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Measuring Invisible Talent Part 1 by Charley Morrow
When we think about measurement, we usually think about measuring objects—their length or weight. The concrete nature of this sort of measurement is easy to understand and predictable: A meter is always a meter.
Talent measurement, in contrast, is not easy to understand, and it’s unpredictable. Measuring talent has its challenges, but it’s one of the keys to organizational learning and employee motivation.
When it comes to measuring talent, we look for consistent and concrete measures, just as we do in the physical world. We hope for honesty in the mathematical precision offered by measures and metrics. We hope for less wiggle room and more candor. We hope measurement data provides less theory, better insights, and obvious decisions.
Comparing physical and talent helps us to see the value and potential of measurement. The value is high, but if we cling to the metaphor of physical measurement, we will grow frustrated. We may also miss one of the real strengths of talent measurement.
Talent measurement is different and it is complicated. Among the complications, it has a special attribute: measurement motivates. To access the benefits of talent measurement we need to consider how physical and talent measures differ.
Talent Is Invisible
Talent measures aren’t concrete, like their physical counterparts. Many of the most important assets of today’s world are essentially invisible—think of wealth, power, relationships, personality, or intelligence. Because the aspects of talent that we care about are invisible, it can be difficult to know what we are measuring.
It’s not just that talent is invisible. We also need to remember that measures are just a representation of talent. This adds complications. We all know that someone’s height in inches isn’t the person. It’s easy, however, to confuse a measure of potential with the value of a high-potential employee. The measure of potential is a representation of an underlying capability, and the measure is accurate only in a probabilistic sense.
Invisibility and representation are two reasons that talent measures tend to be less precise, and less consistent, than physical measures. Have two managers rate how well an employee completed a difficult task, and you’re likely to get two different answers. Ask two skilled carpenters to measure the length of a cabinet, and you’ll probably get two nearly identical answers, accurate to within one-sixteenth of an inch.
Despite this, organizations often act as though their measures are nearly perfect. For example, some management consultants recommend that employees be ranked annually. Let’s be clear about what ranking actually means: Employees will be listed in order, from best to worst. To truly rank employees, there would need to be a distinction between the 10th and 11th best employees. Without a perfect measure, this is impossible. Since we don’t have measures that are up to this task, we would have to use other means to rank employees, such as intuition.
Ranking employees by a physical measure sounds easier, but even this is complicated. Let’s say you’re at a family gathering and you’re taking a photo of your grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and so forth. You’d ask people to organize themselves by height—shorter people in front—so that the camera can capture their faces. We often think about employees this way: We can just line them up according to some feature, such as performance. We’ll keep the best, or the tallest, and get rid of the rest.
Of course, it’s not that simple! Even physical measurement is imperfect. Imagine trying to get 1,000 employees to stand in order, by height. I can hear the questions already. Does big hair count? Should we take our shoes off? In the end, we’d probably need to ask ourselves, “what is employee height, anyway?”
If we take physical measurement to this logical conclusion, it provides a useful lesson: measurement is more complicated in practice than in theory. We may think we understand what leadership is. When it comes to measuring it, we need to get pretty specific in our meaning.
Come back next week as we wrap up Dr. Morrow’s piece on Invisible Talent and learn how people react to being measured and whether or not we should stop measuring talent.
About Charley Morrow, Ph.D.:
Dr. Charley Morrow is an expert in using focused assessment methodologies to drive individual and organizational performance. During his 15 years of professional experience, he has designed, implemented, and evaluated training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions for more than 20 organizations. Much of his current work focuses on increasing accountability and developing better systems for efficient decision making in talent management departments and not-for-profit organizations.
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