ATD Blog

Measuring and Maximizing the Impact of Talent Development By Alec Levenson

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Most talent management approaches fall way short of the mark when it comes to improved strategy execution and organizational effectiveness. We spend way too much time and energy focusing on individual talent and capability, ignoring the more important issues of organizational talent and capability.

Where should we start when improving talent processes? Should we improve managerial coaching? Should better match developmental opportunities to people’s desired career plans? Should we improve performance accountability, with clear signals about the needed competencies?

The answer to each of these and a dozen more related questions is “of course.” But leaders responsible for talent-related initiatives only have so much time and energy. If we don’t focus primarily on the issues that matter most for business success, we run a very high risk that our managers and leaders won’t be engaged in what we want them to do. Even worse, the business results could suffer, increasing the chances of cutbacks in budget dollars and wholescale de-emphasizing of talent development while people focus exclusively on righting the ship of business performance.

Systems View of Talent

The solution I propose, based on years of working with companies to solve large organizational challenges, is to take a systems view of talent. There are two parts to the systems view:

  1. what happens at the individual or role level 
  2. what happens at the group or organizational level.

Using the systems approach to expand the view of talent has direct implications for talent development. If talent means more than just individual competencies or skills, then traditional tools and programs won’t be sufficient for all aspects of talent at either the job level or the group level. As a result, talent development has to include what’s traditionally covered, along with an added focus on what matters for developing talent at the organizational level. This added component means focusing on developing both individual and organizational capability at the same time.

Individual and Organizational Talent Capabilities


Individual capability includes the competencies that enable people to do their jobs. Organizational capability is similar, but also quite distinct. It’s how the organization gets all the work done, across all roles and processes, but it is much more than just the sum of individual capabilities of the people. For example, innovation is one type of organizational capability. In order to have innovation, you need the building blocks provided by the competencies of roles like engineers, software programmers, or scientific researchers. Yet, organizational innovation is never accomplished solely through the individual contributions of people in those roles. Organizations also need the right mix and alignment of organization design, culture, and processes.

The traditional view of talent as individual skills or human capital is one of only six contributors to organizational performance; the other two at the individual level are motivation and job design. There are three additional important factors at the group level that are usually totally excluded from traditional views of talent and performance: organizational capability, organization design, and culture. In particular, the alignment among roles in contributing to performance often is as important if not more important than the individual role contributions.

What emerges after conducting a systems diagnostic is not always an individually focused talent solution. The changes that need to occur typically require a lot more, including potentially redesigning jobs and work processes, improving team collaboration, getting better cross-functional alignment, and so forth. Though the solutions usually involve much more than traditional individually focused solutions, in each case, there almost always is a clear and specific role for individual-focused talent management and development to play. It’s just that the talent solution cannot stand on its own with solely an individual focus. It has to be coordinated with a larger set of organizational changes for maximum impact.

Want to learn more? This blog draws from my August 2016 TD at Work, “Measuring and Maximizing the Impact of Talent Development.”

About the Author

Alec Levenson is a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. His action research and consulting work with companies optimize job and organization performance and HR systems through organization design, job design, human capital analytics, and strategic talent management. Alec has trained HR professionals from a broad range of Fortune 500 and Global 500 companies in human capital analytics. His research has been featured in numerous academic and business publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, CNN, the Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Marketplace, and Fox News. Alec is also on the editorial boards of Human Resource Management and Small Business Economics. He is the author of Strategic Analytics: Advancing Strategy Execution and Organizational Effectiveness and Employee Surveys That Work, and co-author of What Millennials Want From Work. Alec has received research grants from the Sloan Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. National Science Foundation, China National Science Foundation, and National Institute for Literacy. He received a PhD and an master’s degree in economics from Princeton University, specializing in labor economics and development economics, and a bachelor’s degree in economics and Chinese language (double major) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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