Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Reading :: The Mismanagement of Talent

The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy
By Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh

In some quarters, it's become popular to talk about a higher education bubble that is about to burst. Brown and Hesketh don't quite make that argument. But they do ask: "Does a KBE [knowledge-based economy] lead to a significant increase in demand for highly educated 'knowledge' workers? ... Is the problem of employability one of developing the appropriate attitudes and skills or does it reflect a mismatch between the aspirations of university graduates and labour market realities?" (p.2). More colloquially: if we educate more people at the college level, preparing them for knowledge work, does this help to transform the economy, creating jobs for them? Can that segment of the labor market absorb them?

To investigate the question, Brown and Hesketh interviewed "fifteen leading edge private and public sector organizations" as well as ten "policy stakeholders." They conducted case studies of six of the organizations, specifically in their assessment centers. That is, they examined the job interview process at these centers, including aptitude tests and post-job-interview discussions. They also interviewed 60 graduates applying for jobs (p.5). All aspects of data collection were in Britain, and the authors cautiously suggest that these data can provide insight into other developed countries' understanding of graduate employability as well (p.6).

To be clear: the authors are interested in what constitutes employability (from the point of view of those hiring and those being hired) rather than in analyzing the knowledge economy as a whole. Although they have some valuable and trenchant observations about the knowledge work literature, the real value is in how they examine their rich data on how people prepare for, conduct, and evaluate job interviews.

Job interviews, they argue, is a bit of a different game than it was. Credential inflation has meant that more people have college degrees and even advanced degrees such as MBAs (p.30). Consequently, employers extend recruiting criteria to include "personal capital" (p.31). When a larger pool of potential hires can demonstrate individual achievement, employers turn to social and personal considerations (p.32). Does the person get along with others? Does s/he have leadership potential? Is the applicant self-directed and able to work on tight deadline? "This has led employers to extend the range of managerial competence to include interpersonal sensitivity, good communication skills, persuasiveness, drive, resilience, adaptability, self-confidence, good judgement and problem-solving skills, together with creativity and business awareness. The model of managerial leadership has shifted from the bureaucratic to charismatic personality" (p.33; cf. Gloor). And they go on to argue that "these charismatic qualities ... represent the essence of knowledge work itself" (pp.33-34).

Personal capital, the authors argue, represent a combination of hard currencies ("credentials, work experience, sporting or music achievements, etc.") and soft currencies ("interpersonal skills, charisma, appearance, and accent") (p.35). Together, these skills are elements in a narrative of employability, told first by the applicant and later elaborated by potential employers (p.36).

Let's skip through Chapter 3, "What Knowledge Economy?," which summarizes and questions various claims made by knowledge economy proponents. They make some good points, but rely a bit heavily on the fact that the knowledge work literature is not very coherent. The really interesting things start in later chapters, where the authors present and interpret their data.

For instance, the authors discuss their 60 interviews with job seekers. These job seekers fall into two basic categories, "players" (who see job-seeking as a sort of game that involves positioning themselves to maximize their market options) and "purists" (who see job-seeking as meritocratic, as puzzle-solving, and as involving maintaining their career integrity) (p.125). The authors take what could have been a rather reductive binary and illustrate its nuances, drawing nicely on quotes from their interviews.

On the other side of the table, they also discuss how potential employers interview and evaluate candidates. "We argue that the public rhetoric of competence obscures the realities of what employers are looking for," they state: employers are actually looking for suitability, proactivity, and acceptability (p.148). Selection criteria, they argue have changed from the 1990s to the 2000s (p.150) due to various organizational changes. Importantly, candidates can't just rely on their resumes; they must "construct a narrative of employability which conveys their proactivity" (p.156).

The authors go farther, using their observations and interviews to develop a typology of categories in which employers tend to place candidates. This typology is illustrated nicely in a graph with axes representing hard and soft currencies (p.162), and demonstrated through interviews with employers. You want to be a Star, but not a Razor; a Geek but not a Nerd; a Safe Bet but not a Freezer. Such categorizations happen very quickly and via discussions rather than systematic examinations of evidence.

In their conclusion, the authors make clear that they don't consider the current system to be effective or humane. Evaluating people at the beginning of their career, the authors argue, is "inefficient and unfair"; productivity "depends on work context" rather than the abilities on display (p.198).

Overall, I found this book to be very interesting. The authors have developed what I think turned out to be a clever and insightful study. As a pragmatist, I filed away many tips that I can teach to my students to prepare them for interviews; as a rhetorician, I found the idea of a narrative of employability both plausible and intriguing; as a researcher interested in knowledge work, I found that the book deepened my understanding of how knowledge work has been understood, operationalized, and applied as well as how labor markets have changed. And as an educator, of course, I thought quite a bit about its implications for preparing students. If you fit one of these categories, pick this book up.

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