Is the West Going to Lose the Talent War?

I have to say that I’m worried after reading grow, grow, grow in the special report on innovation and emerging markets in the April 17th edition of The Economist. Near the end of the article we are told, point blank, that the best companies in emerging markets treat “talent” as a supply chain that needs to be relentlessly managed, not an isolated problem that can be solved on a piecemeal basis and that firms invest heavily in creating “educational ecosystems”.

While the first thing we do is slash the training budget every time money gets tight, companies in eastern emerging countries dispatch managers to give speeches at Universities. For example, GE has charged its top ten managers in China with cultivating relations with a particular university where they can spot bright youngsters and treat them to campus tours and scholarships (that will grow the brand and attract these future superstars).

While we expect unreasonable exceptional performance for a meager base salary and verbally lash out at anyone who doesn’t exceed her performance metrics by at least 10%, eastern emerging companies celebrate good performers. Haier prominently displays photographs of good performing managers, celebrates outstanding innovators in public ceremonies, and names new products and business innovations after their creators.

While we still assign undue praise to the University you attended instead of the degree you earned, your GPA, or, more importantly, what you actually learned, Infosys has adopted the mantra of “no caste, no creed, only merit” for its modern campus in Mysore. Furthermore, to ensure its employees had a better chance of not only climbing the ladder but becoming a millionaire than if they worked for a foreign multinational, Infosys was one of the first Indian companies to issue stock options.

And while we are the first to walk our best talent out the door every time the market dips, even though we just told them they were our most valuable asset the day before (as we, obviously, lied through our teeth), companies in emerging countries, who are experiencing much more rapid turnover than we need to deal with, will stick by their talent through thick and thin — cutting staff is the absolute last resort, not the first.

All told, it looks to me like we’re going to lose the talent war, which means that we’re also going to lose the innovation war, which we were supposed to win by outsourcing all of the manufacturing and back office to focus on our “core strengths” which, apparently, is middle management, junior art directorship and telephone cleaning, as that’s all we will be able to do if we don’t start focussing on talent, the true producer of innovation.

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