My DBA Journey - Defense of the DBA Dissertation

Riitta Lumme-Tuomala

My DBA journey has reached its end with the defense of my DBA dissertation in June 16, 2017. In this last blog post I wanted to share the Lectio Praecursoria which is the official introduction to the dissertation at the public defense. I am happy to welcome Jouko Pitkänen, our DBA candidate, who from now on will have the fantastic duty to shed light on the fascinating DBA Journey. To get to know him, please read his interview in which he tells how Aalto Executive DBA is the opening of the third act in his life after dance sports and Stockmann.

Yours, Riitta 

Lectio Praecursoria 16.6.2017 

”Honoured Custos, honoured opponent, ladies and gentlemen.” 

Talent Management has during the past two decades gained quite a bit of attention in academia. Practitioners have been talking about talent management since the early nineties and consultants have been cashing in substantial amounts of money selling solutions for corporations to solve their talent challenges. The number of academic research on talent management and related papers has grown particularly during recent years at a breathtaking pace. The research has also during the last five to seven years, and I am quoting the honored professor Collings and his fellow researcher here, moved from infancy to adolescence, even if the research field as such is relatively new.  

The context of my research as the title, Talent Management in the Humanitarian Aid Context specifies, is that of the non-governmental organizations and more precisely humanitarian aid organizations. One of the quotations from my reference material tells something about the context, and sheds some light on the reason for choosing it for my research. “Many of the qualities combined with effective leaders are not unique to the humanitarian sector, the context in which they are being applied is unique.”  

The context is fascinating, challenging and under-researched within the field of talent management. The role and importance of humanitarian work and the aid organizations is only growing in the world of complex disasters and a plethora of humanitarian crisis.    

Talent management is currently seen as a high-priority issue in organizations worldwide and a critical determinant of organizational success.

According to many recent surveys leadership in general and talent management in particular, are among topics that require the most urgent action from organizations. 

CEOs in one global survey seem to agree that talent is the driver for the 21st century, and that the most important people in the current century are those who are able to manage talent. Furthermore, organizations spend a great deal of resources on identifying and developing talent necessary for successful strategy implementation and for achieving strategic objectives.  

As to academics, some researchers question the ability of talent management to add value over traditional Human Resource Management activities and approaches, and call talent management only another management trend or ‘fad’. Talent management has also been labelled simply as a new package around old ideas with a fresh name. Others, including myself vehemently disagree. Talent management, having the right people in the right place at the right time, is vital for business success and the achievement of strategic goals. While HR processes are ensuring the equal treatment of people, managing performance of all employees and having policies in place to name a few tasks, talent management is about strategic positions, ensuring the right people to occupy them, and developing these incumbents to ensure future success. In this format talent management is an exclusive process reserved for a selected pool of people. Talent management can be an inclusive process as well, in some organizations everyone is defined as talent. Then the emphasis is on developing and retaining.  

In my research, I have defined talent management as an organization’s strategic and deliberate efforts to attract, identify, develop, deploy and engage employees to and in organizations.  

Furthermore, talent management includes activities and processes related to 1) the systematic identification of key positions 2) the development of a pool of high potential incumbents to fill these roles, and 3) the establishment of a human resource architecture and/or procedures to enable recruitment of talent to the key positions and to ensure the retention of the talent through continued commitment and engagement of the talent to the organization.  

A pivotal aspect of the definition of talent management described above and used in my study is that ‘key positions’ are not restricted to the top management team nor merely to leadership and management positions, but may well vary between different operating units, departments, and levels of the organization, and over time. In other words, the strategic importance of talent management is emphasized in my dissertation, it also recognizes talent management’s potential to contribute to improving the organization’s competitive position and rests on a differentiation philosophy, i.e. the need to differentiate between strategic and non-strategic positions. This in turn works as a starting point for building a high-impact, strategically focused talent pool. At its most mature level, the organization’s strategy feeds to talent management strategy and – this is the indicator of maturity -  vice versa.  

Talent management can be looked at from five distinctive perspectives.

These are the competitive perspective, which is very close to that of my used in my study, process and HR planning perspective, developmental perspective, cultural perspective, and change management perspective. The first one considers talent management as a retention strategy. In other words, talent management should first identify critical positions and the talent to occupy those positions and then do its utmost to retain the talent to contribute to the competitive advantage of the organization. The HR process perspective emphasizes the everyday process and performance management to ensure future success. Developmental perspective focuses on developing talent and ensuring that the identified potential is manifested. The cultural perspective, focuses on etching a talent mind-set in the organization This perspective is discussed in depth in one of the most seminal practitioner books on talent management, the one that introduced the term ‘war for talent’ a term coined by its authors. This perspective considers culture to be a decisive factor when attracting talent. I tend to agree. The change management perspective is about using talent management to activate change in the organization. It also guides organizations to recruit change agents in the organizations, even “mavericks” 

If defining what talent management is, is causing a lot of debate in academia, so is the definition of talent itself. From the point of view of identifying talent, the definition is crucial. Not only when identifying talent, but also from the point of view of what the activities related to managing talent should be. Despite a plethora of interpretations of talent in academia, researchers seem to concur that the context has a significant impact on talent definition. Namely, talent is not absolute, it is relative and subjective!  

One of my contributions is a definition of talent, a formula. The factors of the multiplicative formula are competence, commitment, and contribution.

This formula by Ulrich and Smallwood is modified by adding the time dimension, i.e. dividing each of the three components into present and future. This allows the components of potential; curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination to be considered when defining and identifying talent.  In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment past performance and rigid lists of competencies or competency frameworks are not enough to ensure success of an individual in any kind of position.  Particularly complexity is on the rise also in the humanitarian aid context, and emphasizes the importance of learning agility or curiosity, new kind of insight and ability to work under the pressure of many different stakeholders to mention a few points. In the talent definition framework introduced in my dissertation competence’s present is represented by e.g. job descriptions and the future by strategic competencies which in turn are based on the strategy and the organization level strategic capabilities of the organization itself. Commitment then, is the current alignment between the mission, values and leadership of the organization and the values of the individual him or herself whereas future is the willingness of the individual to take initiative and to step outside the organization to use external networks in innovation and solution development. Contribution at its present form is performance and productivity, and potential for future success in the future dimension.  

This qualitative research was done as a single case study in a humanitarian aid organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The case is Heads of Emergency Operations, a pool of highly experienced humanitarian aid leaders. There are only three HEOps on the payroll of the Federation at the same time. Furthermore, the case pool – the three HEOps - is supported by a roster of Developing HEOPs, a high potential pool of a kind. The D-HEOps pool is also included in my research. In short, the HEOps pool was designed to meet the need for senior leadership in medium and large-scale operations. Typhoon Hyan in the Philippines, the Nepal earthquake, refugee migration in Europe, and the Ebola crisis in Western Africa are some recent examples where senior leadership has been needed. The three HEOps are ready to be deployed in 48 hours. Additionally, the increasing frequency and complexity of major disasters was deemed to require more sophisticated strategic leadership and coordination roles.  

Working in the humanitarian aid context – in natural and man-made calamities around the globe- can be described as demanding, stressful, complex, and hectic. The same applies to leadership in emergency operations.

Decisions need to be made rapidly based on often minimal information taking several stakeholders’ opinions and needs into consideration. Often these decisions are literally about life and death. With the growing complexity of emergencies and the number of players in the field a lot of attention should be paid on the competencies and skills that contribute to success in this complex and unpredictable context with a significant number of different stakeholders. Soft skills like communication, innovation, creativity and interpersonal skills are increasingly important. This in turn emphasizes the need for a robust talent management process, particularly talent definition and identification based on that definition. The main research question in my dissertation is: Do the managerial or business approaches to talent management and the principal assumption of organizations as moneymaking entities make talent management frameworks and theories non-applicable in the context of e.g. non-profit organizations. Based on the afore-presented, the response is no, it does not.  

Traditionally, in this context, when defining talent or the best possible incumbent to a position, emphasis is placed on experience in similar operations together with knowledge of the context, i.e. humanitarian aid and particularly emergency operations, including related processes and procedures. Experience and knowledge about similar operations are vital, but identifying talent should not be based solely on those and the evidence of required competencies which are numerous. Past performance, and experience, is not necessarily a good predictor of future success even in similar type of jobs. Research points to the opposite direction. Learning agility, insight and adaptability predict success better, particularly since context plays such an important role in performance and success: an individual can be a star in one operation and fail totally in another when the same team, organization, and manager are not there.   

Talent management in corporations can learn from the way talent or high potential are developed and retained in humanitarian aid organizations. 

At the IFRC the Developing-HEOps application, selection, and development processes can be argued to be a combination of solid, carefully designed activities related to assessment, evaluation, and observation, hence laying a solid foundation for both feedback and mentoring sessions as well as personal development plans. Deployments to emergency operations are a key component in the development program, which require the D-HEOps to be exposed to real-life challenges. These are not simulations or experiments in ‘safe’ environments, such as a simulation in a training program, and can be argued to equip the talent with skills and competencies that are invaluable in view of his or her future career. Corporations can arguably benefit from a similar approach, although genuine experiences that require the same speed in decision-making and involve such crucial decisions (life or death) can be challenging to arrange. 

To conclude: Talent management is essential in organizations now and in the future.

Organizations need to define what they need in terms of skills, competencies, and attitudes currently and particularly in the future, how macro-trends and changes in the operating environment impact the capabilities and competencies needed and the ways to develop or acquire them. Managers need to learn to identify potential, since it is not possible to predict what exactly are the skills and competencies of the future. The ability to learn new skills constantly and willingness to develop oneself are vital. Challenges to attract the right kind of talent is a major challenge in organizations all over the world. To be able to attract the right kind of talent, organizations need to define what they need in terms of talent, and the definition needs to be flexible enough to allow differentiation. Everything starts from the organization’s strategy and the identification of those positions that make the biggest difference when endeavouring to achieve strategic goals. And attraction is supported by the right kind of organizational culture.  

Also, talent management as a function should not forget its role as a guardian and co-creator of engagement.

The focus of talent management in many organizations is on processes, while the main focus should be on genuine collaboration between business and talent management in order to build organizations within which employees are valued and productive. Effective but flexible processes and well thought through definitions lay the basis for this.  

“I ask you, honoured professor David Collings to present the observations that you consider appropriate for this DBA dissertation”. 

Riitta Lumme-Tuomala is Director, Russia and Talent Management and Head of Growth at Aalto EE. The Aalto Executive DBA is a structured program in business administration for experienced individuals with considerable managerial experience who wish to contribute to the development of their professional competence and their key areas of interest. Read more on the program »

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