How Can Companies Weave a Web of Talent? in 1998 the Consulting Firm McKinsey & Company Published the Results of a Survey with the Eye-Catching Title the War for Talent. Based on Responses from 77 US Organisations and Detailed Case Studies of Another 20, the Report Highlighted "A Severe and Worsening Shortage of the People Needed to Run Divisions and Manage Critical Functions, Let Alone Lead Companies"

By Dickson, Tim | European Business Forum, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

How Can Companies Weave a Web of Talent? in 1998 the Consulting Firm McKinsey & Company Published the Results of a Survey with the Eye-Catching Title the War for Talent. Based on Responses from 77 US Organisations and Detailed Case Studies of Another 20, the Report Highlighted "A Severe and Worsening Shortage of the People Needed to Run Divisions and Manage Critical Functions, Let Alone Lead Companies"


Dickson, Tim, European Business Forum


Had this been a merely cyclical problem it would probably have gone away by now. But numerous studies by grateful headhunters and other management consultants--not to say an update from McKinsey earlier this year--suggests that despite the economic slowdown and the end of the dot-com party the "people" challenge has intensified. Many businesses, moreover, ignored the original warning.

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Against this background EBF set out to analyse the 'talent' debate three years on and to offer senior executives a range of practical solutions, with special reference to the European context and the European experience. The experts we approached present their diverse and stimulating ideas on the following pages but what's striking is the number of common strands running through their papers. The key themes are summarised at the end of this introduction but most significant perhaps is the general view that successfully attracting and retaining the best talent these days requires a subtle, open minded and forward thinking strategy rather than an immediate and potentially aggressive call to arms.

Some managers are no doubt yet to be persuaded that the talent shortage is structural--but the demographic trends alone are alarming. These suggest that the number of 35 to 44 year-olds in Europe and North America as a proportion of the total population is set to fall by 15 per cent over the next decade, a development which will dramatically shrink the pool of people available for recruitment to the top corporate ranks. In addition, the relentless globalisation of most business sectors has put a premium on truly effective but hard-to-find international management skills (such as leading and inspiring cross-cultural teams); information technology is increasingly defining the workplace, eclipsing many of those from an otherwise talented generation who are uncomfortable in the new, networked economy; while younger workers and managers are growing up with a different set of expectations about where and how they should work (or in the case of the heirs to some European business dynastic fortunes whether they should work at all).

The urgency with which companies need to address these issues is naturally that much greater in so called 'knowledge' businesses, though whether this distinction is useful any longer is a moot point.

A look into the past is instructive even for those executives most serious about embracing the sort of new thinking in EBF's Summer Forum. For, before embarking on change, there is a need to understand the intellectual and bureaucratic baggage inside traditional organisations which can handicap attempts to introduce a new culture and effective new practices. The familiar vision statement boast that 'people are our greatest asset' sounds hollow to all but the most brainwashed boardroom minds precisely because throughout much of the last 200 years people have repeatedly been treated by their employers in a dehumanising manner.

In the early 20th century Frederick Winslow Taylor developed a set of ideas--usually referred to as scientific management--which Richard Donkin in his excellent new study of the history of work has described as "a manual for management control" and which, along with the teachings of Henry Ford, were "arguably more influential and wider ranging than the competing ideologies of fascism and communism". Towards the end of the last century the proponents of re-engineering--however strong their protests about this philosophy amounting to a re-think of work from a process point of view--had again demonstrated that whatever the wider economic justification, people ultimately remained an expendable 'resource'.

More outwardly caring attitudes to individuals--epitomised by the now quaint traditions of the old style Welfare Department--can also be traced back over a long period. Robert Owen, seen by many as the founder of personnel management, is remembered particularly for his early 19th century New Lanark textile enterprise that pursued the social, moral and educational welfare of its workforce--revolutionary stuff at the time.

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How Can Companies Weave a Web of Talent? in 1998 the Consulting Firm McKinsey & Company Published the Results of a Survey with the Eye-Catching Title the War for Talent. Based on Responses from 77 US Organisations and Detailed Case Studies of Another 20, the Report Highlighted "A Severe and Worsening Shortage of the People Needed to Run Divisions and Manage Critical Functions, Let Alone Lead Companies"
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