Blog Post

Bridging the gap: Optimising talent and learning systems with data for effective performance

The purpose of this blog series is to offer some suggestions on how to grow your confidence in using technologies and data to support your HR practice. The first in the series explored the topic at a general level, while the second focused on Learning and Development (L&D) technologies and data. This final instalment offers some thoughts on bringing talent and learning together, and the role of data and technology in doing so.

Talent Management and L&D: A Separate History

Traditional definitions of talent management usually identify that talent management encompasses the processes involved in attracting, developing and maintaining the people needed to enable an organisation to succeed. Some emphasise the difference between talent acquisition (attraction and recruitment) and talent management (the activities involved in building and retaining talent after hiring). In small organisations, talent managers may be responsible for both (and a lot more besides!).In larger organisations, there may be separate teams (perhaps with labels like COEs (Centres of Excellence)), for talent acquisition and talent management, alongside other HR teams responsible for other elements of the people experience – L&D, compensation (pay and benefits), people analytics, organisational design and so on.

I offer this introduction because I know from experience that this can be quite bewildering to early career people professionals entering an organisation in one of these teams. You may join a talent management team, for example, and quickly realise there are possibly dosens of other people, in other teams that you only hear about or encounter infrequently, that also seem to be engaged in work that sounds like it duplicates or certainly aligns to work you are doing. And you may have no idea how to connect with those other people effectively. In some cases, you may actually be discouraged from doing so as these teams can actively compete for budget, visibility and relevance.

If you are reading this and thinking “I am in this position right now”, this is your call to action! Start building connections with folks in these other teams, finding ways to work together on projects and to influence the situation from the ground up. This landscape is changing (see more below), and you can be a positive part of that change.

This “siloing” of HR teams is especially problematic when it comes to talent and L&D. In theory, talent and learning teams are obvious partners – they both focus on activities designed to ensure the organisation has the skills and capabilities it needs to succeed. Both are concerned with supporting people to pursue effective career development journeys and to remain engaged and motivated by opportunities to develop. In reality though, they are too often separate teams, focusing on specific activities, leading to frustration for the people working in those teams. And that’s before we consider how it feels to the people they are trying to support,who face a bewildering array of job titles and individuals from different teams with whom they must interact e.g., as part of their experience of joining and onboarding to an organisation.

Many people entering the workforce now (and many already in it), feel this separation and the use of confusing HR acronyms that often goes along with it are outdated and downright daft ( They expect to see clear, inclusive opportunities to grow their skills in any organisation they join. They are not “grateful” for being offered training occasionally, instead they expect it as a continuous right and have no patience with disjointed systems that don’t show clearly where a development path could take them. If you are reading this and thinking “this is true in my organisation and I have a leadership role in this”, this is your call to action too!

Talent Management and L&D: A Shared Future, Focused on Skills?

There are signs the barriers between talent and learning are starting to come down. The COVID-19 pandemic was an enormous catalyst for this change and another key driver is the recent significant, strategic shift by many to a focus on skills. Traditional talent management approaches such as succession planning, talent pooling, performance management and organisation design based on job descriptions, role profiles and responsibilities, are being replaced by a focus on skills intelligence, flexible internal mobility, continuous feedback and listening, employee experience and engagement. At the same time, L&D teams are focusing less and less on taking orders to develop or purchase training courses and focusing instead on gathering data to better understand the work context and the tasks and activities people undertake now and may be needed to undertake in the future. This leaves them better placed to design more effective, evidence based opportunities for skills development, transfer, practice and mastery that are more aligned to career pathways and performance and business needs. This focus on skills also – finally – has the potential to move us away from an obsession with crudely defining some people as “talent” and the rest as “not”, and all the attendant negative consequences associated with that.

Talent Management and L&D: Shared Tech and Data?

What does this have to do with data and technology you may ask? All too frequently, the separation of talent and learning teams has also led to separate technology purchasing decisions. Just like the teams themselves, it may seem obvious that there are huge efficiencies and opportunities to be gained from connecting and consolidating these. Yet rarely, very rarely, have these technologies and the data they create, and store been managed as one unified whole.

The shift to a focus on skills is providing a catalyst for change here too. Some are turning to the technology to assist with this shift. Others are finding that their separate systems now all collect and organise data about employees' skills. For example:

  • Team A, a recruitment team, may have purchased a system to support improved hiring practice and that system uses skills and capabilities as the currency, not jobs, qualifications and resumes,
  • Team B, a learning team, may have purchased a system to provide a better user experience and more personalised learning recommendations, and that system makes those recommendations based on the skills the user wants to develop.

It is a natural step for Team A to consider next how they can use “their” system to help people plan their career development as part of a retention strategy. It is equally natural for Team B to consider how to use “their” system to show people who develop specific skills that they are a good match to certain internal career opportunities. If these systems and decisions remain separate, this leaves the user with a very poor experience across two systems that hold different data on their skills and offer potentially different career and development opportunities. Then there is the duplicated spend and management resource, lost opportunity to reduce recruitment costs…I am sure you can fill in the rest.

The Opportunity of the Opportunity Marketplace

Talent marketplace systems that are designed to support internal mobility and skills development via projects, mentoring, short-term assignments and secondments are a great example of where the tech worlds of talent and L&D are now colliding. These systems - and the collaborative working and thinking that are needed to make their implementation succeed - represent a huge opportunity for talent and L&D to bring their tech and data together, with multiple potential benefits.

As Lori Niles-Hofmann explains, "If done properly, the data around skills, the gaps, and anticipated industry skills, can be leveraged to make strategic decisions around #Learning investments. People can augment what they learn in a course with actual hands-on experience and feedback in a system that manages this at scale.”

Some vendors, like Cornerstone, have been investing for some time in taking this a step further by building a comprehensive platform that combines core talent and learning technologies and data to create the opportunity marketplace. These systems use AI to enable customers to see, match, automate, prescribe, predict and manage the supply and demand of talent and skills across their organisations.

Making the Shift

The shifts taking place right now in talent and L&D practice and the developments in tech functionality mentioned here are not minor, nor are they easy to navigate. And there are many associated issues e.g., of cultural change, data privacy and ethics, people capability, time and budget that I do not have space to even touch upon.

You may be thinking that you now have a whole new set of technology and data to confidently understand. Learning tech if you work in talent, talent tech if you work in L&D. Correct. If you have not yet realised it, there has never been a more important moment to connect with your colleagues, learn from one another and - if you are a leader - prepare a shared tech and data strategy. These worlds are colliding, and you can choose to ignore this and buy that next piece of tech for “your” team or embrace the change and make some shifts that have the potential to be truly impactful. Many organisations are just at the start of making these shifts and navigating the challenges, so now is a great time to be developing your understanding and beginning to plan and experiment.

If you are looking to develop your understanding of some key concepts, resources I’d suggest include:

  • This overview of the core functionalities most skills tech offers and how the vendor marketplace can be categorised according to system functionality,
  • This European focused analysis of the vendor talent and people success solutions market that provides some helpful insight into the specialist vs suite vendor debate
  • This white paper on the concept of talent intelligence and the technological developments that support it.
  • Case studies, like this one from Deutsche Post DHL Group (DPDHL), that help illuminate the benefits that can be achieved.

In Conclusion: Keep it Human!

This blog series has focused upon developing capability with technology and data and I hope it has provided you with encouragement, tips and resources to build your capability. My closing thoughts though are about the importance of keeping a focus on the human.

At the end of the day, technology can only support our human activities and data is only useful if it offers people evidence and insight that informs effective decision making. This recent brilliant piece by Matthew Daniel reminds us learning and talent development giving everyone the same access to platforms - no matter how integrated and packed full of new functionality - is only the start. We must be careful to ensure everyone has the support they need to engage with the available opportunities. And without humans leading on all of this – showing vision and making the effort to break down team structure silos and work together to create a talent and learning strategy that is integrated - all the investment and confidence with tech and data, will not move you – or the people you serve - forward.

Learn about building talent with the skills you need.

Aritcle written by Helen Smyth.

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