems, and to propose pragmatic, actionable solutions.  I enjoyed strategizing about tough problems with other interesting and capable people, many of whom I had never met.  I had a chance to present the outcomes of our working session to the whole group, and was asked to program management the follow-on activities as well.  All these things provided me with a rapid re-immersion into work, and a much-improved understanding of the strategic direction for both SAP and the Operations group of which I was a member.  I believe there is a direct correlation between visibility with executives and career opportunities, so perhaps most importantly for me, the program provided me with executive exposure that I felt I had been missing for some time.

In spite of the personal challenges of being in Paris, I was really proud to be recognized.  I hoped it would provide me the opportunity to further advance my career.  However, having written about the Performance Management processes of SAP in my dissertation (pages 189-198), I couldn’t help but look with an anthropological eye at the Talent Management strategy as well.  Human Resources practices in general are a powerful mechanism of control, a way for ensuring employees take responsibility for their own career success through alignment with corporate objectives.  In good economic times especially, it is critical for corporations to put such programs in place to minimize voluntary attrition, and the associated costs of hiring and retraining new employees.

The Top Talent website on the corporate intranet includes a welcome letter from the co-CEOs, which states:

You have achieved a major milestone in your career and we are confident that you will play a key role in shaping SAP’s future. … [W]e count on our Top Talents to actively contribute to SAP’s success and to drive the changes our organization has to implement. And to do so, we are committed to helping you access opportunities at SAP that can help you grow and advance your career.

I finished my Top Talent year in December of 2008, and as I prepared my performance review and reflected on the year, I felt a little disappointed with the program and what it afforded.  I did get some great visibility in the early part of the year, and I had a chance to shape the Portfolio Planning and Management process for Operations, something which has turned into a critical business process for us over time.  It was great to be a part of that.  However, I was not renamed to the Top Talent program again for my work in 2008, so I felt that I had perhaps I had failed, or let an opportunity pass me by in some way.  The note that I received at the start of program from my management team stated that:

It is important to understand that you are in charge of your further development. You have the responsibility to initiate and implement a professional development plan while your manager will serve as a guide to your professional development.

If I was in charge of my “further development”, where did I go wrong?  Does the fact that I wasn’t nominated again this year mean I am no longer going to “play a key role in shaping SAP’s future”?  I believe I took advantage of every opportunity presented, including taking on additional work and participating in every workshop and executive meeting that was offered to me.  I even applied for and was accepted into the the Fellowship program (which has now been delayed due to cost-cutting measures).  Furthermore, due to the fact that my participation in the program was not communicated to my peers, it created discomfort between me and colleagues who were either not recognized, who found out through back channels that I was recognized, or who were just plain jealous.  I am not sure those rifts can be easily healed.

It may be too early to tell if I will reap rewards for my Top Talent nomination last year.  After all, there are few executives who know me now who didn’t know me before, and those relationships may still bear fruit.  In addition, I have not yet had my performance review, and there are also all kinds of organizational changes afoot.  But based on where I sit right now, I feel that the Top Talent program has a long way to go before it really achieves its strategy of truly creating growth opportunities for its most talented employees.  If you can cycle in and out of the program in a year and nothing changes in your professional status, what does that mean?  Have you still “grown and advanced your career”?  How is success measured, if not by increased responsibility, promotions, raises, and so on?  It is possible that something was achieved that is not clear to me, and if so, what is that?

Program participants were surveyed towards the end of the year regarding our experiences with the TT program, so I look forward to seeing if they share the results with us.  I’m very curious to know how others in the program felt about their experiences.  I completely internalized the propaganda about the program and what it would do for me.  Not only do I find myself disappointed, but I am actually asking myself what responsibility I have in my ‘failure’ to be re-nominated or advance my career in some way.  It really is amazing to me how powerful the corporate discourse is (for me, anyways), and how it sweeps up even the most self-aware observers.

2 Comments on “Talent Management”

  1. Pingback: Deconstructing Lean « Natalie Hanson, PhD

  2. Pingback: Performance of commitment « Natalie Hanson, PhD

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