Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mentors and networks

Picking up our discussion of the article by Peter Cappelli, "Talent Management for the Twenty-First Century," let's return to a topic introduced in the last entry. The last comment focused on the need to bring social capital concerns to our efforts at updating our approaches to human capital management. Our criticism of Cappelli's helpful article was that it didn't focus enough on ways to help advance the acculturation of new employees. If the new model is "talent on demand" as Cappelli phrases it, then the parallel requirement is to get the most out of these new employees quickly. Under old approaches to talent development, firms would hire more young talent than they needed, run the new employees through training, and then park them on the bench until needed. This is costly, because you are paying employees who are not yet contributing, and a mistake, because talent your firm has recruited and trained become frustrated as they sit on the bench, and they walk out the door and are grabbed up by competitors.

We don't have an argument with Cappelli's central concern - it does make sense to bring in talent when you need it - but it seemed that he hadn't thought enough about ways to get that talent involved in company affairs right away and help it make meaningful contributions as soon as possible. We saw a helpful contribution to the discussion in the work of Robert Putnam, who argues that systems work better when individuals have expectations that they can trust their colleagues and any cooperative gesture will be reciprocated. If the extisting employees within a firm have developed habits of trust and cooperation and reciprocity, they will reach out to new employees with openness and trust and share intuitive knowledge about the firm, its processes, and expectations; will share their on-the-ground knowledge about procedural and organizational shortcuts; and will, in general, help make the new worker more comfortable and more effective.

Taking our conversation one step farther, another complaint about the Cappelli article might be that it is mainly about how organizations should bring new talent on board, and it says very little about how to keep and develop talent. One very helpful article, which could assist us in opening up the conversation in this direction, is an essay by Monica Higgins and David A. Thomas, "Constellations and Careers: Toward Understanding the Effects of Mutiple Developmental Relationships." Higgins and Thomas, in a very carefully mapped out research study, discover that efforts to match new hires with senior mentors within a firm are useful, because it helps improve employee satisfaction. Mentored employees feel, among other things, that they have more visibility within the organization, and they have a better chance to get on the agenda. However, Higgins and Thomas discover, if the goal is to improve the new hire's career outcomes - encourage retention, promote advancement, and amplify the employee's contribution to the organization's overall objectives - then it is important for the new employee to be part of a much broader network of mentors and peers. When inserted into this type of network, employees feel more fully supported, they feel more integrated into the work of the firm, and they acquire more information about the firm and its processes and procedures.

This seems, to us, to be yet another argument for incorporating social capital analysis into your organizational development plans. Not only does social capital help make new workers more effective more quickly, the networks that facilitate social capital development also help make employees feel more fully supported and at home over the long span of their employment within a firm.

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