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Can We Really Spot Talent?

Even as talent management becomes the highest of HR priorities in today’s corporations, some experts are raising questions about our ability to recognize or even clearly describe talent.

Merriam-Webster (2006) defines talent as “the natural endowments of a person.” Yet, some recent research suggests that what we term “talent” has more to do with hard work than with natural endowments. Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University states that “there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it” (Dubner and Levitt, 2006).

Ericsson’s research indicates that innate talent is very difficult to measure through objective means. When analyzing “gifted” children, for example, Ericsson, Nandagopal and Roring (2005) found that “the best performers had engaged in substantially more deliberate practice and that this was responsible for large physiological adaptations that distinguish the elite from less accomplished performers.”

But if innate talents and natural gifts are so difficult to verify scientifically, then why do many people tend to believe in them so strongly? To some degree, it may be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy. A child who is seen as particularly talented in a certain area tends to be rewarded with more regular instruction and practice in that area.

The notion of innate talent may also be a matter of bias. For example, the kids who are successful in some sports are much more likely to be born earlier in the year for their particular age bracket. So, they have certain natural advantages related to physical development when compared with their younger counterparts in the same bracket. “Coaches who do not know the children’s birth dates tend to perceive the oldest and most physically mature children within an age cohort as the most talented. The older children are, thus, more frequently selected into talent-development groups,” report Ericsson, Nandagopal and Roring.

But the problem of being able to identify talent isn’t limited to parents or coaches who overestimate certain children. Even in adult arenas where abilities seem obvious, so-called experts might not be good at judging talent, whether we define it as innate ability or as expert performance that’s honed by years of training. In The Wages of Wins, economists David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook (2006) report, “Much of our research, which employs the standard tools of economic theory and statistical analysis, contradicts what we hear repeated by sports writers and the players and coaches working in professional sports.”

The three economists have, for example, devised an algorithm that attempts to distill the value of any given NBA basketball player to his team based on performance. The algorithm looks not only at the obvious indicators—such as points scored—but also at the less obvious but important ones such as turnovers, shots taken, assists, and so on.  What they find, according to Malcolm Gladwell (2006), is that even basketball experts often fail to correctly gauge the performance of individual players. A player that’s viewed as a superstar might not, when all the relevant factors are taken into consideration, even turn out to be among the better players in the league.

“It’s not hard to wonder, after reading The Wages of Wins, about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluation of experts,” writes Gladwell. Indeed, if coaches and other sports gurus have a hard time judging performance in the open arena of professional basketball, then what hope do business people have of accurately gauging the performance of employees enmeshed in the intricate networks of the modern corporation? And if adults can be easily misled in regard to the innate talents of children, then what makes us confident we can identify talent in our own organizations?

The research by Ericsson and the analyses of The Wages of Wins authors suggest that intuition alone will not suffice in talent evaluation. In a team environment, it’s tricky trying to grasp all the dynamics that influence whether a person seems talented or not. And performance metrics aren’t a panacea either, especially if they are too reductionist.

One silver lining to such research is that it pushes us to more rigorously define the term “talent” as something relatively concrete, such as “expert skills and performance.” Therefore, an employer can worry less about whether or not a person is naturally “gifted” and more about his or her level of expertise.

Another point, according to Ericsson (2005),  is that “our growing understanding of what aspects distinguish experts from novices should translate into more effective training.” Trainers should be comforted to know that practice truly does make perfect and that superior instruction techniques really can help people acquire knowledge more efficiently. But true expertise is likely to remain a scarce resource because it requires much hard work to achieve and maintain. In this respect, the so-called war for talent remains a harsh business reality.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

Berri, David, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook. The Wages of Wins. Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 2006.

Dubner, Stephen J., and Steven D. Levitt. “A Star Is Made.” The New York Times, May 7, 2006.

Ericsson, K. Anders. “Recent Advances in Expertise Research: A Commentary on the Contributions to the Special Issue.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19 (2005):  233–241.

Ericsson, K. Anders, Kiruthiga Nandagopal and Roy W Roring. “Giftedness Viewed from the Expert-Performance Perspective.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted. ProQuest (Spring 2005).

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Game Theory.” The New Yorker, May 29, 2006, pp. 86–87.