Talent v. Culture: Where should HR be spending its time?

HR guru Dave Ulrich has been stirring things up again – this time with a new book that suggests HR people should be questioning where they are focusing their time and efforts.

If you’re an HR practitioner, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much of your time is taken up by talent? Finding it, developing it, deploying it, keeping it and letting it go when the time is right?
  • How much of your time is taken up by culture? Defining the culture the organisation needs to achieve its business goals and making sure that people think and behave in ways that support that?

In Victory through Organization: Why the war for talent is failing your company and what you can do about it, Ulrich suggests that the profession is placing too much emphasis on the former. It’s time, he argues, for HR to move from the war on talent to the battle for culture.

The title of Ulrich’s new book may be long, but the message is succinct. For years, HR has been consumed with the war for talent, investing vast sums of money attracting and managing the best people.

But winning the war for talent is not just about getting good people into the organisation – it’s about how you create the culture so that the right people are working hard in the right way, on the right things.

Ulrich’s research – which to date has involved 32,000 people and 1,200 organisations – shows that it’s the quality of the organisation, as opposed to quality of the individual, that has the biggest impact on business performance. And by a significant margin too – with the effect being four times multiplied.

The key to success, he says, is for HR professionals to help build organisations that are focused on leveraging individual talent through collective actions. “The whole organisation should be greater than the separate parts. United states are stronger than individual states. Teams outperform individuals. Individuals are champions, but teams win championships,” he says.

So what does this mean in practical terms for HR people on the ground?

First of all, we need to start defining organisations in terms of their capabilities rather than their structures. The things the organisation is known for and good at doing – whether that’s providing outstanding customer service or staying ahead of the field through innovation.

Once everyone is clear about exactly what it is that customers and shareholders value, the business can invest in building those capabilities and developing the policies and processes that support them.

He suggests that HR practitioners should audit the business to get the answers to three key questions:

  • Capabilities: Has the organisation prioritised the right capabilities? Does it add value to stakeholders through its ability to manage efficiency, for example, or drive change through rapidly?
  • Culture: Does the organisation have the right patterns for thinking and behaving? Is the right information being shared in the right way? Do employees behave consistently with the values?
  •  Management Behaviour: Are managers clear about what the desired culture is? Are they role-modelling it? Do management practices and processes support it?

“HR needs to shift from an internal focus on people to an external focus on the organisation and how well it can serve its customers to add value,” says Ulrich. “By creating dynamic systems that leverage talent throughout the business, you can create a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

What do you think? Is HR paying too much attention to talent at the expense of culture? Tell us your views.

Victory through Organization: Why the war for talent is failing your company and what you can do about it, Dave Ulrich, David Kryscynski, Wayne Brockbank and Mike Ulrich, April 2017. https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Victory+through+organisation%2C+Ulrich&rh=n%3A266239%2Ck%3AVictory+through+organisation%5Cc+Ulrich

  1. Hi Erika,

    This is a great write up. This is the first time I am commenting on this blog. I completely agree that hr role is not just to bring the right talent but to create the right environment so that people can stay.

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