Sustainability, not selfishness, will grow the talent of the future

14 Jan 2010 By Mark Butler

HR needs a shift in focus from the damaging war for talent to sustainable social outcomes

So how is the recession affecting the war for talent? I’ve heard a variety of views on this, but my take is different. For me the whole notion of the war for talent is damaging and old-fashioned - an aggressive, divisive term coined in the 1990s and best left there. 

First, the idea of a war suggests blind pursuit of a dubious goal in which there will inevitably be casualties. People and work deserve better. By its very nature a war assumes the prize is a struggle for ownership and possession. It feeds short-term selfishness and self interest by organisations. 

All this is wrong for the times we are now in, facing the problems we do. 

The war for talent appeals to those who only see their companies in isolation and seek easy, or at least, simple-to-understand solutions. It has allowed some HR people to increase their sense of importance, while failing in their duty to engender a profound knowledge of supply and demand of skills. 

HR has spent an increasing amount of time focusing on ever more elaborate reward strategies unconnected to sustainable business or social outcomes. The warmongers busied themselves with creating localised difference to secure short-term supply, when the real job of people professionals was, and still is, about so much more. 

In the past decade the war for talent has fuelled some spectacularly bad outcomes - competition for scare skills where collaboration was needed; short-term, short-sighted decisions on rewards leading to self-destructive, selfish and unethical behaviour; satisfaction at work hitting all-time lows; expectations of career success spiralling out of control. 

Future economic and social success will not be built on short-term “wins” based on tactical battles to be attractive in a labour market. Success will be built on collaboration, not competition, to secure social gains. People strategies are best built on developing pivotal skills in people and supporting a lifetime of productive activity for the economy – not selfishly for your own organisation but for wider social advantage. 

Not the real world? Maybe, but the first casualty of the war for talent is real skills analysis. The data on core skills – both current and future – remains poor within many organisations and sectors. Even more disturbing is the way such data is rarely used to any good purpose. 

High levels of numerical deficiency survive among senior professionals. How many HR directors are properly assessed on their quantitative abilities before appointment - something they would demand of others? 

Or is it down to poor internal systems? Surely IT cannot be used any longer as an excuse for failing to get a grip on both the supply and demand of skills.

For whatever reason the critical, quantitative evaluation of pivotal skills – the foundation of any organisation’s future success and that of the economy - remains too shaky in too many places. But the war for talent has too often provided a neat get-out clause. It externalises and avoids the problem. The focus narrows to short-term recruitment - gap-plugging - and away from proper planning of skills. 

We need a shift in focus from selfish tactics in a spurious war (in which people are inevitably casualties) to working collaboratively and honestly with colleagues across organisational boundaries. Our professional engagement should be with issues of sustainability and substance. This will be a much better defence against future meltdown than any war.

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